The Dark Art of Buying Instagram Likes

You post like crazy, but your profile still lacks the “likes” to make you the next Instagram star. Would you ever pay to give it a boost?

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
You post like crazy, but your profile still lacks the “likes” to make you the next Instagram star. Would you ever pay to give it a boost?
Corbis/Click Photos
Corbis/Click Photos

Who wouldn’t want to wake up to 40 million Instagram followers? For emerging beauty or fashion bloggers, it would be a social media dream come true. With such huge amounts of online followers comes the ker-ching of a rapidly filling bank account (toptier fashion bloggers can reportedly earn six figures a year) and lucrative endorsement deals – not to mention all of that free stuff .

A 2014 report by auditing company PricewaterhouseCoopers showed that, as one of the most digitally advanced markets in the world, Singapore has one of the fastest growing Internet advertising markets. This, in turn, attracts many advertising companies to base their Asian regional offices here. The report forecast that our total Internet advertising revenue is set to increase to US$264 million by 2018. So can you blame the tech-savvy generation for wanting a slice of this multi-million dollar pie, especially when all we need is a smartphone?

Fool me once, shame on you

But let’s face it, we’re not all Kimmy K, and with more than 400 million Instagram users, it’s hard to stand out from the crowd. It’s difficult competing with feeds filled with models, far-flung tropical locations, camera-wielding boyfriends and swags of amazing clothes. But now, aspiring social media influencers are also vying against mega-bloggers who are getting a boost via the dubious practise of buying their Instagram followers.

Passionate blog-watchers from Get Off My Internets (GOMI), an online community dedicated to tearing down bloggers, have accused big-name influencers – like Rachel Parcell of fashion blog Pink Peonies and interior designer Aimee Song of Song of Style – of buying followers to grow their online presence. As proof, they point to noticeable spikes in their number of followers and comment statistics that don’t match the blogs’ total followings.

“There are a couple of big-name bloggers who buy followers right before fashion week just so that they have a better chance of getting collaborations with designers,” speculates one user in a GOMI forum. “There’s this one [blogger whose] number of followers was stuck at around 790,000… and just in time for fashion week, you [could] actually watch the number increase in seconds. And now, she has around 916,000. As if you could get 100,000 followers in just a few days!”

Well, with a couple of clicks, it isn’t too hard. Google “buy Instagram followers” and you’ll find a ton of businesses that offer this less-than-honest service. In a report published by The New Paper in 2014, social media expert Dr Michael Netzley said that buying Instagram followers is “extremely inexpensive”.

“You can pay anything between $10 to $20 for anything from 1,000 to 10,000 fake followers and see an overnight boost,” says the academic director of executive development at Singapore Management University.

But will Insta-fame follow? Many of these sites offer “ghost” followers (accounts that look genuine but aren’t active), so beyond the numbers, there’s no real interaction with your profile. If you’re prepared to spend a little bit more cash, there are businesses that will make sure your new-found followers offer more engagement through regular comments and likes. Benefi cial, since – as social media expert Kirsten Jassies points out – the more active followers you have, the more exposure you’re going to get. Kirsten experimented with buying likes on Instagram and divulged about the experience on her blog. “It worked a little bit for my image. I get more followers faster than before,” she says of her foray into faking it. “In the past three weeks, I managed to get 200 new followers – I got dozens in this same time frame before.”

Fool me twice, shame on me

For up-and-coming bloggers, it can be tempting to get a little help early on. But will a boost in followers automatically mean that brands will come knocking on your door for business? Not necessarily so, says Simon Kemp, the Asian regional managing partner for social media agency We Are Social.

“There’s this clever thing that savvier brands are doing – they’d approach an influencer and say, ‘We’ve got a story that we think is relevant to you – we’ve got this new product and we’d like you to show us how you would use it’,” says Simon. “The ideal situation would be that the influencer creates good content and adds value to the brand, because they understand what works best in that medium, which is Instagram, in this case.”

So in other words, your large number of followers will not impress social media-savvy businesses if your content isn’t engaging your audience and starting a conversation with them. To that end, many social media experts agree that original and high-quality content is still the key to monetising your Instagram account.

