Some influencers are gaming influencer marketing. But only because brands and creative agencies allow them to. Here's how to stop the practice.


When I was 11 my grandparents took me to the London Palladium to see Barnum - the eponymous story of American circus magnet, P.T Barnum.

We sat in the stalls. Michael Crawford walked the tightrope above our heads. It was a spectacular. But what I really remember about the evening was one song. Particularly a line from its chorus: “There’s a sucker born every minute … and I’m referring to the minute you were born.”

The line came back to me today whilst I was thinking about the potential crossroads for influencer marketing: bright future or a slip into irrelevance.

Influencer marketing has a long, bright and profitable future ahead. But, the industry needs to mature. Its adopters need to be clear about what they’re trying to achieve through the discipline and how they intend to measure results. Faux influencers (inFAUXincers) need to be weeded out of relevance.

How did we get to this point?

Gaming influencer marketing on Instagram

Gaming influencer marketing through fake follower numbers

If brands continue to place so much weight on influencers’ follower numbers it’s small wonder there will be those who seek to game the system.

Unscrupulous influencers game their reach with bots automatically following other users one day  - then unfollowing them the next. They game the reach through buying fake users. They game it with ‘follow-for-follow’ tactics.

Then, one day, brands and marketeers have an epiphany. An epiphany helped by Instagram’s change in algorithm. Suddenly it’s not JUST about reach. It’s about engagement, too.

So, influencers start to game the level of engagement on their posts. Unethical influencers game engagement with click farms, they game engagement via Insta pods.

Insta pods as influencer marketing engagement machines

Insta pods 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.

Paying for Instagram account verification

Beyond gaming reach and engagement some influencers are attempting to buy credibility. “It's not currently possible to request or purchase a verified badge” according to Instagram’s help section. Mashable, the digital media site, reports, however, that there’s a healthy black market where people pay thousands of dollars for Instagram verification.

Gaining verification gives influencers an elevated status, putting them on the VIP side of the velvet rope. Verification signals their Instagram popularity, making them more attractive to brands and influencer marketers.


Before damning influencer marketing; take a breath. Gaming the system is not new. Before Insta pods, bots and fake accounts for purchase there was Social Chain’s ThunderClap.

Social Chain, the social media marketing agency, has access to hundreds of large social communities that cover varying interests from movies and sports, to fashion to fitness. Working with a large network of influencers, the team takes a product or service or event and talk about it across all of these communities and influencers at the same time," in one blast". This is their ThunderClap.

Back-scratching with Triberr

Before ThunderClap came Triberr the mutual back-scratching social network for content creators founded in 2011. The concept: find other bloggers who write about the same topics. Coalesce these writers into a tribe. Whenever one blogger writes a post, the others read, comment and share the content with their social networks.

It’s all-too-easy to dismiss influencer marketing because of a few less-than-ethical influencers and marketers. But, exploiting ‘the system’ is not unique to influencer marketing. There will always be those who work at the edges of acceptability in any walk-of-life.

Take accountancy - more specifically tax planning - a profession seemingly as far-removed from influencer marketing as is possible.

Tax evasion is illegal whilst tax avoidance is legally exploiting the tax system to reduce current or future tax liabilities by means not intended by parliament. Legal - though ethically questionable.

Tolley’s Yellow Tax Handbook - the bible for UK accountants, runs to a 15,500 pages over six volumes. It explains the intricacies of the UK tax system. Each new edition gets longer as parliament seeks to close loopholes and remove wriggle-room of interpretation. Whilst those practicing in the hinterland of acceptability seek to hack the system - hunting out and exploiting new loopholes.

Better education for brands on influencer marketing

Fundamentally, influencers game their reach and engagement because marketers do not fully understand the concept of influencer marketing over influencer advertising. 

Or, cynically, marketers do understand the difference between influencer marketing and influencer advertising and are turning a Nelsonian eye because reach & engagement metrics are straightforward to measure and report. And, hey, if the metrics for this campaign don’t look good, you can always amp them with some additional paid promotion.

I’m not suggesting that the discipline of influencer marketing requires 15.5k of pages to describe its intricacies. I am suggesting that influencer marketers should better understand how to set objectives and know how to measure the results of their their campaigns.

I am suggesting that brands should not trust blindly in the middle-men creative agencies but learn to demand better metrics from their influencer marketing campaigns.

And finally, I am suggesting that if influencers want to enjoy long, careers as influencers they need to work honestly and ethically.

Scott Guthrie is a professional adviser within the influencer marketing industry. He is an event speaker, university guest lecturer, media commentator on influencer marketing and active blogger. He works with brands, agencies and platforms to achieve meaningful results from influencer marketing. That tells you something about him but it's not giving you a lot of detail, is it? So, read more here.

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