I actually don’t think there is a more productive way to spend my Saturday than by protecting my industry and speaking up for it with this blog post. I have been over on Instagram stories for the last few days talking about Instagram, and how the platform has completely changed, for the negative, over the last few months. The conversation all started when I visited an Influencer profile and noticed a huge bump in followers – this influencer was someone I genuinely liked, worked with on behalf of my clients, and had built a relationship with. I had been sure they were genuine. I was blown away by what I saw when I did some digging and was beside myself. I started chatting on Instagram stories, and here we are now…
This blogging and Instagram world is an industry that is a brand new one. We are first generation. It’s grassroots, and it’s been built by women who have worked hard to make something out of nothing. It’s absolutely INSPIRING to be part of it, and to have helped create a true groundbreaking industry that pays the bills for so many women and supports families. This is personal to me. As a content creator AND a marketing business owner, this is my entire life. I love it, and I’ll protect it. If you’re not part of this industry, it may be hard to understand what all the fuss is about, however, I have many friends who aren’t part of it, and are equally fascinated. This post might be for you!
After I started chatting, I’ve received so many comments on Instagram from other influencers, new bloggers, business owners etc. that have been feeling SO discouraged by Instagram, what they are seeing, their growth, and don’t understand why peers are growing, yet they are not. What are they doing wrong, and why can’t they seem to stand out? Well, we’re about the get into it! Before we do though, I want to say that this is my personal opinion and I am not here to hurt anyone – I’m sharing my ideas to get the conversation started. If you message me and ask who these people are, I won’t be able to tell you. I am not here to name and shame anyone, but to discuss this as a whole, and because I care, to help get this industry back to where it was. There is plenty I don’t know, but I want to share my feelings with you here, on my personal blog. I encourage constructive conversation on this, and while I know this is a hot button topic, won’t tolerate anything less.
I’ve started a hashtag on Insta just to connect this conversation, so if you want to use it, it’s #takingbackinsta
Where Instagram Started
I joined Instagram back when it first started, and Instagram filters and frames were all the rage and was used for real “instant” moments (hence the name, imagine that!), I loved finding new accounts, likeminded people, and eventually began to grow a community. I have made so many lifelong friends and have built a successful business thanks in part to this platform. As it picked up steam and evolved, it became a powerful communication tool to share your creativity, hone in on your photography skills, and again, form and enjoy a community. I started to get more into styling, photography, and I founded Sparkle Media (in 2013!). Instagram became a crucial tool for brands and I worked with them to grow their brand and following, all while growing my own. Communicating with people offline, collaborating, creating genuine relationships, supporting others, creating content, honing my brand visuals, and working hard at it were how I established my account. Back then, in the heydays of Instagram, the newsfeed was chronological, everyone had a fair shot, and a following grew quickly. Sponsorships weren’t even a thing, and bloggers did it for the love of blogging. The word “Influencer” didn’t exist for goodness sake – ok, am I dating myself here?! Instgaram is out to make money, and their new changes are reflective of that trajectory. They are a free to use platform and do not owe us anything. However, I do hope that they listen to feedback and make some positive changes.
What is an ‘Influencer’?
An influencer is a person or brand that influences someone else’s opinion about a person, place, product or thing. True influence cannot be bought. It’s earned through trust. It’s earned through authenticity. You cannot fake this. Influence is a powerful thing that can afford many opportunities. It is gained over time and takes hard work to achieve. There was a recent article in Fortune Magazine about Sophie Turner (Game of Thrones’) winning an acting gig because she had more social followers, and would therefore bring more notoriety to a film. That says it ALL and it happens a lot. Following counts and it affords many opportunities.
Fast forward to now, and it’s become its own beast. Some influencers are making five, six and seven figures (get it!), some are just trying to gain any sort of following they can, and businesses are trying to use Instagram to get off the ground by establishing a following. Others are using it to find out about new products, make friends, and form community. Sponsorships (you’ve seen plenty of these in your feed and are usually marked with an #sp #ad #partner or combination of) are a big part of how influencers are making money, and I thought it would be important to define this since this is at the basis of why anyone would fake a following – money, of course! SO…
What is a Sponsorship?
A sponsorship is when a brand pays an “influencer” to promote a brand, product, or service. This is one of the ways influencers make money and it’s a very valid business. Influencers who have built a true following are well worth the marketing investment for brands, and they provide HUGE value. You have probably seen plenty of sponsored posts in your feed. This helps brands gain exposure, gives them a great piece of visual content to use, and hopefully eventually converts to sales for them (although with any marketing or PR effort, sales should never be guaranteed. Someone may see the endorsement and buy now, or buy later. It’s all about the brand value and alignment between a brand and influencer). This may include content creation, a post on their Instagram feed, blog post, Instagram story etc. I have had several of these myself, and am extremely choosy with who I partner with since it has to be authentic to who I am and what I would buy myself. If I would give it to my mom, sister, or best friend, that’s a pretty good meter stick for if I’ll promote to my following. The brand will often track metrics from these campaigns to measure the return on investment or ROI, and/or will ask the influencer to provide stats after a sponsorship campaign.
