Why Cheating on Instagram Hurts Brands and Bloggers + Sunday Reflections Link Up

December 17, 2017

photo by Toni Hukkanen on unsplash

There’s no doubt that Instagram is the most important social media platform for bloggers/influencers right now. When I first started blogging in 2011 it was all about Twitter, but that has gradually been eclipsed by Instagram, a.k.a the biggest time suck ever invented. Scrolling through endless pretty photos is addictive beyond belief, and while for some it’s just another way to share everyday snaps of family and pets, to others it’s a very lucrative business.

Building a following on social media takes time, patience and hard work, but some influencers are taking sneaky shortcuts.

As a blogger, Instagram plays a major part of my social media presence. Whenever I apply for a blogger outreach opportunity it’s the number of Instagram followers that seems to carry the most sway of all social media platforms. Of course domain authority, page views and unique monthly users are also important, but without a strong Instagram presence most brands are reluctant to work with you. Building a following on social media takes time, patience and hard work, but some influencers are taking sneaky shortcuts. In case you’ve ever been tempted, let’s look at why cheating on Instagram hurts both brands and bloggers.

Buying followers

You’ve only got to do a quick google search to find tons of services offering “real”, “genuine” and “targeted” followers for a few dollars. That might seem tempting when you see an opportunity to work with a brand you really like but they only want accounts with more than, say 20k followers and you’re stuck at 5K. Buying followers gets you over that threshold but it won’t increase your engagement rate (unless you use a bot – more on that in a moment). In fact it’ll do just the opposite.

Plus the brand’s expected return on investment will be way short of expectations. 20k followers and only one sale? Brands will want to know why and most likely won’t work with you again.  Taking shortcuts can damage your reputation for years to come. In my experience, the best brands to work with look for a genuine, engaged following, and don’t just focus on the numbers.

Using Bots

Bots, or 3rd party growth services, perform certain actions for you such as liking, commenting, following and unfollowing. By taking this option you are basically handing over control of your account that you’ve worked hard to build. Some claim to target a specific demographic, but bots can’t replace a human brain. One inappropriate comment could do serious harm to your reputation. You can often tell if a comment has been generated by a bot because it will be generic, something like “I love your feed” or “great post”. Chances are a real human, and one that genuinely likes your post, will put in a bit more effort than that.

The Follow/unfollow Strategy

This is a subject that comes up time after time in discussions amongst bloggers. It’s one of the functions bots are used for. Basically, some Instagrammers will follow other accounts hoping to be followed back in return. Nothing wrong with that you might say. BUT, and this is the sneaky bit, they wait until you follow them back and then immediately unfollow you. Why? Well, having loads of followers while you only follow a handful of accounts makes it look like your content is so amazing that people don’t care if you don’t follow back. I’m really surprised some people still use this underhand follow/unfollow strategy given that apps like Crowdfire and Followers track who’s recently unfollowed you.

I’m always suspicious when I get followed by an account with tens of thousands of followers. Nine times out of ten that account will unfollow me a day or two after I follow them back. What exactly did they gain other than pissing off another blogger? And there are repeat offenders – not just the spammy accounts but bloggers in what I consider to be my niche of 40+ fashion. I won’t name any names, but I’ll just say that I’m disappointed this goes on in what is mostly a very supportive network.

Instapods or Comment Pods

This is a bit of grey area because there are Facebook groups I belong to which generate genuine engagement – private groups where we share our latest posts. I often see new content from my favourite bloggers pop up in these groups before any other platform so they are useful. What I don’t approve of is pods with tons or bloggers I don’t know (and quite frankly have no interest in their topic) using them purely to drive traffic, likes and comments. This tactic does not drive genuine, organic engagement and it’s misleading.

Often these pods are so eclectic in blog topics there’s no way you’d ever genuinely visit even half of them.

