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Why Fake Followers Are a Big Deal and How to Find Them

By Jessica Schimm

in Brand Safety/FTC

Posted July 3, 2018

We’ve got your step-by-step guide on how to screen data for indications of fake followers and an explanation about why they're a problem.

Last week at Cannes Lions, Unilever’s marketing chief, Keith Weed said the global CPG company would not work with influencers who buy fake followers.  

And we don’t blame him.

Fake followers compromise the integrity of social media platforms, and they translate to brands getting the bad end of a deal in an influencer-brand partnership, with brands paying money for “followers” that can’t offer any return.

Simply put, there’s nothing good about them.  

All that said, however, not all influencers have fake followers; and with the recent no-tolerance announcement from Unilever, and expose in the New York Times published earlier this year, we expect them to decline both from public pressure on social platforms to eliminate them and from influencers wanting to maintain a good reputation with brands.

But until social media platforms can guarantee a bot-free experience, it’s valuable to know how to identify these phony, good-for-nothing accounts and understand what they could cost your brand.

fake followers assets_Artboard 9 (1)


Why Fake Followers Are a Problem for Brands

Fake followers waste brand dollars and negatively affect the social media ecosystem at large. But up until recently, the consequences for having fake followers have been fairly mild and purchasing them was easy and thought to be secure.

For example, Devumi, a site outed by the New York Times for selling fake followers, promised to keep transaction information private and offered fake followers at a cheap price. Although this was not the case when the NYT called out public figures who had used their site to purchase fake followers.

With the exception of Instagram requesting that Instagress be shut down, if you Google “purchase followers,” you’ll find other sites that offer privacy and “quality followers” like Buzzoid and Instaboostgram.

To get an idea of the cheapness, Instaboostgram is selling packages starting as low as $2.89 for 100 followers. Below is a screenshot of their package offerings.

Fake Follower Prices from Instagramboost
 Pictured above: Screenshot taken of Instagboostgram’s follower packages on July 1st, 2018.

And while marketers are starting to give more weight to engagement data, large audiences still offer the promise of mass exposure at first glance - something particularly desirable for organizations that profit from having big audiences like publications (reinforced by pay-for-performance journalism), conferences and music venues.

Until social platforms regularly purge fake followers and there are more rewards for genuinely-built audiences, we can assume that fake followers will continue to be something both marketers and consumers should smartly identify and address proactively.

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fake followers assets_Artboard 12 The Real Cost of Fake Followers on Influencer Content

Brands lose money every time they partner with an influencer who has fake followers: let’s run a hypothetical situation of what the bill would be in different scenarios.

Using our own numbers, we were able to estimate that an average cost per subscriber for an Instagrammer is roughly $0.01 - $0.02. And according to WWD, some Instagram accounts have as many as 20% of fake followers.

Let’s see what how much a brand could be spending on fake followers if 20% of the influencer’s following was fake at a $0.02 CPS:  

  • If you paid an Instagram influencer with 100,000 subs $2000 to post a photo, then $400 would be spent on fake accounts.
  • If you paid an Instagram influencer who had 250,000 subs $5000 to post a photo, then you’d be spending $1000 on fake accounts.
  • If you paid an Instagram influencer who had 1,000,000 subs with 20% of accounts being fake, then you’d be spending $4000 on fake accounts.

Within a $50,000 marketing budget, these numbers might not seem so big, but they can add up quickly, especially in a portfolio approach.

Let’s say you wanted to work with seven influencers for a holiday campaign. If even three of them had a 20% fake following,  you’d experience a loss of $1,200 on the low end and $12,000 on the high end in a seasonal campaign.

Fashion designer Roger Vivier is using 18 influencers in a new tome,  and Origins used 9 influencers for their #MyPerfectWorld campaign.  It’s in these situations - working with a roster of influencers and investing in campaigns with longevity - that it’s even more important that a brand review an influencer’s audience.

 Magnitude of fake followers


By Partnering With Someone Who Has Fake Followers, Brands May Be Supporting Bad Social Media Etiquette

In addition to throwing dollars out the window, a brand working with an influencer who has purchased followers could also be indirectly supporting behavior that makes social media a hostile place to be. By working with an influencer who has bought followers, brands are indirectly supporting actions that go against social media platform policies.

With brands being able to vet influencers’ audiences, some may wonder why a brand went ahead with the partnership if it negatively impacts them in some way.

Bots have been known to:

  • impersonate people’s accounts, especially as they’re getting easier to detect
  • send spammy private messages
  • leave inappropriate comments

Some brands today are looking to establish long-term relationships with select influencers. Working with someone who bought followers - taking the easy way to the top - could compromise your brand reputation and not give you much in return.

Until social media platforms are able to proactively prevent fake followers, marketers who are ready to work with influencers will have to be vigilant - which is why we’ve provided a step-by-step guide for marketers to screen for fake followers. Read on!


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fake followers assets_Artboard 10

How to Find Fake Followers

There’s a number of data points that marketers can check to screen for fake followers. We’ve outlined data sets to examine below and the signs that could signify a red flag.

They include:

  • Audience Demographics & Location
  • Engagement Data
  • Comments
  • Historical Growth Rate

A note about questionable data: If any data that you’re reviewing is giving you pause,  we suggest checking other data for discrepancies and then asking the influencer directly for more information on why the data showed an inconsistency.  


1. Look at Audience Demographics & Location

This data set will give you information on the ratio of men to women who watch the channel, the age range of viewers and where the highest concentration of viewers around the world.

Red Flag: If the influencer has high concentrations of their audience in locations that do not align with their location, personal activity or content.

Accessing an influencer’s demographics:

  • Ask the influencer themselves for screenshots of demographic information on each platform you plan to work with them on.
  • Use Reelio. We can access a creator’s demographic data that’s 100% verified and accurate.

