So you have 10,000 followers and used to see a 10 percent engagement on each post, which is pretty darn good as most people only return two to three percent organically, but now you’re just seeing one. You can’t figure out why your Instagram engagement is sucking of late. Has your content quality gone down that much? Or is there some other culprit at play?
If you’re a blogger, you’re likely going through the panic phase that I did last summer: “I used to get 1,000+ likes a post, and now I’m struggling to get 500. What happened?”
It’s not you, it’s them.
For a solid year, I devoted HOURS of each day trying to game the Instagram system, figure out hashtag strategy, draw new viewers to my account, engage with others who had similar accounts—you name it, I’ve tried it. But every time I’d feel like I was making some ground, BOOM! Instagram would go and change the algorithm again. It’s exhausting. Who has time, resources and mental energy to spend on all of that?
There are so many theories out here—shadow banning being a big one (I call BS on that)—so take mine with a grain of salt: Instagram is owned by Facebook. Instagram is a free platform like Facebook. Instagram has hit a point in its eight-year life where it wants to make money. But how do you do that when you’ve been offering users a free resource for nearly a decade? Answer: You freak them out so much they turn to giving you money to “boost” posts.
While I have 60 percent more followers today than I did a year ago, even fewer people are seeing my posts than did back then. For comparison:
The good news is … it doesn’t matter.
It took me awhile to come to this point in my Instagram life, but I just don’t give a flip anymore. I know that a donut is never going to perform as well as an outdoor shot, and you know what—who cares? I know some “influencers” have somehow collected 100,000 followers and yet can’t take a single in-focus shot, but why does that affect me? Answer: It doesn’t. Not really, at least (though, let it be known: I find it annoying to the nth degree).
The only time I see Instagram as being truly beneficial to a brand is if you’re one that has an e-commerce model or are a style blogger whose income is determinant on affiliate sales. The new “Shop Now” function has allowed e-commerce brands to actually peddle their products via the Gram, though Instagram’s change in API earlier this month has made it harder for rewardStyle Grammers to make the cash they were once used to through LIKEtoKNOW.it, which is why my advice to every influencer is always: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, and don’t rely on a platform you don’t own to be your sole source of income. Anything can change on a dime, as we’ve seen in the past decade of social media dominance.
If other brands want to continue to rely solely on these alleged “numbers” as a barometer for a campaign’s success, that’s on them. They’re the ones burning their marketing budgets on fake engagement.
This world of fakeness extends beyond just influencers—see last season of Homeland or, heck, even the 2016 election on how this so-called social media black market affects real life—but if all of this still sounds like a foreign language to you, let me enlighten you as to many of the methods influencers are using to up their engagement so they’ll get hired for projects by ignorant brands and PR companies looking for a quick hit for their clients.
A comment pod is a group of up to 15 individuals that forms an alliance of sorts via Instagram’s messenger function and uses the little airplane on their image to share it the moment it goes live. The assumption is that Instagram gives more weight to images that immediately see a surge in likes and comments after the post goes up and will potentially show said post in its “Explore” page. This may have been the case at one point, but Instagram knows all about pods now and, in my opinion, has taken actions to prevent this from actually happening in their highlighted posts.
There was a few months in time when I dabbled in pods as, I too, was freaking out about my declining Instagram engagement—not to mention, a major Canadian destination dropped me from a campaign after they reached out to me, citing: “our minimum thresholds for engagement and reach have changed significantly and based on the info you’ve shared with the reach of your blog and community, it no longer meets our minimum for a media visit, let alone a paid content partnership.” What they meant is: Your Instagram following count, while real, isn’t up to our standards; we’d rather hire someone with 300,000 fake followers to represent our destination. But that’s a maddening story for another day.
Then I realized how trivial Instagram was in the grand scheme of things and stopped wasting time on something that doesn’t bring me much beyond frustration in the first place. Why would I spend three hours a day interacting with other Grammers just in hopes of getting 700 likes instead of 350? It sounds so silly when you think about it. I’m so much happier now that I’m back to using it for the purpose I signed up for in the beginning: to share what I love about my life and to engage with others whose content I find inspiring.
Follow/Unfollow + Bots
Last summer, my lovely intern who is in his second year of college, noted that several travel bloggers who followed me had followed him. What’s up with that? he wanted to know. He’s not a travel account, so why do they care about his party pics from Chicago?
The reality is: They don’t. Follow/unfollow has long been a tactic that Instagrammers use to gain new followers with the assumption that if they go through and mass-follow a handful of users at once, then at least a large percentage of those users will follow them back. As soon as they see you’ve followed back (or, conversely, not followed), they’ll unfollow you. Last year, I did a takeover for a brand who clearly was using a bot to follow/unfollow as all the accounts they were following were Russian hookers. And if anyone with half a mind had clicked through and seen this, things could have gotten bad. (I went through and unfollowed all those spammy accounts for them.)
There are plenty of apps to automate this method that make it easy for an Instagrammer to do (Captivate, Cleaner and Followers+ being just a few). There was even a desktop software, MassPlanner, that was shut down last year that many Grammers used to gain substantial followings. Instagram eventually shut it down, but its users had already gained hundreds of thousands of followers and they didn’t lose them in the process. (MassPlanner’s replacement is allegedly Jarvee.)
My friend Lena proved just how easy it was to get likes a couple years ago by creating an Instagram account run by a potato and “renting” out bots to like and comment on her content. The end result was both fascinating and eye-opening to just how easy it is to appear as if you have a large and loyal following.