These pods usually require you to like or comment on all the other posts before submitting yours. Sounds time-consuming, right? So again, we’re back to using a bot or a virtual assistant to complete the required actions. Often these pods are so eclectic in blog topics there’s no way you’d ever genuinely visit even half of them. Why would I want to be in a pod with someone who writes about sci-fi for example? I loathe sci-fi (sorry Star Wars fans!) so it’s a dead end in terms of long-term growth.

How to spot if someone is cheating on Instagram

Spotting the people playing the follow/unfollow game is quite easy if you use a tracker app. I’ve heard of people blocking users who repeatedly follow/unfollow, even some who send DMs calling them out. I wouldn’t go that far, I just stop following back until they get the message. It’s annoying but not worth getting wound up about.

One way of seeing exactly what these IG accounts are up to is a brilliant site called Social Blade. You can put in any username (Instagram, Twitter and YouTube) and it gives you their stats over the last year or so. Out of interest I had a look at the account I mentioned earlier who’d followed/unfollowed me several times.

The graph in the middle shows how many accounts they are following. Notice the jagged section – that screams using a bot to follow/unfollow in my opinion, and I’m probably one of those being played. The top graph shows their following, which is less erratic but there are a couple of big jumps, particularly the one between January and April. Most likely this is because they bought followers. Engagement rate used to be a good indicator of fake followers but now that bots and virtual assistants can target specific demographics it has muddied the waters.

Why Cheating on Instagram Hurts Brands and Bloggers social blade instagram stats

If an account suddenly gains tons of followers alarm bells start ringing for me.

Most accounts have a smooth upward trajectory, regardless of where on the scale they are. If an account suddenly gains tons of followers alarm bells start ringing for me. A few months ago I noticed another well-known blogger (again in the 40+ community) gained thousands of Instagram followers in a matter of days. I wasn’t deliberately tracking this person, I just happened to notice when I was liking her photos. Take a look at the stats below.

Why Cheating on Instagram Hurts Brands and Bloggers social blade instagram stats

…I know that giveaways and shout outs can cause a sudden spike in followers but I don’t think that’s the reason in these cases.

The section I’ve circled shows a jump of more than 10k in three days! 24th October: 91.2k, 25th October: 93.39k, 27th October: 101.54k. I’m not brilliant at maths but even I can see that’s a MASSIVE increase. The stats below also shows how many accounts they are following. Notice how it decreases as their following increases. Doesn’t look plausible does it? Now I know that giveaways and shout outs can cause a sudden spike in followers but I don’t think that’s the reason in these cases. On the odd occasions I’ve done giveaways I’ve gained more followers across all social media platforms and when the giveaway has ended some followers stuck around, others (usually compers on Twitter) unfollow. That’s to be expected. It doesn’t tend to affect my Instgram account too much.

Why Cheating on Instagram Hurts Brands and Bloggers social blade instagram stats

My followers

For transparency, and to show you what an organic following looks like I’m sharing my stats too. As you can see the number of followers has grown steadily and smoothly. I haven’t got a massive following but I’m fine with that. I’ve never used shady tactics to grow my following and never will. I value quality over quantity.

Why Cheating on Instagram Hurts Brands and Bloggers social blade instagram stats for @thestylesplash

What you might notice in the middle graph below is a sudden drop in the accounts I follow. The reason for this is over the years I’d been followed by others who then unfollowed me and I didn’t have a tracker app. I’d ended up with 1.5k followers but was following around 3.5k accounts. This meant I was missing content from some of my favourite bloggers, all beacuse I’d followed back out of politeness and been played. So I had a massive cull and got rid of the players, plus most of the nail art accounts I’d followed when I first joined Instagram. Tastes change and evolve; I’m no longer into gel nails and nail art.

Why Cheating on Instagram Hurts Brands and Bloggers social blade instagram stats for @thestylesplash

Why cheating on Instagram hurts brands and bloggers

If you were working for a brand on blogger outreach you would probably look at an influencer’s social media following as a way of gauging return on investment. If someone has bought fake followers they are essentially lying to brands. Blogger outreach, whether it’s sponsored posts or gifting, is about getting exposure and generating sales. Being deceived by a blogger creates mistrust with all bloggers. When one blogger cheats they damage their brand and all bloggers by association.

