I was recently interviewed by Buzzfeed about Fake Instagram Influencers and purchasing likes or followers (watch the video they put together here). I was really honored that they thought of me as an expert and, given the topic, was more than happy to sound off with my thoughts on it. The topic was Instagram bots, and people who buy Instagram likes, followers or interaction. Oh it is a topic that can really make my blood boil, friends!
If you use Instagram as an average consumer, you’re probably a little bit like “What? People buy likes? Why?!” Which I get. Instagram is a social media platform, and for many, a marketing platform that ultimately generates income. That aspect is something that not everyone sees or understands. So, here’s a super brief summary.
Social media has lended to the rise of “The Influencer”. That is, people who build up audiences of followers and fans who really trust and value their opinion. Brands collaborate with these influencers in order to create and promote a campaign — maybe the launch of a new product, a review of their new lipstick shade, hosting a contest, or offering a discount code for tickets to an upcoming event. The influencer probably gets free product or experiences and maybe even a paycheck, the brand gets access to their audience. Basically, social media platforms have become a new outlet on which brands can advertise, and one of the most effective ways for them to do this is by partnering with prominent bloggers/influencers who are already tapped into their ideal clients or customers.
And there is nothing wrong with this relationship. Especially when it is done properly. When a brand and an influencer make a good match. When the influencer really does love and enjoy the product (and aren’t just sharing it for the paycheck). When the content fits naturally into the influencer’s feed. When the opinion they share is honest and authentic. However, the ability to make a living posting photos to the internet has also lended to the rise of paid interaction (aka Fake Interaction and Fake Influencers). And oh man, how it is messing up the platform and the experience.
To summarize: people are now creating accounts and then going to websites where they can pay money for thousands of followers, or bots that will rack up hundreds of likes or dozens of comments on their posts (curious about what this looks like? Watch this video of a Bot Farm in action). It is also worth noting that it is not just influencers who are using bots or purchasing followers — brands do it, too! Which is frustrating and fraudulent on a whole ‘nother level, as they directly deceive consumers by making them think 250k people are fans of their product or 3,500 people liked their lipstick tutorial. (read this article where they literally do this and document the process as well as the partnerships they establish).
For me, watching this evolve has been almost surreal. I experience this from four different angles (most people only see one or two). I experience this from:
- The Consumer side– As someone who uses and consumes content via Instagram on a daily basis.
- The Influencer Side – As a blogger and Influencer myself who partners with brands, I see how this is effecting the influencer community, and deal with going up against Influencers who are purchasing their followers or likes.
- The Business Owner Side – As a product-based business owner (my Etsy shop) who is marketing products online and and also as a social media strategist for brands — I work with influencers from a public relations standpoint and have to carefully sift through the large numbers of fake accounts and avoid influencers implementing fraudulent practices.
- The Competition/Peer Side – As someone who owns an internet-based business working in social media (my social media consulting business) and has to compete against other people who are implementing these unethical practices in order to deem themselves as “social media experts/managers/strategists” but lack any real expertise in the field. I also see this for my clients, within their respective industry (makeup brands, skincare brands etc). Where my clients have worked hard for years to build up followings of 50K+, some brands simply buy them.
Woof, okay, deep breath. It’s easy to get really hung up on the fact that some of us have spent years toiling over our social media feeds, building up a community of followers and developing a business or brand. Only to lose out on opportunities or be taken advantage of by people who simply click a button, enter credit card information, and instantly make themselves appear 100x more influential than we are.
I’ve been writing about social media and teaching social media workshops for over 7 years now, and one of my golden rules has always been QUALITY OVER QUANTITY. And as this problem has been growing over the past year, I always come back to this golden rule: QUALITY OVER QUANTITY. If you’re a client of mine you have heard me say this a hundred times. If you’ve taken a class or heard me speak you’ve heard this message. It is the foundation of my business and something I try to get across to everyone I work with.
The quality of your content is much more important than the frequency at which you post it or the numbers that appear below it.
Sharing two sincere, well-worded posts per week is better than ten crappy ones.
50 likes and three comments from people you actually have relationships with and who are actually invested in your product or message is better than 500 likes from bots.
200 followers who are engaged and really support your message, product or brand are way better than 50,000 followers who know nothing about you (or aren’t even real people).
And the good news is that both consumers and brands are catching on to this. Brands are learning how to interpret a blogger’s organic influence and they know they’ll get a better ROI (return on investment) with a quality following rather than someone with a large quantity of followers. There are now services that will help you determine the quality and authenticity of someone’s following, and for the most part you can visit someone’s account and very quickly determine if they are implementing unethical practices (most of the time the evidence will show up right in your Discover tab).
So what makes a quality Instagram feed, you might ask? Here’s are 6 elements I consider when looking for influencers for myself or my clients to collaborate with:
- Authenticity – the user shares their real life and experiences. Their feed is not just endless styled images, sales pitches, or over-edited flatlays. They are enjoying life and sharing that with their followers. In order to truly influence people, you need a relationship with them. And that relationship starts with being honest, open and authentic.
