Some of you may or may not know this, but before I moved to Bordeaux to pursue a Master's degree, I worked at a PR agency in the UK where one of my main responsibilities was to manage influencer relations. I was the point of contact for influencers, identified social media influencers for our clients and basically oversaw all aspect of influencer marketing campaigns. I interacted with influencers on a daily basis, I both sent and received pitches from bloggers all the time; and today I would love to share some of my knowledge and insights with you.

One of the biggest mistakes I sometimes notice a brand make is choosing the wrong influencers for a marketing campaign. But how do we make sure they're the right ones? Nowadays with everything that is going on in the social media world - from buying followers, likes and comments, to engagement pods - it can be difficult to tell who is real, who is fake; and in this sea of influencers, who is the perfect one for your brand.

Hopefully this article (and part II) will help make this process a little less overwhelming for you and you will know exactly what to look for.

As Instagram is one of the preferred social media channel for influencer marketing, we will focus on this platform today and explain why follower numbers is the worst way to calculate influence. It's so much more than that: it's about the audience, real engagement, genuine interest, reach and authenticity.

Here are 6 ways to spot a fake influencer:

#1 Check follower engagement

First, compare the influencer's number of followers to the average number of likes and comments they get per picture. If an account has for example 50,000 followers but is only getting 300 likes and 2 comments on their pictures, something is definitely wrong here and the influencer has probably purchased fake followers.

What is the point in working with someone who has a lot of followers, but none of these followers are actually real and engaging with the influencer?

#2 Check the quality of comments

Check out a few of the influencer's pictures and go through the comments. Forget about numbers here. 30 comments doesn't mean an engaged audience if they are not genuine and the quality isn't there.

Look out for one-word comments such as "Cool", "Nice", "Interesting" or comments that have nothing to do with the picture or caption (we've all seen that palm tree and sun emoji comment when the picture is showing someone in the snow).

If you see a spam comment here and there, it's absolutely fine as you can't prevent every spam account from commenting on your pictures - regardless of whether you bought fake engagement or not. But if most of the comments are clearly irrelevant, they are from bot accounts and the influencer probably paid for them.

#3 Analyse their growth with Social Blade

The key is to look for steady growth here. If it's steady, it's genuine. However if you notice something out of the ordinary, you know that there's something wrong with the influencer's growth strategy.

With Social Blade, you will easily be able to see if an influencer:

  • Uses the follow/unfollow technique. This is when someone follows between 50 and hundreds of people in just one day, hoping they will follow them back - only to unfollow them all at the same time a couple of days later. Yes it increases the influencer's numbers of followers because a number of them will follow the influencer back, but it's inauthentic, it doesn't help engagement at all and the influencer's credibility immediately goes down.

  • Buys fake followers. In that case you will notice an unusual, massive increase in thousands of followers in only one day. It's very easy and cheap to buy followers, anyone can do it so be very careful. And again, these 'followers' are fake and it only increases numbers. Not engagement.

#4 Engagement pods

Pods are private groups on Instagram that were first created to try and beat the Instagram algorithm by boosting a profile's engagement. How does it work? This group of 10 to 15 Instagrammers share a picture as soon as they've published one via the private group message to quickly receive engagement, and everyone else has 24 hours (sometimes less) to like it and leave a comment.

But why is it bad and how do you know someone is using this method?

This one is actually hard to spot because it's technically not spam nor artificial liking: real people are liking and commenting on someone's pictures. The problem with this is, it's still not the influencer's real audience. It feels forced as the goal here is only to increase the number of comments, not necessarily the quality; and the likes and comments aren't coming from a genuine place of interest. These people are usually not even following each other.

To figure out if an influencer is using pods (we'll name this one Influencer #1), look at their comments on not just one but several of their pictures. If you spot the same people commenting over and over again, that's when it's time to dig deeper. Click on one of these recurring people - we'll call that one Influencer #2 - and check Influencer #2's comments. If you can find the exact same 5-10 people that commented on Influencer #1's pictures, bingo! They're all helping each other and your influencer is using pods.

#5 Check their followers manually

This method can sometimes be very effective. Just head over to the influencer's page and go through their list of followers manually. If you see a huge number of people with no profile picture and no posts at all... They are likely to be fake accounts.

#6 Number of views on videos

If an influencer posted a video, checking the number of views it got can be another great way to know their reach. Instagram will show how many people watched the video, not how many people liked it! So if one of their followers watched the video, didn't take the time to like it and continued scrolling down - they still took time to view the influencer's content.

Then compare the number of views to their number of followers and likes as well. Usually the number of views is higher than their average number of likes. If it's not, you can be sure that the influencer is buying likes on their pictures. Oh and again, if they have 50,000 followers and only a couple hundreds views, something is wrong here. Anyone can buy fake likes and fake followers, but no one can't buy fake reach.

What are your thoughts on influencers who get paid for their fake audience? Do you know any other way to spot fake followers and engagement? Feel free to share your opinion and tips below!