There is no denying that people are hugely influenced by what they see on Instagram and there is an ever growing body of research evidencing that people make purchasing decisions based on what they see and hear on the app. Unsurprisingly influencer marketing continues to grow and it can be a successful strategy for businesses to increase sales. Unfortunately it's not uncommon for people to artificially increase their follower numbers and engagement to make them look more successful than they are. Working with "influencers" who fake engagement wont offer the expected return to brands and it is damaging to the reputation of other influencers and bloggers. This post gives ways to identify Instagram accounts who may be artificially increasing their engagement.

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How To Tell Which Instagram Influencers and Bloggers Have Fake Engagement

Using Software To Identify Authentic Influencers

The more familiar you are with Instagram the easier it is to spot abnormal behaviour. While some accounts increase their engagement subtly making it hard to spot it is normally possible to see activity which looks suspicious and would make me question the value of working with the Influencer.

There are numerous platforms and software that use algorithms to rate the authenticity of accounts. They obviously have their place, but they aren't always accurate. In all of the software I have looked at there has been activity which they claim isn't authentic that is often seen in normal accounts eg someone may have a core group of people that comment on all their posts and they reciprocate commenting on their posts. This could be because they are all in a commenting pod together, or it could be that they are best friends, their sister or husband. If you take the ratings as face value you miss these subtleties. 

Another claim I have often heard is that if you look at the pattern of growth of followers sudden jumps indicate they have bought followers. In reality while some people's accounts grow very gradually showing a gentle curve it is normal for accounts to have periods of rapid growth. A popular Reel, shout outs by large accounts or some other form of publicity are all authentic reasons an account may have a sudden increase in followers. These are people you want to work with rather than dismiss out of hand so check out their accounts in more detail.

I recommend that even if you use software to review performance of accounts you should look at the accounts too and learn to identify the red flags which might suggest engagement is not totally authentic.

Signs That An Instagram Account Has Faked Engagement

Poor quality account performing well

Good quality, interesting, inspiring or engaging content should always do well on Instagram, although sadly there are many amazing accounts not getting the attention they deserve. If you look at an account and the photographs are poor quality and the captions offer no value yet they have a large number of followers and likes you need to question why. Content wont always be to your liking, but you should be able to see a reason for high engagement.

Too high an engagement rate

It used to be believed that people who bought followers had a low engagement rate, but engagement rates for most accounts are pretty low these days. It is normal for only a small percentage of followers to engage with a post, 3% engagement rates for instance are pretty standard and a 10% engagement rate is very high. It's easy to buy or get likes on a post to boost engagement and people that do this often lose sight of genuine engagement rates so it's the high rates that are more suspicious than low ones.

The more followers someone has the lower the engagement rate tends to be so you might have someone with 500 followers getting the same number of likes per post as someone with 5000.  I wouldn't find it suspicious if an accounts engagement was only 1%, but I also probably wouldn't want to work with them to promote my brand. 

Too consistent engagement

If you look though most people’s accounts the number of likes and comments on each post will vary considerably. It’s natural for some posts to do much better than others. Some posts flop for no apparent reason and some really resonate and will get shared widely or hit the Discover page so they get much higher engagement. If the number of likes and comments on every post is very similar it's possibly not natural behaviour.

Quality of comments

It is easier to get fake followers or likes on a post than comments, but often when the comments are artificially inflated they sound spammy or vague. This is because people taking part in comment groups don't want to spend the time to read the post or they might not have anything in common with the account so struggle for something authentic to say. 

The quality of comments does vary between niches though, for instance teen influencers are more likely to have comments like "wow" or emojis. 

Excellent performance of ADs

While variation in posts is normal if all the posts that do particularly well are the ones marked as adverts then it suggests they are doing something to artificially inflate the performance of those posts. There can be genuine reasons though eg they might have paid Instagram to have the post promoted.  I have followers who are more likely to take the time to comment on my posts if they are an AD, but this is often balanced out with followers who hate ADs and just scroll past.

Ratio of likes to comments

Some posts naturally encourage conversation and this is a good thing, but generally more people will “like” a post than comment because it’s easier to do. If the number of comments is particularly high it raises questions, likewise if there are 100s of likes and only 3 comments it doesn't look natural.

Suspicious likers/ followers

If you click to see who has liked a post or followed an account you can expect to see the majority of accounts to look normal. People might have a few weird looking accounts, but when there are lots of fake looking accounts it is a huge red flag. I know of people who are targeted by spam accounts for some reason, but this is rare.

Fake accounts often have:  

  • numbers at the end of the user name eg giran832
  • no profile picture
  • no posts or a small number of photos with very similar captions, no captions or posts all published on the same day
  • no meaningful profile description
  • a different language to the poster
  • private profiles

Niche of likers

This is harder to spot, but generally the majority of the people engaging in a post will post similar content. If someone posts images of their children and uses relevant hashtags it would be surprising if you looked at the accounts of those liking their posts and they were all travel scenery or all food bloggers.

Performance of Reels

People can choose to hide the number of likes on their posts in Instagram, but currently if they make Reels the number of views are visible for each of them on the Reels tab. Performance of a Reel can vary hugely, but if the account has 20k followers and most of their Reels have only a few 1000 views that is strange. If the number of likes on the Reels is very similar (or higher) than the number of views that is also strange. Generally the views will be much higher (by 10 times or more) than the number of likes. If the view to like ratio is wrong and the number of likes are similar to all their static posts it would also be a red flag.

Reach/ impressions

While the reach is only visible to the account holder for static images if you are working with someone you can ask to see the reach of a post. You would generally expect it to be considerably higher (10 times of more) than the number of likes. If the reach of a post that has been live for several days is only 3 or 4 times higher than the number of likes it would be unusual.

Genuine accounts might raise a few red flags, but you can normally see this balanced out with authenticity. It might feel like a lot of work, but if you are looking to invest money in working with someone to promote your products or services it is worth checking them out properly. If you aren't confident in assessing the authenticity of accounts yourself then get in touch and I am happy to help.

How to spot fake engagement on Instagram