Influencers with Fake Instagram Followers – is it Ethical?

I wanted to talk about something very different today, and perhaps very controversial. Fake 'Influencer' followers on Instagram. For those of you who don't know, I have a small business as well as this blog. You may therefore be interested to read about the 'fake follower' situation from a brand itself.

It's no secret that Instagram is the place to be these days and that there's a lot of money in being classed as an Instagram Influencer. Brands are now advertising on Instagram, looking to Influencers to collaborate with in order to promote products or destinations. However, there's a darker side to Influencers that is getting more and more prominent. Fake followers.

You'll have undoubtably have heard about the most recent blogger drama between a Dublin Hotel and a social media influencer. Things blew up when an influencer asked for 4 night's free stay in a hotel in Dublin. Let's just say things got pretty out of hand and the hotel did not react kindly. This blog post is now about this story so if you want to read more about the ins and outs of this, you can read up on it more here.

People started to speculate on why this situation exploded as much as it did with fingers being pointed at the blogger's 'careless' email. However, I think we can all conclude that as well as the hotel owner wanting publicity, he was pretty peed off that the blogger wanted to stay at his hotel for 4 whole nights and not pay a single penny for it. Why? Because the hotel would undoubtably lose money on this. It was not a fair deal for him and his business. Let me just point out here that I by no means am defending the hotel owner. I mean, I think he's a total douche and caused uproar just for publicity and is loving every minute of it. He's also a bully and I can't stand bullish behaviour. Anyway, I do get why he would have been annoyed.

This whole situation got me thinking, is it wrong for bloggers or influencers to pitch to a business for freebies or money if they do not have a genuine following or figures to back up what they are asking for?

And that is what this article is about today.

The Benefits of Collaborations between Bloggers or Influencers and Businesses

Collaborations between business and bloggers or influencers are becoming increasingly common. In good collaborations, both the businesses and bloggers/influencers will see benefits from the collaboration.

What Are The Benefits for Bloggers and Influencers?

The influencer/blogger will receive a product/experience for free. This can be anything from cosmetics to clothing, from complimentary hotel stays to flights.

Bloggers/influencers can also receive affiliate links. If a potential customer for the business clicks through this link provided by the blogger/influencer and purchases, the sale will be attributed to the influencer/blogger and they will earn a commission on the sale.

If the blogger/influencer is established, they will often also receive payment. Depending on how big the blogger/influencer is, this price can range from anything as low as £50 to anything as high as £15,000 for a single post on Instagram promoting the product. You can surely see why this area of work is growing?

What Are The Benefits for Businesses?

The ideal situation would be where a collaboration gives the business both followers and traffic which convert to sales. However, unfortunately this is never guaranteed. Whilst the blogger/influencer is guaranteed a free product or payment, the business is always taking a gamble. If a collaboration goes well, they can earn good sales - good enough to cover the costs of the post, the costs of the product and make a profit, even if it is modest. It can be an effective marketing strategy if done well.

Collaborations Aren't Always Fair

Above I have outlined the ideal situations for both influencers and businesses. However, it is incredibly common for an unfair collaboration to occur. This topic is particularly important to me as I have a blog and also run a small business.

Using the case study of the hotel vs blogger situation, the blogger had no figures to back up her hefty request and merely stated that she did wonders for another company. I honestly couldn't tell you for sure if this was a blatant lie or if she truly believed this but at least it was quite easy to read through the situation and turn it down. Either way, the blogger was asking for a lot from the business, without promising to deliver anything concrete to the business in return. As a business owner, this email would have gone straight to spam without a reply. Harsh but true. I get many requests like this daily and they don't just annoy me because they don't go into detail on how they can benefit my business. I know, this isn't the main topic of this article, but I feel it's an important lesson that I should share because I believe this practice happens too often and it's terrible.

