The Instagram influencer market is huge. Using Instagram’s own numbers, MediaKix came to the conclusion that the influencer industry had grown to $1.7 billion. By 2020, it is projected to reach $2.3bn. But what most people don’t know is how many influencer profiles are actually automated accounts, or bots. Since companies and political campaigns spend more on influencer marketing, all of us should be aware of how automated social media accounts work. Even though we’ve seen them being used for political interference and propaganda in recent years, most notably in the 2016 US elections, these bots also have a number of far more innocent uses.
They can provide businesses with a simple way of automating the actions that they need to undertake every day to maintain their social media accounts. As they become more sophisticated, they are also able to much more accurately replicate the actions of a human user. Bots that automatically post content, follow other users, and like and share targeted content have been around for a while. The more recent innovation is bots that are able to realistically comment and reply to other users.
How Do They Work?
Bot accounts can do anything that a human user can do, and most automation tools give their users a lot of control in terms of choosing appropriate triggers and responses. The triggers and the actions that they take will vary from platform to platform. Each platform has its own set of possible user actions and is better suited to different forms of media.
In the case of Instagram, bot accounts are used to amplify content, mostly by liking and sharing it, but also by commenting on it. Bot accounts also automatically follow other users, which will often induce them to follow back. This can lead to bot accounts amassing large numbers of followers and often also sharing genuinely popular content. On paper, these popular bot accounts look indistinguishable from the profile of many other genuine human influencers.
From a digital marketing perspective, Instagram bots are potentially very powerful tools. Most marketers are beginning to view Instagram as the most important marketing platform, having overtaken Facebook in popularity among that all-important 18-35 age group. These bot accounts are far more prevalent across Instagram than most people realize, something that is a double-edged sword for digital marketers.
While bots provide digital marketers to gain more knowledge and be better than competitors, they also have to contend with the increasingly prevalent phenomenon of bot accounts gaining large numbers of followers and becoming influencers in their own right. This has led to instances where marketers have approached a popular influencer for product placement, only to pay someone who runs an automated bot account.
Instagram is by far the most important social media platform for influencer marketing. Lots of businesses are attracted to the platform for its high engagement with a young audience and visual appeal. If a business can get the right influencer to share their product with their followers, it can lead to a significant boost in brand recognition and sales. Some businesses have been able to ride the wave of influencer traffic and go from complete anonymity to doing a thriving trade. Whether this is sustainable depends on the individual business.
Detecting Automated Accounts
There are a number of ways that Instagram can detect bot accounts and a number of ways that users can know whether their followers are real users or not. The most obvious giveaway in both cases is when the accounts are repeating actions at a speed that would be impossible for a human user. Even the most frequent uploader to Instagram isn’t going to be uploading hundreds of individual photos/posts every hour.
Instagram has measures in place to deal with the most obvious cases. If an account is detected behaving in a way that is impossible for a human user, Instagram will implement a shadowban. Shadowbanned accounts can still log in and use Instagram as normal. However, nothing they do will be shared with other users, essentially making them invisible.
While automation tools are always becoming more sophisticated, they are still not able to perfectly emulate the behavior of a human. You can, therefore, spot a bot account by the fact that all of their comments and other direct interactions with other users will be very generic. Usually, they will cycle through the same stock phrases. Sometimes, they will include a hashtag, a link, or perhaps a user mention. However, they will stand out as being very artificial.
Another pretty clear indicator of a bot account is a huge follower count with little to no quality content on the account. Lots of low-quality posts or only a small number of posts at all aren’t going to attract a large following organically. Of course, quality is subjective, but trust your judgment – some things are objectively low-effort or simply unremarkable.
A common tactic that bot accounts use to generate interest for their users is to follow as many other users as possible in the hope of them following back. This will ensure that there is a large audience when the bot posts something. However, this leads to a hugely inflated follower count. An obviously overblown number of followers will discourage other accounts from following back and will also make it obvious to Instagram that the account is a bot.
If you follow an account that has just started following you and the account almost immediately unfollows you, this is a solid indicator of a bot. Some bot makers have got wise to this check and so have added a delay before they unfollow you. Check the account of anyone new who follows you instead of reflexively following them back.
A similar indicator is if after you unfollow them, they quickly start refollowing you again. Many of them are set to keep doing this until you are following them.
If their ratio of followers to accounts being followed is skewed, this is also an indicator of a bot account. This ratio can be off in either direction, although the more sophisticated automation tools will take measures to redress the balance if their ratio is off by too much.
Given how prevalent bot accounts are on Instagram, the influencer market simply can’t be trusted. Even if your influencer is really a person, the people consuming their content might not be.