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With a PHD in fashion, a hair ambassadorship with L’Oréal Paris and a global audience, Victoria is the lady behind the award-winning fashion, travel and beauty blog, Inthefrow.

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How to Spot Fake
Instagram Engagement

A conversation that is on the lips of most within the industry right now, has me questioning our relationship and trust of the social media space and the people within it. A growing percentage of the community are being accused of “buying their way to the top”, and whilst I've been silent on the controversy for the most part, the topic is reaching boiling point. So here I am, writing this post, trying to shed some light on what is happening behind the screens, hoping to make a positive difference to the industry we love.

It comes down to this; many of us have spent years (6 years for me) building a genuine audience on our social channels. People who found us and followed us for our content and creativity. We have dedicated hours of our lives to shooting, styling, dressing appointments, networking, engagement and strategy meetings to think of ways we can continue to create quality content that is successful for our commercial partners but more importantly for our loyal following. But it appears that there are concerns about the authenticity of certain users, and thus the industry needs to make some changes.

Read on for my exploration into the world of “fake followers”. Oh and also, how it looks like the tide might actually be turning with some new AI software that is launching today. 

By the way I thought these photos were so apt, as I look like I’m drinking the 'tea' and looking at the fact's over my large and mysterious spectacles. Sherlock Holmes in a swimsuit.

Why should we be bothered?

There are a few reasons. First and foremost is deception, not only in the face of brands, but in the face of our following.

The Social Media Industry is now a career for many of us and as with all careers, we expect fair treatment. When participating in a brand campaign, you are entrusted to honestly review, promote and convey a brand's values to an audience. To measure how successful a campaign has been, brands record likes, engagement, reach and penultimately, sales. The likes or comments from a “fake follower” is deceptive to a brand and they may be led to believe that this content creator with such 'vast engagement' is where they should focus their future efforts. Thus such actions will have a ripple effect on the genuine content creators with families, homes or futures they're trying to earn towards.

Consider this: If you create beautiful campaign images for a brand, let's say for Chanel as a big example, and another creator who engages in the world of “fake followings” creates images for the same campaign - how will Chanel ever see the true worth of your images? Will they want to work with you again when the results show a lesser engagement level than X? No, they're most probably not. And so, your hopes and dreams of working with Chanel once more are drastically diminished.

But what is it doing to our morale? We are all subject to comparing ourselves to others and for me personally, I'm beginning to feel humiliated. In fact, I've felt it for the last year. But I am not alone. Bloggers across the industry are exhausted of feeling disappointed with the reception to content they are working so hard to create in comparison to content that is reliant on being authenticated by a “fake following”. Our confidence and enthusiasm for the thing we love is affected by those who think it's an okay 'strategy' to boost their likes and audience numbers. I feel sad and frustrated every time I see evidence that suggests a boost in likes. Sad for the industry, sad for the brand, sad for the followers and sad for those who are working relentlessly, trying to get their foot on the ladder within the wonderful world of Social Media.

Just to add some context;

- Imagine you're a nurse and your manager has said that between you and another Nurse, whoever of you can get the most incredible reviews from patients will be the one who gets the £5k a year raise, and the other nurse you're up against has written down fake numbers on her reports, so you lose your promotion.

- Imagine you work in a clothes store and the first one of your colleagues that can persuade 50 people to sign up to the in-store credit card gets a bonus of £1000. You're almost there and yet your colleague is creating fake store accounts so that she wins. And you've lost your bonus.

We could all be subject to those cheating their way to the top.

Why Should the audience be bothered?

There are a lot of people to follow on social media, and choosing who to follow is something everyone curates personally. Growing a following relies on the personality of the content creator, their creativity in taking photographs, their relatability perhaps or maybe it's their clothing style. Whatever it may be that draws in a new follower, a lot of it will also come down to the person they appear to portray on social media. Often, a content creator who is likeable, friendly, modest and genuine will attract other similar people to follow their channel. But if the person you were following, turned out to be actually ingenuine, and building a 'fake following' for their own personal gain, might you feel otherwise?

