Every blogger wants to be the next Man Repeller or Susie Bubble— but would you buy your way to get there?
The act of paying for followers has been a relatively quiet part of the social media conversation for a few years now. Brands like Pepsi and Mercedes-Benz have been accused of inorganically beefing up their numbers, as have public figures like former presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and hip-hop mogul Sean Combs. Recently, buying followers has become so commonplace in the blogging world that those on the inside have started calling out their comrades on the dubious practice.
Over the last few months, big-name bloggers with impressive audiences like Jessica Quirk of What I Wore, Kimberly Pesch of Eat Sleep Wear, and Aimee Song of Song of Style have been called out on sites and forums for buying social media followers. Angry fans point to alleged evidence like spikes in follows and comment stats that nowhere near match bloggers' total followings. (Both Quirk and Song have denied these accusations to Racked.) In one recent incident, Rachel Parcell of Pink Peonies gained several thousand Instagram followers in a few hours, and the blogger-obsessed community of Get Off My Internets was quick to pounce.
"It's kind of depressing. You think these bloggers are famous because they work for it until you realize that it's all bought," Siel Devos, a European lifestyle blogger told Racked. Devos penned an angry post last month in which she voiced her frustration with the industry's disingenuous practices and named a few bloggers she believes buy followers. "You begin to realize after a while that it's all fake. The focus is not on fashion, it's about how they can get bigger and richer and more famous. To the blogger, it doesn't matter if it's real. The sad thing about the last few years is that it's become all about appearance."
But is there justification to the maligned but prevalent practice? Does it even help bloggers?
Why Buy Followers?
While bloggers have been buying followers on Twitter for years, paying for Instagram follows has reached a fever pitch since "Instagram is such a huge part of how popular a fashion blogger is perceived to be," explained Alice Wright, the founder of blogger forum GOMI.
With such a saturated market, it's hard for bloggers with small or even medium-sized audiences to get noticed: Plenty of would-be fashion internet stars could spend months creating new content without hitting any sort of critical mass of followers. Originality doesn't get bloggers noticed anymore—numbers do.
Dale Janee, an LA-based blogger, admitted that she and her peers feel immense pressure for their followings to be as big as those of the mega-bloggers who make millions of dollars each year off of their sites and endorsements.
"I could understand the temptation to buy followers, especially for bloggers starting out. Everyone's thought about it at some point or another," Janee said. "There's an immense pressure to get as many followers as possible, have your photos look perfect. I think I went back and forth until I looked at the original bloggers who've been doing this for years like Cupcakes and Cashmere or Atlantic Pacific, and you know they are honest and legit. There's respect that comes with that, with letting your blog get big on its own, the organic way. If people would ever find out, you would lose all credibility and that is not worth it."
Blogger Rachel Parcels of Pink Peonies has been accused of buying Instagram followers.
But for the less principled, the temptation gets even stronger when you consider how easy it is to buy followers (with just a few clicks!) and how little it costs to do so (basically pennies!). A site like Buzzoid charges as little as $3 per every 100 followers, and Hypez charges $30 for 2,500. These sites generally offer bot followers who lack engagement—something most bloggers shy away from.
Instead, many turn to more advanced services, like Buy Instagram Followers, which operates active Instagram accounts that interact with its paying customers. Its packages range from $90 for 1,000 followers to $1,350 for 15,000 followers, a small price to pay for what bloggers believe it can do for them. The business, based in the U.S. and India, has been maintaining fake but active Instagram accounts for the past two years, gaining about 10 new clients a week, one employee told Racked over email.
"Many of my clients buy followers for fame, competition, and to grow their business," a marketing associate from the company said. "They are returning customers, meaning they purchase followers on a regular basis, so it obviously works. The more active followers you have, the more exposure you are going to get."
In a rare discussion of the hush-hush practice, Dutch blogger Kirsten Jassies openly wrote about her experience buying followers, explaining she was curious to see what the consequences would be.
