You might have read about bots and bought followers on Instagram in the last few weeks – especially if you have something to do with Influencer marketing. As all the hype and buzz seems to have vanished a few weeks later I decided to share my thoughts right now, because this is a topic that everybody should be aware of. Not only influencers and marketers  (thus those should be especially taken upon their duties) but everybody who is using Instagram, no matter if you are having just a private profile or you use Instagram publicly. To understand the whole complexity of this topic I think I’d rather take a step back and explain some basic things about Instagram, influencers and stuff. If you happen to work in that field or an influencer by yourself, you may as well skip those lines.

Making money on Instagram 

I am currently self-employed as a photographer and part of my income comes via campaigns on Instagram. Many people who aren’t living in that influencer bubble keep asking me things like “Wait what, you’re making money just using Instagram?”, “How could you earn something through Instagram? Is it like on Youtube?”. Basically, yes, people with ‘huge’ followings are able to earn money using their reach on Instagram. Just like with bloggers or youtubers there are brands that invest in a campaign, paying influencers to promote their product. For example we had a campaign with Gösser just recently: The Austrian brewery invited a bunch of influencers on a snowshoeing trip to promote their latest product. Every influencer had to post 3 pictures of that trip on his Instagram and got paid for that, accordingly to his/her followers, engagement rate, picture quality and so on. With a decent following on Instagram (min. 10k) you are able to earn – I would say – from 50€ to a few thousand euros for one sponsored post on Instagram. With my almost 15k followers I am on the lower levels of the scale obviously. Additional you have to consider that not every post I or any other influencer posts on Instagram are paid. In my case it’s around 6%, so 6 of my latest 100 posts have been sponsored. Every paid post on my Instagram is visibly tagged with “#sponsored”, “#ad” or “Sponsored post.” – that’s something not many influencers do, despite required by law. Remember that every time you see an influencer promoting some kind of product or service he might get money out of it.

Screenshot of the app Instagram.

That’s how one of my sponsored posts looks like.

Screenshot of the app Instagram.

Another option: Using the #ad as label, clearly visible next to the companies hashtags.

But what do bots have to do with all of this?

First of all, I guess that around 85-95% of all Austrian “Instagram influencers” are using or at least have been using some sort of cheat programs to increase their following, likes and stuff. Before I will tell you why this is important and why this isn’t just a #firstworldproblem, I’ll introduce you to a few of those cheating tactics out there. First of all, there is the classic Follow-Unfollow-Bot. Quite easy, this software just automatically let’s your account follow a bunch of people for a few hours before unfollowing them and following the next bunch. Thus you are able to follow and unfollow hundreds of accounts every day and the chance, that somebody is following you back, is quite good. The problem is the chance that one of the people following you back is also just some kind of bot is around 90%. So almost every follower you’ll get out of this is just another bot. The whole “follow-unfollow”-idea is quite old and brings you a huge increase of likes for the time you’re using it. Most of the time the numbers radically decrease if you decide to turn it off – read more about this on this blog post of a former bot-user.
Another not-so-classy-way of increasing your likes and followers is using a like-and-comment-bot. This bot comments and likes pictures in your own account’s name, thus it looks like you are commenting and liking yourself. If you ever happen to get comments like “Great shot!”, “Awesome post”, “That is amazing” or just random emojis it’s most likely some bot comment. Another strong indicator of bot comments is that they sometimes come in without the person even liking the picture (that happens if you can’t control you bot properly, I guess). There is also some kind of apps that let you ‘buy’ likes with coins you could acquire through liking other (random) people’s pictures or by just buying them. The latest shit is so-called “comment groups” where up to 20 people connect on Facebook or some other kind of platform and promise to comment on every new picture of every other participant within the first hour. They also oblige to post comments that have a length of at least 4 words and have some kind of relevancy to the posted content. These comments are obviously impossibly to distinguish from real comments. Still, this is the same crap as using some kind of bot – you are commenting on something just because you want others to comment on your stuff. You should rather comment on things you really like. Now most of you might argue: “Why should I care about all this? It’s just some social media platform and who cares about some people using bots.”, “That’s just a first world problem, I don’t care about that”. Well, for a lot of people it’s a first world problem, but influencer marketing is growing and a lot of people – like myself – depend on it like on any other job. For those people in this industry that’s not a first world problem but rather a problem that could cause the whole idea of influencer marketing to collapse.

I just want to be a little more famous

I think that a lot of people using bots and buying followers on Instagram just do it because they want to get a little famous. Of course it’s nice to get a few more likes and have a few more followers. You don’t even have to do much and in the beginning it might even be funny. I’m sure that most of the people don’t think that they’re going to earn money with Instagram one day and that’s why they cheat. I think in most ways it’s just because of the fame. But let me explain to you why even that’s a problem. Imagine let’s say Patrick, the 16-year-old boy who’s currently in middle school and he’s shooting a few photos with his smartphone from time to time. He doesn’t invest too much time in his hobby and he’s not really interested in pictures at all, but he craves for the likes. That’s what our society is becoming more and more – and I don’t think it’s good to satisfy these demands with fake likes. Whatsoever Patrick buys a bunch of followers and likes and soon his Instagram profile gets a lot of attention. He gets some thousand likes on every picture, twenty comments telling him about his “Great work!”, people that “Love it!” and some ‘fans’ of his that think it’s an “Awesome post”. A few weeks later Patrick receives an e-mail from a quite well-known brand asking him to promote a watch on Instagram. They would send him the watch he likes for free, if the promotes it on Instagram. Why not take something for free? I mean it’s just a watch. Patrick promotes the watch and again he get’s a few likes and comments, nobody seems to care that it’s just bot commentary and nothing is real here. Let’s imagine some weeks later a brand approaches Patrick and a few other new influencers to promote their new product. They invest a lot of money because influencer marketing is the real shit right now and what do they get out of it? Nothing. All the bots liking and commenting on the posts obviously won’t buy their product or realize that there is a new product at all. If we spin this idea further you could imagine that brands won’t invest in influencer marketing anymore because they feel like it doesn’t pay off. And in the end the bot users won’t be able to make anything out of their boosted Instagram accounts in which they might have invested a whole lot of money – because they ruined the whole business. Doesn’t sound like a good plan, does it?

Tools to detect bot users

It’s quite hard to detect if somebody is using bots, but there are a few ways. First of all, there is the Instagram activity tab which you can access by swiping to the right on the notification tab. (see screenshot) You can reconstruct (a small amount) of the likes, comments and follows from people you are connected with. Sometimes you’ll notice that some users are liking quite strange pictures or videos like some small Vietnamese girl or an advertisement for fake Ray Ban glasses. That’s how you can tell that they’re currently running a bot. Another quite popular way of tracking down cheaters is socialblade.com, a service that let’s you check the progress of a user’s growth on Instagram, Twitter, Youtube or Twitch. You are able to see how many people this user is following every single day, thus is quite easy to see if somebody is using some kind of “Follow-Unfollow” routine. (see screenshot II)

A screenshot of Instagram.

The activity tab on Instagram let’s you check what the people you are following do at the moment. (This screenshot does not show any unusual activities)

A screenshot of Instagram.

Advertisement for a watch brand. Not labeled as sponsored post.

A screenshot of a socialblade.com profile.

That’s how a classic follow-unfollow statistic looks like.