Following pressure from advertisers, Instagram declared war on "inauthentic" followers at the end of last year, but fresh data from social measurement company Points North Group indicates it's had little impact on some of the platform's "worst offenders".
Just two months ago, Instagram detailed plans to clamp down on any third-party apps that helped creators attain followers that might make their profile a more attractive buy for adveritsers. It promised to use AI to remove these followers and engagement from accounts that had used such services to boost their popularity.
However, Points North data has suggested that accounts with "mostly inauthentic audiences" haven't had their numbers dented by the crackdown in the month following Instagram's announcement.
Instagram has rebuffed the data, saying that since announcing its work to remove inauthentic engagement it had seen "promising results"
"This report does not reflect what we know to be true about our progress. Nobody likes receiving spammy follows, likes and comments, and we're committed to continuing to improve in this area," a spokesperson added.
'Brands should still take precautions
As part of the study, the group used its own technology to gather data on 500 influencers who showed signs of having inauthentic followers and engagement, finding there had been little to no impact on their audience figures.
Where Points North said it would expect a "comprehensive" clampdown on suspicious or bot accounts to have resulted in "double-digit percentage drops" for the panel's follower and engagement counts, the difference was "flat".
The offenders, it said, noted a combined growth in following of 1% in the month of December, against a median decline of 1%. What's more, less than 2% of influencers studied had experienced a decline in their follower list beyond 5%.
This led Points North to conclude that instead of experiencing a significant decrease in follower count, these influencers maintained a large number of bogus followers – suggesting Instagram's solution hasn't been that impactful so far.
Inauthentic engagements, which have been a big focus for Instagram, also held steady since the announcement the study found. The accounts examined noted a median decline in engagements per post of less than 1%. Half of influencers in the panel experienced a drop in engagements per post, while the other half experienced an increase.
The Drum understands since pledging action on nefarious third-party apps, Instagram's new tech has only been tested on a small subset of creators, and that will will be rolled out more broadly soon.
A source with knowledge of the matter expressed that Instagram's announcement last year was more focused on genuine accounts that use third-party services to create "inauthentic engagement" on others posts. They added that Instagram already blocks millions of fake accounts at the registration stage.
However, Sean Spielberg, chief executive of Points North, cautioned that brands who partner with Instagrammers should continue to take precautions to avoid influencer fraud.
“Companies that sell inauthentic engagements have found ways around Instagram’s checks, and continue to game the system,” he said.
Since the purge is still in early stages, and Instagram has yet to release its own numbers, this is the clearest indicator yet of how the platform's clampdown is progressing.
'Keeping up momentum'
Having called for industry to tackle this issue head on to "rebuild trust" in a space where marketers are increasingly spending their budgets, Unilever's Keith Weed is among those to have praised Instagram for taking action on follower fraud.
Speaking to The Drum last month though, he was clear this would need to be an continual focus for brands.
“If we can keep this momentum, I think this time next year the influencer marketing industry will have been transformed,” he said.
Instagram itself has expressed that these kind of measures will be "ongoing" and warned that accounts which continue to use third-party apps to grow their audience may see their app experience impacted".
Since it launched, Instagram has monitored fake accounts and removed them, but for many its latest play to extend that attention to external apps abusing its API showed it was ready to take extra steps to make sure the interactions that happen within its walls are genuine.
A recent study from the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) found that 65% of multinational brands have plans to increase their influencer investment in the coming 12 months, with Instagram being the main target.
However, figures from CampaignDeus showed that brands should spend with caution, claiming that around 12% of Instagram influencers had purchased inauthentic followers in the first six months of the year.
Previous research from Points North indicated that Ritz-Carlton was the brand most impacted by disingenuous followers, with up to 72% of the ‘people’ reached through its influencer programme outed as fake. FMCG brands including Pampers, Magnum Ice Cream and Olay had fake follower rates of 32%, 20%, and 19% respectively.
Instagram landed in hot water earlier this week after an investigation from Tech Crunch found that it was still selling ad space to services that charge clients for fake followers or that automatically follow/unfollow other people to get them to follow the client back.