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Why Instagram Live spells the death of phony Gulf ‘influencers’

Selena Gomez was in December named the most popular celebrity on Instagram, and currently has more than 109 million followers. But some so-called influencers do not have genuine followers. (Reuters)

One recent afternoon in Dubai, Anthony Permal received notification that a social media influencer he follows on Instagram was broadcasting on the company’s new Live Stories platform.
Permal, the head of digital marketing at an international pharmaceutical company, opened his smartphone and tuned in. The influencer has a six-figure following and attracts an average of 3,000-4,000 likes per static image, yet their live stream was being viewed by no more than 10 people.
“It made me think,” Permal told Arab News. “Where is the audience? Just how much influence does this person have?”
With influencers demanding anything from $130 up to $50,000 per post, there is a growing cynicism from companies regarding return on investment. Yet the recent roll-out of Instagram’s new Live platform across the Middle East has inadvertently handed local PR companies a key tool for better understanding the level of clout that influencers’ accounts have.
As Tony Lewis, founder of Dubai-based PR agency Total Communications argues: “It requires a far greater level of commitment to tune into a live video and intelligently engage than it does to double-tap a photo.”
“We are living in this age of digital hypnotism,” added Lewis. “Everyone has a smartphone and they are connected to it 24 hours a day, but how much attention do they actually give to what they are liking on Instagram or Facebook? Is it genuine? Does seeing someone’s product post really impact your own decisions?”
A study by BPG Cohn & Wolfe would suggest it does. A survey of 1,008 United Arab Emirates (UAE) residents found that 63 percent of people feel their purchasing decisions are directly impacted by influencers, while 71 percent will be more interested in buying a brand if it is endorsed by someone they follow on social media.
According to, there are approximately 1,385 influencers across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) who are followed by a combined 549 million users. The majority operate in niche markets, such as food, fashion, travel and automotive. The most-followed account in the region is Huda Kattan, a Dubai-based beauty blogger who posts from @HudaBeauty to 17.3 million followers and has launched her own make-up range internationally. Harrods, among others, stocks her supplies.
Yet for every Kattan there are a variety of impersonators and imposters, resulting in a sea of skepticism regarding whether the five- and six-figure follower bases of some influencer accounts are real users or paid-for bots.
“We know that a lot of influencers do buy followers and are fake,” said Taghreed Oraibi, who led the BPG Cohn & Wolfe study. “But we are finding Instagram Live very useful for separating the real from the fake. If you have a few hundred-thousand followers and only a handful of people watch your live broadcast, then that is a very big sign.”
Without regulation, the fees demanded from brands for endorsement deals vary wildly across the region, some industry executives say. Influencers in the UAE and Kuwait command far greater sums than their Omani or Jordanian counterparts, who often ask only to be invited to the next event.
Permal, who will speak about social media transparency at next week’s inaugural Influencer Marketing Summit in Dubai, said most brands pay between $130-$250 for a post or two, but has heard stories of influencers charging upward of $27,000.
One of Lewis’ clients paid an influencer $31,000 to promote an event, but with no evidence that any of her million-plus followers attended, the client was left feeling it was a waste of money.
“Proper measurement is needed to justify the spend,” Lewis said. “Ultimately, it is all about return on investment and we as an industry need to do a lot more research and thinking before pouring money over people just because they have a lot of ‘followers’.”
Since the launch of Instagram Stories last year, there are more than 150 million people using the platform every day, with the Live function operating as an extension. The Twitter equivalent, Periscope, has been available in the region since 2015, while Snapchat opened its first Middle East office in Dubai earlier this month. The prolificacy of smartphones should bode well for such developments, but whether live-video applications can help uncover hyped-up influencers remains a challenge.
“People will always find a way,” said Permal, adding it is the responsibility of brands and PR companies to utilize tools such as Followerwonk or to carry out audit checks on influencers before engaging.
Meanwhile, the dark side of the industry is already adapting. Fake Instagram Live viewers are now available for purchase online, with the top result in a Google search,, promising 20,000 live video views for $120. Registered to a UAE mobile phone, the company said all six of its packages were currently out of stock.