Everyone buys Instagram followers, it seems like.
In August 2019, the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance ran a long list of famous people through an Instagram audit, and it turns out that everyone from Ellen to Taylor to Ariana has an outrageous percentage of fake Instagram followers—49% fake, 46%, and 46%, respectively.
Granted, Ms. Swift is probably not buying those Instagram followers. There are plenty of bots who follow big name users to attract other (hopefully real) users—and make themselves look more legitimate (a 0 follower count is your #1 red flag). Instagram also usually suggests big names to new users, as it doesn’t yet know much about new users’ preferences.
But that doesn’t faze smaller brands or newer influencers like (spoiler alert) Caroline Calloway, who recently admitted to buying tens of thousands of followers back when she was just starting out. (Reader, I gasped.)
The idea that you must have a certain number of followers to be taken seriously—especially as you get your brand up and running—has been floating around for years. Vanity metrics are all about appearances, after all.
But we wanted to test this particular shortcut out for ourselves.
So I bought some Instagram followers for my niece, Rosie, who is a burgeoning dog influencer. (Ok, ok, I admit: this is actually just an account where I stalk my friend’s dog.)
That face deserves more love. In order to get it, I used two different online services to buy 1,000 followers. I wouldn’t say ‘love’ was the result. In the past few years Instagram has cracked down so hard on fake and scammy practices that buying followers is easy, but also kind of dingy, hollow and… embarrassingly obvious.
Allow me to walk you through the whole experiment.
Bonus: Download a free checklist that reveals the exact steps a lifestyle photographer used to grow from 0 to 600,000 followers on Instagram with no budget and no expensive gear.
How to buy Instagram followers
Look for a reputable supplier
Surprisingly, buying Instagram followers has become less straightforward than it once was.
Why? Because back in 2018, Instagram started cracking down on practices that oppose its terms of service. That includes fraudulent third-party apps, fake followers, and bots.
On top of that, brands are really starting to care about the $1.3 billion they’re going to lose because of fake followers on Instagram. Brands don’t want their marketing dollars targeting shell accounts, so they’ve been demanding increased accountability from influencers.
As a result, third-party auditing and vetting tools are getting increasingly popular. And with all this pressure, some of the big vendors I checked out first for my experiment had already gone belly-up.
On the whole, researching places to buy Instagram followers is a murky rabbithole of unnerving websites with dubious security, logic, and copy-editing. There are dozens of services to choose from. Would you like “to possess the capability to do wonders to your small business”? Or perhaps you prefer the “100% organic” option? (I don’t know what that means.)
Unfortunately, my first choice—Dries Depoorter’s “Quick Fix,” which is an actual physical vending machine that lets you buy followers with coins—was not a viable option. (Hootsuite declined to fly me to a hipster art festival in Helsinki to try it out.)
So, in the end, I chose two services, StormLikes and Mr. Insta.
Choose whether to buy fake followers in bulk, or subscribe to a drip
Because Instagram auditors—the software that brands use to catch fake accounts—often look for spikes and jags in follower acquisition, you can now pay to get followers at a less suspicious rate of growth.
The followers, of course, still look mighty suspicious:
I decided to go with the bulk option, because I imagined that getting ahold of customer service in order to cancel the monthly charge on my credit card might be… tough.
Type in your Instagram handle
Now that Instagram’s eradicated third-party apps, the process for buying followers is more streamlined. No need to download an app and hand over your account details.
This makes things easy for those who insist on buying fake followers, given that Instagram monitors any user accounts that consort with creepy third-party apps, and has threatened to punish those accounts.
Bonus: Download a free checklist that reveals the exact steps a lifestyle photographer used to grow from 0 to 600,000 followers on Instagram with no budget and no expensive gear.Get the free checklist right now!
Of course, buying followers is against Instagram’s terms of service whether you use an app, a website, or a Finnish vending machine.
Despite this, the companies selling them still love to claim they do it in the “utmost safest manner that does not break any rules with Instagram.” (This is a lie.)
Pay for your followers
The last time Hootsuite conducted this experiment—way back in 2017!—someone much smarter than me insisted on using a prepaid credit card. I skipped that step (and look forward to managing my upcoming identity theft.)
Because I was curious to see whether price point made any discernible difference, I ended up trying two services. I bought 1,000 followers from StormLikes (for @akaprincessrosebud), and 1,000 from Mr. Insta (for my burner account, @princessrosebud2thesequel).
For 1,000 followers, StormLikes charged me $12.99 USD, whereas Mr. Insta charged $35 USD + $1.75 HST. (We don’t have HST where I live, but does Mr. Insta give a flip about the details of international sales tax? Nope.)
After I paid, StormLikes sent me a receipt from “Online Shoping.” The receipt told me that my money went to some dude’s gmail address (hi, bakerbenjamin788).