Recently, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Lab inspected the location of engagement traffic from a Mexican digital marketing company’s Facebook page. They  found the location of engagement traffic to not clearly align with the content:

“There is no credible explanation for why over three thousand Asian Facebook users would genuinely like a Spanish-language interview with a Mexican fake-news entrepreneur,” the Digital Forensic Research lab wrote in their report. “Nor is it likely that a Mexican fake-news company, whose primary market is in Mexico, would run thousands of fake accounts with Asian profiles.”

The Facebook page has since been made not available.

2. Look at Engagement Rates

Engagement rates will tell you how often viewers interact with an influencer’s content

Red Flag: A very low engagement and very large audience size is usually a clear indicator of fraudulent followers.

Reelio Engagement Data

As you can see below, this creator - who’s identification has been blurred - has a great engagement rate for Instagram. Their Facebook engagement rate is okay, but we’d want to look into their YouTube engagement rate a little further.

Reelio's Influencer Marketing Platform

Accessing an influencer’s engagement data:

    • Ask an influencer for screenshots of their engagement rates.
    • VidIQ is a quick way to get a sense if a YouTuber’s engagement rate is healthy.
    • Use Reelio or other influencer marketing platforms.
VidIQ Engagement rate
Pictured above is where you can find the engagement rate on VidIQ.


3. Look at The Comments They're Getting From Followers

Comments can be found at the bottom or to the side of social media posts and can illuminate what followers love about the influencer.

Red Flag: Any comments that are vague, not contextual or in a language that doesn’t make sense for the influencer.

    • Observing comments can be done manually on the bottom of each post, and we recommend comparing comments under more popular posts to less popular posts, this is because posts that have a lot of visibility might have a higher likelihood of spammy comments merely due to its circulation. Every-day posts will give you a more accurate picture of that person’s following.
healthy comment s on Instagram
Here's an example of healthy comments for an influencer.


Healthy comments on Instagram
Here's an example of when comments in a different language are good!


an example of spammy instagram comments
Here's an example on the Bieb's account of spammy comments that don’t mean anything.
Accessing an influencer’s comments:
  • Go through them manually.  
  • Have Reelio’s AM team do it for you with managed service.

4. Analyze Influencers' Historical Growth Rate

Growth rates tell you the speed and velocity at which an influencer’s audience grew.

Red flag: Abnormally high spikes in the growth rate that are unrelated to a bigger publicity play (e.g. getting tagged in bigger accounts, getting shoutouts from other platforms, taking over another Instagram account). If the growth spike is not so obvious, it’s time to ask the influencer.

Little bumps here and there can be okay, especially when it aligns with a boost in popularity, but generally, you’ll want to look for a steady growth rate.

Accessing an influencer’s growth rate:

    • Ask the influencer themselves. Many of them should have screenshots of their growth rate.
    • Use Social Blade, which gives snapshots of influencers’ growth (see image below).
    • Use Reelio to help you do this research.

Below are images of an influencer with a steady growth rate and an influencer who has bought followers.

follower growth
 This is an example of a healthy growth rate on an Instagram account. The steady line implies no suspicious jumps in follower growth.


follower growth
This is a screenshot from the fake Instagram account created by MediaKix (for experimental purposes) and as you can see, it shows alarming spikes in growth, especially the jump from 30k to 41k.

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Here's More Platforms You Can Use to Detect Fake Followers

If you’re checking for fake followers manually, you might also want to put your potential influencers in these platforms to double check your observations.

  • Twitter Audit 
    • This platform checks Twitter accounts for fake followers.

Now that you're armed with these tools and tactics, you can properly address fake followers.

The process can be quite time-consuming, but worth it for both your marketing budget and your brand’s reputation.

If you’re working with more than three influencers, we suggest considering partnering with an influencer platform or agency like Reelio to help verify influencers’ audiences and get your campaigns live faster.


How to Detect Fake Views On YouTube Videos

Inline with detecting fake followers, it’s also helpful to know how you can detect fake YouTube views, which can still be purchased.

YouTube did a “view” clean out in 2013, but if you see a much higher subscriber rate than view count on an influencer’s videos, you might want to double check for yourself.

One of our Reelio account managers describes a time she was concerned about the view-to-subscriber rate on an account of interest, but after reviewing a traffic sources report learned that there was nothing to worry about.  

“I worked with an influencer once for a brand, and at the time they had 135k subscribers but every video was garnering 500k+ views.

Usually, video views are a small percentage of their overall sub-base so to me, this was a red flag. I asked them to provide a traffic-sources report so I could verify where their views were coming from, wanting to make sure they were organic and not purchased.

They gave me screenshots which helped clarify a lot: their views were legitimately coming from within YouTube (i.e. suggested videos, browse features, YouTube channels, playlists, annotations, etc.), and the last traffic source listed - YouTube Advertising - was driving views that were contributing to their overall view count. The influencer was smart enough to optimize organic views based on YT's algorithm.”

-Reelio Account Manager

When in doubt - ask for the traffic report.

Why Influencer Marketing is Still a Win for Brands

While it’s good to be cautious of fake followers, many influencers have not bought fake followers and take pride in having built a genuine audience from the ground up.  Additionally, several social platforms are putting more effort into eliminating fake followers, making it even easier to report and prevent fraudulent accounts.

According to a survey from eMarketer earlier this year,  a majority of marketers planned on increasing their budget for influencer marketing in 2018; and this makes sense as influencer marketing is becoming more standardized and platforms like Instagram and Youtube are projected to grow.

If you’re working with a lot of influencers and taking a portfolio approach, learn how Reelio can help you vet influencers at scale to ensure that you’re not paying for bots.


Download an Influencer Marketing Planner [FREE TEMPLATE] 

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