Surprise! Follower numbers don’t matter

Surprise! Follower numbers don't matter

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?

Not necessarily.

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.

How to find an influencer to promote your business

Have you been thinking of hiring an Instagram influencer to promote your optical business? You’re not alone. The use of influencers is on the rise. But in order to get your money’s worth, you can’t just find an influencer, you need to carefully vet them. Just checking their follower count is not enough!

What is an influencer?

It’s someone who isn’t exactly famous, but has an impressive number of followers. Their photos are well-lit and professional, they’re doing fabulous things in fabulous places, and they strike a balance between perfection and relatability. Their captions often sport the hashtags #ad and #sponsored, because companies and businesses pay them to promote products and services. They may be well-known within a niche, like fitness, gaming, beauty, or eyewear.

Forbes estimates that the influencer market will hit $2 billion this year. And RetailDive found that 70% of millennials have a strong preference for recommendations from non-celebrity blogger peers.

Finding influencers by hashtag

Find an influencer with real influence

A recommendation from a credible influencer with a trusted voice can be absolute gold for your business. Hallmarks of a good influencer include a large following, in the tens or hundreds of thousands, or even the low millions. They engage regularly with that audience, commenting and liking often, and getting tons of engagement in return. They post often, usually daily.

But there’s a dirty little secret you should know. For every legit influencer, there are a thousand pretenders, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. Some are attracted to the idea of getting rich quick by posting pictures of themselves. Others take a shortcut from the daily slog of engaging with people online, and simply buy followers to look popular. They don’t have the time, patience, or know-how to build a community, but they want the rewards. It’s this frivolous, “pretend job” image that gives influencers a bad name and makes them a target for late-night comics.


But don’t laugh! An influencer that your audience believes in and finds appealing can direct a lot of eyeballs toward your business.

The question is, how can you find an influencer who is really influential, and has the audience that you’d like to reach?

Here are the steps I use to find the right influencers for my clients. You can do it, too – it just requires some homework.

Step 1: Start with hashtags

Using Instagram’s search function, find 5-10 hashtags that make sense for your audience. If you’re a local business, start with your city name (like #scottsdale). If that hashtag has more than 1 million posts, look for variants (#scottsdaleaz, #scottsdalearizona, #absolutelyscottsdale). Also try narrowing down to your neighborhood (#northscottsdale). As you type into the search bar, Instagram will show a list of related hashtags, so be sure to browse that.

Local hashtags will help you find an influencer with local pull

Avoid hashtags that are too broad, especially if you’re a local practice or optical shop. You want an influencer who’s going to come to your shop, interact with you, and make custom content. A hashtag like #eyewear (4.3M posts) will bring you top posts from frame brands, your competitors, practices in other cities or countries, influencers who aren’t local to you, and even online eyeglass stores. None of these are useful for promoting a local business.

Now that you have a list of relevant hashtags, look at the top 9 posts for each one.  A really influential post should be in the thousands of likes, or at least the high hundreds. It should also have dozens of comments, which are an even better measure of true engagement than likes.

Put the authors of these top posts on your list.

Step 2: Narrow your influencer list

Look at each influencer. Do they fit the bill for you? Are they the right age (i.e., old enough to manage their own eyecare), in the right location, have the right attitude? Do they wear glasses or sunglasses? If you want more kids and families in your practice, pick an influencer who’s a mom or dad. If your shop’s brand is luxury, pick a high-end fashion blogger. If you’re trying to attract a population of nearby tech workers, look for a hot nerd. Get the picture? You want to show that the kind of person who gets their eyeglasses from you is someone your target audience wants to be.

Whittle your list down accordingly. But don’t strike someone from your list if their follower number is only 1K-5K. Those are called “microinfluencers,” and 10 of them can be more effective than one influencer. They also cost less!

Step 3: Weed out the fakers

A sad fact of modern life is that many people buy followers. The follower number is a vanity metric that, if artificially inflated, makes people look more important and influential than they are. And those who have bought followers are not going to help you one bit to spread the word about your business. The followers they purchased are “dead accounts,” dummy profiles with little to no activity that are churned out by the thousands, usually overseas. Here’s an example of a “click farm” in China, where 10,000 phones have been automated to like and follow 24×7:

Buying likes and followers is incredibly cheap. Click farms are usually located in developing countries, use child labor, and pay their workers pennies. Using click farms is not just social media fraud that undermines trust in social platforms, it’s a terrible thing to support.