Be patient, consistent, authentic and work hard. That’s the only way to real success.

I know most of my readers who are bloggers would never dream of buying fake followers or using bots. Our community is based on trust and honesty, but in an increasingly competitive environment it’s hard to stand out. When you can buy 5000 followers for $45 to get noticed by big brands, inevitably some will be take that route. I almost expect it from younger bloggers who want to make a career from blogging/vlogging, but I’m really disappointed that this goes on within the 40+ community. If you’ve ever been tempted to take shortcuts with growing your social media channels I’d urge you to think about the consequences. Don’t hand over the keys to your castle – all that hard work could be lost and your reputation damaged beyond repair. Be patient, consistent, authentic and work hard. That’s the only way to real success.

How do you deal with people playing the follow/unfollow game? Do you think Instagram needs to crack down on bots and fake followers? I’d love to know what you think!

This is where I link up!


33 responses to “Why Cheating on Instagram Hurts Brands and Bloggers + Sunday Reflections Link Up”

  1. Emma, such a great post with so much amazing information! I am right there with you on all of this. I have grown my IG following very organically and sit at just under 1,800 followers. I am okay with this because my followers are organic and engaged. I probably should do a clean out though of who I follow as I am sure I have been played early on and never did take the time to clean it out. By the way, have you established an account on Fohr Card yet? I love the analytics they provide especially with regard to organic/ real followers as well as demographic information and follower engagement.

    Thanks for a great post!


  2. Sheela Goh says:

    Well said, Emma. I’ve seen this so many times, and even bloggers that I respected (yes, past tense) have resorted to purchasing followers recently. I know we all try to keep up with the Joneses but no. I myself was blessed to have had a brand believe in me last March and work with me, and because of that, my following grew in leaps and bounds. I do have one thing to add to your piece though. Engagement isn’t always the benchmark, there are a variety of markers for measuring ROI with brands. Take myself for instance. I do not have as many comments, for every single post, and that is my fault because I don’t visit as many friends as I (know) I should. And there are brands that are alright with that because their campaign objective is mass awareness to lead to sales 🙂

    You have, however, nudged me into really thinking how I can streamline the whole process of engaging and participating within the community. They’ve built apps for posting on social media platforms, I wish they would build apps for helping us organise our time in such a manner that we can comment on blogs, etc., in a much more efficient manner 🙂

    Happy Sunday, love xo

    • Emma Peach says:

      It’s so difficult to keep on top of everything isn’t it? There’s never enought time! Yes you’re right about engagement though, and ROI might be a long game. If I see a blogger feature a brand once it might pass me by, but if I see a series of posts featuring that brand and I like their products I’m highly likely to buy something. Glad you liked the post Sheela, thanks for stopping by!

  3. This is such an interesting post! I have had so many people follow and unfollow me and I do find it very frustrating to wake up in the morning only to see that I’ve lost 10 followers! It is so time consuming to keep up with Instagram and blog and follow other peoples blogs (even the ones that I truly love). I love blogging and won’t stop trying to grow and be better and I believe you’re exactly right…I only want followers who are interested in my content! Thanks so much for all the hard work on this post!

    • Emma Peach says:

      I know, it is very frustrating and disheartening at times. I find it’s two steps forward and one step back on Instagram. Pinterest on the other hand is completely stagnant for me. I gain a few followers and lose them the next day. It’s interesting how different bloggers find certain platforms work better for them in terms of driving traffic to their site. I tend to concentrate on IG because it’s my favourite place to catch up with my favourite bloggers but it sends hardly any traffic my way. Thanks for stopping by Suzanne!