SO, what is stunting influencer Instagram follower growth and engagement?
If you’re a blogger, Instagrammer or Influencer yourself, chances are you’ve noticed that it’s almost impossible to see any movement in your growth or engagement. This is happening thanks to a few factors: algorithm changes, business profiles and app fatigue being the main ones. So…
Hard work is no longer rewarded – it used to be that content is king. If you had solid content, and solid above board growth strategy, you would gain followers. However, with the new algorithm, it’s impossible to keep your content visible the same way it used to be. Many accounts are losing followers, even well established accounts with a real following have been seeing huge declines.
How does the new Instagram algorithm work?
Instagram only shows you accounts it thinks you want to see. The Instagram feed used to be chronological, but now, Instagram only shows you content they think you want to see. This is based on past likes (accounts you engage with), images that have a huge burst of engagement when they are first posted (Instagram then thinks this is a popular image and therefore more people should see – how silly is this). The same goes for the explore feed. The images you see here are based on who people you follow or interact with.
This is why comment pods are a HUGE strategy in the Instagram game. More on this, below.
Business Account vs. Personal Account
Instagram is owned by Facebook, and we all know how much of FB business model is about advertising. Instagram has recently implemented two different types of accounts – personal, and business. The business account gives you access to powerful stats (insights) like impressions, likes, comments, reach, follower geography and a contact button (and a swipe up link in stories if you’re over a certain amount of followers) in hopes of wooing those using personal profiles to switch over to a business account. Why you ask?
A) you must have a corresponding FB profile to start an Instagram business page (double the signups for FB)
B) Business pages receive less visibility in the algorithm, which will eventually force people to pay for placement in people’s feeds.
Instagram has had its heyday and people are not as fast to follow someone new; they are happy with who they follow, and are probably using the app less than they used to at its height. Just based on this, followership will not grow as quickly as it used to.
There are grey area ways to boost your growth (survival of the fittest, or sketchy? These are done at your own discretion)…
Hiring Services to Engage in a Negative Way
There are many services you can hire to automate certain negative practices such as following and unfollowing accounts (to get an account to follow you back, only to unfollow the shortly after), and liking images (this is automated, so the images these services usually like are extremely low brow) in hopes of getting likes and follows back. This exists, and I’ve seen SO many people partaking in this. I have gotten many emails from services who will do this for you at a low cost – many people do this in order to secure a bigger following, but the followers are not of quality. You can see accounts you follow that are doing this by simply going to your LIKE feed, swiping right to the “Following” tab. Voila, you can see everyone’s activity and probably some shady behaviour.
What are comment pods? They are groups of people who band together in private text or Facebook groups – when one person in the group posts a photo, they notify others in the group, and the members of the group go and comment on the photo to boost engagement. When the engagement is boosted, Instagram shows the content to more people, and the ball gets rolling. Many people are members of MULTIPLE groups, so you’ll see a huge number of comments on their images, none of which are truly genuine. Why does this matter? Because brands sponsor accounts who not only have lots of followers, but they also take engagement rates into account. So say an account has 5000 followers, and gets 500 likes on a photo and 50 comments… that seems like a huge engagement rate (FYI, many authentic accounts see a 1% – 5% engagement rate and engagement has dipped significantly thanks to the algorithm change) but these are likes and comments are all from friends, family and comment pods. Thus, any brand that sponsors this account will probably not see a true ROI.
Chances are, you’ve seen a million of these in your feed and maybe have either partaken as an influencer, brand or have entered one. A group of Instagrammers band together to pitch money towards one big prize (usually something on-trend like a MacBook, or a new Gucci purse) to giveaway. The thinking behind this is that you are tapping into 10+ fellow Instagrammers following, and in order to enter the giveaway the user must follow each account, and the Instagrammers numbers jump based on how many entries the giveaway receive – entry rules are different for everyone, but usually include that the entrant must follow, like the post, and comment on the post. Depending on the reach of each Instagrammer on board, this can result in big follower growth 200 – thousands of new followers. Here’s where it gets tricky… often times the quality of the followers are low. They are accounts that participate in tons of these just to win, and then immediately unfollow, they are accounts from foreign countries who aren’t ever going to participate in the Instagrammers account (go take a look at the comments on any loop giveaway to see what I mean), OR the Instagrammer makes a huge follower buy at the same time, justifying the growth of their account as the loop giveaway. More on this, below.
