Are your influencers inflating engagement?

Recently a question popped up in an industry group forum I belong to. One woman was asking about whether fellow industry insiders thought it was easy to tell when influencers had fake followers or not. The answers were a resounding “yes of course!” in one form or another from many people who are either influencer agents or otherwise deeply involved in influencer campaigns on a daily basis. But what about other marketers who aren’t as embedded? Is it easy for you guys to tell when a post is getting false engagement? Maybe not.

Here are some tip-offs to be on the lookout for:

Engagement Rates

This is the first big tell. The first commenter said, “some quick math to figure engagement rate in relation to followers usually answers that question for me pretty quickly.” While some influencers have outlier successes or the occasional flop post, the general rule is that influencer posts should earn somewhere around 3% average engagement.

If you see an influencer with crazy low engagement in relation to a high number of followers, it can be a sign that many of their followers are not real.

Keep in mind that “real” is a relative term here because Instagram has made some serious changes over time. As one commenter pointed out: “I was one of the first suggested users on Instagram but a lot of the users who followed me are no longer active and when Instagram changed their algorithm it really killed engagement.”

On the flip side, If you’re seeing humongous engagement rates, you may want to look closer for some of the other patterns below.

Instagram Bots

These can be as simple as tons and tons of likes (throwing that engagement rate into red flag turf) or they can be lots of useless or unrelated comments showing up in the comment threads. Instagram has been cracking down on bot activity, so this may become less and less common. Here are some examples of comments:


Influencer Pods

So, these aren’t actually fake followers. These are just groups of social creators who have a pact to work together to boost each other’s post results. They’re real people, so it’s not posts falling on deaf, robot ears. However, they may not be as receptive to branded messaging as a follower who is not incentivized through their clique loyalty to comment/like or otherwise engage. Conversely, you may think about pods as a beneficial aspect of influencer posts– the increased engagement somewhat guaranteed by the pod activity can lead to increased delivery through the algorithm. The more engagement, the more likely the post is to be seen by people outside of the pod. So this one is a tricky one… hard to say if it is definitively a “bad thing.”

Check out our “Pod at Work” diagram to see how we charted some influencer collusion going on. We won’t name names, but these comments were all screenshotted from 4 recent brand-sponsored posts on a fashion influencer’s Instagram account. As you see, the same people show up with highly brand-relevant comments.

pod at work.png

Unlike bot activity, the pod activity can feel hyper-relevant. The way that audiences naturally comment doesn’t usually include brand tags (for better or worse) so that can be a red flag for pod activity. Fellow influencers know that those brand mentions are highly coveted by the brands sponsoring their friend’s posts, so they jump in with them to help boost the post’s performance. Again, we have to question whether this activity is inherently “bad” or just something to look out for and account for as you track your campaign metrics.


This last one is pretty straightforward. Some influencers put a budget behind their branded posts to help them perform better. This is a less complicated instance, but another one that doesn’t necessarily mean “bad” behavior on the influencer’s part. If nothing else, this gets your post extra exposure for the budget you provided. One way to track whether or not this is happening in your campaign is to compare the engagement rates on several branded VS non-branded posts in the influencer’s feed. Typically you see slightly higher engagement rates on the non-branded content (this is a generalization). If you’re seeing significantly higher engagement rates on branded content without the indicators of pod activity mentioned above, your influencer may be putting a paid budget behind their branded posts.

What other trends are you seeing that make you puzzled?