Case Study: My Experience with Unethical Pitching Practices

The first 'pitch' I received was for a free product to be sent in exchange for a post on their Instagram feed and 'exposure' to their 5k followers as a result of the Instagram post. I was excited and accepted. The product was shipped. I lost the cost of the product and the cost of the shipping. Please remember my business is very, very small with a modest turnover so this is a reasonable amount of money for me, at this point. The 'influencer' posted on her Instagram and then 24 hours later, she removed the post. I know, I didn't specifically mention it should have stayed on for more than 24 hours but CHRIST you wouldn't think I'd have to! This demonstrates a terribly bad attitude and awful ethics, in my opinion. A deal has to work mutually for both parties. My business received no exposure as it was removed so quickly - I couldn't even find the image to repost on my own Instagram! The 'influencer' received a free product and didn't lose anything.

Now, any pitches I receive (unless they are really, really good) will go to spam. Experiences make you tough and my little business has lost too much money as a result of poor practices like this (it did happen more than once as I like to give people the benefit of the doubt) and as a result I have to conclude that most pitches are not genuine. It's sad for the blogger industry as I'm sure some are from wonderful, genuine bloggers who I could create lasting relationships with. However, it's so hard to tell the difference sometimes and my business cannot run if it doesn't make any profit so I only have one choice and that's to ignore requests.

The Problem with Fake Instagram Followers

That case study above may not seem like it's directly linked to the topic of today's article. However, I believe it is. It shows quite clearly the ethics behind some (not all) influencers. Deception. In this case, the blogger promised exposure but in the end didn't deliver. In her head she may have convinced herself that she did deliver as the post was live for a full 24 hours, but in reality, I lost money. This was a loss on a small scale but in this industry, the losses can get extortionate!

IMPORTANT: The Problem is Not Limited to Just Bloggers Behaving Badly

One of the biggest issues for me is that blogger-business relationships can be amazing both for the blogger and the business. But, a handful (well it's a lot more than that but hey) of individuals are ruining the industry by deceiving businesses to get what they want. I'm also sure that there are some businesses to are deceiving bloggers too, maybe offering to pay for a post and then never paying. This, too is awful! Bad, very bad. Shame on the bloggers and businesses who are ruining it for everyone else. I want to make money as a blogger and as a business, as do many other people, but you are spoiling it for everyone with your selfishness.

I don't have any experiences with brands behaving badly so this article will therefore focus on what influencers could do to improve their ethics. I would however love to hear if you've had any bad experiences with brands refusing to give their half of the deal. If you have an interesting story, please leave it in the comments.

Anyway, whilst it may quite clearly be wrong for someone to not deliver what was requested (ie a blog post, an Instagram post, a payment), what happens when it seems like the request was delivered? Instagram posts on a channel with fake followers. This is a massive issue for small businesses like mine.

I actually felt compelled to write this blog post because very recently I was stung by an account with fake followers and lost a lot of money (for me anyway). An influencer asked for £2k for a post on Instagram. I did my due-diligence and saw the influencer had 400k followers and received on average 100 comments per image. Sounds good, eh? I negotiated the post and we eventually settled for £800 (I got the post costs, costs of product, VAT costs, staff costs and my own wages to cover, okay? Negotiating ensures I make some money on a post so I'm able to reinvest and grow my business). Negotiating £800 from £2k may seem like a good deal. I felt like a real hustler at the time. But then the Instagram post went live.

I was sat at my computer, analysing the traffic to my website. Even with the smallest of posts for someone with let's say 70k followers (when they're real), there will be a traffic spike. There always is. I was met with... crickets. No movement, not even a pathetic waver. OK, that's strange, let's check Instagram. I normally get a spike in followers. Nothing. Not even 1 new follower since the post went live 10 minutes ago. How the heck? At that moment, I realised I'd been scammed. Yes, I'm calling it a scam. I was £800 out of pocket and had received nothing in return. £800 is a massive blow for a small company like mine. In totality, the Instagram post didn't even do a single sale. How could it? I'm convinced the followers and engagement are fake.