Because SVV and I are in the business of both being influencers and hiring influencers for several of our clients, he started a brand new account and signed up for MassPlanner for a month to see just how effective it was. In no time, he had 4,000 followers and was averaging 800 likes an image—more likes than my account at the time, which has been around for five years. As someone who puts a lot of time and effort into content creation, it’s frustrating to see how these kind of things can be so easily gamed.
FuelGram, Telegram and WhatsApp Groups
I don’t use any of these apps as I can barely keep up with the apps I do use, but someone added me to a WhatsApp group last summer, so I checked it out. It’s essentially used by Grammers as one large text thread of Instagrammers around the world who “drop a link” and then like all the other posts in the thread, as well. Again, WHO HAS THE TIME?
I’ll tell you why influencers are doing this, though: Because brands and agencies are often dumb—or at least, they turn a blind eye to what is actually going on in the influencer space. There was a company, Full Bottle, that offered “influencers” (I use this term loosely) the ability to plug a product and get paid based on the number of likes. This is a terrible business model—and one I was embarrassed to see many DMOs around Tennessee actually using (*face palm*)—as there are so many ways social media users can purchase “engagement,” what’s to keep them from doing it if there’s money at stake?
Luckily, most brands and destinations are wizening to the rise of the fake influencer and fact that Instagram was the hot app for a minute (or rather, a handful of years) and that’s no longer the case. They’re starting to recognize that promoting their product via strategically selected blogs is the best way, long-term, to reach the audience they want, and that social media is just a very small piece of that pie.
Still, others are operating on stupid. Just yesterday, an agency in Brooklyn reached out to me and a few of my Nashville friends wanting us to do a three-Instagram project for an insultingly low rate. Instagram projects aren’t really anything we are interested in doing in the first place, so SVV and I flat-out declined, while my two other friends wrote back and told them why their offer just didn’t jive. Their response? “For your knowledge, for our campaigns, we price out at a $14CPM using 30% as the impression benchmark for the campaign. If you share a screengrab of your top performing posts from the past three months and it shows that you reach higher impression rates than our 30% benchmark, we are happy to adjust and recalculate numbers.”
That is the most insane ask I have ever seen—paying a content creator by an estimated number of Instagram views that can so easily be skewed versus actually compensating them for the time and quality of the end product—but unfortunately some agencies don’t care about quality, they’re after quantity, in this case “numbers” they can show their client as ROI. If you’re a brand or a CVB that has an agency representing you, I’d advise you to check into how they’re communicating with bloggers. This agency in general completely turned me off from ever working with this brand in the future by being so smarmy.
If you’re interested in the best ways to measure real influencer marketing ROI, download this handy guide (it’s free!) that Jade wrote for Travel Mindset.
Facebook Engagement Groups
What Facebook engagement groups do is similar to pods: They allow you to “drop” a link to your post in the comments, then every other person on the thread clicks through and likes your post. Again, this will give you a surge in the numbers, but in general, what good is it doing you?
Let this be said, I’m not against engagement groups in general, because how else as a blogger can you break through the over-saturation of information on the web and let your content be found in the vast universe of the Internet. I’ve been lucky to have met so many awesome bloggers in my 11 years online who already share my content organically (and vice verse), and we try to support one another’s work. My mentality working in the media in general is that we’re stronger in numbers and writers/bloggers should find allies, not enemies, in their fellow content creators. Also, don’t be fake. It’s obvious.
If you follow any number of bloggers, you’ve likely seen the “follow all these accounts to be entered to win this amazingly awesome prize!” Loop giveaways have been around for years, and yet it seems like lately, everyone I know is getting in on them, likely because, like me, they saw their follower counts plateau or plummet last summer. They come with a pretty hefty price tag, too—I’ve had Instagrammers message me and ask for buy in of up to $600(!!!!), yet they promise a return in the thousands. But still: How do you measure the worth of 5,000 new followers and who has that kind of cash to burn on a giveaway? If I’m spending $600, it’s on a trip to the Caribbean for myself and nobody else.
Do they work? On the surface, yes. I have a friend who has seen 50 percent growth in just a few months by gaining new followers via this method. Are they truly engaged fans who are loyal to your brand and going to be interested in what you do going forward? Likely not. In fact, there’s a real possibility, they’ll just unfollow as soon as they realize they didn’t win said contest, and then you’re back where you started, only $600 poorer.
Your New Instagram Strategy
I could go on all day about Instagram, my thoughts on boosting posts, and how none of it is beneficial to 90 perfect of the accounts out there. But in summary, I’ll say this: If you’re using Instagram as part of your marketing strategy, you COULD do comment pods, like groups, loops, etc. Or you could, instead, adopt my mentality, which is that Instagram is merely a supplement to what I’m creating elsewhere. It helps me get beautiful content about trips I’ve taken in front of a new audience and add to the vast hashtag strata. Does it help leverage my blog traffic? Nah. I get very few click-throughs via my Instagram profile (#linkinbio), though I have found linking in Instagram Stories to be effective in letting my actual readers know that I have new content up, in a post-feed reader world.
So, I guess, 2,500 words later, this is me just telling you: I get you. Instagram is frustrating. But don’t sweat it. Really. (Easier said than done, I know.)
The good news is that I do think we’re on the downward swing of Instagram and fake influencers in terms of brands finally realizing the lack of weight Instagram actually holds and social media users tired of Instagram’s shady tactics of truncating content (even to my own mother!). They’re sick of trying to crack the code and ready for something better to take its place. So my advice to you is: Keep on using the Gram for fun if you like—I, for one, love Instagram Stories as I find it a great way to interact with those who have been long-time readers of my blog and actually care to see my content—but recognize how silly it all is at the end of the day and give up all the aforementioned methods if you’re actually employing them.
What’s your take on Instagram and the mental games the company is playing?