How to tell if an influencer’s followers are real

How to tell if an influencer’s followers are real

Polly Kay

Polly Kay
31st July 2018

Influencer marketing or influence marketing involves working with an influential individual such as a celebrity or well-known blogger and using their reach and endorsement to highlight a product or service to their followers with a view to boosting sales. It’s an approach which has gained traction and popularity in the last couple of years across all social platforms, but in particular within Instagram marketing strategies. 

If you can find the right influencer, get them on side and use their reach to generate a buzz among their followers, your ROI may be significant – up to 700% or more, in some cases. However, choosing the wrong influencer or approach will not only waste your time and money, but may even be harmful to your business and brand as a whole.

This means that choosing the right influencer in the first place is essential, and one of the most commonly overlooked aspects of doing this is ensuring that your influencer’s followers are actually real.

Choosing an influencer with fake followers or an artificially inflated follower count will waste your time and money, and may even harm your brand. Ergo, knowing how to spot an influencer with fake followers is really important.

In this article we will look at what makes influencer marketing worthwhile, how fake followers can negate the value of influencer marketing, and how to spot fake followers from the get-go to avoid wasting money on an influencer whose reach is less extensive than it first appears.

What makes influencer marketing profitable?

Influencer marketing isn’t a golden ticket that guarantees sales or success, but if you can tick certain boxes covering your influencer themselves, their approach and their followers, it can be very profitable.

The key elements of successful influencer marketing include:

  • Choosing the right influencer; one whose personal brand, approach and interests align with your own brand ethos or the product you are promoting.
  • The influencer’s track record; are they plausible and well respected? Are they consistent and aware enough of their own image to know that a careless or poorly thought out comment or involvement in a controversy may weaken their personal brand, and that of anything they promote or endorse too?
  • The influencer’s audience of fans and followers; the number of followers the influencer has dictates their potential reach, and their core demographics dictates those followers’ potential interest in your offerings.
  • The level to which the influencer’s audience is prepared to engage with them across their online collateral by liking, commenting on or sharing their content to spread the word.
  • The influencer’s perceived authority to their followers; how meaningful an endorsement from the influencer is, and how likely their audience is to act on such an endorsement to explore a brand or purchase a promoted product.

Ultimately, your influencer of choice is the catalyst or spokesperson who will get the word out to their followers about your promotion or brand, but it is their audience and audience reach that provides value. If this audience isn’t the right one or isn’t even real at all, all of the potential value that influencer marketing can offer is negated.

Fake followers are not only worthless because they won’t be interested in buying from you or spreading the word about what you do, but they can actually harm your brand too. If you can identify fake followers, so can the general public. Working with an influencer with fake followers can damage the perception of your own brand as well as that of the influencer, something you will, of course, be keen to avoid.

Fake followers don’t just catch out newbies seeking to make their first forays into the world of influence marketing partnerships either – they also catch out big brands too. This issue has become so acute and well publicised that well-known commercial giants like Unilever are pushing for greater transparency and more accountability across the influencer marketing niche as a whole.

How to tell if an influencer’s followers are real

What exactly are fake followers?

Fake followers are fake profiles and social media accounts that are created specifically to sell or offer as collateral for an influencer to use to artificially inflate their follower count. Social media success and influence can be measured by many benchmarks, but the number of followers an account has is perhaps the most vital one. Every other element of an influencer’s reach, value and fame hinges on possessing a large enough audience to give them sway in the first place.

Fake follower accounts are generally created in bulk, often in developing countries, and then usually packaged up into sets to sell on to influencers or wannabe-influencers who are willing to buy them. Most social media platforms have policies in place to prevent or discourage fake profiles, but the sheer volume of them and the amount of effort that organisations put into creating them means that relying on social media platforms themselves to identify and remove fake accounts is largely ineffective.

Why do some influencers have fake followers?

Winning and retaining followers is the cornerstone of influencer success, particularly for influencers who wish to monetise their content with endorsements, promotions and ads. The more followers an influencer has, the better chance they have of scoring lucrative deals for posting sponsored content.

Fake followers and profiles can be found across every social media channel you can think of, including Twitter, Instagram and Facebook; in fact, Facebook alone plays host to over 83 million fake accounts, according to estimates by CNN.

Whilst most fake follower accounts are fairly basic and appear sparse or incomplete, others can be highly convincing, making it harder to parse them from an influencer’s real followers reliably.

Fake engagement is another issue to look out for, and this is another big problem for brands and businesses. Follower engagement is even more valuable than followers themselves, and again, fake engagement packages (paying for a service that offers and manages fake followers to promote engagement with posts or content) is big business, and can rocket a little-known or new influencer into the spotlight quickly – and artificially.

Buying bulk fake followers or engagement can help to make an influencer look more popular or influential than they really are, which in turn, helps them to catch the eye of marketers and promoters looking for an influencer to work with. This can result in significant profits for an influencer who hosts paid promotions and builds brand partnerships, making buying or using fake followers an appealing choice for many.