  4. Laurie says:

    A great topic Emma. I am a very slow grower on Instagram and as of today only have just under three thousand followers. It’s my least favourite platform although I love stories and taking part in those. I always feel guilty if I haven’t visited followers that have liked my post on Instagram! It always delays me in posting. Stupid I know! And yes a lot of following/unfollowing going on. I can say that it hasn’t affected me getting any work though. I have only had a few companies come to me via Instagram, so I don’t worry about it. xx

    • Emma Peach says:

      I really need to get into IG stories, I just forget about it to be honest with everything else to do. Also I don’t feel that confident with it yet, I’m a bit late to the party! It’s so difficult to keep up with interacting on all of the platforms, especially at this time of year! I try to do it in sessions otherwise my brain just has too many tabs open and I do something stupid, like taking my daughter swimming but forgetting her swim bag…yes I actually did that a couple of weeks ago! #parentfail

  5. Such a great post, Emma!!
    I have to admit that I don’t really track other people’s account…heck, I hardly have time to keep on top of mine. But it is such a time suck and I’m hoping there’s a way to make it easier!!

  6. I find the follow/unfollow game pretty annoying. Especially, when it is done by fellow bloggers whom you promoted to be followed.

  7. Wow. I learned a LOT from this post. I am fairly new to the blogging world and over the past year I have noticed some competitive nature but I really try to stay out of it. Sometimes I notice myself feeling bad but then I always try to remind myself that I started as a creative outlet for myself and also to document and reflect on my own personal journey as a mom
    /Wife/daughter/friend. I do have a full time job that I am dedicated to so I have to remember that my journey is different from invidiuals who have have a blog/social media as their f/t job which is wonderful but we are at different places and can respect each other in the places we are at. This was such a interesting and educational article.

    • Emma Peach says:

      Thank you Bojana! It’s hard not to compare yourself to others with more followers but it’s not a competition, although unfortunately some people do see it that way. I don’t measure success by numbers, it’s being part of a supportive blogging community that motivates me. Having a job outside of blogging certainly keeps it in perspective. Thank you for stopping by and commenting!

  8. Excellent post, thanks! You’ve answered many questions for me and I’ve learned a lot.

  9. This article really caught my eye and it’s something I’ve discussed with other bloggers. Growing organically can be hard. I’ve been sitting just shy of 2000 for a month and just can’t worry to much about it. anymore, I am very selective who I follow back because I just get tired of it. When I switched from being a nail blogger to fashion, a more experienced blogger told me that an IG blogger should have a 10% like ratio to followers. Now, I have no idea where she go her statistics, but I’ve always remembered that. So when I see someone with 12 thousand followers and they only have an average of 200 likes, I do start to wonder.

    Well, great post Emma. This is something that’s out there that those new to blogging should be aware of.

    • Emma Peach says:

      Thanks Terri, I’m glad you found it useful. I’ve also heard that a 10% engagement rate is the figure to aim for. I’m not sure how IG’s algorhythm affects this though – I notice that when I like someone’s post I see a lot more from them, which means I can completely miss others that I’d like to see in my feed. I wish IG would revert back to chronological order to give everyone a fair chance.

  10. jacqui says:

    Thanks for sharing – I’m coming back to have a proper read when I have five mins. Thank you Emma. x Jacqui

  11. Nancy says:

    What a study! I have to say that I can’t be bothered to much with the social media thing. It takes so much time. I do like IG though. I had a drop of around 1000 suddenly. And then I found out about followers who unfollow. Now I have a app and once in a while I unfollow the people who don’t follow me back. That’s all.

    • Emma Peach says:

      Wow that’s a massive drop Nancy! Definitely something fishy going on there! The tracker apps are very useful for seeing who’s playing follow/unfollow. When Crowdfire started charging for the IG option (Twitter is still free) I installed Followers, but I can usually tell who’s playing that game by looking at their bio and followers/following. They must think I was born yesterday!