Enhanced likes and curated comments from 'fake accounts' could also mislead and deceive other real followers into a false sense of influence on a creator's post. If you can see a photo within your feed is being commented on profusely and is being engaged with much more than usual, a follower may feel more willing to like it, leave a comment or look a little more into the content of the post. Might the follower not feel used and deceived if they realised this was the case?

Trust is another issue, especially for bloggers who have built their following based highly on trust. The content creator will work with a number of brands across the year and offer honest reviews, opinions and carefully selected projects to show their following. If their audience trusts that creator, they are likely to listen, engage with and trust their opinions and reviews on a particular product; this is how blogging became so popular at the very beginning. Creators have a responsibility to uphold the level of trust that their audience has placed in them, as soon as they chose to follow. In effect, the follow is almost a handshake of trust. And thus, an ingenuine creator who is engaging in "fake followings" is entirely jeopardising that level of trust their true audience has placed in them. Bloggers rely on the trust of their audience, and if we lost this trust due to the actions of a few, it would be extremely detrimental to the industry and the community that we have worked so hard to build. And what and who is that Creator creating content for, if it is not for a real following? Is it for financial gain only and is the follower actually at the forefront of that creators mind at this point? As a follower, are you valued by this creator in any way?

Why should brands be bothered?

Instagram is no longer a pastime – to many it is a career. And with a career comes a code of conduct, legalities and contracts. Most contracts now have a clause that states you must be honest regarding your Instagram numbers, but there are many that are still playing catch up.

As with most campaigns, brands contract with influencers to access their reach. If the following is “fake” then they are being deceived plain and simple. Is it only a matter of time before we see a brand sue an influencer for lying to them about their stated engagement levels?

And what is to be said about the brands objectives? Sales is a big one, a return on their investment. Brand awareness of course also, but in a lot of cases, an influencer is asked to talk about a product they love to encourage others to try it or buy it. If a brand entering into a commercial contract that includes an Instagram post and all of the creators followers are fake, will anyone buy the product? The ROI is ZERO and the brands campaign objectives have not been achieved. Now, what impact does that have on the person running the campaign? It is a never-ending cycle of disappointment.

We commit to giving our audiences an honest review; doesn’t the brand deserve the same level of truth? After all, it is their investment that is on the line. One campaign could mean the difference between a brand succeeding or falling flat.

Remember there are Anomalies

Something to consider; some accounts are a lot older than others and will have a lot of inactive followers from years previous. Some users stop using Instagram, or move accounts, open a second one, lost their password etc etc. Instagram has been running for 9 years, and so a lot of accounts are no longer in use. That means that if you see a blogger with 1 million followers who maybe gets 10k likes on a photo - the chances are that their following is a little less active now due to how long that instagrammer has been posting for.

A lot of people on Instagram are also Youtubers or social superstars, and those people will often gather so many more likes than another user with the same number of followers, but their audience isn't so obsessively hitting like on every photo. Those people may have a spike in growth due to a viral youtube video and users moving on to their Instagram, or a spike in popularity on Instagram equalling a plethora of new followers and therefore the higher their engagement is going to be. Instagram serves up pictures of whoever you have just followed at the top of the scroll feed. Top of the scroll feed for lots of new followers = a lot more immediate likes = much higher engagement overall due to the algorithm pushing the photo further due to said enhanced engagement. *breathe*

In a rare amount of cases, some accounts are just highly active and there are definitely some fluke cases of incredible engagement. But you can see that the engagement is real from the consistencies in likes throughout posting time and the number of comments to likes ratio, as well as the quality of comments. Let's just say, these accounts could reach say 5000 likes in 5 minutes with an account of 700k but that photo would go on to reach maybe 50k likes overall, as it will continue to grow.

How do you spot a fake following?

How do you spot fake engagement, comments or followers? There are many ways to (unfortunately) scam the system. So I've given these people some personalities...

