Despite Twitter's efforts to crack down on the buying and selling of fake accounts, it's still a booming business.

While Twitter estimates that fake accounts represent fewer than 5 percent of its active user base, independent researchers say the number is higher: “Italian security researchers Andrea Stroppa and Carlo De Micheli say they found 20 million fake accounts for sale on Twitter this summer,” the Wall Street Journal recently reported. “That would amount to nearly 9 percent of Twitter's monthly active users.”

Robot programming software makes it easy for spammers to create and sell fake accounts at scale. And while Twitter has worked with researchers to develop a more sophisticated filter, as with steroids, when the filter changes the market quickly adapts.

Are your followers fakes?

At least a few of them probably are. If you're curious, there are multiple websites that will root out the robots for you, breaking down your following into three categories: fake, inactive, and “good” (i.e. active and not a robot). Relatively new to Twitter, I broke down my own (measly) 229 followers: 6 percent fake, 27 percent inactive, and 67 percent good.

For media organizations, the number increases. I checked out @Mashable, which the WSJ singled out as having a particularly heavy bot following. The verdict? Twenty-seven percent fake, 42 percent inactive, 35 percent good. 

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For celebrities, the breakdown is even more surprising. Katy Perry, the most followed person on Twitter as of November, is extremely popular with the robots. She has a larger percentage of fake accounts than Mashable does – a shocking 46 percent of her followers, according to Status People, are fake, and another 40 percent are inactive, which means her actual audience is a literal fraction of her official following.

How you can shortcut the system

In June, Barracuda Labs released an extensive report on Twitter’s underground economy. It found that the average cost for 1,000 followers is $11, and most sellers can be found on eBay or Fiverr.

If you’re willing to shell out more money, however, it’s possible to buy higher quality fake accounts.

According to the report, “Some are extremely sophisticated such as fastfollowerz.com , which provides extensive features, including 100% active followers, 5-year retention protection (no followers drop in 5 years), guarantee to pass StatusPeople detection, geo-target by country or city, target by keywords or profile information, monthly subscription, daily delivery, etc.”

The site also offers a “daily followers option.” For $19 a month, you'll gain five a day – for $99 a month, you'll gain 100.

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"The more you pay, the better the accounts are, and the longer they last," Italian security researcher Carlo De Micheli told NBC News. "There is a huge gap between the quality of fake Twitter followers."

For high quality accounts – which include profile pictures, bios and the ability to tweet and re-tweet -- prices can reach $40 for 1,000, said De Micheli.

All of which means we need a new way to measure social media influence

The temptation to buy followers is understandable – you and your business are probably judged on how many Twitter followers you have on a daily basis. Like personal style (or lack thereof) it's an easy way to quickly assess a person’s social standing.

Still, designer clothes don't mean everything, and neither does the number of fans you have on Twitter.

As the Wall Street Journal article illustrates, while it's easy to buy spammy followers, it’s almost impossible to buy engagement. “Where I would like to see us go is actually measuring success based on what impact you have on the conversation, not how many followers you have,” NPR’s product manager for social media, Kate Myers, said on interview show Tell Me More. “So you'd take a look at who are you talking to, who's talking back to you, who is retweeting you, who is sharing your information, or who is sharing what you have to say.”

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Numbers may still matter, but what matters most is influence and connection. Bought accounts won't spread your message or buy your product, which means a core group of active followers is more valuable than thousands of fakes.

“You have to show your brand personality, whether it’s intellectual, humor or cultural significance,” Lora Shaeffer, director of social at Resource (a digital marketing agency) told The Next Web. “Finding out what that niche is and figuring out how that can correlate to your product in some way, you can have double-digit growth in fan count or followers just by presenting relevant information.”

Like most worthwhile achievements, building a flesh-and-blood, interested Twitter audience takes work. But in the end, it's engagement that will help grow your customer base – not the army of robots you bought online.