"Buying followers worked a little bit for my image," she explained. "Am I happy? Yes. Would I recommend this strategy? No, but I would not lie that it could work for your image."
Money and Murky Ethics
The ethical implications of buying followers are brought to the forefront when big-deal partnerships are at stake. Deceiving followers is one thing; major brands looking to invest in influential bloggers is another. Rebecca Minkoff regularly works with bloggers, and although CEO Uri Minkoff told Racked that the company analyzes bloggers' aesthetics, he admitted numbers certainly fall under scrutiny. When asked if the brand would stop working with someone if they found out that followers were bought, Minkoff was unsure and said "it would depend on the situation."
Janee, who is also a small business owner, said she understands why brands would rely on numbers when it comes to deciding which bloggers to work with and noted that it's not so simple to decipher who is authentic.
"I've seen both sides of this, as a blogger and as someone who owns a company. When I reach out to bloggers, of course I'm going to look at social media numbers. Yes, you're skeptical about fakes, but that's not on your mind," she said. "It's like plagiarizing, but in a different form. Brands pay bloggers and that money partnership is purely based on the likes and following performances. It's completely unethical."
"Those fake numbers are used by bloggers to make real money they don't deserve—income that's based on what amounts to falsified data," GOMI's Wright agreed. "Companies pay bloggers based on a perception of influence. When a company gives a blogger $50,000 to be a brand spokesblogger or for a product placement under the impression they are reaching 250,000 fans, they are being defrauded if 50% of those fans don't exist. If that sort of practice came to light in the real world, people would probably be getting sued, but since it's blogland, they seem to get away with anything."
But others in the space say the ethics are not so black and white. One LA blogger, who requested her name not be published, told Racked that buying Instagram followers helped her get her foot in the door. She bought 5,000 two years ago, and that bump got her noticed by local boutiques looking for influencers. The blogger argued that the move was not deceptive because her actual Instagram fan base, now over 40,000 strong, is authentic and what actually matters to her partner brands.
"I don't think there was anything wrong with getting a little help in the beginning," she said. "It's strange for bloggers to buy their entire following because what is the point of that? But sometimes that initial few thousand is what helps kickstart your career."
Beyond the Numbers
Ethics aside, buying social media followers leads back to a question on every Instagram users' mind: Do numbers actually matter? According to social media consultant Anita Hovey, the answer, unfortunately, is yes.
"A lot of people still think that way," Hovey said. "We've all been trying to change it around, to say that quality matters more than quantity, but there are still so many clients out there that think purely about numbers. People see their reach as a concrete number and base their judgements on that."
But others are getting savvier, looking at follower engagement and comment frequency as well. Some companies that evaluate bloggers have even created algorithms that determine a blogger's influence. Outrigger Media, which ranks top performing YouTube beauty vloggers, uses one that considers consistency, influence, and momentum.
"Straight-up views and subscriber numbers are fairly unreliable in terms of gauge of quality," Outrigger Media CEO Mike Henry explained. "The engagement ratio comes from a mix of viewers, subscribers, favorites, and share metrics. We wouldn't rank a YouTube star based off of views because it would fail consistently. If a channel had 100 million views but 95 million came from one viral video, that has nothing to do with the interest in that channel."
James Nord, co-founder of Fohr Card, a service which links fashion bloggers with brands like Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Jaguar, acknowledged that buying followers has become an increasingly popular practice among bloggers. But like Henry, he concentrates on other elements to weed out clients that aren't credible: "If a blogger were to buy followers, the interaction level we look for on our end wouldn't be there."
Ultimately, Nord said, buying followers might seem like a good idea at first, but the move hurts bloggers in the long run.
"We track followings that spike," he explained. "If we found out a community member was doing something like buying followers, we'd have them leave the service."
Stories like that of the LA blogger whose bought followers launched her career seem to be rare, with fans and brands slowly waking up to the reality of bought popularity. As Hovey echoed: "It doesn't have an actual benefit past being superficial."