With influencer marketing on the rise and social media celebrities increasingly crossing over into mainstream stardom, it comes to no surprise that buying fake followers would be a healthy market. Yet, on top of just being plain poor ethics, trading money for inflated follower counts hurts another party: any brand partnering with that "influencer".

From buying blue verification badges on Instagram and Twitter to purchasing bot followers from companies like Devumi, as first reported by The New York Times, it's clear the phonies are stronger than ever before. Lucky for the rest of us, there are ways to tell who has real followers and who doesn't.

Here are three ways to do it:

1. Look for an unusual, inconsistent spike in follower count.

Most fake follower transactions are bulk purchases, so one easy indicator of such a purchase is a unusually high spike in follower count for a user. If someone is averaging a steady increase of 30 followers per day, and one day they suddenly gain 5,000, you've got a big fat "red flag" on your hands. It could very well be this influencer purchased a lump of fake followers from a website like Devumi or Buzzoid. 

You can monitor a user's social media follower count using a tool like Social Blade. Just type in the username of the influencer you're looking for and a data table will appear with their daily increase or decrease in followers. Currently, Social Blade is only available for monitoring Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Twitch.

As a disclaimer, there are certainly exceptions to the rule here, so be sure to do your homework before jumping to conclusions. It's possible the influencer had a piece of content go viral on that respective day, that they received a shout-out from a much larger account, or something else entirely.

Final Note: Keep in mind though, there are ways to disguise unusual follower spikes. Because social media platforms themselves often identify and flag users because of follower spikes, you can also purchase fake followers that gradually trickle in day after day. This process is called "dripping followers", and it's just one Google search away thanks to shady services like Dripfollowers.com and BuyIGViews.com.

2. Know what fake accounts look like.

There are four easy markers to identify a bot from a real person:

  1. Their profiles have little to no social media activity. If the only content on a user's profile is their profile picture, more than likely, they're either a social media recluse, your great-grandpa, or a bot.
  2. Their profile picture appears fake. This one should be pretty easy to spot. When in doubt, use a Google reverse image search to see if the photo came from a real person.
  3. The content they've engaged with doesn't add up. An example of this would be a user sharing or retweeting social media posts in a number of different languages.
  4. Following a suspicious amount of people. If a user who has 300 followers is following 20,000 people, you should take a closer look into their account to see whether or not they're legitimate.

3. Watch for an extremely high follower count and extremely low engagement.

If an influencer is receiving a suspiciously low rate of engagement across their social media posts, having fake followers could be the culprit. If a user has one million Twitter followers, yet they struggle to drive a handful of retweets, it's time to examine their profile more closely.

Here, the most important metric to look at is number of comments. It's easy for a hacker to write a string of code to trigger a bot to like a post, but it's a lot harder for that bot to thoughtfully comment on a post.

Here's some Instagram data around typical engagement rates for your reference.

In 2016, Markerly conducted an analysis of over two million Instagram influencers and found those with less than 1,000 followers typically see an eight percent engagement rate, those with 1,000 to 10,000 followers see a four percent rate, and those between one million and 10 million see a rate of 1.7 percent.

Of course, engagement rates vary from platform to platform, and there are always exceptions to every rule, so use your best judgment here.

It's no secret the social media landscape has a seedy underbelly. If you're a brand looking to dive into influencer marketing, one of the easiest ways to avoid getting duped is knowing how to spot fake followers.

If you can do so effectively, your on your way to partnering with valuable ambassadors for your business. Best of luck.