If Instagram followers are the new currency, then this is a story about people who print fake money.
Today, you can create an Instagram account in a matter of seconds, and months later have amassed close to a million followers and be landing sponsor deals and free meals left, right and centre.
Running a restaurant in 2017 involves receiving endless requests from so-called influencers. An influencer is someone who uses their personal clout to convince friends and followers to buy things so they can be more like them. Imagine telling your friend they should really eat choco pops because you eat choco pops and you love them – and then being paid by choco pops to say this. That’s how some influencers turn this into business.
There are plenty of influencers who have a genuine million-something audience on social media; their recommendations are trusted and powerful. But the widespread desire to live the influencer lifestyle has also caused Instagram to flood with people who will go to any lengths to convince us of their influence. Inviting a truly influential and relevant person to dine at your restaurant could bring you plenty of new customers, but making the wrong decision will likely cost you valuable time and money.
I recently started managing social media for Restaurant Brace in Copenhagen. It's a fairly high-end Italian/Nordic restaurant, where the full experience with wine pairing costs 1500 DKK ($238). I got incredibly excited when I saw that the restaurant had been tagged in an Instagram post by someone with more than 450,000 followers. I was curious as to how on earth such an influential foodie had found out about the restaurant, so I had a little snoop.
The person managing the account had written to the restaurant some weeks before I took over the social media, proposing that he/she, and three of their influencer friends could offer exposure to more than one million people (all of their accounts' followers combined), in exchange for a free meal. An impressive group of foodie friends who eat out together, you might think.
But then I took a closer look. Their Instagram posts are almost identical. They consist almost entirely of regrammed photos and videos from other popular food accounts such as @buzzfeedtasty and @lefooding. The captions are generic and always appended with "Do you like food? Follow, follow. Double tap if you like this. Turn on post notifications.
As an Instagram addict who has been involved in the Copenhagen food scene for several years, I was surprised that I had never come across these seemingly huge Instagrammers before, online or in real life. Scrolling to the bottom of the profiles revealed that none of them had existed for more than than eight months. Yet somehow, in this time, they had gained up to 700,000 followers. Say what you like about internet virality, but this is not organic growth. Genuine audiences of this proportion take years to build.
Unfortunately, the influencers dining at Brace was not a one-off. There are thousands of accounts like this out there – in Denmark and beyond – with mammoth followings that have apparently sprung out of nowhere.
How do fake accounts grow so quickly? The most obvious, albeit expensive, method is to purchase followers, likes and comments, to make yourself appear popular. Websites such as buysocialmediamarketing.com own millions of Instagram accounts that they can program to follow, like and comment generic things like "Nice!", "" or "@otherfakeinstagramaccount". 50,000 'premium quality followers' will cost you about 1895 DKK ($300). You can also boost your Instagram followers and engagement artificially by joining a "pod". This is a network of huge, similar Instagram accounts that collude to regram, comment on and like each other's photos to increase their reach.
Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that Instagram will ever fully be able to control the kind of spam so prevalent on their platform. Whenever they are successful in closing down such a service, 20 more seem to materialise in its place. These services are thriving, and fake influencers are too.
I spoke to Bob Gilbreath, CEO at Ahalogy - one of the influencer middleman companies who pay influencers based on the quality of content they make, rather than the amount of followers they have. Of such shady Instagram tactics, Bob says that “It's a bit like steroids in the Olympics. Many of these people are passionate creators, and they're seeing the influencer lifestyle as an amazing way to pursue their dream.
The problem is that most brands are paying influencers based on their follower count, so now even the genuine influencers - like with the drugs in sports - see these fake accounts with more followers than them, and feel like they have to do it too, to keep up. There's nobody checking it or policing it, and so there's a lot of really good authentic people that are now like "I guess I have to do the pod thing" or I need to spend money, or do other gimmicky things to try and drive up their follower base.”
He continues: “The platforms hate it. On Instagram alone influencer marketing is a billion dollar industry, and Instagram don’t see a penny of it. They’re also bound to be worried about the user experience - if the users of Instagram think ‘this is all fake crap’, then people will stop trusting all the authentic content, and stop using the platform.”
For those on the other side - restaurants, brands, and the average diner trying to make an informed decision about how to spend their money - how can you tell if an influencer is genuine or not? The numbers are the same and, at first glance, the content is too. You might think that any Instagram account with nearly a million followers is good marketing, because of the sheer amount of people they reach. But what if all their followers are bots, or if they all live in Bangkok and your restaurant is in Copenhagen?
As far as I can tell, this seemed to be the case with the influencers who dined at Brace. Despite receiving exposure to “one million people”, the restaurant didn’t see a single follower hop over to its own Instagram account, let alone any obvious increase in bookings.
I asked around to see if others in the restaurant industry had experienced something similar. I spoke to at least 10 restaurants in Copenhagen who say they receive a lot of requests, not only from individual influencers, but also from "networks" who offer the combined influencer services of several accounts.
The hyped places in town - the ones influencers really want to show they’ve eaten at – whether they sell burgers og Michelin tasting menus - are highly targeted. Klaus Wittrup, owner of the burger restaurant Gasoline Grill, says "the bloggers or influencers who write to me usually try to offer an exchange. They don't ask for money, just free food. I have no problem with occasionally giving away a free burger, if I meet a blogger or influencer at Gasoline and talk to them, but I don't want it to be the reason they visit us.”
Several restaurants in Copenhagen, including Slurp and Amass, have a policy of saying no to any kind of influencer or journalist who requests a free meal in exchange for publicity.
Simon Hamacher, the restaurant manager at Slurp Ramen Joint, says it’s more of a matter of principle. “We see ourselves as a fast casual place where it is difficult to adopt this VIP attitude. If influencers would get the free food, they'd probably also expect to skip the line etc. and that's not really the spirit of a ramen shop.” For Louise Walter - managing director at Amass - it’s as simple as this: "How can a mention or a review be completely objective unless it's paid for?"
Perhaps this is the only policy that really works - simply trusting in the quality of your product to market itself, and trusting that the really influential people will want it enough to pay for it.
No amount of robots or artificially boosted followers can rival that.