Learn how to tell if someone bought Instagram followers with our comprehensive guide. ID fake followers and take steps to protect your brand's reputation.
Working with Instagram influencers is a proven way to grow brand awareness, foster engagement, and drive sales. More than half of brands use the network in their influencer marketing strategies.
The reason is that Instagram influencers have engaged, trusting relationships with the audiences they’ve worked so hard to build. And through influencer marketing, your brand can leverage that into organic and authentic promotion.
But, whatever your influencer marketing goal, you can’t accomplish it if you don’t reach the right audience. And you definitely can’t reach the right audience if you end up working with an influencer whose audience is fake.
But how to tell if someone bought Instagram followers? Thankfully, there are various ways to do this. You just need to know what to look for.
Why do people buy Instagram followers?
Follower count has long been a metric of success on social media, particularly Instagram. While networks like TikTok and Twitch might prioritize views and engagement over followers, Instagram’s focus on community has led audience size to be a key determining factor in when someone is considered an influencer.
For example, a nano influencer is typically thought of having between 1-10K followers, a micro influencer between 10-50K, and so on up through the influencer tiers. This means in order to start promoting brands as an influencer, users have to try to get into that 1K range.
If you’ve ever tried to build up a social media profile, you’ll know it can be hard work to grow your audience into the thousands. So as a way to jumpstart their profile, many people turn to fake followers as a solution.
And unfortunately for marketers, it’s all too easy for people to buy fake followers. A search for “buy Instagram followers” reveals 202M results on Google, and top-ranking sites advertise instant delivery and prices starting at $0.59.
Some top-ranking sites for buying Instagram followers.
Common signs of bought followers
Unfortunately, bought followers are a reality. But fortunately for us marketers, there are ways to spot these fake followers. Despite what sites that sell followers, say, they’re most often not real accounts. Followers are often bots or burner accounts created for that sole purpose: to follow other people who pay them to.
Before we get into what you should check when analyzing an influencer’s followers, let’s run through some attributes commonly found among fake Instagram followers.
Followers with no photo or content
It’s very unusual for an Instagram user to not have a profile picture. Even when people don’t want to show their faces, they’ll usually upload some type of image to represent them. So when there’s no profile photo, the account could very well be a bought bot follower.
Likewise, having no content on Instagram is a suspicious sign. True, some users only sign up for the platform in order to look at other people’s content. So an empty profile could be a sign of a lurking user or a fake follower.
Followers with strange usernames and bios
Fake followers often have usernames that don’t make sense. They might just be a string of random letters and numbers. They might be copies of celebrity names. The same goes for their bios. While most people put a description of themselves in their IG bio, bots generally have empty or nonsensical bios.
I'll let you decide who's the real John Cena.
Followers with irrelevant and spammy comments
Another common behavior among fake followers is that the comments they leave on other people’s content are usually irrelevant and/or directly spammy.
Instead of seeing a thoughtful comment that references the influencer’s content, you’ll see something much more generic, like this: “🔥🔥.”
Followers with a large disparity of following to followers
Finally, if a profile has a huge number of followers, but is only following a few accounts, they could be fake. The exception to this rule is mega-celebrities, who may have millions of followers but follow very few people (or in Taylor Swift’s case below, no one!).
It's logical to assume that Taylor Swift didn't buy her followers, but that the other profile did.
How to tell if someone bought Instagram followers
Now, let’s dive into what specifically you should look at to be able to tell if an influencer bought Instagram followers.
Check for sudden spikes in their follower count
One way to easily spot if someone bought fake followers is by analyzing their follower growth over time. If you see sudden spikes, you’re probably seeing the moments in which the influencer bought followers.
You can get this info by using an influencer marketing platform or by asking the influencer for their profile insights. Just keep in mind of course that if an influencer has indeed bought fake followers, they might not be so quick to share that info with you.
One more caveat here. If an influencer’s profile looks good but you see a sudden spike in growth, don’t write them off immediately. First, do a quick check to see if there was some other event that could have caused them to get a lot of followers in a short amount of time.
