I promise this has been for science. I don’t have very many Instagram followers as it is. I have around 300, at the moment. It’s not my main platform and I don’t really try to promote my blog on it. I follow a lot of bloggers, but I don’t actively try to drive traffic from my insta to my blog. It’s essentially my personal account. When I started to learn that you could actually buy followers… I was tempted. Maybe it’s a good way to get a running start? I knew it was wrong, shady, but I wanted to learn more.
At the end of last week, when the drama started kicking off with #followersgate or whatever we’re going to call it, I decided I’d do a little test to see what the experience of buying followers is like. We all know more followers = more brand interest. While that won’t always convert to working with brands, maybe 50,000 paid-for followers can grant enough of a foothold to start relationships with brands.
Of course, I wasn’t going to buy 50,000 followers, and I certainly wasn’t buying them to feign influence. I’m not insane. I’m pretty sure going from 300 to 50,000 in a few hours, especially when I rarely post, would be… shady. But then, everything about this is shady.
I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Perhaps the followers purchased could have even contained a handful of real accounts that would become engaged with my content. Surely they wouldn’t all be bots?
Where to buy followers?
I shopped around to find somewhere I could buy followers from. There are a lot of options out there. Most of the sites have terrible grammar and spelling mistakes. I guess grammar and spelling aren’t that important when you’re into shady dealings. The people who buy followers care more for numbers and maths than literacy, anyway, I imagine.Grammar and spelling aren't that important when you’re into shady dealings. Click To Tweet
I found the perfect site. I found it through some spam comments on a Quora question that asked where the best place to buy followers was. It was recommended by about 5 spam comments, which I imagined made it the perfect place to buy my spam followers. Bingo. It looked more legitimate than the sites I was finding on my own. The site offered me the perfect package, 100 followers for $1! Working out around £0.82 for me. At 1¢ a follower, this was a bargain.
I had three conditions for this little experiment, that this particular site met:
- I had to be able to buy as few followers as possible
- They had to be as cheap as possible
- I had to be able to speak to their support beforehand, to ensure I was being promised ‘real’ followers
I had to be able to buy as few followers as possible
I didn’t want 50,000 new followers. I’d love to be that popular on Instagram, but I’m not. My content isn’t that great, I’m not a fantastic photographer, I don’t brunch often and I share pictures when I take them – sometimes multiple times a day, sometimes going a week without posting. The fact of the matter here is that I don’t deserve 50,000 followers. I haven’t earned them. I don’t want a fake following, because I want to be able to actually see and measure my own growth.
100 followers was the smallest package I could find, anywhere on the web (multiple sites offer packages of 100). For those interested, the site I bought from offered up to 100,000 followers in one purchase.
They had to be as cheap as possible
I like a bargain. I’m always skint. $1 was a good price for me. I didn’t want to commit a tonne of money to buy followers. I wanted to buy followers cheap. Most people who are buying followers will be trying to find the cheapest possible option (though probably so they can buy as many followers as possible).
I did notice most of the sites have a chat support widget in the bottom corner. This was important to me. I only wanted to buy real followers, obviously. No bots. I needed clarification from the site I was buying followers from that they would be real people. Before I made a purchase, I asked the following:
Are the followers real people?
Emphasis on people.
They affirmed that the followers were real Instagram accounts.
This isn’t a lie. The accounts are real. They have bios, profile pictures, collections of photos which do go together and have the same people in.
If I purchased 100,000 followers, would I be bombarded with them in one go?
Obviously, I wasn’t buying this many. But I wanted to know if I did, would they all follow in one rush? If so, it would suggest they weren’t real people. I was told that if I purchased this many, that the followers would begin within 48 hours, and would likely follow me in bunches.
Was there any warranty on the followers; would they replace any lost followers? Would the followers unfollow straight away?
Some sites do offer replacements for lost followers within a certain time period. Now, this is where I was completely lied to. I was told that as the followers are real accounts, they can only guarantee the initial following – not that the account would enjoy my content, therefore, continue to follow me. The accounts did all end up being bots. I have no idea why their bots would unfollow me. Probably to keep their numbers in line so they didn’t seem too dodgy.
Finally, I asked if they could give me an example of a customer.
I asked this question out of curiosity, more than anything. I didn’t want to see a sample of their customers. I explained to the chat agent that I would like to see if the followers ‘looked’ like real accounts. Again, I was told all of their followers were 100% real, but that they couldn’t give out details of their customers. This.. was what I was wanting to hear. I wanted to know the service would protect my privacy on some level. They wouldn’t give me any previous customer’s details, so this was at least one good sign.
