There’s lots of national conversation around fake followers these days.
The NYT recently reported on the salacious business around buying and selling YouTube views, noting that the numbers were surprisingly high despite the platform’s internal anti-fraud efforts: “tens of millions of fake views could be making it through daily.”
Some groups are selling the idea of influencers with “cleansed” follower bases, meaning that they’ve proactively analyzed the audiences of their own influencers’ social channels and determined some percentage is verifiably human. And software companies are popping up with services to analyze your followers.
Whether or not these companies are just using this as a smart PR play, this is a legitimate problem for social content creators -- not just brands.
Here’s the thing that’s getting left out of the conversation: influencers aren’t always aware of their fake followers. This is not always people engaging in nefarious activities to boost social ratings.
We’ve had exasperated content creators come to us for advice when spammy bots started following or commenting on their content without consent and certainly without a financial exchange. But sometimes fake follower activity isn’t so obvious.
Here’s How Brands are Identifying Fake Followers
It is useful to understand how brands are looking for fake followers so that you can be prepared when those kinds of conversations arise with brands.
Companies that are authenticating influencer’s accounts and analyzing their follower base are looking for accounts with no followers or posting activity, accounts with bios that advertise things like follow/follow-back, or just clearly illegitimate accounts with handles like @Instagram999999.
What you can do:
You obviously don’t have time to comb through your follower base soul by soul, but you can go to your followers and search for terms like “insta,” “Instagram,” “follow,””free,” “giveaway,” and “likes”.. see what turns up. You can then decide to block those users if you want, this will eliminate them from your followers list.
This is the first big tell. While some influencers have outlier successes or the occasional flop post, look for a consistent engagement rate. This means that your posts are earning a number of likes/comments consistent with a certain percentage of the number of people who follow you. If you see an influencer with crazy low engagement in relation to a high number of followers, it can be a sign that many of their followers are not real.
What you can do:
If you haven’t bought followers, you will probably not have to worry about this. It should be obvious from your engagement rates that you have an organically-earned following. But here is the simple way to prove that: Chose at least 20 photos on your Instagram page. Add up the number of likes and comments on those posts. Divide the total by 20 (or the number of posts you chose)-- this will show your average number of engagements per post. Then divide that number by your number of followers-- this will show your average engagement rate. Use that percentage number as your baseline going forward.
This is the easiest to detect: lots of suspicious engagement on your content from strange accounts. These can be as simple as tons and tons of likes (throwing that engagement rate into red flag turf) or they can be lots of useless, weird, or unrelated comments showing up in your comment threads. Instagram has been cracking down on bot activity, so this may become less and less common, but it is still an issue.
What you can do:
Block ‘em. You can delete their comments as well.
Just like your engagement rate should be proportional to the number of people who follow you, the number of people YOU follow should balance out with your followers. In the beginning, these numbers will be closer together, but when you’ve reached a certain threshold you should have significantly more followers than accounts you follow. Brands look for this as a signifier of a fake account so it can be detrimental even if you are legit.
What you can do:
Unfollow some people. Try to follow people you know personally or people you actually interact with. You don’t need to go overboard, but be selective with the number of people you follow back.
If you’ve done things the honest way, you have nothing to worry about. You don't actually need to take any of the above actions. Even if you haven’t in the past, you can still be alright if you clean up your act and start doing the hard work. Make sure that your Instagram shows an arc of time-- lots of historical content-- and a reasonable, sustainable build to where you are today.
Brands are more skeptical than ever, so it never hurts to do a little extra work to make sure your account is squeaky clean. There are some services that offer to “clean” your follower base, you can decide if that’s worthwhile for you. But you can always prove your worth the old-fashioned way: exceptional content and killer engagement. You can read more about relevant metrics you should be tracking to prove that worth here.
Creative Community Director at Snapfluence.
There is often a pen stuck in my hair.