Since the dawn of social media, users have sought shortcuts to create an inflated follower count without putting in the work to create engaging content and build an authentic audience. This is perhaps not much of an issue when that individual merely enjoys the warm feeling of having a high follower count, but it becomes more problematic if they start selling their image as an influencer based on those figures.
In recent weeks, there has been a renewed discussion around 'Instafraud' – onef example of which is the use of a bot to automatically follow and unfollow huge numbers of other users, at a speed and volume far greater than could be done manually. The hope is that some people will follow the user they have been followed by as a matter of course, and not notice when that user then unfollows them a short while after.
Last month, Instagram apparently forced the closure of Instagress, a bot service that helped users increase their following. Instagram said its terms "make it clear that we don’t allow people to spam others on Instagram".
When viewed through analytics platforms such as Social Blade, automatic follow and unfollow activity creates distinctive spikes in graphs of users' activity. Having carried out detailed analysis of this data, Influencer marketer Nik Speller discovered that such spikes were observable in the activity of nearly a quarter of influencers that just one agency, which is listed as an Instagram partner, describes as having worked with in case studies on its website.
Neither Instagram nor Whalar, the agency which Speller looked at, would comment directly on Speller's findings, although Instagram said it had teams working to uncover and close down fraudulent activity, and that it wanted to make it harder for spammers to be profitable.
'Unethical' automated 'engagement'
Speller told PRWeek he was "staggered" to see "far more evidence of automated 'engagement' across the service than I ever expected" – and that there were plenty of other examples beyond those found via Whalar.
"If the influencer marketing industry wants to be taken seriously and grow in a manner that is sustainable, it needs to address the issue of Instafraud, and fraud on other social networks," he said.
"As for Instagram, their business is currently doing well, but we all know how quickly this can change. Ignoring the fraud that's so apparent will lead to massive problems, if not now, then in the future. Tackling it – on the other hand – could see Instagram emerge as a far stronger proposition for influencer marketing activity."
While Speller was disappointed by Instagram's lack of comment on its partner Whalar, Hill+Knowlton Strategies director of content and publishing strategies Vikki Chowney said the Instagress closure was a sign of Instagram "being much more active" in the area. She said other social networks, such as Twitter, had also taken the time to switch from a more hands-off to a more proactive stance on bot use and follower inflation.
Chowney said: "It is really unethical to do it – brands now pay extortionate amounts to work with people who seem to have a high following. I think it is a good thing that Instagram is taking a stronger stance."
She also made the point that both Instagram and agencies were "putting much more emphasis on measurement and value", rather than campaigns simply being a case of a brand buying the time of the Instagrammers with the biggest purported following.
Companies could get 'conned'
Chowney said that while larger agencies could use sophisticated methods (which should "always" include a manual review) of assessing an influencer they might want to work with, smaller companies were vulnerable to shelling out too much to work with influencers who promise much but deliver little.
"If they are led down the garden path because someone has a high follower count, a small business that doesn't really understand the complexities could get really conned," she said.
Ben Jeffries is CEO of Influencer, a new platform that connects brands with content creators. He agreed that a "rise in automated liking and commenting bots online can create a misrepresentation of results for brands", and that intermediaries should vet influencers "as thoroughly as they can".
Jeffries also said that influencer marketing was not the only marketing tactic to have faced such issues, noting reports of firms manufacturing hits on pay-per-click adverts.
"I think it would be unfair to put the blame on Instagram because regardless of the due diligence that they do, people will always find a way to boost things," he said. "It's not just up to Instagram. It's up to agencies and platforms to encourage as much transparency as possible to ensure the creators they work with are authentic."
Writing an opinion piece on PRWeek this week, Come Round's head of influencer marketing and brand advocacy Philip Brown argued that industry corroborated this view - and said that undue focus on follower count was also the fault of agencies.
He said the industry had been "shoving the importance of reach down influencers' throats for the past three years", and that PR professionals needed to "stop blaming others and start believing in our ability to measure success in long-term brand metrics instead of focusing so much on the short-term".
Chowney, meanwhile, maintains that Instagram still had work to do – and that it would not be the last platform to be faced with questions in this area. "I think Snapchat will be next," she said.