This story was originally published on April 10, 2017 and has been updated.
For less than $7, you could buy a venti iced Caramel Macchiato at Starbucks — or 500 Instagram followers. The former will satisfy your sweet tooth; the latter could put you on track to be a bonafide influencer. And with Instagram influencer status comes lucrative brand deals.
Buying Instagram followers is insanely easy and has become relatively cheap. In 2012, Forbes reported that you could get 1,000 followers for $90. Now, there are multiple sites, including InstaBoostGram, Buzzoid, and iDigic, where you can get as many as 10,000 followers for less than $70. That's not much when you consider that top influencers can bring in hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars in brand deals.
The followers you buy can be a mix of bot accounts and legitimate users who have signed up for what's known as "credit Likes" or "follow swapping," says Evan Asano, CEO and founder of influencer marketing agency Mediakix. In those cases, users will follow others to earn credit that can be used to get more followers for their own account.
However, if your profile currently has 500 followers, there's a practical reason you probably don't want to go for a 10,000-follower package: Instagram has a team of employees who work to detect fraudulent activity, including Like and Follow incentive programs. There's a good chance your account could get flagged and suspended — or terminated completely. Not to mention that brands have begun cracking down on influencers with fake followers as well.
If you opt for a smaller-scale purchase — 100 followers for $2.97 or 500 followers for $6.99 — that risk becomes much lower. "There's very little downside to buying followers," Asano says. "It's very hard to get flagged if you generally follow Instagram best practices. That is, you post on a regular basis and have engagement."
The engagement factor is important if you're buying followers in order to get noticed by brands. While big brands do care about how many followers an influencer has, the number of Likes and comments that someone is getting per post matters more.
"It won't look good if you're buying followers but they're not engaging with your content," Asano says. "Brands are getting more savvy. They're looking at the engagement rate per post compared to your number of followers."
The more followers you have, the higher your engagement per post needs to be in order for the ratio between the two to look legitimate. That said, buying Likes is just as easy as buying followers and is still relatively cheap; 10,000 will cost you around $70 on most sites. But comments come at a higher price. On Gramozo, 500 comments will cost you $129.95. Maybe that's okay for your budget if you're only doing it for one or two photos, but if you begin doing it for every post, plus buying Likes and followers, things start getting very pricey.
There are risks to buying fake followers as well. Instagram may not suspend your account, but not all bots are harmless accounts increasing your follower count. Some are more malicious. A 2016 study conducted by Imperva, a data security company, found that 51.8% of all online traffic the previous year was from bots. Harmless bots constituted 22.9% of that total, while bots including the ones that carry viruses and attempt to steal people's passwords accounted for 28.9%. If a bot account has followed you – especially if you didn't purchase followers – you're better off blocking it. Your online privacy is more important than your follower count.
Of course, there's also the matter of your conscience. Yes, buying followers is pretty commonplace — it's not hard to look through someone's followers and determine which accounts are bots. But would you really feel okay knowing that your profile's success is largely fake? That's a question you'll want to ask yourself before you start shelling out for followers and engagement.