Brands Beware: How Influencers Inflate Engagement on Instagram

Marketers with an eye for ROI might want to tread carefully when working with Instagram influencers. According to Digiday, rising micro-influencers have found ways to game Instagram’s algorithm and boost their engagement stats. It’s thus becoming more difficult to tell how much engagement is genuine and how much is manufactured. 

Before engaging with an Instagram influencer, beware of these two strategies for inflating engagement.

Instagram Pods Pad Comments and Likes

Even casual Instagram users know that the more comments and likes a post has, the more likely new users will discover it through the Explore feature. This goes double for posts that are liked or commented on by someone a user already follows and trusts. Some influencers take advantage of these patterns to give their posts visibility that would not have occurred organically.

Behold Instagram ‘pods.’

A pod is a self-organized group of 15 to 30 Instagram users united by a certain topic or theme. When a pod member shares something new on the platform, everyone else in the group jumps on it to give the post some early likes and comments. Thanks to the Instagram algorithm, this action makes the post more likely to appear on the feeds of each member’s followers, amplifying the post far beyond its usual reach. 

There’s no doubting the power of the pod; a modest Instagram can jump from only a couple comments per post to a hundred after joining one. If influencers aren’t upfront with brands about their pods, however, it can cause a few problems for marketers.

Bots Create Artificial Engagement

While pods rely on human action to amplify engagement, rising influencers use bots to automate the process. 

For a paltry $10-40 a month, an influencer can purchase a bot to automate generic Instagram interactions. Some bots follow back other Instagram users and pepper their posts with likes. Others can be programmed to leave a general comment like “Awesome!” on posts with a certain hashtag. Whatever they are programmed to do, bots help users get short-term exposure. 

This automated engagement tricks the Instagram algorithm into boosting posts. Since pods are notoriously selective in their membership, bots are a cheap, hands-off alternative for micro-influencers.  

Digiday reports that bots are most helpful to small brands and influencers that are trying to grow their audience–through whatever means necessary:

Gil Eyal, CEO of influencer marketing platform Hypr, agreed that bot use is prominent mainly among small brands and influencers trying to get started on the platform because accounts with millions of followers would need a big bump in engagement for bots to make a difference, which Instagram would most likely detect. Eyal also believes using bots is a “gray hat” form of fraud because users are getting real engagement, but it’s not necessarily because people love their content.’

Why Brands Should Beware

Despite manipulating the Instagram algorithm, neither pods nor bots are inherently bad. They become a problem when influencers don’t disclose them to the brands they are working with. 

1) Sponsored posts might reach the wrong audience. Brands should research influencers and their audiences before agreeing to sponsor a post. While pods and bots put sponsored posts in front of more users, it’s not guaranteed that they stay inside that brand’s target audience. 

2) Payment for sponsored posts is tougher to calculate fairly. Brands use audience size and engagement to calculate payment. If an influencer is part of a pod and doesn’t disclose this fact, their engagement stats will look far larger than they truly are, skewing the amount their posts are worth. 

3) Pods and bots skew a brand’s data long term. Marketers rely on data to determine the success of a campaign and plan future initiatives. If marketers don’t know they’ve engaged an influencer with a pod, they might evaluate and plan their marketing campaigns using bad data.  

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