This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.
One dog, one month, €100. That's the timeframe and budget we gave ourselves to make Henri, an adorable Jack Russell-German Shepherd mix, and our office darling, into an Instagram dogfluencer. We weren't after those dopamine-inducing likes or that sweet, sweet #sponcon cash, we just wanted to understand how the fake follower industry really works.
We started off with the basics: taking a profile picture of Henri with his ears sticking out. Very cute. In his bio, we wrote: "Follow me if you like dogs!" We also set up a free email account and added it to the profile as a business contact. Lastly, we followed ten accounts of actually Insta-famous dogs, four of which followed us back.
Then we started posting at least one picture a day. We got a hashtag generator to do the tagging for us and threw in quotes from pop songs to round it all up. It didn't take a lot of effort, but our posts still passed for what marketers would call "unique content".
After setting ourselves up for success, it was time to build an army of fake followers. We downloaded the app "Get Super Followers for Instagram" from the Google Play Store (which is no longer available) and were instructed to like and follow other profiles to gain virtual coins that could be exchanged for likes and follows on Henri's profile – all completely free. Here's the catch: the app also asked us to give up Henri's Instagram password – something you should never, ever do. But we decided to go for it, just to see what would happen.
This approach was fiddly: it took a lot of time to push those "like" buttons because the app kept freezing. After one hour, we only managed to scrape together enough coins for 20 followers, 150 by the end of the day. But we also learned why people don't use this method. Instagram sent us a notification: we got caught.
We'd barely started our journey to Insta-fame and we'd already been stopped in our tracks. "Your account has been compromised," said the notification. "It looks like you shared your password with a service to help you get more likes or followers, which goes against our Community Guidelines." We were warned not to do this again, at the risk of Henri's account being disabled.
Next up: we joined a Pod, a chat group of Instagram users who like each other's content to grow their respective followings.
The pod we joined had more than 1,500 participants, none of whom were petfluencers. The chat was basically an endless stream of Instagram links, occasionally broken up by pointed warnings from the chat moderators. The rules were strict: before we could post our own link, we had to like and comment on the ten pictures last linked in the chat. The comments had to be more than three words long and be posted under the right photo. That made our engagement "unique".
Henri followed the rules religiously – "I'd like to go for a walk there," read one of his comments under a photo of a girl posing in front of a bridge – but after a few days we realised the other pod members weren't as disciplined as us. We didn't get as many likes and comments as we expected, and everyone ignored the more-than-three-words rule. "So cute." "What a cutie." "Awww so cute." Message received loud and clear: we weren't going to go very far without spending some cash.
There are hundreds of shops for fake followers online, and the prices can vary enormously. First, we decided to opt for an expensive "quality" service. The company seemed legit – they even listed a postal address, a customer service number and vacancies. We bought 25 followers from German-speaking countries for €5.90 (£5.02). The transaction worked like any other online purchase: we simply paid by card.
The next day, our new followers were there. They had a normal name and surname, and even a profile picture. Unfortunately, that was it for the advertised "quality". Most accounts looked pretty fake – they were private, with only a couple of uploads, and didn't really engage with Henri's photos. The value for money was abysmal: for 1,000 followers we’d have to spend more than €200.
Dismayed at our lack of progress, we asked Professor Patrick Vonderau – who researches the black market for social media followers at the University of Halle-Wittenberg – for advice. Prof. Vonderau told us to look for a "Social Media Marketing (SMM) panel", essentially an online shop selling engagement.
His tip worked: we found an SMM panel, set up an account and entered a payment method. It was a big risk: we could have been ripped off, or our payment data could have been stolen, but we went for it for the sake of the experiment. After all, the offer looked pretty good: 1,000 followers for €3.61 (£3.07), much cheaper than the previous service.
The website said the new followers would show up within a day, but they didn't. We tried to chat with their shady customer service line and they kept telling us it was just a technical problem. Two days later, the 1,000 followers appeared. Was it because we kept bugging them? After a bit of research on forums, we discovered this is a common issue – follower factories are constantly chased by Instagram, so they need to figure out new tricks to stay in business.
A few days later, we got our first brand deal offer. The pet shop Aki-Oka said we could get a lifetime 50 percent discount on their products if we promoted them on Instagram. In the following days, we received two more offers, and then a couple more after our 30-day deadline for the experiment. We ended up accepting one from a vegan T-shirt shop, which designated us their "pet ambassador".
At this point, Henri still had under 2,000 followers, and we wanted to see how far we could push it. We found a super cheap online shop with a "refill" option, meaning that if some of our followers' accounts were shut down by Instagram for being fake, the service would provide us with new ones. We bought 12,000 followers for €60 (£51) and threw in a couple of hundred likes for only 35 cents per 100. The delivery took a few days – technical issues, again. But finally, Henri was a micro influencer.
With our newfound confidence, we decided to take the leap into the world of professional advertising. We signed up to a few online platforms that match brands with influencers. Before signing a new client, these companies ask applicants to provide data showing how their following has grown over time, where their followers are located and how active they are.
It wouldn't take a genius to figure out that Henri's followers were fake: most had no profile photo, weird impersonal usernames and were located in Istanbul, Delhi, Baku and Mumbai – not in Berlin, where this particularly good boy lives. At the same time, Henri's engagement rate – meaning how much his followers interacted with his posts – wasn't too bad: about 3 percent, which is average for an Instagram influencer.
Unfortunately, we couldn't fool anyone – none of the platforms we contacted signed us.
Our last attempt to turn a profit off of poor Henri was the black market, where Instagram accounts with large numbers of followers are bought and sold. On Telegram, we found Amrit, an account dealer who said he was a teenager living in Dubai.
We asked him for an appraisal. An account with 12,000 followers is worth $100, but ours had fake followers, so he valued it at $30 – less than what we invested.
Turns out, cheating Instagram takes a lot of work, time and patience – and we would have probably had more success taking a little longer and doing it the legitimate way. So why do people still buy followers if it doesn't really work? Well, some influencers with a real following pad their numbers out a bit to land better brand deals; in small doses, it's more difficult to notice they’re cheating.
In the end, we decided not to sell Henri's profile. To him, money and engagement means nothing. All he really wants is a cuddle.