Okay, prepare yourself, some pretty big breaking news out of Hollywood this week. Reports have suggested that Kim Kardashian may have purchased Instagram followers. I know, I know, hard to believe. Apparently, Ms Kardashian-West, incensed by her sister Kendall breaking the world record for Instagram likes for a single post, increased her Instagram following by three million within a week. Ms. Kardashian announced the increase via her Twitter account on July 11:
Woke up to over 40 million instagram followers! Thank you so much everyone! I will post a bunch today to celebrate! xo- Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) July 10, 2015
Jokes aside, this is not the first time the Kardashian clan have been outed as buying fake followers. Back in December, after Instagram purged millions of fake accounts, a raft of celebrities suddenly lost large chunks of their followings, highlighting just how many have purchased fakes. At that time, Kardashian lost 1.3 million followers, though that was nothing in comparison to hip-hop star Akon who lost 56% of his following in one hit (also, Justin Bieber lost 3.5 million followers - people always get some joy from being reminded of this).
Yes, fake followers are rife within our social networks, shell profiles with random comments and stolen profile pictures, you see them all the time - but is there really enough benefit in fake followers to justify their use?
Faking It and Making It
Like it or not, the fake following industry is big business - fake profile makers and "click farms" generate hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Given the emphasis placed on celebrity social media followings, it's pretty much a given that every major star these days has some level of fakes amongst their social media followings. In many cases, the celebrities themselves aren't even aware of it, as the followers are often purchased by their agents and management teams - but the fact of the matter is that, in Hollywood, perception is fact. If you have a billion Instagram followers you're very, very important and someone that needs to be listened to. Of course, those within the social media industry know this not to be true, anyone - absolutely anyone - can go out and purchase a few thousand followers and pretend to be of a status which they're not. The more important indicator for social success is engagement - and by extension, how many of those that engage with your social media content actually convert into paying customers. The equation, in this sense, is slightly different for celebrities, as they're not selling a product, per se, so much as they're selling themselves. In that sense, their social media following forms an important social proof factor - but does it do the same for brands?
While the temptation to go the Kardashian route and build up an instant following for your business on social can be alluring, really, it's a pretty amateur move. Celebrities can get away with it because we expect them to have massive followings - big jumps or dips in their follower counts can go largely unnoticed - but it's pretty easy to note large increases on a smaller scale, prompting further investigate. Celebrities also don't need to worry too much about engagement - their real fans, whatever percentage of their total audience that they make up, will hang on their every word, regardless. Brands in the real world, the world of reduced Facebook organic reach in particular, need their content to be seen by real people, which is less and less likely to happen the more fake followers you have.
"But come on..." I hear you say, "it's not really that bad, is it? And it can help get you attention and make you seem more legit". I've heard this from many people, and I've told them the same, every time - the means with which to work out whether people have purchased likes are always improving, always getting easier to access and use. It may make you seem "more legit" on the surface, but it's very easy to get found out, which, I would argue, will quickly make you seem very much, non-legit. The reputational risk is too high to outweigh the perceptive benefit.
Singling Out Imposters
So how do you do you work out who's faking it? There's a range of ways, dependent on the platform you're investigating.
Facebook - While there's no app to single out likely fakes amongst Facebook followings, you can search for suspicious activity by checking the interactions levels on their page - if a page has seen a sudden increase in page likes, but is getting very little interaction on their posts, they've probably purchased fans.
You can also run Graph Search queries like "Countries of people who like [page name]" or "Languages spoken by people who like [page name]". If a local business has a heap of fans from, say Bangladesh, fair to assume those are not legitimately interested parties.
Twitter - Twitter is the easiest, as there's a few detection apps that can give you an idea of a person's fake following level. Apps like Status People's "Fake Follower Check", Social Bakers' "fake followers test" and "Twitter Audit" are all able to provide a generalized overview (Twitter Audit uses the largest sample size, so is likely the most accurate), but the results they provide should always be seen as indicative, not prescriptive. If someone's highlighted as having a lot of fake followers, it's worth looking into them a bit more to qualify that finding. One of the easiest ways to do this is to use Twitter Counter, a Twitter tool that displays a graph of the last 30 days of follower growth for any Twitter user you choose. If their graph looks like this:
That seems fine, the growth progression is moving at a steady, stable rate, but if it looks like this:
Alarm bells. This person has almost definitely purchased fake followers. The limitation here is that Tweet Counter only shows you activity for the last month in the free version, but if you notice someone that seems like they've had a big jump, it's a good way to confirm.
Instagram - Like Facebook, there's no app to make the detection process easier on Instagram, but there are a few indicators to look for. The most obvious way is to look through their followers and see how many of them have no profile image, or a clearly fake profile image and/or username. Most Instagram fakers are pretty lazy, and it's easy to pinpoint them amongst real users. Another signal to look out for on Instagram is profiles that haven't posted much but have a heap of followers. Instagram followings take a long time to build up for non-celebrities, particularly as you need a catalog of images, generally, for people to know what to expect. Again, these are just indicative measures, they're not definitive truths, but most of the time, if you go looking, you'll quickly find the hallmarks of "fakeness".
The Illusion of Popularity
As demonstrated by Instagram's purge last year, social networks are always working on ways to weed out fakes and eliminate them from their systems. Fake followers skew their data and cause potential ad partners to lose faith in their products, as they can't be guaranteed of reach to genuine users, so it's in their interest to remove them where they can. The means with which to detect and locate such fakers, too, are getting better and easier to use - honestly, the risk of being shown up as someone who's tried to present themselves as something they're not is very high, and your business reputation is on the line in any such process if you choose to go down that route.
On Facebook, fake profiles don't interact, which means they limit your organic reach even further than it already is (as you're only reaching a percentage of your fans, and if the ones you do reach are fake and don't intereract, your content goes no where), on Twitter they're very easy to detect, and on Instagram, they'll probably get purged at some stage, exposing all of those profiles that have purchased them (it's likely they've already acted - less than a week after announcing she has 40 million followers, Kim Kardashian is already back down to 39.3 million). Celebrities can take the hit, they have dedicated fans who'll be with them, even if they get found out for purchasing fakes - all of the celebrities are doing it either way. But for brands, there's more to it. The illusion of a huge following is just that, an illusion, a number that, while it may impress a few people with little knowledge of the process, is really nothing. You're much better off cultivating a brand through interactions and content and working with your community to establish a real following. Yes, it takes longer, and yes, you do want to be seen as legitimate from the get go, but buying fake followers is a risky business.
How do you think it would look if you were called out online and shown to be presenting yourself as something you're not? Would buying fake followers be worth it then?