To many brands, a verification badge on a social media platform represents that they are legitimate businesses. Out of all platforms, a verification badge on Instagram has become the most exclusive. Agency executives say Instagram is only becoming more secretive and selective.

The main way agencies and brands get verified is by proving to a rep their Instagram accounts are being impersonated or are likely to get impersonated, said multiple agencies. Major brands seeking verification can use their size and popularity to prove fake accounts are impersonating their own. Strong connections with Facebook and Instagram and big budgets don’t hurt either. “The easiest way [to get verified] is to, frankly, spend money on advertising,” said Matt Britton, CEO at digital agency Crowdtap.

Small brands, however, cannot as easily demonstrate that other accounts want to steal their identities, and they are finding more and more roadblocks to verification.

The process
Instagram introduced verified badges to brands and celebrities in December 2014 to deter users from impersonating real accounts. Users could apply for verification, just as they would through Facebook or Twitter, according to Britton. But in September 2015, Instagram suddenly started prohibiting users from applying for badges, leaving agencies and brands to go through a rep at the platform. “It’s not currently possible to request or purchase a verified badge,” reads the platform’s current help page.

Allison Brito, associate director of media and marketing at Wondersauce, works with emerging brands on getting verified accounts on Instagram and noticed the process has become even more mysterious and rigid in the past year. She recalled that in early 2016, she contacted her Facebook rep directly without speaking to someone at Instagram when she wanted to get clients verified on both platforms.

“We were told from our Facebook rep that because Facebook and Instagram are the same company, that getting verified on Facebook was the easy way in,” she said. Essentially, because a brand was verified on Facebook meant it was likely the brand would also get verified on Instagram. But an “in” with a rep at Facebook no longer necessarily means a brand can get verified on Instagram, she said. “It’s not necessarily a shoo-in anymore,” said Brito, who is now undergoing the process for a client. “They are talking about the two platforms separately.”

Agencies also claim they are no longer notified whether or not a brand will be verified. Instead, verification badges will randomly appear on accounts, regardless of whether brands are working for them. “It’s like it’s a complete surprise, like, ‘Oh, we woke up one morning, and [the badge] was there,’” said Brito. And rather than taking a few days, agencies said the process can last from a few weeks to a few months.

A status symbol
Being verified on Instagram is of utmost importance for brands, numerous agency executives said. The blue check gives brands credibility in consumers’ eyes, especially now that Instagram users are accustomed to seeing blue badges next to familiar brands. “A user may be less inclined to reach out to a brand that isn’t verified,” said Jill Sherman, svp of social strategy at DigitasLBi.

Verification helps brands gain credibility among industry peers, too. “Being able to say we are recognized as a legitimate brand that other people would want to impersonate is important to get recognition within their industry,” said Brito.

What’s more, brands with verification badges receive early access to Instagram features that can help monetize accounts, like outgoing links on Instagram Stories. Instagram’s algorithms are also rumored to favor verified brands, with their content getting better placement and more engagement, said Gil Eyal, CEO of agency Hypr.

Jason Schlossberg, managing director at digital agency Huge, said that if a brand is not verified, it sends the message that the account is not significant enough to verify. “The verification itself becomes an implied endorsement that the brand or celebrity is ‘worthy’ of verification,” he said.

The desire for verification has led to the use of shady methods to get it. At the beginning of September, Mashable uncovered a black market where middlemen with contacts at Instagram have charged up to $15,000 for verification. But that approach is in jeopardy. One influencer named James, who sells verifications for up to $7,000, told Mashable that Instagram is firing employees involved in this scheme. While he could pass five names per week to his Instagram contact a year ago, he can now only send two names a week.

Brands have complained on their blogs or to Instagram itself about the difficulty of becoming verified. Amber Boyes, PR account supervisor and content strategist at creative agency Marcus Thomas, follows home organization e-commerce brand The Home Edit on Instagram. She said she saw the brand ranting about not being verified a few weeks ago on its Instagram Stories. Since then, The Home Edit brand has received a badge, and Boyes presumes it’s because the brand spoke out. The brand could not be reached for comment.

‘No official system’
Because of the mysterious nature of the Instagram verification process, agencies don’t know why they experience roadblocks. “There’s no official system,” said Schlossberg. “It all goes on behind the scenes.”

Mostly, experts believe that as the platform attracts more businesses, it wants to remain in complete control of its verification process, ensuring fake branded accounts don’t become as prevalent as they were in its early days.

Stephen Boidock, director of marketing and business development at digital agency Drumroll, believes the platform is making the verification process harder, but notes the platform is doing the same with its application programming interface approval process. Although Instagram would not comment on whether it is strengthening its grip on the verification process or how many requests it receives, a spokesperson said, “We take spam, inauthentic and other abusive behavior very seriously.”

Another belief is Instagram doesn’t have time to review all requests. Indeed, businesses have joined Instagram at an impressive rate. Nearly 71 percent of U.S. businesses are using Instagram this year, nearly double the amount of businesses (about 49 percent) that used the platform in 2016, according to eMarketer. At the end of July, Instagram announced it had 15 million business profiles, up from 8 million in March. With more new business users, the platform is likely seeing more verification requests, making it harder for emerging brands to receive it, said Eyal.

Experts believe Instagram’s verification system is not automated, with human beings reviewing each account, no easy feat with all the new businesses. Plus, the platform fields verification requests from influencers and celebrities. When Instagram introduced verification badges, it had 300 million users. Today, it has 700 million users. “Instagram must be inundated with these kind of requests,” said Schlossberg.

Instagram might not be the only platform becoming stricter about verifying accounts. Brito recently saw Twitter’s verification process become more tedious as well. Around three months ago, Wondersauce sent a brand’s Twitter handle to its rep at the platform for verification. The rep said the handles “go to a separate team” and that they would review the brand’s account, according to Brito. After “several doors closed,” the brand has still not been verified. “These platforms are looking for more authentic ways of verifying and not just giving out a badge because you apply,” Brito said. “I don’t think it’s just with Instagram anymore.”

 

This post originally appeared in Digiday. Read it here