Fake Followers are not Just bad for Businesses

If my personal story doesn't make you question how ethical fake followers are, then perhaps this will. I will not be the only person to have fallen into the 'fake follower' trap. Many, many brands will be loosing money this way. If all the brands who work with influencers suddenly realise that they are losing money through influencer advertising, they will stop advertising this way, after all it's not sustainable for a business if they are losing money. If the brands don't work with influencers, influencers will be out of the job and that includes good, ethical influencers as it's so tricky to tell the difference sometimes, especially for brand new businesses.

I don't want Instagram marketing to get a bad name and die as when done correctly, it can be wonderful for the influencer and business involved.

What Can You Do As An Influencer/Blogger to Maintain Relationships with Businesses?

The good news is that brands are (for now) still working with influencers because there are many genuine influencers out there who offer fair deals for brands. Like I briefly touched upon, a deal has to work equally well for an influencer and brand in order for it to work. So here's how you can work successfully with brands and hopefully have them coming back for more:

1. Only Aquire Genuine Followers

'Fake followers' is a very broad term. There are so many ways to acquire non-genuine followers and I believe these are some of the most common methods: buying followers, playing the follow-unfollow game (following loads of accounts so they follow back and then unfollowing them), using apps to get followers and gaining followers via Instagram Engagement pods (yeah, I know I talked about the benefits of pods for bloggers but to gain followers via this method is a little dubious. The best way to gain followers via pods is to get your account in front of people and allow them to follow you out of choice instead of joining 'follow for follow' threads in pods). Please don't do these if you wish to increase your follower count. Growing your following organically will take a lot of time and effort but it's so worth it!

I've only got a modest following on my blogging Instagram so I'm not in a position to give advice on how to organically grow your following but I know what to avoid, especially if you want to monetise your blog and work with brands.

I cannot stress enough that if you work with a brand and give them nothing in return (no followers or traffic or sales), they will not work with you again. That's a sucky situation to be in. I'd love nothing more than to use my blog to create a lasting partnership with a brand! I mean look at GoPro for example - they keep working with the same people again and again because those influencers must be working for them. It's not too bad for the influencer either, constantly getting sent the new models of GoPro for free whilst being paid as well (I'm guessing they're getting paid but don't know for sure so don't quote me on that).

2. Don't Over-Inflate Your Prices

If you wish to monetise your blog or social media, it's so important to come up with a price that you think works for the brands you will be working with.

If you charged £500 for an Instagram posting and the brand only generated £200 worth of sales (remember that's turnover - they still have to pay the cost of the products, VAT and other costs as well), they will not work with you again. However, if you'd charged £100, it's certainly worth them considering for future. Imagine if they then booked in 6 posts at £100 each, that would be £600 in total, so more money for the blogger and a positive relationship with the brand. The brand also may renew and book in more posts.

You may think, well how can I price my social media rates fairly? Look at the engagement on your photos. Are the comments from real people who have an interest in you and your content? How many people do you think you could convert to purchase the product? There's no correct way of doing this and you may misjudge it but as you engage in more promotions, you'll get an idea for how to price your social media postings.

3. Are you Ready to Charge for Posts?

This is a great question to ask yourself. Are you ready to charge for social media or blog posts? I'm certainly not! I know that because I don't believe I have an engaged following (yet). I would never dream of charging for posts because I know my following is only small. But I may consider receiving free products soon to review on my blog (soon - not yet!). The influencer that charged me £800 per post was certainly not ready to charge for posts. In fact, I wouldn't have even sent her a product for a free review as I believe there was no engagement whatsoever.

Only you know if you are ready to charge for posts. Think to yourself, will this post benefit a brand financially? If the answer is yes, then go ahead.

