The more Instagram followers, the better, right?
Last week, we received an email from an ‘Instagram influencer’ who wanted to write an article for our blog about the strengths of ‘influencer marketing’.
I replied to his email, requesting topic headlines and asked one of our social media guys to do a bit of digging.
What we uncovered wasn’t pretty.
We’ll come back to that shortly, but first, let’s get elbow deep in motherboards and copper wire.
Instagram is an amazing platform for brands, businesses, entrepreneurs, influencers and general users. They’ve proven it, with year-on-year growth, reaching over 1 Billion monthly active users in 2018.
As well as sharing photos, creating awareness and promoting brands/individuals, the world has realised there’s a ton of money to be made on the platform.
According to Forbes, an Instagram account with 100,000+ followers can command $5,000 per post.
$5,000 for a photo? Not bad, eh?
These numbers have created a digital gold-rush because where there’s money, there are certain to be shortcuts. In Instagram’s case, it’s bots, and they’re becoming increasingly popular.
A simple Google search for ‘buy Instagram followers’ gave us 190,000,000 results.
Given the potential rewards of growing a huge following, these services are relatively cheap too.
I researched the top ten sites selling followers (from my search results), analysed their prices and found that 500 followers can be bought for an average of £6.78.
This average price drops for larger (bulk) orders.
These offers are a tempting proposition for brands keen to improve their social proof, influencers aiming to earn serious £££ and businesses hoping to reach larger audiences…
… but, do bots actually do any of these things?
BOTS at Work
Before coming to an educated conclusion, we need to discover how Instagram BOTS work. After researching the first 3 pages of Google results, I discovered four main routes to the follower promised land:
#1: Buy Follows from Bots
The original Instagram bot. Purchasing this service immediately bags tons of followers from accounts owned by the bot company.
#2: Engagement Bots
This purchases comments and likes on your photos. Posts with high engagement rank high on the Instagram feed, and may even push you to the top of your selected hashtag categories.
This increases exposure, provides social proof and may fool users into following you.
#3: The Automatic Follow Bot
An increasingly common bot that many of you will have seen before. This service automatically follows real accounts, with the hope that they will reciprocate and follow you back.
This bot will automatically unfollow anybody who has not followed back and can be set to unfollow everyone after a certain time period has elapsed.
#4: Automatic Engagement
This service comments and likes posts on other accounts, particularly people who aren’t currently followed.
You pick out generic comments and the bot sends out thousands of comments and likes, aiming to increase exposure and gain follows as a result.
Ever seen a comment like this on your Instagram posts? This is a screenshot of a bot, loaded up with generic comments to send to unsuspecting users.
Although these are the 4 most common methods, many of them work together to achieve results.
For instance, some services offer automatic engagement and follows together, calling themselves ‘organic growing tools’ that result in ‘follows from real people’.
Spotting the Bots!
Remember the ‘Influencer’ who wanted to contribute to our blog?
Our social media manager quickly recognised his use of bots. This didn’t swing my decision about publishing a guest post though. In fact, I asked him about it, and encouraged him to write an article centered on a buyers perspective of Instagram bots…
…sadly, he still hasn’t replied. If you’re reading this (you know who you are!), please get back to us! Our audience would love to read an article about bots from your experience!
With that in mind, I asked our social media manager to list the clearest indications of bot followers, here they are:
- Accounts who constantly follow and unfollow you. Einstein Marketer’s Instagram is regularly followed and unfollowed by the same accounts 2-3 times per month.
- New accounts with less than 25 photos that were all uploaded on the same day.
- Account names that are a random collection of punctuation, letters, and numbers.
- Accounts with loads of followers and very few posts. How can 3,000 people follow somebody who has posted 10 photos?
- Users who post comments that have absolutely no relevance to the post
- Accounts with 1,000’s of likes on their photos, but 0 comment
- Accounts with large amounts of followers who look like any of the examples on this list.
- Accounts who have loads of followers with similar social metrics, i.e. all the bots have liked each other’s posts, even though they’ve hardly uploaded any posts.
See how many differences you can spot between these two ‘Instagram Profiles’:
What Does Instagram Think?
