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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 that the global CPG company would not work with influencers who buy fake followers.  

We don’t blame him.

Fake followers compromise the integrity of social media platforms, and result in brands  paying money for “followers” that can’t offer any return in influencer partnerships. They have also been known to manipulate public discussion.

All that said, however, not all influencers have fake followers, and we do expect the number of bots to decline over time from public pressure and more in-depth coverage around bots. Additionally with agencies and platforms like Reelio and Fullscreen using tools like Creator IQ, which dives deep into influencer data scanning for inconsistencies, influencers will have further incentive to keep the follower growth real. See how Fullscreen (our parent company) uses Creator IQ in their whitepaper on follower fraud.

However, until social media platforms can guarantee a bot-free experience, both marketers and consumers should know how to smartly identify fake followers and know how to address them proactively.

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. Purchasing them was easy and thought to be secure.

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. This was the case until the New York Times called out public figures who had used their site to purchase fake followers.

That didn't discourage other sites from selling fake accounts though. With the exception of Instagram requesting that the company Instagress be shut down,  sites like Buzzoid and Instaboostgram, which offer privacy and “quality followers,”still exist as of this writing.

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 available for purchase 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. Organizations that profit from mass audiences like publications (reinforced by pay-for-performance journalism), conferences and music venues tend to find large followings particularly desirable.

So, what do fake followers actually cost brands? 

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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 cost of fake followers would be in various scenarios.

Using our own numbers, we were able to estimate that an average cost per subscriber for an Instagram influencer is roughly between $0.01 - $0.02.

On the higher end, we've heard of Instagram accounts having as much as up to 20% of their following be fake, according to fashion industry trade journal Women's Wear Daily.

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.

To some, these numbers might not seem so big, but they can add up quickly, especially in a portfolio approach where a brand is working with a lot of influencers. 

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

In a real world example, fashion designer Roger Vivier is using 18 influencers in a new tome,  and Origins used nine 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 to review an influencer’s audience. 

By Partnering With Someone Who Has Fake Followers, Brands May Also 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.

Bots have been known to:

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

With the ability to vet influencers’ audiences, consumers may wonder why a brand went ahead and partnered with someone who bought followers. So, how do you screen for fake followers? Keep reading. 

Magnitude of fake followers

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fake followers assets_Artboard 10

How to Find Fake Followers

There’s a number of data sources from both influencers and online, that marketers can check to screen for any signs of purchased followers. We’ve outlined the data sets below and for each one, the inconsistencies that could signify a red flag.

The data sets to screen for fake followers include: 

  • An influencer's audience demographics & location data
  • An influencer's engagement data
  • Comments on an influencer's content
  • An influencer's 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 an Influencer's Audience Demographics & Location Data

This data set will give you information on the ratio of men to women who watch the channel, the age range of viewers and the locations of their viewers around the world. This data is going to look extremely different for every influencer, but if something about the audience doesn't seem to make sense for the influencer's content or location, it might be worth taking a closer look. 

The Red Flag: High concentrations of the influencer's audience are 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.

2. Look at Engagement Rates

Engagement rates will tell you how often viewers interact with an influencer’s content. A healthy engagement rate with have a reasonable ratio of subscribers to engagements. If the follower number is extraordinarily high, and an influencer has low engagement rates, this is something to take a closer look at.

Here's a chart with median engagement rates per channel category on YouTube to use as a benchmark. 

Reelio Engagement Data

The Red Flag: A very low engagement and very large audience size can be an indicator of fraudulent followers.

Accessing an influencer’s engagement data:

    • Ask an influencer for screenshots of their engagement rates.
    • VidIQ is another way to get a quick sense of engagement rates on an influencer's YouTube video.
    • 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 Influencer's Are Receiving From Followers

Comments can be found at the bottom or to the side of social media posts and usually illuminate what followers love about the influencer. Comments should generally be aligned with the content in some way. Random emojis, generic "great post" messages and foreign languages that don't translate into anything meaningful related to the content can all be indicators of fake followers. 

Red Flag: Any comments that are vague or not contextual. Sometimes vague and non-contextual comments can also be in a different language.

    • Observing comments can be done manually on the bottom of each post. We recommend comparing comments under more popular posts to less popular posts, as 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
Above is an example of healthy comments for an influencer.


Healthy comments on Instagram
Here's an example of when comments in a different language make sense and are meaningful for this influencer. 


an example of spammy instagram comments
Here's an example of comments that are not explicitly meaningful to the content.

Accessing an influencer’s comments:

  • Go through them manually.  
  • Have Reelio’s AM team do it for you with managed service.

4. Analyze an Influencer's Historical Growth Rate

Growth rates tell you the speed and velocity at which an influencer’s audience grew. The growth rate line should look like a relatively steady increase.

The Red flag: Abnormally high spikes in the growth rate that are unrelated to a bigger publicity play like getting tagged in bigger accounts, getting shoutouts from other platforms or 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 from Social Blade of an influencer with a steady growth rate and an account that 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). 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 check out social media accounts in these platforms to double check your observations.

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

Despite the Risk of Fake Followers, Influencer Marketing is Still a Win for Brands

While it’s good to be cautious of fake followers, it's important to remember that many influencers have never bought fake followers and take pride in having built a genuine audience from the ground up.  

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.

According to a survey from eMarketer earlier this year,  a majority of marketers planned on increasing their budget for influencer marketing in 2018.  We anticipate this number to grow as influencer marketing becomes more standardized and platforms like Instagram and Youtube are not only projected to grow, but are also dedicating more efforts into eliminating fake accounts.

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

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