There's Still Hope for Influencer/Blogger Relationships with Businesses

So far I've discussed my negative experiences as a small business with bloggers and influencers. However, I wanted you to know that it certainly isn't always negative. There are many bloggers that I have great relationships with and continue to work with. I'm also always searching for new bloggers to work with because I believe these relationships can be beneficial to both parties involved. My experiences as a small business in working with bloggers is nearly always positive and I would recommend it to other businesses - in fact, I have recommended it several times. As with everything, there's always a few individuals ruining things for everyone else. All we can do is hope that businesses get more savvy with who to work with (maybe that will be a post for another time, if anyone is interested?).

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed my post. I thought it would be interesting to write from the perspective of a small business as that's a perspective not often written about. If you do have followers via dubious methods, I hope this article has made you think a bit more about how this may not be the most ethical way to grow your own social presence. There are other disadvantages too to fake engagement and followers such as Instagram penalisation but that's not what the focus of these article is about and I'm sure you're already aware of that as it gets talked a bout a lot.

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the situation. Please comment below and join the discussion.

12 thoughts on “Influencers with Fake Instagram Followers – is it Ethical?”

  1. I totally agree on your topic. I have a love-hate relationship with instagram. Their constant change of algorithm encourage people finding dubious methods to increase their reach and engagement. I don’t defend the methods, but I understand why they emerge. Relationship must be build on trust – and as you say it must be mutual winnings.

    1. Instagram is so frustrating! I’m generally honest on Instagram but can barely scrape 500 followers despite joining way back in 2013. It is tempting to try out dubious methods and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t tested the water. I used to follow-unfollow back in the day (like 5 years ago) and am a member of several engagement groups.

      I suppose increasing your following in order to get more views and engagement naturally on your page is good but if you start advertising services without a solid following, that’s where I’d say it’s bad.

    1. It’s put me off too! I keep celebrating hitting the 500 follower mark but then suddenly drop to 490. It’s been doing this for 2 weeks now 🙈 stop taunting me you follow-unfollowers!

      Thanks so much for your comments 🙂

  2. Very thoughtful post! There are new tools coming out that are helping businesses see the authenticity of an account. If you look at socialblade you can monitor the following/unfollowing of an aacount. Typically a huge amount of followers in a day & then huge unfollowers right after is an indicator of bought followers. Plus a company named Fohr Card has created a system that’ll help scan an Instagram account to verify an authentic following! Maybe look into those to help with future collabs so you don’t lose out! Wishing you the best with influencer relationships moving forward 🙌🏽

    1. That’s so interesting – thanks so much for sharing! I’d heard of Social Blade but for some reason hadn’t thought of putting influencers in there. I just used it to check out competitors 😬 I’ll definitely check out the Fohr Card system 👍

      Thanks for your wonderful comment!

  3. Wow! This is crazy. I knew that there are accounts that do have fake followers but to think that people would use their numbers to scam businesses is so wrong.

    1. Totally! It’s a quick way to make money but won’t be sustainable. I guess they rely on new brands constantly popping up because once a brand has worked with them once, it’s unlikely they will work with them again.

  4. I often get jealous when I see someone with a three figure Instagram following! I then look at the comments or ‘likes’ and the engagement rate is easily below 1%. It becomes obvious at that point that the followers aren’t genuine; but I do wonder if businesses catch on (as you often still see the account advertising products etc.). A lot to think about as us newbies continue to grow our blogs!

    1. Thanks for your comment Scott! I know – it’s so easy to be left feeling deflated. It’s also annoying as if we do want to monetise our channels, obviously those with the huge followings will get the attention of brands as brands are often clueless to who has a genuine following and who doesn’t. I like to think I know how to spot the difference between fake and real followings but I do mess up every now and then so it’s not always super easy.

      Funnily, I turned down a blogger with a reasonably high following very recently because they were substantially out of budget for a particular project I was running. Anyway, yesterday I joined a new engagement group and what do you know, there they were joining like for like, comment for comment and follow threads 🌝

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