9 reasons why not all influencer engagement is created equal

As engagement replaces audience reach as a key compensation metric within influencer marketing we offer 9 reasons why not all influencer engagement is created equal.

Social media influencers who hack the system with fake engagement are increasingly being called out. The New York Times ran an exhaustively-researched report earlier this year exposing Devumi, a US company which has in the past sold followers and engagement to personalities on both sides of the Pond.

The NYT feature story is just one of an increasingly vocal media calling out people who want to appear more popular or exert influence online by cheating the system. Digiday wrote about the issue in August 2017 and again in November. The Drum has covered how cosmetic brand, Sephora, handles fake influencers in December 2017.

Identifying accurate influencer engagement rates is an important issue for the discipline. The reasons why not all influencer engagement is created equal can be divided in two:

Deliberate ‘fraud’; buying engagement or colluding with other Instagram users.

Lack of expertise or access to data on the influencer marketer’s part.

Influencer fraud and collusion

It’s easy to artificially inflate your Instagram engagement rates. At first glance this looks impressive. But it doesn’t indicate that your content actually has any impact. There are four main ways unscrupulous Instagram users bloat their engagement:

(1) Buying engagement

Instagram has started to cleanse the photo and video sharing platform of fake engagement marketplaces. There remain many places online where you can buy thousands of likes and video views for a few dollars, however.

Buying 10,000 Instagram likes will set you back $30. Whilst paying for 10,000 Instagram video views will cost you $35.

(2) #like4like

Since Instagram tweaked its algorithm back in June 2016 to favour engagement over chronological order users have looked for other ways to ensure their posts attract more views.

The #like4like hashtag was formed as a way to game the algorithm. Similar to the #follow4follow hashtag marking a post with the hashtag #like4like signals to other users that you offer a reciprocal agreement - liking anyone’s post who likes yours, first.

(3) Instapods

Instapods are self-organised groups of 10 to 15 Instagrammers. Their aim: to improve the engagement on pod members’ posts. Each time a pod member posts to Instagram, that person will share the post with the pod via a private direct message. Everyone in the pod then engages with the post - liking and commenting on it.

Their endgame is to hack Instagram’s algorithm; tricking it into believing the posts are interesting to others and therefore worth showing up in wider streams.

(4) Outsource engagement to a bot

Some Instagram users opt to outsource all of their outbound engagement to bots. The automation software trawls through Instagram posts leaving generic comments and ‘auto liking’ posts in the expectation that, like the #like4like hashtag, the user receiving the engagement will reciprocate in kind.

Influencer engagement rates skewed through lack of data

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Of course, not all engagement is fake, bought or colluded engagement. Influencers are influential because of their ability to nudge their following into taking action. Influencer engagement rates are (usually) calculated as the sum of engagements divided by the follower count. These numbers are often problematic for the following reasons:

(5) Combining organic & sponsored content engagement

Often an influencer’s organic content produces higher engagement rates than her sponsored content. Here influencer marketers inflate the average influencer engagement rate when they combine editorial and sponsored content.

(6) Insufficient sample size

It is tempting to limit the sample size to the last couple of months when working out an engagement rate for an influencer. Averages over a handful of posts will usually be insufficient to provide a robust, defensible engagement rate, though.

(7) Rising reach might mean skewed rates

Success breeds success. If an influencer appears at a popular event it’s likely she will benefit from a sudden upsurge in followers. This might be counter productive in terms of engagement rates, however. If engagement numbers remain constant whilst her audience grows the engagement rate will show a decline for the influencer.

Likewise, if you calculate engagement rates on posts a few weeks or months old based on today’s follower count, these will be deflated if their account size has grown.

RELATED: Influencer pricing: size over substance?

(8) Treating engagement rates across all verticals the same

Not all verticals within Instagram elicit similar engagement rate levels. Influencer performance varies across verticals and sub-verticals. The Beauty vertical, for example, is the second most prevalent on Instagram. It represents 22% of sponsored influencer content. The average engagement rate on these posts is 2.7%, however. This is around 16% lower than Fashion & Style - the best performing vertical.

RELATED: Influencing Instagram: the data behind the Beauty vertical

(9) Popular posts mask poor engagement

An engagement rate is a crude (mean) average. It can become inflated by a few very popular posts and may not give a realistic forecast of what sort of future engagement rate the influencer is likely to achieve on a new campaign.

Understanding meaningful influencer engagement rates

Increasingly influencers are being compensated for their brand sponsored work based on engagement. This new compensation model provides an incentive to artificially inflate engagement metrics by purchasing likes, and comments.

Annual Influencer marketing spend on Instagram now stands at the $1 billion mark. With increased influencer marketing spend comes a greater need to demonstrate valued return on investment (ROI).

Accurate data and robust, independent campaign performance evaluation, along with industry benchmarking, will become a fundamental part of the influencer marketing campaign planning process.

CampaignDeus works with Brands & Agencies to help them optimise their influencer campaign planning. Our platform provides clients with unbiased data, enabling them to choose the right influencers, guide pricing decisions and work with them effectively.


CampaignDeus is the leading independent provider of influencer marketing campaign data for Instagram and YouTube. Our platform identifies and classifies brand sponsored influencer campaign performance metrics, tracking hundreds of thousands of posts.

We use this data to provide Brands & Agencies with industry insights across verticals, benchmark campaigns against vertical & competitor averages, and equip clients with in-depth reporting and recommendations on how to make campaigns more effective. Get in touch for more details.


Scott Guthrie works with companies to drive business growth in the social age through strategic insight and technical know-how. A former digital director of influencer relations at Ketchum, Scott is now an advisor at CampaignDeus. You can find Scott on LinkedIn and Twitter, or on his blog.