In a January New York Times article entitled “The Follower Factory,” it stated: “Celebrities, athletes, pundits and politicians have millions of fake followers.” Since that time, popular news outlets like Elle, Forbes, Mashable, Newsweek, The Atlantic, as well as influencer marketing powerhouses like CLEVER and Sway Group, have jumped on the “fake” followers hot topic in an effort to expose and educate agencies and brands.
What Are Fake Followers?
Have you ever scrolled through Instagram and notice that some people receive thousands upon thousands of likes on their feed? Then you go into their account and see that they have thousands, if not millions, of followers? A small percentage of those people truly have a ton of followers and get lots of engagement on almost every post. What we’re talking about here are those who have fake followers.
So, what are fake followers? Notice how I didn’t say, “Who are fake followers?” There’s a reason behind that. Fake followers are not real people. Instead, they are accounts that resemble real people. Kind of creepy, huh?
Unfortunately, fake followers are not just found on one social media platform. In November 2017, Facebook disclosed to investors that it had at least twice as many fake users as it previously estimated. What does that mean? Well, up to 60 million automated accounts were potentially roaming Facebook which just so happens to be the world’s largest social media platform. The fake accounts, also known as bots, help sway audiences, reshape political debates, ruin reputations, provide inaccuracies in campaigns … the list could go on and on. (source)
Why Is Avoiding Fake Followers So Important?
To put it into the Influencer Marketing perspective, let’s say you like an influencer’s Instagram feed and notice that the person receives a lot of engagement on every post and also has a lot of followers. So, you reach out to the person, go through the negotiation and contractual phases, and then begin working with the influencer. The influencer posts a sponsored photo on her Instagram feed. You immediately start seeing likes and comments on the post. Exciting, right?! But, a few things seem a bit off. The comments on the photo are in foreign languages, the Instagram accounts that are liking the photo have inappropriate names, and/or the Instagram accounts that are liking have strange followers/following ratios. The red flag immediately starts waving as the warning sign flashes: FAKE ACCOUNT. FAKE ACCOUNT. FAKE ACCOUNT.
The last thing you want to do as an agency and/or brand is work with influencers who have fake followers. Why? Your campaign won’t:
- Target the right audience.
- Be seen by as many people as you originally thought since the followers are bots and not real people.
- Receive the type of stats that prove accurate ROI.
Those are just a few of the reasons why fake followers don’t go over well in Influencer Marketing. Thankfully, there are ways to vet against fake followers. So, let’s all take a collective sigh of relief and find out how this can be done.
Top 10 Tips for Vetting Influencers to Avoid Fake Followers
If you are an agency or brand who works with influencers, don’t worry. You don’t need to give up on Influencer Marketing altogether. We’ve been in the game for almost a decade and have put plans into place to help us avoid working with influencers who have fake followers. Using a combination of humans and technology, our vetting process makes sure our clients are getting the biggest bang for their buck by working with influencers who are legit, honest, and backed by readers and followers who are real because we’re in the business of keeping it real.
Simply follow these 10 steps in the vetting process to avoid recruiting influencers with fake followers:
1. Use humans to help vet influencers.
Yes, we live in the era of automated processes. So, it would be safe to say that using manual processes (aka humans) would be so 2008, right? Wrong. Why use humans when you can use a platform or a tool to help you vet influencers, especially when you’re working on a large-scale campaign that involves hundreds of influencers? At FORWARD Influence, we rely on a combination of tools plus humans to help us wade through the waters and make a big splash with influencers who have real followers. Our Account Management team stays on top of the trends and does manual checks on our members to make sure they are providing accurate numbers, as well as have accounts that contain real followers.
For example, when an influencer shows interest in a campaign, our Account Management team visits their social media accounts to not only verify stats, but also to check the engagement and make sure nothing fishy is happening on their social media accounts. What could be seen as fishy? Keep reading to find out what we look for when determining whether or not followers are fake.
We strongly believe that the human element will continue to play a key role in detecting bot/bought followers. We’ve come to realize that even the best tools cannot replace a human’s knowledge and critical thinking skills. If we didn’t use the human element, then we wouldn’t be absolutely certain that we were providing our clients with the best of the best when it comes to influencers and their followers.
2. Know the influencers in your network.
With new influencers popping up what seems like every minute of every day and your task list becoming exponentially longer every minute of every day, it can be tough to truly know influencers and develop relationships. But, it’s incredibly important to have relationships with the influencers you work with thanks to the trust factor.
Here at FORWARD Influence, our Account Management team creates, develops, and maintains close relationships with influencers. Emailing, meeting up at conferences, gathering stats, attending events, working on campaigns, and chatting via social media networks are just some of the ways that we stay in touch with our influencers. It’s our job, as an Influencer Marketing Network, to know our influencers and to ensure they are real people living real lives while using real social media accounts and engaging with real followers.
3. Check for foreign languages.
When an influencer shows interest in a campaign or when you’re pitching an influencer with an opportunity, be sure to visit his/her social media accounts and keep an eye on the language. Does the person’s followers send out messages in the same language? Or, does the person’s account have a history of sending out tweets in multiple languages? What about their Instagram feed? Click some of the person’s images and take note of the comments. Are a lot of the comments in a wide variety of languages? Yes, we know that people know more than one language and people have followers from all over the world. But, if you’re seeing a huge mix of languages, you’ll want to throw up a red flag and dig deeper into the account to do additional verification checks.