- Personality – the user has a unique personality that fans connect with, and that personality shows in their photos and their captions. Every post shouldn’t be a sales pitch. Every post doesn’t need to be three paragraphs long. Their personality should show in their writing.
- Value – the account provides it’s followers with value by serving up content that is entertaining, educational, and inspiring.
- Community – the account is clearly engaged in their Instagram community and interacts there (travel community, coffee drinking community, foodie community, localized groups for their city or state, etc) as well as on their own posts (responding to comments and answering questions).
- Quality – their posts maintain a certain level of quality (need tips for improving your iPhone photos? Grab my free eBook).
- Consistency – the user has consistently posted on a pretty regular schedule, without huge gaps, and they are able to maintain a consistent aesthetic with their content.
As an influencer there are also things you can do to help brands easily verify the health and validity of your following. Along with making sure you are doing your best at the 6 things mentioned above, you can also verify your account through a third party service. It should be noted that there are some services out there that don’t do this very well, and others that do. The one I recommend using is Fohr Card. Fohr card is super easy to set up (both for influencers and brands!) and allows you to create a media kit that gives brands access to all the information they need — including a comprehensive report about the health of your Instagram following. It looks like this:
I like that Fohr Card is more comprehensive, rather than just giving your following a single “grade” or “score”. I also love how Fohr Card helps you quickly set up a media kit link that you can keep in your profile or on your about page. You can check mine out by clicking here. Not that you wont be able to view in-depth analysis or reports unless you also set up an account.
The bottom line, and what I would like to communicate in this post (and hopefully got across in the Buzzfeed interview) is that purchasing followers or paying for interaction in order to make yourself look more influential than you are is fraud. You are not only being fraudulent with the brands you work with and the contracts you sign, but you are being fraudulent with your audience (as fake as your following may be). In the end, fake followers won’t get you anywhere. 400 likes from bots won’t benefit you. Brands will recognize that working with you is not beneficial and has limited ROI (and they’ll likely share that information with other businesses….because of course brands/businesses tell each other who they’ve had the most success partnering with). Ultimately, your business will suffer from your lack of creativity and authenticity.
If you are just getting started on Instagram, or you are feeling frustrated at your double digit following that doesn’t seem to grow, I urge you not to give in to the temptation to pay for growth. I know how tempting it can be. My mind has gone there. I’ve visited the websites. I’ve checked the pricing. It is hard to watch your peers pay money for likes and secure big brand partnerships that you feel like you deserve, or watch people enter your profession with zero experience and try to establish themselves as an expert in your field even though the only skill they have is acquiring an inauthentic following. It’s frustrating, I get that, but in the end I truly believe that those of us who have done the work will win out. We’ve got the hours of experience to speak to. We’ve got the satisfied clients or brands to use as references. We know the ins and outs of this platform and can quickly adapt to it’s changes, while those who cheat tend to succumb to the algorithm (slow clap).
I will be sure to share the Buzzfeed interview when it is live. Although it is going to be very brief I am still really proud and excited about it and am even more thrilled that this topic will be getting some much deserved attention. Below are some of my online resources and upcoming events, in case you’d like to learn more about successfully managing your Instagram account:
- My free eBook – Learning to Master iPhone Photography (learn tips for the native iPhone camera, photo styling and affordable home studio set-ups)
- My online course – Mastering Instagram (dive deeper into Instagram strategy and how to properly manage an account for a small business all from the comfort of your home office or a coffee shop. Class includes a pdf workbook and a 40 minute video)
- My favorite Resources – I have a complete list of my favorite equipment, supplies etc., and you can find all of them on Amazon.
- My free Instagram Audit – Not sure where to start with improving your account? Print out this free audit and gain some clarity.
- Free Printable Calendar – a little freebie to help you with planning out your ongoing content.
- Regram Etiquette – do you share content that isn’t yours? Here are tips to make sure you’re following the (mostly unspoken) rules.
- Instagram Story – not sure how to use this new(ish) feature for your business? Here are my tips.
- Instagram for Business – are you properly managing your brand’s account? Here are some of the methods I use for myself and my clients.
- Fohr Card – an online service that helps verify your audience and create an online media kit to help connect you with brands.
- iPhone Photography and Styling – September 12th in Madison, Wisconsin! I will once again be teaming up with my friend Marla of The Food Court Agency to deliver a 2.5 hour class that will teach you the basics of iPhone photography, the advanced features of your iPhone’s native camera, composition, editing tips, and all of Marla’s best photo styling advice. Limit is 24 attendees.
- Capturing Business on a Budget – Conference on September 13th in Madison, Wisconsin (this event is by invitation only, hosted by the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau. Reach out to them if you are a Wisconsin-based business interested in more information). Limit is 100 attendees.
Follow me on Instagram @Thyme_is_Honey for, you know, an authentic feed of real life weirdness along with social media tips and too many dog photos.