If you’re trying to decide if someone is influential on social media, what’s the first criteria you’d use? Most people would say “high follower numbers.” And for some people, there is no next criteria! They figure that no matter what, if an influencer has 100K followers, then a good chunk of those 100K people will hear what they have to say.
And that would be a huge mistake.
Follower numbers are too easily faked
Follower numbers matter so little, and can be faked so easily, I now recommend they be completely disregarded when assessing the influence of any social account.
In other words, if you’re ready to hire an influencer, or invite them to your event, or cite them as an expert, and the only criteria you have for trusting their authority or popularity is their follower number, you may be about to vouch for influence they don’t actually have.
You will have used lazy logic to fall into a common trap – you don’t know why someone is popular, but the numbers suggest they have some indefinable juju, so you’re convinced. If 100K people follow them, they must be helpful, knowledgeable, or entertaining, or very savvy at social media, right?
The problem with prizing popularity
So, say you join the perceived bandwagon of a certain influencer and add your accolades (whether that’s by giving them likes, commenting on their posts, or actually hiring them to promote your business). Your patronage confers to them certain bona fides; people take your sponsorship as proof of their good qualities.
But what if they don’t really have 100K followers? What if every couple of months, they pay an overseas click farm to boost their following by having 10-20K fake accounts follow them?
What if they are just an average person, with average qualities, an average ability to make attractive Instagram photos, making statements of average value? What if their true following is no more than what you might expect for a niche market Instagram account that’s reasonably active – in other words, around 1-7K?
Then you will have essentially vouched for a liar. And if you hired them, you will have paid filet mignon prices for hamburger, or even an empty plate.
There’s nothing wrong with being average. But if an influencer demands top dollar, they should have have a true following that’s above average. If they don’t, and have actually misrepresented their numbers, that’s fraud.
We are so used to the idea that someone can be “Instagram famous” – i.e., a non-celebrity who somehow has thousands or millions of fans – that we believe it happens far more than it actually does.
Buying followers creates distrust
Faking your follower numbers seems like a victimless crime, right? But it’s not. Inflated numbers skew reality. Those with honest social media accounts who don’t know the fix is in get discouraged, because it seems like they’re doing it wrong. (Note: young girls are especially vulnerable to this.) Social media agencies, who live and die by their customer’s perception of analytics numbers, struggle to compete with follower counts that are literally unreal. And businesses who hired an influencer with fake followers do not get the spike in awareness and sales that they were expecting.
When social influence starts to look like a bunch of hooey, expect a backlash. Stories are circulating about influencers having embarrassing falls from grace. One fashion influencer with over 2M followers launched a capsule fashion line, and wasn’t even able to sell 36 t-shirts. Kim Kardashian, arguably the most recognizable influencer in the world, was paid $6 million to lend her name to an eyeglass line, which then only sold a disappointing 20,000 pieces. Other “influencers” demanded free dessert from an LA ice cream truck so often, the owner posted a sign that says INFLUENCERS PAY DOUBLE. And armchair critics use these stories to cast doubt on social media marketing in general.
Trust, but verify
Don’t give in to cynicism. Social influencer marketing can reap big rewards, but only if you hire someone with real influence. Here’s how to find them.
Check for fake followers
Use tools like SocialBlade, HypeAuditor, and FakeCheck to determine if they’ve cheated to get to high follower numbers. Here are tips for using these tools.
Look for high engagement, not high following
Anyone who’s taken the lazy way to appear fabulous is not doing the hard work of engaging with an audience (who then engage back). They will have lower than normal engagement numbers for an account their size. You want an influencer people are paying attention to. HypeAuditor can tell you whether an influencer’s engagement is relatively low or high, and takes into account Instagram’s recent algorithm changes.
Assess them outside their follower count
Do you like what they have to say? Do they appear authentic and relatable? Do their posts conform to mundane “Instagram ideal,” or are they remarkable in a way that’s appealing? If the only thing that stands out about a certain influencer is their follower count, steer clear.
Be active on social media yourself
Learn by doing, and become active on social media yourself. It will then become easier to see who is worth your attention and who is not. You won’t be so impressed by someone’s clever flat-lay photo or brilliant quote if you’ve seen it before on another account. Good content takes time and effort – cheaters skip that step.
Follower numbers: The future looks brighter
It will get harder for fakers to impress people with numbers they didn’t earn. Instagram is taking steps to hide like numbers and delete fake accounts. People who employed dirty tricks are probably going to experience a steep drop in follower numbers.
But until they do, it’s up to you to protect yourself. Do your homework, and don’t endorse large social media accounts stuffed with fake followers.
Need help finding an influencer that doesn’t fake it? Contact us.
Peggy is the founder of The Social Eye, a social media agency for optical businesses. She led social media efforts at ZEISS Vision US for 4 years, and prior to that created digital marketing for the tech and music industries. She has far too many pairs of eyeglasses, but can always find room for one more.