A few examples of what else could cause spikes in followers: their content went viral, they appeared in the press, they got reposted by a more famous account, or they hosted a giveaway.
Look out for low engagement rates
A low engagement rate can also be a sign that an influencer bought Instagram followers. When you buy followers, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll engage with your content. So, fake followers can in fact drive an influencer’s engagement rate down.
Engagement rate gets calculated a bit differently depending on who you ask, but in general, the formula is average interactions / total followers x 100. So, if your follower count goes way up, but your interactions (likes, comments, shares, saves) don’t change, you’ll end up with a lower engagement rate.
You can get an engagement rate by asking the influencer for it, using an influencer marketing platform, or calculating it yourself based on the influencer’s most recent content. I’d recommend looking at the last 12-15 posts to get a good sense of average engagement.
When comparing individual engagement rates to benchmarks, keep in mind that two factors impact those benchmarks:
- Follower count. The more followers an influencer has, the lower their engagement rate tends to be. So someone with 1M followers will on average have a lower engagement rate than someone with 10K.
- Category. Some categories have higher average engagement rates than others. These categories are often more niche. In the chart below, you can see that Volleyball and Hockey, for example, have higher average rates than just Sports.
Source: Top Instagram categories and their average engagement rates, Heepsy.
Check for pods
Pods, or auto-like communities, are groups designed to inflate follower counts and engagement rates. Pods contribute to fake followers because even if the members are real people, they’re not following or engaging with others because they like their content. They’re doing it because they have to.
You can usually spot a pod from its bio. They’re usually private and will ask you to DM them to join. They’re usually dedicated to a specific category of influencers and might have a few admins listed.
If you see that an influencer belongs to a lot of pods, think carefully about whether you want to work with them or not. If someone subscribes to pods, it might also mean they’re buying fake followers too.
Use an influencer marketing platform to do a fake follower check
Another way to tell if an influencer bought Instagram followers is by doing a fake follower check using an influencer marketing platform.
An influencer marketing platform is software that lets you search for and analyze influencers. Often, these platforms also have other features, like outreach, results monitoring, and reporting.
Nearly all platforms charge brands to do a fake follower check. Heepsy doesn’t. You just need to sign up for a free account, verify it, and then you can start finding influencers and checking their audiences.
We can see below what a fake follower check looks like on the platform. In this specific case, the influencer has 89% real followers and 11% suspicious followers. This breakdown is done by AI, which analyzes the influencer’s audience to see if it looks like they bought fake followers.
It’s normal for influencers to have a small percentage of followers that appear suspicious. I’d recommend prioritizing profiles that have 80%+ real followers. In this case, given that her follower evolution and audience demographics also look good, I’d say this influencer probably didn’t buy Instagram followers (or bought very few).
What is Instagram doing about bought followers?
The reality is that people buy Instagram followers every day. Technically, this is against the network’s Community Guidelines:
Help us stay spam-free by not artificially collecting likes, followers, or shares, posting repetitive comments or content, or repeatedly contacting people for commercial purposes without their consent. Don’t offer money or giveaways of money in exchange for likes, followers, comments or other engagement. Don’t post content that engages in, promotes, encourages, facilitates, or admits to the offering, solicitation or trade of fake and misleading user reviews or ratings.
That said, it’s unclear how often Instagram polices this. While users can get action blocked for following too many people too quickly, there’s no known penalty for getting followed too many times in a certain time period.
Therefore, I wouldn’t rely on Instagram to protect your brand from influencers with bought followers. It’s much better to thoroughly analyze all profiles before collaborating with influencers, so you know what you’re getting into.
So, in summary, how to tell if an influencer bought Instagram followers? Well:
- Know the signs of fake followers.
- Check for sudden spikes in growth.
- Look for low engagement rates.
- Check for pods.
- Use an influencer marketing platform to run a fake follower check.
Following these five steps can help prevent your brand from investing in influencers who will promote you to no one.