It is also worth noting that most bigtime influencers, even those who have developed their followers organically and that would never consider buying fake followers will have a few fake followers at any given time. Unless the influencer makes it their policy to check out all of their new followers individually – something few successful influencers have time for – some fakes will get through nonetheless.

Fake accounts may follow non-paying influencers in order to pad out their fake profiles, build up their demographic information and add authenticity to their deception, to make it easier to sell the profile’s follow value to another influencer in the future.

Why are fake followers a problem?

Fake followers are a problem for brands that work with influencers for a number of reasons.

First of all, simply checking follower numbers may give you an artificially inflated impression of how many followers the influencer in question has, and their potential reach. Fake followers also indicate that the influencer is less than honest, something that may impact on their working relationship with you and the perceptions of their real followers.

Fake followers only have value to the influencer who buys them, by making businesses and promoters that might be considering working with them think that the influencer has more value than they really do. If you go ahead and work with an influencer who has a large number of fake followers, those followers won’t buy from you because they’re not real, and they also won’t help to spread the word organically about what you do to other prospective buyers.

Additionally, fake profiles aren’t hard to spot if you know how, and many social media users will soon identify an influencer with fakes, and this cheapens perception of the influencer themselves and by association, any brands that work with them.

Ergo, not only is spending some of your marketing budget on an influencer with fake followers unlikely to pay off financially, it may also harm your brand and its public image as well.

Six warning signs that tell you an influencer’s followers are fake

Finding out that your influencer has a large number of fake followers as a result of spending money on working with them and getting nothing in return is something you should take steps to avoid. Fortunately, there are a number of factors that can tell you if an influencer’s followers are fake or likely to be fake before you make your initial approach to them.

Here are six warnings signs that an influencer has fake followers.

1. A sudden jump in follower numbers without a correlating cause

One of the most obvious potential indicators of an account with fake followers is if the follower numbers increase sharply over a relatively short period of time. Influencers buy fake followers in bulk quantities, often in multiples of tens of thousands, but all of these followers won’t all drop onto an influencer’s account the same day. They will, however, generally be staggered over a short period of time such as several days or even a couple of weeks, in order to avoid being flagged to the host platform as suspicious.

In some situations, an influencer’s follower count might increase sharply organically too, so it is important to be able to tell the difference between this and a deluge of fakes. If the influencer in question has recently done or said something that has garnered a lot of attention – which could be anything from posting a viral Tweet to being featured in the media – their follower count is apt to increase significantly, so look into this before you write off an influencer you are considering.

2. A high follower count from launch for a relatively unknown personality

Building up a large, organic following takes time, particularly for people who aren’t celebrities to start with. When a well-known influencer or celebrity begins to use a new social media platform or another channel to reach their audience, they are likely to gain a large number of genuine followers on this new channel very quickly, as their influence and fanbase are already well established.

However, a relative unknown who launches their account and gets a large number of followers from the get-go may well have purchased their fanbase, in order to get themselves off on the right foot and increase their chances of monetising their account early on.

3. A low percentage of local followers

Whilst many bigtime influencers and of course, celebrities have fans and followers across the world, you can reasonably expect that most of them will have more followers from their home country, or at least, countries that speak the same language and that have common cultures and interests.

If you are looking at an influencer in the UK whose niche is vegan produce and recipes, a significant amount of followers located in places like India or China is a big red flag.

4. A high number of low-quality followers

Many fake profiles are convincing enough at a cursory glance, and a name and profile image alone is rarely enough to tell you if a follower is fake. Take a deeper look at a random sampling of the influencer’s followers, and if a significant number of them don’t ring true or have weak or sparse profiles, use caution.

Look for things such as profiles with misspelled or nonsensical slogans and taglines, stock profile pictures, few or no followers of their own, and few or no posts of their own or comments and interactions with other accounts.

5. Low follower engagement

Follower engagement is one of the most important metrics to look at when determining the value of working with any given influencer, and it can also help you to weed out fakes. Setting up a fake follower account takes just a couple of minutes, but maintaining a fake account to make it look and act like a real one is much more time consuming and likely to be neglected.

Most fake accounts will have just a couple of initial posts (if any) on their own feed, and the same again when it comes to interactions with others.

6. Poor quality follower engagement

Follower engagement is about more than just statistics, and the quality of your influencer’s follower engagement can be very telling. Whilst few organisations that offer fake followers go as far as to work a large number of these fake accounts after setup to post and engage with the influencers that buy them, some specialise in doing just this.

Scroll through some of your prospective influencer’s comment feeds and follower interactions to get a general impression of the calibre and value of their engagements. A long list of generic short comments (often in broken English) stating essentially meaningless things like “very nice post” or “wow cool” indicate that little thought has gone into the comment. Whilst genuine followers also sometimes make posts of this type, a large number of them from different followers may indicate a lot of fakes.

Getting a feel for whether or not any given influencer has fake followers doesn’t have to be highly time-consuming, and can save you from making a potentially expensive mistake. Look at a variety of different factors in combination and use your instincts… Remember that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is!