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For brands, the value of social media influencers is twofold: relevant editorial content that amplifies and endorses brand messaging and the quality and makeup of their audiences who trust their opinions.

While marketers have historically been able to scrutinize the value of content itself, the same hasn’t been true for audiences. Now, as social media platforms and other tools provide more audience data, new standards are emerging, particularly for Instagram, which accounts for a majority of influencer marketing budgets.

Today, brand marketers are determining audience value based on the following:

  • Audience Authenticity: Real followers versus “fake” followers.
  • Audience Activity: Engaged followers versus passive or non-active followers.
  • Audience Demographics: The location, age, and gender makeup of an audience.
  • Actual Reach and Impressions: The true number of followers who see influencer content.

For marketers and content creators, understanding the forces impacting this criteria and finding strategies to address them are now critical to both jobs.

#1: The Bot Problem
Bots and other kinds of fake accounts are a concern, and not just for influencers. They contribute to identity theft, fake news distribution, and a general mistrust of social media. A 2018 New York Times expose revealed just how deep the bot conundrum runs, especially with the mega-influencer or celebrity audiences that are most susceptible to bots. The industry awareness around bots has called into question what brands are actually paying for when they work with influencers.

The social platforms are starting to respond to public pressure to eradicate bots—and even Instagram recently took a stance on the issue—but it’s a problem that’s far from solved.

Off the platforms, new tools are emerging that use machine learning to identify characteristics common in fake accounts (including the ratio of followers to following, number of characters in the bio, engagement rate, posting behavior, and profile image).

With these tools, it’s becoming industry-standard to consider "bot scores"—the percentage of potential fake followers—when evaluating influencers for campaigns. Some brands are choosing to only work with influencers who have bot scores below a certain threshold.

Collectively’s approach to Instagram bots
We’ve found that most influencer audiences have some percentage of bots, whether they’ve purchased followers or not. Anyone who has an Instagram is account is susceptible. Until Instagram invests in fully eliminating these problematic accounts, the problem will persist.

It’s also important to note, that while any influencer can be affected by bots, there are still many, quality creators that have credible audiences and have been lucky enough to avoid them. Furthermore, even influencers who have been affected by bots still offer value by way of their high-quality, brand-friendly editorial content.

As an agency dedicated to data transparency, we’ve adopted a proactive approach to understanding audience makeup, and we do take "bot score" into account during the recruiting process for our campaigns.

We’ve studied thousands of influencers to determine an average, predictable bot score, and if an influencer falls outside of that average, it could affect their campaign eligibility.

What influencers can do to combat bots
Be proactive and do regular audience check-ups by going through followers lists and blocking suspicious accounts (accounts with zero posts, no profile pictures, or inactive accounts). Look for spam comments and check the accounts—if they’re suspicious, block them. Utilize services that allow you you to block inactive accounts in mass.

Most importantly, never buy followers or engagement, or use any #likeforlike or #followforfollow hashtags, as they may attract bots.

#2: The risky allure of comment and engagement pods
Used primarily on Instagram, these are private, invite-only group chats where content creators share their latest posts, and every pod member is expected to leave a relevant comment. Some pods are relatively innocuous with small groups of friends supporting one another, while others are massive, pay-to-play operations. Either way, these groups contribute to an overall lack of credibility as they inflate natural engagement numbers.

Collectively’s approach to pods
We don’t support comment or engagement pods as an authentic means to developing audiences or growing engagement.

Any tactic that inflates natural engagement can ultimately hurt influencers, given there are now tools available that make it possible to quickly see who’s liking, sharing, and commenting—allowing brands to assess how much engagement is coming from "other influencers." If a brand notices that the majority of a creator’s engagement comes from that group, they may question the actual value of the audience and the effectiveness of the content.

While comment pods can be hard to detect, Collectively takes a proactive approach to make sure our community is aware of our position and to ensure campaign engagement is generated authentically.

#3: Actual impressions vs. follower counts
In general, overall follower count as a metric is losing value. While it’s still a proxy for the number of people a creator could potentially reach, Instagram’s algorithm determines just how many people actually see a post.

The algorithm prioritizes engaging content, so the more connected and authentic an audience is, and the more the content creator understands how best to relate to them, the stronger the actual impressions will be.

Why influencers should care about actual impressions
Reporting on Instagram content is changing, and more agency partners and brands require that creators have Instagram business accounts, which provide more performance data. Further, brands are prioritizing influencers who will privately authenticate their business account to provide first-party data. With access to this data, we see brands boost influencer content more often to increase impressions on sponsored content.

Thus, switching to an Instagram business account and verifying it on Collectively’s reporting platform can increase eligibility in brand campaigns. Don’t believe the myth that switching to an Instagram business account will decrease your overall impressions—it merely provides transparency into actual impressions, which can help creators better hone in on what’s working best.

How influencers can increase their Instagram impressions

  • First, switch to an Instagram business account for full transparency into a more extensive set of performance metrics.
  • Test a paid amplification strategy (even if it’s only $2-5 per post) using Instagram’s promotion tools.
  • Use hashtags that align with the content and message of each post.
  • Focus on creating quality content and consistently learning what audiences are genuinely responding to.

In this new reality, building an authentic, active, engaged audience is tough, but not impossible. And don’t forget, we’re in this together—brands, agencies like Collectively, and influencers are facing this together. With transparency and integrity as our guide, we can navigate the new normal.

Want to chat with us about Instagram audiences? Email us.