An influencer with a high number of dead accounts following them is basically sending your message to a rack of robot phones like this. What you want is a trusted voice who speaks influentially to exactly the audience you want to bring into your business.

Now, everyone has some fake accounts following them – even you. But an influencer who buys followers has them in large numbers. Fake accounts might actually be the majority of their followers.

So how can you tell if an influencer has bought their followers? There are a few methods.

Use SocialBlade to find unexplained follower spikes

SocialBlade will show you, for free, the last 14 days of follower/following/media activity for any Instagram account (or 30 days on the SocialBlade phone app).

A normal pattern for an account who doesn’t buy followers is a slow and steady rise over time.

Normal growth pattern for an influencer
Normal follower growth for an influencer

A user who buys followers will show a sudden, abnormal burst of hundreds or thousands of followers added in one day. If this miracle can’t be explained by actual account activity – they had no posts that day, they didn’t do a bunch of following themselves, and they weren’t in the news for sleeping with a Kardashian’s boyfriend
– then they likely bought those followers.

Unexplained spikes in influencer follower growth indicates buying followers
Sudden, large spikes in follower growth usually means an influencer has bought followers

Now, a spike of about 250 new followers doesn’t seem like much. But if someone buys 250 followers a week for a year, suddenly they have 13,000 followers – and a saleable position as an influencer.

If you ignore the bought followers and look at the normal activity for this user, they’re really at -23 followers for this two-week period – so their influence is actually flat or declining slightly.

If you see unusual spikes like this in a user’s profile, take them off your influencer list.

Use HypeAuditor to assess their audience

An audience assessment will not only reveal suspicious account activity, it will tell you whether the audience they have is the audience you want.

For instance, if you’re an eyecare practice in New Jersey, you probably want to target women 35 and up, and both genders 45 and up, in your state. (Women tend to be the health managers of their families, so targeting a mom brings you sales for her, her spouse, and any kids. Presbyopes spend more on their glasses and aren’t well-serviced by online stores.) Given that, the following HypeAudit report on an influencer would be pretty disappointing:

Don't hire an influencer that doesn't speak the audience you want

Is this account from someone in Turkey? Nope, it’s a US account, and the user posts in English. But they likely buy followers from someone in Turkey – and apparently Nigeria, Yemen, and Azerbaijan. This is all you can conclude if they have high followings there, but no natural connection to any of these countries.

You can also see the primary language spoken by their audience. If you’re marketing in English, and only 34% of their audience would understand the message, then this influencer is not a match.

Don't hire an influencer whose followers don't speak your language

HypeAuditor also tells you what you should pay per post for an audited influencer, based on market prices. This gives you leg up in negotiations.

Know estimated post prices before you hire an influencer

HypeAuditor is free to analyze one user, and $99 to analyze the next 10. Save $100 in your price negotiations and it’s paid for itself!

UPDATE: Use my code PEGGY43 and get 3 HypeAuditor credits for free.

If an influencer’s audience looks bought, or just isn’t what you’re trying to target, take them off your list.

Detect real engagement with FakeCheck

FakeCheck very smartly compares an account’s likes and comments numbers to others of their size to detect real engagement. See, you can buy followers, and you can even buy post likes, but you can’t really buy comments for your own posts. So any comments are likely coming from real users.

With this account, comments only appear 29% as often as is common for an account of their size. So you should drop your engagement expectations by about 70%.

Find out their true engagement numbers before you hire an influencer
Low comments indicate low engagement and possible suspicious follows.

Small variations of 5-15% from normal are likely not a sign of anything fishy. But 70% off? Something’s not right. Take this influencer off your list.

I found some great influencers! What’s next?

Okay, now you’ve weeded out the fakers and found accounts local to your business that have real influence. How do you enlist them as influencers? And how can you make sure they do what you ask them to do?

Read about that in my next blog post, where I show you what’s next after you find an influencer: how to reach out to them, what to ask for, how to get it in writing, and what you can expect to pay.

Want help to find an influencer and run an influencer campaign? Contact us.

Got questions? Ask me in the comments!