The Overzealous Buyer with no Engagement

This person has bought their following in bulk, so that they may have one million+ followers. But their engagement might be less than 1k-2k likes. Or similar. They bought the majority of their following, but don't want to keep up with buying their likes on every image due to the cost, and therefore they have very minimal engagement for that number of followers. For an account with over 1 million followers, usual engagement would normally be around 18-40k likes, depending on how engaged their audience like to be and how old their account is.

The Follow/Unfollow Guy

This is one for social blade users - back when Instagram allowed Social Blade to track a persons following and unfollowing ratios. When Instagram changed its policies, it kicked Social Blades tools out and stopped them nosying around in the stats, so social blade stopped working. But it still works for a few users - so its worth going onto socialblade and having a peek by entering in the user's instagram name in the top bar. You can also see every instagram users following history too - so you can see if they used to use the follow or unfollow strategy previously. If you can't see someones stats on socialblade, then you will need to keep your own watchful eye on someones following count yourself.

You will notice that for some people, one day they may follow 500 people, the next day they will unfollow 400 people, the next day follow 800 people, the next day unfollow 600. The tactic is - follow accounts so that they look at your profile and they may follow you back if they like what they see. So technically you need to have a gorgeous and exciting profile to entice these new followers in to following you. Then when they've followed you back, you can unfollow them and you're left with larger following figures. It takes longer to make this strategy work and can be spotted a mile off. But it's still technically cheating the algorithm by getting people to see you who normally wouldn't.

Also, the user isn't the one following and unfollowing, its usually a computer system that is doing all of that work and following people in bulk. So it's not even the instagrammer taking their own time to find new users with this strange behaviour - its a paid for robot, or app, or computer system. 

The Sluggish Buyer

This user has bought their followers, but they're not as quick as the Instagram Algorithm Breaker. They tend to spread their likes over the first two hours of posting. A person with say 700k-900k+ followers should usually get between 750 and 2k likes in the first 5 minutes. A Sluggish Buyer will post an image and receive 100-200 likes in the first 5 minutes - because remember the majority of their audience isn't real so their real engagement is lower. But after a few more minutes, you notice that the likes on their photo start to rise dramatically in barrels of a similar amount, say 30/50/100 likes a second. Then it slows down again and they have no new likes for a minute or so. Then it ramps up again for a few more hundred likes or so. And this continues until after a few hours, you see their photo is suddenly on 20K+ likes. A photo that starts so slow, will never grow to a figure like this. Usual engagement is consistent for a few hours until it starts to organically slow down - a steady upwards curve. There shouldn't be spikes and troughs.

The Instagram Algorithm Breaker

Like I just said above ...the algorithm works like this - get more engagement than normal in your first 10 minutes of posting a photo, and Instagram will show your photo to more of your audience. Get lower likes or comments than usual on that photo, and Instagram thinks that your photo isn't all that exciting on this occasion, therefore your audience isn't liking it quite as much and therefore the rest of your audience don't want to see it either. So they cap your reach and don't push out your picture to your audience, hence lower likes for most people these days. Which is why a lot of #ad's don't do so well, because some users purposely choose to not like them, even though they're seeing them and would normally hit like. So engagement appears lower.

However, for those who are pretty clever in this industry, they know that if they buy immediate engagement in the first ten minutes of posting their photo, say 5-10,000 extra likes, Instagram will go 'wow, this is engaging content' and they will push out the photo to the rest of their audience. It's a tool to trick the algorithm. And so this is something to look out for and here's how.

If you're hoping to work with an influencer or you have a hunch that someone is getting more engagement than maybe they should be or more engagement than similar sized accounts, turn on your post notifications for that person's account. Go to their page, click the three dots in the top right corner and choose 'Turn on post notifications.'

When that user next posts, your phone will tell you they've posted. Open up that photo and keep hitting refresh in the top right hand corner of the screen. You will then see the likes of that photo start to rise.

If a user of less than 800,000 followers is receiving engagement of 7k+ likes in 5 minutes after posting their usual type of photo, or over 20k likes in about 45 minutes, it's very unusual - unless that photo goes on to reach 65k likes overall.  A photo of 7K likes in the first 5 minutes will likely grow to 65k+ likes overall. 