  12. Tiina L says:

    Interesting post! I’ve never even thought about my Instagram following; for me, Instagram is for fun, it’s my personal playground.
    Well, I use all social media platforms for different purposes, and I want to see (and post) content that reflects that. For example. I love Instagram, and I post whatever inspires me, or catches my eye, with an outfit photo every now and then then to ’advertise’ my blog. But mainly I want to have different (from the blog, that is) content. Because what’s the point of posting the same stuff everywhere? I want my Instagram feeds (I have one connected to my blog and another for my ’artsy’ stuff) show a different side of me and my life.
    I also follow very few style bloggers on Instagram (because I read their blogs and don’t need to see the same stuff again), mainly just those whose blogs I don’t read (e.g. they might be in a language I don’t understand). Who do I follow then? Well, artists, photographers who post landscape or architecture pictures, cute kittens…

    • Emma Peach says:

      Yes I know what you mean, I do mix things up a bit on my social media channels, but outfit posts get the most likes on IG. When I post animal pics I get a few animal-themed accounts follow me, I follow them back, then they unfollow after a few days. It’s the nature of the beast I suppose.

  13. stephanie says:

    I despise the follow unfollow its like I am sorry I can tell you are only following me for that spike in followers. So I don’t bother, unless they comment genuine comments or like a few pictures even then I don’t follow back right away. Why bother when they will unfollow in 24hrs anyways. As far as comment pods, I have found some awesome bloggers and joined for the sake at first of seeing other content out there in my niche. Which was great, then the “you didn’t comment here.” or you didn’t like there started and it is like this isn’t what I wanted.The engagement is nice and I have met some great bloggers though a pod or two. But some just became work instead of encouragement. I’m kind of burnt out on them. And so I go days without engaging in them. people using coment pods do not bother me, but follower buyers, bots, and follow unfollow do. But since Instagram is going to start cracking down on the pods, I think it is a great time to say I am finished with a lot of them. plus, Instagram should be fun, it isn’t anymore.

  14. amy says:

    The follow/unfollow thing drives me crazy! I’ve complained to Instagram numerous times about it, but the don’t seem to care. I just don’t follow anyone back unless I’m really interested in their content or I have some type of relationship to them.

  15. miri says:

    What a great article, Emma. I think it is good to talk about this and I also think that Instagram will be soon replaced by another social media app.

  16. Well said Emma. I agree 100% ……am also really pleased to be part of Fohr, as an Influencer, because they let brands know that your following is “authentic” and you get a badge of honour! The bloggers with un-authentic followers will be found out. It’s frustrating that growth is so slow, especially when you see others going up in leaps and bounds, but patience wins through in the end. (BTW the only reason I have a high-ish figure is that Instagram featured me a year ago, I had a huge spike overnight, since then it’s been slow and normal!) Merry Christmas everyone and big love Emma.


    • Emma Peach says:

      Shelbee reminded me about Fohr card so I updated my profile – I didn’t realise it was so detailed! I remember you being featured by IG, that was great exposure – and well-deserved! Shout outs and giveaways are good for gaining a chunk of followers, and hopefully most stick around. Wishing you a very Merry Christmas Suzi! Hope we get to meet up again in 2018 🙂

  17. Amy Arnold says:

    I need to look up Social Blade. I don’t understand the follow/unfollow thing. Instagram is so confusing!

    Amy Ann
    Straight A Style

  18. This is really interesting, I just pinned this because I want to come back to it later when I have more time. And, I may check out that Social Blade, which I think I’ve heard of, but I just haven’t had time to take a look at it. Thanks for sharing!!! I really try not to judge or compare myself to other bloggers, I know everyone is just trying to make a living and do their best. It is hard to stay on top of the game, so I am sure the temptation to buy followers is real. I would be afraid to do that, but I do enjoy hosting giveaways occasionally!


  19. Laura says:

    I’ve heard of this happening but I didn’t know you could see the statistics drawn out like that for accounts! How interesting!

  20. Thanks for linking up to Top of the World Style. I wish you and your loved ones happy holidays and a happy New Year. Nicole at High Latitude Style

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