How a marketing agency built a popular Instagram account using only stock photos

Companies even offered the "traveler's" account branding deals.
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Amanda Smith's photo from May 21 is quite literally picture perfect.

The travel photographer, who has more than 31,000 following her Instgram @wanderingggirl, is laying back in a hammock, suspended between two trees as she looks out on a pristine mountain view that would take anyone's breath away.

"Can't belive that's you :o awesome <3," wrote one commenter.

"Beautiful pic," said another.

Beautiful indeed.

Also, not real. It's available freely for anyone to use – a stock photo, just like every other image on the @wanderingggirl account.

Amanda Smith and her @wanderingggirl account are fakes, the product of an online influencer experiment by the marketing company MediaKix. (Side note: This would be a really unsatisfying end to a Catfish episode.)

The goal was to see if how difficult it is to land a paid sponsorship deal as in Instagram influencer. And it turns out, it's not that hard.

How they did this

After creating the account and giving it a wonderfully on-brand bio, they simply started posting stock photos. Paris, Maui, San Francisco, beaches, etc.. 

And they wanted a personal touch, which led to my personal favorite part of this experiment:

"To make the account more personalized, we also included a few photos of 'wanderingggirl' herself – we accomplished this by using stock photos of blonde girls that showed only the back of their heads."

Then they bought some fake followers, about 1,000 per day so as not to raise Instagram's suspicions. It would cost anywhere from $3-$8 per 1,000 new followers. Then they did the same with engagement – that runs about 12 cents per comment, and $4-9 per 1,000 likes.

After crossing the 10,000-follower threshold, they started going after brand deals through an influencer marketing platform (which MediaKix explains here). They were aggressive, applying for new campaigns daily.

And they got two offers: an alcohol brand, and a national food and beverage company. Both offered @wanderingggirl a sponsorship deal consisting of money, free product, or both.

For an account made up entirely of stock travel photos and nondescript shots of blonde hair.

They did this with a fashion influencer too

MediaKix created another account that was a fashion/lifestyle model. 

Rather than relying on stock photos, they hired a blonde woman for a one-day photo shoot to build up images, then gave her a cutesy handle: calibeachgirl310.

"Her" first post was April 12. The account has another 70 or so images, many with generic kitschy captions like "If you need me, you can find me here " or "Stepping into the week like."

That one, with more than 50,000 followers, also landed two paid brand deals – one with a swimsuit company and one with the same national food/drink company.

MediaKix didn't accept any of the offers for the accounts by the way, NYMag.com says.

What's the lesson?

For MediaKix, it's about highlighting how easy it is for someone to dupe brands. 

Instagram influencer advertising is an enormous industry, and it's only going to get bigger, maybe $2.4 billion by 2020.

Instagram, knowing this, has made it easier for influencers to mark when something is a sponsored post – that way it's clear for users, and they won't get in trouble with the feds.

What's the lesson for normal Instagram users? 

The same as for every social media app: Don't believe everything you see. 

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