Amanda Smith, known on Instagram as @wanderingggirl, has 31,000 followers. She’s posted a little over 40 times, sharing photos of her travels to beautiful locations around the world — kayaking in clear blue waters, peering out over the city of Paris, gazing onto the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. But Amanda has a secret. She doesn’t really exist.
Instead, the @wanderingggirl account was part of a months-long experiment by marketing firm Mediakix — they constructed two fake accounts and were able to turn a profit on both — to find out just how easy it is to become a fake influencer, and earn the sponsorship deals that come with being an “influencer” on Instagram. Turns out, it’s pretty easy. All you need is a couple hundred dollars in start-up cash and some decent photos. Mediakix CEO Evan Asano told Select All the firm came up with the idea last year, after noticing an Instagrammer they were planning to work with had doubled her following in just over a week. “I started to really look at it and start to wonder if she had just bought a ton of followers, which is really easy to do,” Asano said. “There’s really no way to grow that quickly in just a week-and-a-half.”
Enter @wanderingggirl and @calibeachgirl310, a.k.a. Alexa Rae, Mediakix’s second fake account. To create Rae’s account, Mediakix hired a model and shot photos on a beach in California. From there, Asano said they spent $750 buying followers and photo engagement — likes and comments — for the account. The firm only spent $300 on @wanderingggirl, and all the photos posted from that account were “free stock photos,” which anybody could get online. “We were initially cautious to just make sure that we weren’t going to get flagged by Instagram for buying followers too quickly … we were buying about a thousand followers per day,” he said. (Instagram never flagged the account.) Once the accounts reached a follower threshold, Asano said they added them to a platform that connects influencers with brands looking to do sponsored content. Both accounts were offered deals within a few weeks, totaling over $500 in both product and monetary compensation.
“Conceivably, we could have just continued to grow these accounts into the hundreds of thousands. We stopped because we couldn’t accept the offers, we didn’t want to take on any liability,” Asano said, noting the influencer market on Instagram was valued around a billion dollars this year. “We could easily have continued this and just gotten paid more and more.”
While it’s not likely that the major — think way more followers than 30,000 — influencers are gaming the system like this, Asano said “micro-influencers,” accounts between 5,000 and 100,000, are very trendy right now on Instagram. And that’s where you should be wary of this happening. “There is very significant money at stake and involved in this right now, and when you have a market with those types of dollars involved in it and the barrier to entry is really low, especially if you can buy followers, then people are going to game the system without a doubt.” Nice work, if you can trick people into getting it.