How to Spot a Phony Instagram Influencer

Influencer marketing is expected to become a nearly $10 billion industry this year. Despite this growth, many small businesses do not have effective practices in place for vetting influencers. This results in both companies and consumers being fooled by creators that are not as popular as they may seem. To further support this point, a 2019 CBS News study claimed that 15% of corporate dollars spent on influencer marketing is lost by targeting fake followers. To avoid such fraud, I have assembled several FREE tactics for determining the authenticity of an Instagram influencer.

Abnormal Historical Growth and Engagement

Social Blade is my favorite FREE tool for determining if an influencer is legitimate. I will use it for all analysis in this article. Its most powerful feature is its ability to see historical insights from a social media account. As compared to a simple metric like engagement rate, historical growth allows you to dig deeper into an influencer’s past and attribute growth to certain events. Let’s look at Roger Federer’s account.

Roger Federer Total Social Growth

Roger Federer Weekly Social Growth

Federer’s account is consistently growing, and his weekly growth is always positive with occasional jumps in account growth that usually occur when he has a viral post or significant tennis tournaments. Since there are no abnormalities in this traffic, this is a portrait of a legitimate account. This makes sense because Federer is one of the most recognizable athletes in the world.

Now let’s look at an account with abnormal traffic.

Phony Influencer Total Social Growth

Phony Influencer Weekly Social Growth

These statistics are from a verified Instagram account with over 600,000 followers at the time of this post. This account is affiliated with one of the largest influencer marketing agencies in the world. In the total follower traffic, this account appears to be losing 5,000 followers per week. In an analysis of weekly growth, this account appears to have gained over 280,000 followers in the week of June 10, 2019. Given that the account only gain 600 followers the week before and lost over 8,000 two weeks after, something fishy is going on here.

Declining Momentum

Many influencers run paid advertisements to increase their total followings and overall engagement rates. Paid campaigns are not necessarily a bad thing. They can supercharge an account’s growth. Paid campaigns only become problematic when they become an account’s only driver of growth and engagement. By analyzing historical growth, companies can see patterns in the traffic and avoid influencers who are in periods of declining momentum.

Cyclical Weekly Instagram Followers

In the example above, the account goes through cycles of high growth and negative growth. By seeing the periods of flat-lining, it’s easy to see that engagement with this account is inorganic. Before collaborating with such an influencer, a company will want to understand what is causing the cyclical nature of growth. If the growth and engagement are only the results of paid campaigns, you will not convert by partnering with such an influencer. The company would fare better spending dollars running a paid campaign on their own page.

Low Comment Quality

While Instagram comment sections are not exactly Shakespeare, extremely low comment quality should be a red flag for companies. This may indicate the presence of bots or low-engagement users. Let’s consider an example where none of the comments have anything to do with the post.

Low Quality Comments

High-quality influencers’ posts will contain comments that are substantial or at least relevant to the post. A simple rule of thumb is that influencers with many low quality comments likely have low quality engagement. That is not a partner you want.

Follow/Unfollow Method

On Instagram, there is an unwritten courtesy where you generally follow individuals who follow you. Authentic influencers with many more followers than following have an air of importance. Take Mark Cuban for consideration, how could he possibly have the time to follow 1.4 million people?

Mark Cuban Instagram

To imitate such massive followings, phony influencers either purchase followers from growth services or use the follow/unfollow method.

The follow/unfollow method is where you follow a large number of users manually or through automation. A certain percentage of these users will follow you back (likely because they are active in the #followforfollowback community). Once a user has accumulated a large following, they will unfollow all the individuals that initially followed them. This gives the impression they are very popular.

While growth services and follow tactics can create massive followings and even massive engagement, it’s problematic. Followers of phony accounts are either low-engagement or not genuinely interested in the influencer. This does not lead to any conversion for companies that partner with such influencers.

Inconsistency Across Platforms

Kylie Jenner is one of Instagram’s biggest influencers with nearly 200 million followers at the time of this article. Many outlets frequently question how many of her followers are real vs. bots, dead accounts, unengaged followers, etc. It’s a fair question that is unfortunately very hard to answer.

An easy way to survey this traffic is by comparing traffic across social media platforms. For Kylie Jenner, she has many millions of followers across Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. Even if she has several million fake followers, her influence is immense across platforms.

This may not be the case for phony mid-size and micro influencers. Before hiring an influencer, companies should audit all of an influencer’s accounts. Disproportionate followings for a single account may be a red flag.

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Be Careful with Engagement Rate

High and low engagement rates are not a tell-tale measurement of a good influencer vs. a bad influencer. My Instagram is modest with only several dozen followers, yet its engagement rate is many times larger than both Roger Federer and Kylie Jenner. Does that mean companies should hire me over them? No. It means there are other considerations in play.

Engagement can be skewed high and low by factors like follower size, post frequency, and hashtag usage. As so, influencers with low engagement should not necessarily be removed from a company’s shortlist of potential partners. Rather, companies should try to understand why engagement is high or low for an influencer.

Key Takeaways

In analyzing influencers, marketers must determine if an influencer will be a good fit for their brand. As so, companies should consider content, transparency, but most importantly why the influencer is influential. Do they have red flags in their historical metrics? Are they increasing in popularity? Have they engaged in low quality approaches to gain followers? These are all crucial questions to ask to prevent your company from wasting its spend. The best influencers will pass all of these audits with flying colors. Those are creators a company should target as partners.

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