However, this is just a general average. But at least, it could flag as a potential sign that warrants further investigation.

And one final sign - if you spot a photo is posted within the first five minutes - click to view some of the accounts that have liked the picture straight away and check out their following list to see if they are actually following the account in question. You will most likely find, if you search through 20 of these accounts, that 15 of them won't follow the account - and it's extremely unlikely for an assortment of accounts that don't follow someone, to find their photo within a few minutes and like their photo in bulk.

The Quick Top Up

It's harder to spot unless you know someones following count really well. But now and again, Instagram will clear out 'bot' accounts. These fake accounts will be deleted in the masses, and some users will lose thousands of followers. It's fine, because bots need to follow people to look legit, so they follow lots of different accounts everywhere. This means that even the most genuine users will maybe have a few hundred or a few thousand bots following their accounts without their knowledge. 

When these Instagram clear outs happen, people lose 'followers' in bulk. If it's a really really high number, say 30,000 followers, like I saw happen to someone last week, then you know something odd is going on. Fair enough if it's Kim Kardashian, as 30,000 to her is a mere percentage. But to an account of say 500k-1 million followers, you should not be losing 30,000 followers in one go.

However, there are people who will not want to show such a drop in followers to save face, and so you might notice that suddenly that follower amount has been reinstated on their account. The few thousand they have lost, will mysteriously reappear, a few hours or a day later. Follower counts don't just bump up by thousands suddenly. 

The Savvy Shopper

This influencer knows that if you buy your audience, you then have to buy your engagement to make it look legitimate. A bought audience is just extra numbers, they're not genuine accounts that are going to like and comment. So you have to buy that too. Some people just buy extra likes, some buy extra comments. 

What to look out for:

A LOT of repetitive emoji usage by the majority of commenters. 

A lot of very plain comments like 'nice' or 'lovely dear' or 'great photo' - or even better when the comments make no sense to the context of the photo. Such as 'gorgeous dress' - and they're wearing jeans.

Repeated comments by different users. So the emoji usage, spacing in letters and word usage, is entirely identical to other comments from different users in the list of comments. Usually it's right below it. See the screenshot examples below.

If you have a hunch and can be bothered to look for this long - you will also notice patterns in commenters across different photos. The example images are taken from a user who is known to buy their following and engagement, and this particular user utilises the same fake accounts to comment on their photos every time they post, in the exact same order, with practically the exact same comment. 

Additionally, they will often have the same fake accounts comment twice, until the comment counter looks like they're getting lots of engaging comments. See the screenshot image for examples - a constant stream of double comments where the four accounts shown are all fake and follow around 50 people, mainly consisting of the biggest Instagram users there are - the Rock, Ronaldo, Neymar etc. 

Two further examples.

First: Four different accounts, two comments each in a constant stream of double commenting. Each user is a fake account.

Second: All different users, writing the exact same comment: "Your style is perfect. Love this". This is just one example from a recent sponsored post, that a user created for a huge International supermarket clothing brand, where all of the comments were just like this.

What can we do about it?

At the moment very little, because not all Social Media channels are vetted in such a way. BUT the more we talk about it, the more light is shed and with a little determination, the lesser this behaviour can be accepted as a norm.

HOWEVER HELP IS COMING - you need to look at this new tool made by Social Chain that's launching today - Like Wise. This is the software genuine bloggers and instagrammers have been waiting for, to weed out the users who are scamming the system. Watch the video for how it works. Let's just say, if Social Chain have anything to do with it, the people buying, already are and will be black-listed from the start of October, 2018. Brands can sign up to work with Social Chain and chat with them about the ways they too can make sure they are not being scammed by false influencers. According to Like Wise, 25% of influencers have or still are scamming the system, meaning that almost every brand will most likely have worked with someone who has lied about their statistics. It's a scary thought and seriously unfair for the 75% doing it right. It looks like for many, it's only a matter of time before their secrets are surfaced.

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