For $400, you can be an Instagram influencer

Image: Getty Images/Cultura RF

If you’re on social media, you’ve most likely heard of the side-hustle. Work your 9 to 5, sure, but you also should be making yourself known in the world. Definitely don’t just sit down and watch “fucking House of Cards,” as entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk tweeted.

Well, here’s one side-hustle you can probably manage while binging all of Netflix’s originals: Be an Instagram influencer. Don’t have a foodie lifestyle or a cute dog? Don’t worry. Just fake it, and you could be taking in hundreds of dollars per week via brand deals.

It’s true. California model Alexa Rae (calibeachgirl310) and travel photographer Amanda Smith (wanderingggirl) are two Instagram influencers. Last month, they were offered campaigns worth about $100 each, in a mix of cash and product gifts, by a protein drink company. The month prior, Alexa was offered a deal with $300 of products, and Amanda received one for $30.

They never completed the campaigns, however. The company behind the accounts wasn’t interested in getting sued.

Alexa and Amanda aren’t real. They’re the creation of Mediakix, a marketing company that works with brands and influencers on YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, and blogs. Alexa is a model, who Mediakix paid to pose for photos for the account.

If that sounds too complex, there’s an even easier way to game the system. Amanda’s travel diary is merely stock photos:

Just hanging out

A post shared by Amanda Smith (@wanderingggirl) on

It’s not just the accounts that are fake.

The majority of their followers, likes, and comments are all paid for. For about $750 invested in Alexa and $350 invested in Amanda over the course of about two to three months, Mediakix created Instagram influencers worthy of receiving paid campaigns, where they could have easily overshot the amount they committed to building the accounts.

Shocking? Not to the influencer agencies who work to match brands with real people on Instagram.

“This is not surprising at all. As the hype around influencer marketing has grown, the number of brands throwing money into the space has grown exponentially,” said Brendan Gahan, founder of Epic Signal, a creative agency known for its work with brands.

Advertisers may be spending more than $1 billion per year on influencer marketing specifically on Instagram, according to a study by Mediakix released earlier this year.

Simultaneously, there has been a “rise in automation and blasting out requests versus forming thoughtful partnerships. That rise in scaling influencer marketing is leading to a lot of sloppiness,” Gahan said.

Mediakix received the deals from two reputable influencer marketing platforms, one of which closed out a notably sized round of funding this year. Mashable reviewed screenshots of the campaign descriptions, theapplications Mediakix submitted, and what was visible after they were accepted.

It’s clear that these platforms do not vetmuch. Sure, Amanda has 31,700 followers and her most recent Instagram post received 1,067 likes and 26 comments. But if you were to take a look at the comments, you’d quickly arise to suspicion. “looking good :*” one reads on a photo of the Eiffel Tower.

Instagram isn’t naive to these problems. They’re against the company’s terms, and Instagram hasn’t been shy to delete spam accounts in the past. A so-called “Instagram Rapture” took place in December 2014, where celebrities lost hundreds of thousands of followers on the platform.

But it’s difficult to keep up. Mediakix said they were cautious not to pay for too many followers at once in case Instagram caught on to the fake engagement.

“It’s more akin to a game of whack a mole,” Gahan said.

Perhaps there’s more to come from Instagram. The Facebook-owned app introduced a formal tool for disclosing sponsored content in June. For now, it’s only available to a selected number of brands and influencers, but it’s a start to increase expectations for consumers, brands, and influencers on what how brand deals should be displayed.

The issue isn’t as much of a problem for big brands, ones that can afford to pay celebrities to promote their products. They face their own problems: Mediakix issued a report earlier this year that 93 percent of sponsored posts by celebrities on Instagram did not meet government regulations,BuzzFeed reported. A recent Digiday article highlighted that even reputable influencers pay for bots to increase their engagement.

Instead, the most victimized brands for this issue are the ones with smaller budgets or ones who are new to the practice.

A relaxing kind of day today

A post shared by Alexa Rae (@calibeachgirl310) on

Evan Asano, CEO and founder of Mediakix, likened it to the fraud in digital display advertising, where brands were paying for fake views because the market had become so autonomous.

“There’s a trend to market toward, ‘How do we make influencer marketing more like real-time ad buying?’; ‘How do brands plug in and spend millions of dollars with a robot?'” Asano said.

What’s a brand to do? Work with safe platforms, for one.

“There’s a difference between having a platform and then having an actual team managing the platform and ensuring that the data is correct,” said Justin Rezvani, founder of TheAmplify. His company has a proprietary technology that determines who an Instagram user’s followers are and can therefore help detect spam.

Instead of relying on platforms to weed out all the bots, Mediakix suggested more work should be done by others in the industry.

“The onus is on the influencer marketing platforms: to start to talk about this, to identify the bad actors in the space, and call them out,” Asano said.

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