How are some users faking a following and likes?
This is the million (literally) dollar question. People have been buying for years, but they are more sophisticated now. Fake followers used to be easy to spot. They had a weird handle, zero pictures and a following count of thousands. To spot them in an Influencers following, you’d see a huge batch in a row. People used to buy followers, but they didn’t have a sensible number of photo likes to line up with their follower numbers, so it was pretty easy to spot.
These days, you can buy followers, likes to accompany them, and even fake comments (plus, combined with comment pods, things can look pretty real if you don’t know what you’re looking for). Now, there are SO many different companies offering this service that the accounts are tougher to call out. It’s much more difficult to know what these fake accounts look like. People are also buying in smaller and more consistent batches, which tricks the system, because if you look at data and graphs, the following looks like it could line up with a mention on a larger account, a giveaway or a big promo push.
Check the Data
Social Blade is an extremely useful tool to check out a growth pattern, and there are several ways to interpret the data.
First of all, ignore the health grade. That has no true meaning.
Secondly, look at the date by date Instagram stats summary – mine will show that I only gain and average of 13 per day for a monthly average of 390. Most days, I am losing small amounts of followers, as are MANY others in my space (thanks again, Instagram algorithm!). Fishy stats will show HUGE growth on certain days. I promise you that NO ONE is gaining 15K followers in one day, loop giveaway or not. My suspicion is that they do a huge follower buy over the same period as the giveaway to make it seem as if it’s from the loop. Sad thing is that multiple users are buying together so that they mirror the same growth and it collectively covers their butts should anyone dig deeper. I never agree with wrongfully ‘accusing’ anyone of anything, so please make sure you always cross reference their spikes by looking at through their followers, spotting the fake accounts and likes on individual posts. Data + common sense = power. I do not know if fake followers count as a positive towards Instagram’s automated algorithm, so I don’t know if it helps these users gain true momentum.
Third, the graph will show growth over 18 months or so. Look for huge follower spikes – unless Beyoncé mentioned them in one of her photo captions, we’ve got issues with the data. Technically speaking, if an account with even 1M users mentions a person, that person may receive between 500 – 1K followers on average. If you’re unsure, always go take a look through their followers and likes to take stock of their followers… do they look like fake accounts? Chances are, they are.
How else to spot an Instagram fake:
– Huge jump in likes on a photo right after posting
– Comments like “awesome”, “cool” or same people commenting on an image over and over
– Many strange accounts in a big grouping within their follower base
– Large growth spikes
So, why should you care, and what can you do combat this?
As a consumer, why should you care? Because you trust businesses and people with a large following. It’s human nature. It’s the same way people trust celebrities. If their following is fake, you’re being swindled. As a blogger, influencer, business owner, or marketer why should you care? You should care because you work hard, and fakes are taking work away from you, and if you are a business or marketer, money and product away from you. To put it bluntly, what is happening is fraud which, if we define it, is wrongful or criminal deception intended to result in financial or personal gain or a person or thing intended to deceive others, typically by unjustifiably claiming or being credited with accomplishments or qualities.
They are stacking the deck, they are making a mockery of our industry. It’s making it harder for those of us who are doing it the real way to gain traction. Those of us that put time and energy into creating content, building relationships, bringing true value to our audience who don’t participate in these fraudulent acts are simply put, losing traction.
Best practices for using Instagram to build a following:
• Like a photo and want to share it in your feed? Tag the origin in the caption. It’s awful to pass content off as your own
• Loop giveaways – grey area, but I do not partake
• Comment pods – same as above
• Don’t buy followers, likes, comments or automated engagement services!
• Share quality content, ignore competition, and keep moving to your own beat
• Quality over quantity – a small, engaged following is more valuable than a large, disconnected (or fake) one
• Build community and create true relationships offline AND online
• Bring value to the community your building through the content you share
• Respond to comments and keep social online – it’s called social media for a reason
• Share your personality in your Instagram story so people can fall in love with how special YOU are
• Innovate all the time and share your ideas with likeminded people
… I’ll also give you the same advice I practice with my clients… diversify marketing efforts! People will always want great content and they will always respond to marketing, but Instagram won’t be forever. Build up your email list, your blog content, your SEO and other social platforms.
PHEW. Feels good to get that all out and to start this much overdue conversation! I would of course love to hear your thoughts here, or on Instagram and if you want to use the #takingbackinsta hashtag to join me, feel free! As your thoughts and any other info rolls in, I’m open to updating this post as needed and welcome your feedback!