Influencer marketing is one of the fastest growing channels in advertising, with our research estimating that $1 billion was spent on Instagram influencers alone in 2017. With brand dollars pouring into the space, social media influencers, whether established or aspiring, are vying for brand sponsorship deals.
I founded Mediakix, a dedicated influencer marketing agency, in 2011. In the years since, I have witnessed a rise in these deceptive practices and wanted to draw awareness to the issue. These practices span the gamut of unscrupulousness and range from gaming Instagram’s algorithm with “pods” to purchasing fake followers and engagement to creating entirely fake personas and accounts.
It’s difficult but not impossible to know whether an influencer has purchased fake followers and engagement. About a year ago, we were evaluating several accounts for potential campaigns and noted that one woman in particular had more than doubled her followers in less than a week.
While rapid follower growth isn’t the only indicator of whether an influencer paid for followers, it does raise a red flag, especially if nearly every Instagram post is sponsored. We checked her rate afterwards and it had nearly tripled due to her boosted (fake) following.
This represented the latest form of ad fraud afflicting advertisers and brands today seeking to work with social media influencers. To bring the issue to light, we created two fake Instagram influencer accounts. The goal of our experiment was to show how easy it is to create a fake influencer account, and to prove that it’s possible for fake accounts to secure paid brand deals through influencer marketing platforms.
The first fake Instagram account called Calibeachgirl310 features images of a Los Angeles model and the second account features an amateur lifestyle travel photographer named Wanderingggirl that is populated with free stock photos.
By using services readily available online, we bought followers and engagement for both of these accounts (about 50,000 and 30,000 fake followers, respectively). Then we signed each up on popular influencer marketing platforms and applied for daily influencer marketing campaigns posted by brands.
We spent a total of approximately $300 on one and $800 on another for fake followers and engagement for the two accounts. Within a few weeks, brands offered our bogus Instagram influencers a combination of free products and money that totaled more than $500.
According to eMarketer, marketers spent $570 million on Instagram influencer marketing last year, so any percentage of that going towards fake influencers or engagement is significant and represents an enormous amount of money at stake.
It’s much easier to fake engagement at the smaller level. Unfortunately, this oftentimes afflicts smaller brands working with micro influencers when the time spent individually vetting each one for potential fake engagement negates working with them.
This is the newest instance of ad fraud akin to the deceptive practices that have afflicted the display advertising space. For brands and advertisers seeking to get into influencer marketing, the rise of fake Instagram influencers and engagement presents a prevalent hurdle with no easy or automated solution.
While some services or platforms offer algorithm-based detection of whether or not an influencer account has fake followers, these are cursory tools and should be considered as one of many factors to consider including vetting an influencer’s brand campaign performance history and working with influencers with reputable track records.