“So you need to have a certain degree of expertise, and clever brands are seeing that now. Typically, they’d take the size of an influencer’s audience into consideration, but we’d also advise our clients to consider things like the levels of affinity they have with their audience,” adds Simon. That means that brands are now more willing to partner with someone who has less followers but strong engagement rates.

For Naomi Neo, who was already a known blogger before she rose to prominence on Instagram, it took five years to grow her numbers from 10,000-plus followers to the current 256,000-plus followers. And while she was getting a few thousand likes with each post in her early days, she now commands more than 20,000 likes with each selfie or OOTD shot. Her magic formula?

“I’m not one who believes in having the best feed or fantastic pictures, because more often than not, beautiful pictures will gain you followers but not engagements,” says the 20-year-old. Citing social media powerhouses like Kim Kardashian and Ariana Grande, Naomi points out that their Instagram shots are not always picture-perfect.

“They don’t meticulously curate their content, but their followings still continue to grow. So I guess it’s about being yourself and posting interesting things!” she adds.

Having worked with major brands like Urban Decay, Garnier, SK-II, Coca-Cola and Airbnb, the blogger and infl uencer also said that while numbers are important, there are also other factors in play when it comes to choosing a face for a brand – a sentiment that’s also shared by many social media experts. “

Your followers and engagement rates are one of the first few things the clients will probably be attracted to. However, that alone isn’t sufficient,” says Naomi. “The way you choose to portray yourself online is a great way for a client to determine if you’re suitable to represent their brands.”

In the same The New Paper report, Dr Michael boiled it down to one simple thing: “No advertiser wants to pay for something it isn’t actually getting. In this hyperconnected world, accurate numbers and measurability are very important.”


Even Instagram is on the case of followers fraud. Millions of users saw their numbers suddenly drop when spam accounts were purged from the site in 2014. The biggest loser was Justin Bieber – he said farewell to 3,538,228 of his followers. Closer to home, actors and influencers alike also saw their figures dip in what became known as the day of the “Instagram Rapture”. Blogger Dawn Yang lost 21,000 followers, actor Ian Fang lost 22,000 and fashion blogger Crystal Phuong lost 8,100. That’s a 15-percent to a whopping 63.1-percent decrease, if anyone’s calculating.

The massive cull exposed anyone who might have bought followers or likes at some point in their Instagram careers, which kind of defeats the whole point, right?

“Of course, (getting fake followers) is a great way to get clients to buy into you. But at the end of the day, when you fail to deliver the results they expected of you, you lose your credibility,” say Naomi. “It’s something I would never encourage anyone to do!”

What local bloggers have to say…
Yan Kay Kay, Model/Blogger. Source: The New Paper.
Yan Kay Kay, Model/Blogger. Source: The New Paper.

“Instagram is a platform I work on and post ads on, so a part of my income comes from it. I was tempted to buy followers in order to stay competitive in this industry, especially when I saw and suspected others were doing it with no backlash. I would be super-embarrassed right now if my numbers had dropped drastically because then everyone would know I’d bought them. Most importantly, I sleep well at night with a clear conscience.” 

Xiaxue, Blogger. Source: The New Paper.
Xiaxue, Blogger. Source: The New Paper.

“Why should people with fake followers earn clients’ money when they, in fact, are not reaching out to that many people online?” 

Naomi Neo, Blogger.
Naomi Neo, Blogger.

“I never believed in buying followers because as someone who’s been on Instagram for quite a while, I can easily identify when someone’s followers are bought. Of course, that’s a great way of getting clients to buy into you, but at the end of the day, when you fail to deliver the results they expect of you, you lose your credibility.”

How to Win Friends and Influence People (on Instagram)

 1. Always be yourself. Don’t try to recreate someone else’s style or work, as it will show. You can be inspired by other people, but always give it your own edge.

2. Choose the correct time to post, and don’t flood! Says Naomi: “Consistency is important, but don’t ever spam your timeline! I’ll usually post around one to two pictures a day. Personally, 6pm to 9pm are my peak hours with the highest traffic, as that’s when most consumers are online.”

3. Be patient. Don’t expect to have thousands of followers overnight.

4. Try to find a niche that hasn’t been explored, or offer a different perspective.

5. Ride the trends. “Remember how Dubsmash was the in thing for a while? Many people aced it and gained tons of followers from it,” Naomi recalls.

6. Use your unique voice and just have fun. After all, that’s what it should be about.