Beware of Relying on Fake Social Media Followers. Ever Heard of 'Shadowbanning'?

Matt Smith

It's scarily easy to grow your numbers rapidly if you're willing to resort to fake traffic. But if you do, brace yourself for the consequences.

A few months ago, Mediakix ran an experiment by creating two new Instagram profiles, one using photos of a local model and one using stock photos. The company then filled both accounts with purchased followers, likes and comments. Before long, each account had secured paid influencer deals with brands, despite reaching a grand total of zero real people.

On the one hand, this shows how easy it is to grow your numbers rapidly if you're willing to resort to fake traffic. But on the other hand, it shows just how big the problem of bot accounts and illegitimate traffic has become for everyone involved -- marketers, brands and social media platforms.

While marketers might feel good to see their follower count rise, those who rely on empty traffic will inevitably suffer the consequences. By relying on the automation of inauthentic engagement, including automatic likes, comments, follows and unfollows, the only thing you'll gain in the long term is frustration. Here's why.

The new social media standard

Although sniffing out bot accounts remains challenging, Instagram closely monitors services that claim to help users game the system, and it punishes all those involved, users and third-party services alike. Brands that rely on spam accounts to boost followers, or even "like" other content pages to strengthen their own followings, are at risk of being shadowbanned (a Instagram penalty that makes your hashtags undiscoverable).

If that happens, targeted companies have to rebuild their pages from scratch, setting back any new engagement and potentially losing genuine legacy followers while their pages remain hidden.

Social platforms are cracking down -- and they aren't alone. Companies such as Fohr Card are moving to take the initiative. Fohr Card identifies which influencer followers are bot accounts, then reduces its fees to ensure that companies pay only for engagement with real followers.

This type of monitoring isn't new. Instagram did a major spam purge in 2014 that impacted even major brands such as Nike, National Geographic and Forever 21. That's not to say these accounts paid for followers, only that fake followers make up a larger proportion of the Instagram population than you might expect -- about 8 percent, according to a Fohr Card press release.

Some social platforms have in place plans to shut down your account f they detect fake followers. While there aren't currently any legal regulations on this issue, things could move in that direction as social platforms feel increased pressure to prove their credibility.

Even President Donald Trump, who uses his controversial Twitter account to rally political support, fell under scrutiny this summer for suspected fake followers. According to Newsweek, @realDonaldTrump received a suspicious spike in followers in May 2017, which may explain why nearly half of the president's followers appear to be bot accounts.

Three organic tactics that are tried and true

Despite the obvious drawbacks, some brands continue to drink from the well of fake engagement and continue to suffer blows for that decision. Only real followers help brands build long-lasting engagement -- not to mention the fact that only real people will spend real money with your company.

So, if you want to avoid this quagmire, there's hope; You don't have to buy followers from Russian vending machines. Thankfully, you can employ the following strategies to inspire organic engagement.

1. Send influential followers free products.

Daniel Wellington, a watch-making brand, relies exclusively on influencer marketing. It began by sending watches -- no strings attached -- to select influencers with smaller, qualified followings. The watchmaker netted a profit of more than $220 million by sticking to its influencer strategy, even when new paid options were made available by Instagram.

Nothing gets people excited like free swag. You can promote your product, grow your social accounts and inspire followers to talk about your company all at once, just by sending free products to influencers and other people with relevant (real) followings.

2. Promote seeded hashtags.

Herschel Supply Co. created the #WellTraveled hashtag to inspire users around the world to share photos of cool places. Although the company doesn't provide any consumer travel services, people love the opportunity to share their experiences with others, naturally growing a hashtag that traces back to the brand's backpacks and luggage.

So, develop a hashtag, associate it with the brand and get people talking -- even if the hashtag doesn't strictly refer to your product. Keep branded hashtags simple and catchy -- short, creative and easy-to-spell phrases work best. Once you've landed on a hashtag, apply it to a careful curation of posts so that as new followers discover it, they are exposed to a consistent style or aesthetic and start to get a sense of your brand identity.

If you already have a branded hashtag established when you send swag to influential followers, you can encourage them to use it when they post about your product. This will help your branded hashtag spread among the right circles.

3. Create Instagram Stories.

Chipotle recently achieved an astonishing 70 to 75 percent completion rate on a 100-post Instagram Story, according to AdWeek. With the promise of free queso for a year for five lucky viewers, the burrito restaurant chain incentivized viewers to work through all 100 posts, combining reach and engagement to form a highly successful campaign.

Like Snapchat Stories, Instagram Stories streamline content delivery to users, making it easy to put relevant content in front of people who are actually eager to consume it. And now that it's possible to link back to your website within Stories, they're a great tool to drive people directly to your ecommerce store. By optimizing Stories to get featured on Instagram's Explore page, you can gain even more exposure and more followers.

Growing a social media following through authentic engagement is harder than buying fake followers, but the rewards are well worth the effort. Don't take the easy way out. Not only could you get burned by platform policies, but you might also end up torching all of your past marketing efforts into dust. Use these strategies to build a sustainable following that will drive your brand's social reach to new heights.