You Can't Stop Instagram Bots by Looking. Brands Have to Stop Buying Them

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Credit: Illustration by Ad Age, composite images istock

Marketers are finally fighting back against social media bots, according to The New York Times. As touching as it is to read about some acts of ethical behavior in the industry, from the broader perspective, marketers created the problem, and the solutions proposed in that article will not be enough to fix it. It's like firing a gun at your chest and putting a Band-Aid over the wound.

While reporter Sapna Maheshwari signals out some heroes among agencies and technology firms, what's missing is any reflection as to how influencer marketing got to this sorry state. I described some of that in Ad Age in 2016 in the column "How to Make a Bad Impression." I blamed buyers—whether brands or agencies—for caring about reach at the expense of any other context at all, such as frequency.

The column ended with a plea:

Demand better. Demand context. Demand accountability. Demand to know how some impression number could possibly address any of your goals. Demand that greater efforts are made at delivering successful results than the efforts fraudulent bot operators wage at undermining your efforts.

While some marketers were already taking such an approach, and I've encountered many others who followed suit, there are still incentives for developers to create the tools that inflate follower counts.

If you're an ethically-challenged Instagram user with 1,000 followers and you think you can make more money if it looked like you had 100,000 followers, you will look for the means to do so. In turn, you will seek out a way to maximize your return on investment, and you will have to keep committing to the lie by constantly boosting your own follower growth along with boosting interactions on your posts.

As long as there is a supply of buyers, such sellers will continue to try to profit. In this scenario, the seller does better than the buyer at determining the ROI.

Now, cheaters face a higher likelihood of getting caught. Once people are caught, their accounts are deactivated.

But sellers will continue to look for ways not to get caught. This resembles an arms race, or whack-a-mole, depending how seriously you take the whole thing.

The first line of the Times article is telling: "In a sunny office in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan, Mike Schmidt spends his time ferreting out fake Instagram accounts." I love that Mike Schmidt is doing this, and I hope a million other Mike Schmidts can earn a living doing this, but it won't be enough. As soon as you think you can detect how many bots are following influencers, bot developers will create new ways to evade detection.

The only way to stop the arms race is to cut off the demand.

Buyers need to better vet how they're buying influencers. That requires paying for results instead of for reach. That requires ensuring influencer campaigns adhere, at the very least, to the basic reporting standards established by traditional media such as television. That requires asking every partner—every agency, every publisher, every influencer aggregator, and every influencer themselves—what they can do to show some benefit for the buyer.

In an arms race, only the arms dealers win. Mike Schmidt should keep his job, and he probably deserves a raise. Ferreting out fake bots is just a tactic though. The strategy across the board though must be to remove the incentives that allow malicious actors to profit. That is how we will stop the bleeding.

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