Instagram’s official line is that they have a team dedicated to identifying spam and they aren’t afraid to deactivate accounts that appear to be using bots.
This is backed up by their Community Guidelines, it states ‘Respect everyone on Instagram, don’t spam people’. Way back in 2014 they purged ‘millions’ of fake accounts to bring more authenticity to the platform.
This means that using a bot may result in your account being deactivated or suspended by the team.
Instagram has also implemented anti-spam restrictions, preventing accounts from posting the same comments over and over again, or liking too many posts in a short space of time.
But bots have found a way around this, and yet, Instagram aren’t doing anything about it.
It has never been easier to spot a bot on Instagram, but still, their dedicated team can’t seem to find them. So, what’s the problem? Are they all working blindfolded?
We don’t think so.
In fact, it’s pretty clear why they’re ignoring so many bots. Instagram is Facebook-owned, and Facebook considers engagement to be a key metric when it comes to the value of their company.
A bot which can be loaded up with 30 generic comments and distribute them far and wide around the community, isn’t actually a hinderance to Instagram. It’s dynamite.
Multiply those numbers by the popularity of Instagram bots and you’ve got an astronomical metric they don’t want to lose.
It’s in Instagram’s (and Facebook’s) interest to tell us that spamming is banned, but in reality, it’s given them growth stats they don’t want to lose…
…because let’s face it, if they wanted to ban every bot over-night, a business of their size must have the resources to do it.
Instagram Bots, Should You Go for it?
3 major contributing factors to your position on the Instagram’s newsfeed are:
- Interest: how much their AI believes you’ll like the post, depending on your interactions with similar content in the past.
- Timeliness: newer posts are prioritised over older ones.
- Relationship: how often you interact with the user who posts.
BTW: Find out exactly how the Instagram Algorithm works in How The Instagram Algorithm Works in 2019.
Engagement plays a heavy part in their ranking system too, which has spiked the popularity of automated likes and comments…
…but, there’s one big problem…
…it’s not real!
Businesses, entrepreneurs, and influencers have all seen the importance of implementing Instagram as a core social media platform. The platform has given them the tools to broaden their reach.
But reach is not real when the people on the other end have been manipulated into following or are all owned by the same people.
That makes these figures nothing more than empty numbers and vanity metrics.
Having 10,000 followers will make a good impression, but so can a mask. Digital marketing has grown to a level where businesses must be real, relatable and genuine. Paying for Instagram followers does none of these things.
Would a potential customer trust you, if they knew you’d bought their trust using social proof numbers? And, how would they feel if you started spamming them with generic emojis? How about if you constantly harassed them with FOLLOWS and UNFOLLOWS?
The problems don’t end there either…
…a hugely ballooned number of followers will affect your ability to measure the real metrics. How will you ever be able to analyse what works, and what doesn’t, without this crucial data?
Let’s suppose that my Instagram account has 300 followers, who enjoy and interact with my content. My profile is slowly growing and I’m able to see what kind of content my audience like…
…but I get impatient, buy 10,000 followers, and continue to post content. How am I going to judge what my target audience like, and what they don’t? They’ll be lost in a shroud of bought-off profiles.
A second scenario (that I’ve seen on my personal Instagram), is if I buy automated comments.
Imagine if the bot goes out and puts the comment, ‘LOVE IT!’ on a post at random, that is actually about a tearful break-up. How would I look then? What about my brand’s reputation?
It’s a shame that a social platform which appears to put users first lacks the authenticity to ban bots from their system. As marketer’s, businesses and entrepreneurs, we cannot affect that, but instead, must learn to live with it.
We should be increasingly vigilant of Instagram’s automated bots. Especially, businesses looking to invest hard-earned money into ‘influencer marketing’. Use our list of bot warning signs (earlier in this post), before investing any money!
Instead of paying for shortcuts to increase your engagement and followers, invest time, effort and testing into your Instagram strategies. Create quality and be consistent.
We are all bombarded with messages every day, and it’s important that your content cuts through the pollution and holds meaning for your audience.
Forget the bots, repetitive comments, and empty messages. Discover what your audience want and provide them with it.