Purchasing the Followers
I made my purchase through PayPal. It was actually the only payment platform the site offered, but for me, it was also the safest. I was actually taken offsite and to the PayPal website to complete the purchase. If anyone goes through this process, please, please do the same. Pay by credit card on the PayPal website only. Do not put your card details into one of these sites, directly. Even if they have an SSL certificate.
Early in the afternoon, I texted Aidan (aka bae) – “I have made a huge mistake”. I have follower notifications turned on for my Instagram account. I like to check people out when they follow me so I can follow back if I like their content. Suddenly, I had notification after notification. To gain 100 followers, it took about 5 minutes from when it started. It was painful to watch. I instantly regretted it. My notification feed was filled with new followers, who were clearly not interested in pictures of me or my dogs. They didn’t come in bunches. They arrived in pretty much one go. If you’d bought 50,000 or more I imagine your phone may actually explode.
The quality of followers I bought
The followers were so blatantly bots. Yeah, they were 100% real Instagram accounts. The names were real, the people in the photographs were real. But they’re not real followers. They don’t engage with you. They don’t reply if you send them a funny meme. They don’t like my cute ass dogs. They are bot accounts, which like or follow based on who else has bought followers. I noticed that a few of the bot accounts even followed each other, so the accounts following me didn’t even have 0 followers, some had thousands!
There wasn’t one new follower who was a real person.
I started to worry about my account’s integrity
I started to worry about the recent shadowbans that Instagram has been placing on accounts. I posted a picture up not long later and didn’t get as much immediate engagement as I’d been getting with previous posts. I started to freak out a little, thinking I’d been caught out. Just a note: Instagram is known to ban accounts if they find out they’ve purchased followers, as it breaks their Terms of Service.
The unfollowing – obviously
I keep track of my Instagram followers using Followers+ on my iPhone. I don’t get many followers, usually, and I try to follow people back. I check the app before bed so I can get rid of anyone who has followed then unfollowed – you know the type. Well, the same night I’d bought 100 followers, 25 of the bots unfollowed me.
By morning, it was ~55 who had unfollowed me. I headed back to the live chat to ask, why had over 50% of the followers I’d purchased, just the day before, unfollowed me? I was given the same generic answer – they only promise to give you followers, not that your feed would captivate the follower to stay. I pressed the matter.
I asked to know – how do they find people to become followers for their service? I was told that the followers are selected from Instagram for their reputations and that they had a process in place to vet their followers. When I asked how I could become a follower for them, they disconnected the chat. I haven’t been able to reconnect since.
This is more than whether buying followers is ethical. This is data theft.
I imagine, somewhere on Instagram, there are accounts with the same collections of images as my bot followers had. Some of the accounts had specific themes – food or fitness or cars. When accounts contained selfies, they were all of the same person or the same friend groups. The locations were similar. The accounts aren’t filled with random arrays of photos that don’t fit together. They flow. They flow because they’re real people’s personal photos, just not attached to the accounts they really belong to.
To what level this is identity or data theft, I don’t know, and I wouldn’t like to speculate. But after having had my Airbnb account hacked a few months back, I know from experience that finding someone else using your personal details online, your persona – is not a nice feeling. It makes you feel sick and dirty.
I felt sick and dirty knowing I’d paid for a service that was taking people’s curated Instagram collections and creating fake accounts with them. I don’t know how anyone can feel proud of a following that consists of 50,000 accounts worth of stolen data.
The blogging community’s focus so far has been on how the people buying followers are feigning their influence. They’re making themselves come off better to brands than they really are. Brands, PR and marketing teams aren’t silly, they’re savvy. They’re all about numbers, too – but the numbers that really matter. They know about engagement rates and they’ll quickly stop working with influencers who aren’t legitimately bringing enough people into their sales funnel or meeting their goals. It’s down to the ‘influencer’ if they want to lie to get freebies, whether they’re comfortable with their own lie.
But perhaps our empathy should be with the people who, most likely unknowingly, are having their faces plastered all over Instagram by bot after bot. The people who have uploaded collections of images that are taken, given a new name, and uploaded to fake accounts to fuel our obsessions with having the highest follower count.
As a final note, I’d like to add that any of the accounts that haven’t yet unfollowed me or been deleted, I have reported as spam as soon as I’ve noticed them. There’s a few still floating around (26, I believe) and I’m still going through and weeding these out. I urge you all to report any spammy accounts to instagram. You can do this by clicking the three dots at the top of the profile and choosing “report account”.
I haven’t linked to site I purchased followers from as I’d rather not be affiliated with them. If anyone would like to know, feel free to get in touch with me on social media. Thanks.