Side note: I also tried to buy 1,000 “organic” followers from one of the companies that used to be huge in this space: Socials Growth. They offer a whole introduction suite (bonus followers, likes, etc.) for $29.99, but their “payment system is down” until October 1st—oh wait, now it’s October 10th. Mysterious! I wouldn’t be surprised if their service is down for reasons that have more to do with Instagram’s disapproval than innocent admin issues.
What happened when we bought Instagram followers
After about an hour, my fake followers started rolling in. The notifications were exciting for a second, but they quickly became a grim, emotionally meaningless drain on my battery. Maybe this is what Taylor Swift feels like? But she probably has her notifications turned off.
Within 48 hours, I had my two sets of 1,000 Instagram followers, give or take.
StormLike’s cheaper followers trickled in steadily, topping off at 1,052. A week later, they’d dropped to 973.
Mr. Insta’s more expensive ones came through faster, but I only got 944 (which dropped to 882 the next week—I’m already penning my letter to the Better Business Bureau.)
Finally, Rosie has the attention she deserves. Except she doesn’t, at all.
4 reasons NOT to buy Instagram followers
1. Fake followers don’t engage
Neither of my Instagram accounts received a single like or comment, despite their thousands of fresh follows.
How anyone could resist Rosie’s flippy ears? I don’t know, but none of my fake followers cared.
Of course, it makes sense that buying followers does not include a boost in engagement. These companies charge separately for that.
Barring that, you can always turn to the next new “hack”: Instagram engagement pods. (Spoiler alert: we tried it, it also didn’t go well.)
2. Fake followers are obviously fake
Anyone who so much as glances at my follower ratio can guess that my followers are fake. Unless you are Beyonce or Adele, following zero or two accounts doesn’t get you very far in terms of earning followers yourself.
And if people click through and look at my actual follower list, their suspicions will be confirmed. My new followers often have names that look like they were mashed into a keyboard (plenty of numbers and random letters), they usually only have a few posts, their photos are often random, and they almost never have Stories.
The question is: do you want a plush follower count, or do you want dignity? (Especially if you’re an official brand, you should be striving for the latter).
3. Brands will blacklist you
Rosie’s status as a budding influencer will be cut short as soon as potential partners run us through even the most basic Instagram audit tool.
I’m a little shocked that this tool is so generous. Frankly, I should be at 1%, not 19%.
The IG Audit tool (before it was shut down at the end of 2019, RIP) was built by a NASA scientist, and operated by scanning a random 200 followers for set criteria, so at bare minimum we know that about 40 of my fake followers look slightly realistic—to software, anyway. Regardless, from a brand partner’s perspective, this is a failing grade.
4. Instagram might suspend your account
Instagram has a vested interest in making their platform a place where people want to spend time. But an army of fraudulent accounts doesn’t make anyone feel human, let alone connected. Accordingly, Instagram’s been taking a lot of steps towards reducing unwelcome behaviour on the platform.
Fake accounts are regularly purged by the platform, which means your followers could disappear at any time.
And in late 2018 an Instagram spokesperson told TechCrunch that accounts tied to sketchy third-party growth-hacking apps could lose access to some Instagram features.
Finally, never forget that buying followers violates the terms of service, so there’s always the risk that Instagram could just suspend your account outright.
What to do instead of buying Instagram followers
First off, please don’t read this and immediately start looking into joining an Instagram pod. There are much better ways to grow your following and engagement on Instagram that will result in actual long-term benefits.
Show people something new and real
Our interview with Laura Izumikawa, a lifestyle photographer who went from 0 to 600,000 Instagram followers the hard way, will be inspiring to you.
Her number one tip for Instagram marketers: “Find what you’re most passionate about sharing. Use your passion or what you’re gifted in and document it with photos and videos.” Read the rest of @lauraiz’s nitty gritty tips here.
Know what’s next
Instagram is constantly rolling out new features, and the brands that use them first stand out. Shoppable posts and slicker stickers are great, but so is seeing people who are relatable and representative in your feed and Stories.
Keep an eye on this year’s most important Instagram trends.
Get your business in order
Convert your Instagram account to a business account, if you haven’t yet. Business accounts have tools that personal accounts don’t, which is crucial as you build out your Instagram marketing strategy.
A/B test some ads
If you have budget to buy followers, you have budget to try marketing with Instagram ads.
To build up your follower count, choose an appropriate ad campaign objective—like brand awareness or reach—in order to get your ads in front of people who’ve never heard of you before, but want to.
Know who your followers are, and go out and find them
We have a long list of ways to get Instagram followers—and unlike our adventures above, they’re free.
Grow your Instagram following the right way using Hootsuite. From a single dashboard you can schedule and publish posts directly to Instagram, engage the audience, measure performance, and run all your other social media profiles. Try it free today.