4. Look out for character substitutions.
A real account on Twitter could be @iamarealaccount while the fake account could be @Iamarealaccount. What’s the difference? The first letter was changed from lowercase “i” to a lowercase “L”. Be sure to check for duplicates and make sure you are working with the real accounts.
5. Take note of odd ratios.
When checking out an influencer’s Twitter account, for example, you’ll want to look at the followers/following ratio. The fake accounts tend to have very unusual ratios. Does the account follow a high number of people but have a low amount of followers? Wave that red flag.
6. Read names and look at photos.
When looking at social media profiles, you’ll want to ask yourself whether the person has:
- A blank profile picture
- Jumbled letters either in his/her name or in his/her bio
- Numbers instead of letters for a name
- Word fragments for a name
If you discovered any of the above, then it’s time to wave the red flag.
7. Keep an eye on follower counts.
Most of the time, influencers gain followers slow and steady over an extended period of time. They might even lose a few followers here and there. If an influencer posts content that goes viral, then the followers are almost guaranteed to increase. The one thing to watch out for are the accounts that go from having a couple hundred followers to thousands of followers almost overnight.
In our FORWARD Influence database, we keep a track record of how many followers our influencers have. We can easily see if anyone randomly has an “overnight success.” When that happens, we wave our red flag, go into their account, see if they had any viral content posted, and then decide to either proceed with the influencer (if everything looks legit) or find a replacement influencer (if the growth is full of fake followers, happened overnight or a short period of time, and/or is a little too good to be true).
8. Request backend data.
Influencers have access to all sorts of backend information that can easily be shared with agencies, brands, and networks. It’s a common practice to request backend information from influencers, especially for stats reporting purposes.
As part of FORWARD Influence’s process, we request backend data to help verify UVMs, pageviews, Facebook views, Instagram insights, etc. Influencers who are trustworthy and doing things by the book are more than happy to share data with us. So, when we meet with someone who hesitates to provide access to backend data, such as Google Analytics permission or screenshots, we start to have that uneasy feeling that the person is hiding something. We continue to dig deeper until we arrive at answer.
Also, if you ask the influencer to use a third-party tool to do a social media audit and send you screenshots of their scores, be cautious of those who balk and won’t do it. Once again, this is a normal ask in the industry. Anytime someone pushes back on providing this type of information should make you question their followers.
Here’s a list of backend data that you could request the influencer to send you via screenshots that could assist you in analyzing followers:
- Google Analytics screenshot from the past 30 days
- Facebook Insights: Ask to see graphs from the most recent five posts. Be sure to keep an eye on the engagement, as well as the sponsored ratio.
- Instagram Insights: Ask to see a screenshot of Insights on a sampling of five photo posts within the past six months. You choose the posts to review.
- Instagram Locations: Request to see a list of the top locations from which the followers are coming. If the location(s) seems off, then it is likely the person is buying fake followers.
Bonus tip: If the influencer provides screenshots of backend data, look at the screenshot carefully. Does everything line up? Does the font look the same? We might sound paranoid but seriously don’t put it past some people to edit a screenshot.
9. Read through feeds.
Although time-consuming, you need to spend some time reading through followers’ feeds. Check out the content that the followers are posting. Does the content appear to be authentic? Are you seeing a lot of shady content that makes you uncomfortable? What about comments that are full or emojis? Remember, these influencers are representing your agency, brand, and/or products. The last thing you want to be doing is promoting material to fake accounts that aren’t your target demographic.
10. Make sure the followers are active on social media.
After clicking on some of the followers, are you starting to see a pattern that many of the accounts have nothing posted to their feeds? Fake accounts will have very few posts and, more often than not, will be set to private. In other words, they don’t look like potential customers. It’s time to wave the red flag.
Online Tools to Check Your Accounts for Fake Followers
As mentioned before, you can feel free to use a combination of automated platforms and manual processes to help you determine whether or not an account has fake followers. Here are a few online tools to help you check for fake followers.
FakeCheck, FakeLikes, and similar tools scan Instagram profiles and determine the number of fake followers as opposed to real followers. The tools can also identify the most suspicious followers and give you the option to block them if the account is your own. These are free tools that provide a snapshot of an account’s followers, engagement, and likes.
Social Audit Pro, HypeAuditor, and several others are paid services that provide follower analytics for Instagram accounts. The platforms do various levels of audits of a profile’s followers that can include analytics from followers to likes, engagement, and more. Fees can range from one-time to prices based on the number of (alleged) followers.
Twitter auditors make checking whether you have fake followers quick and easy. Many are completely free while others give you one or two audits for at no charge before a pay structure kicks in. Some tools will check the number of inactive followers, as well as the fake followers. Some will provide an audit for free and only require payment if you want account clean-up services.
Here are a few of the audit sites that can be used:
We live in a world where some people will judge by the number of followers on social media. And, we know full well that influencers are often paid based on the number of followers they have on social media. With all of this pressure, it can be so tempting to pay for followers in hopes of being asked to participate in campaigns that have higher payouts. It’s up to you as a brand representative to demand transparency.
Even though checking for fake followers might seem extremely time-consuming, it’s an incredibly important step to the influencer marketing experience. Knowing the issues that have evolved and the pressures of the environment, we know, as an Influencer Marketing Network, that thoroughly vetting for fake followers will help us deliver an Influencer Marketing campaign that will reach the right people, get great engagement from real followers, and turn followers (and influencers) into lifelong fans of the campaign sponsors.