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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.