Instagram engagement: Why it doesn't matter

Has Your Instagram Engagement Tanked? Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Care

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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:

Instagram engagement
Instagram engagement

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.

Comment Pods

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.

Loops

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?


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Instagram engagement
Instagram engagement
COMMENTS
  • April 25, 2018

    I just love you. The authenticity in this post is SO DAMN REFRESHING!!

    Love love love
    xox

    • April 30, 2018

      Thanks, H! And I love you right back =)

  • April 25, 2018

    Yes, yes, and yes. I heart u. xoxo

  • April 25, 2018

    True words, sister! Social media in general can be incredibly frustrating. Comment pods are total wastes of time! I was in one for a minute but honestly, the pressure in having to drop what I was doing to comment on someone’s photo (who I don’t know or don’t really care about) was so exhausting that I pretty quickly just stopped doing it… and guess what? Absolutely nothing changed. Life goes on! Thanks for this post and for your voice, loved reading it! <3

    • April 30, 2018

      I noticed you weren’t on there much anymore, but didn’t know why! You just caught on a lot earlier than me 😉

      Don’t get me wrong: I loooooove Instagram Stories as it feels more authentic to me (or maybe that’s just because I broadcast my life in my PJs sans makeup and talk about the good, the bad and the ugly, ha!), but the rest of it can all go away as far as I’m concerned.

  • April 25, 2018
    LaCresha Kolba

    Yaaaassss!! Thank you for calling out the ‘fake influencers’. I appreciate this article & calming information in the crazy world of social media.
    Bless you & your continued success!

    • May 2, 2018

      Girl, you keep doing you and don’t worry about everybody else! (This is something I have to remind myself of on the regular.)

  • April 25, 2018

    Thank you for this! I was just thinking about this last weekend while working on a campaign–I was getting great engagement and feedback from followers on IG stories, not because I have a ton of followers but because the people who do follow me tend to be interested in the same things. I’d much rather have that authentic interaction than a bunch of followers who are there just for numbers.

    And I’m like you–I love IG stories. I have to tell myself to stop.swiping.right when I really need to go to bed!

    • May 2, 2018

      I pretty much stopped reading books because my bedtime reading is now bedtime IG Story swiping. #guiltypleasure

  • April 25, 2018

    AMEN to all of the above! Such a frustrating thing especially the part about people with other 100K posting non- in focus pics!!! Ahhhh

    • April 25, 2018

      Over**

    • May 2, 2018

      That’s why I love your stuff, Christie, and I know it’s frustrating hovering so close to this perceived milestone of 100K, but it makes me love you even more that you haven’t caved like everyone else just to get that bump 😉

  • April 25, 2018

    preach.

  • April 25, 2018

    I feel you and I’m with you.

    • May 2, 2018

      I’m sure you, like me, hate all the new “travel writers” and “photographers” (or so their profiles say) that have sprung about thanks to Instagram. What’s that saying about “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you a car?” DITTO to having a blog making you a “travel writer” or posting to an Instagram account making you a “photographer.”

  • April 26, 2018
    jan

    True and depressing but I have so few followers that it doesn’t matter lol.

    • April 26, 2018

      But at least they are probably quality followers! Again, I’ve never believed that the size of someone’s numbers are an indicator of actual influence.

  • April 26, 2018

    Totally agree it is frustrating. I tell my clients, invest in the real estate you own – your website. I just helped with a HGTV influencer event and agree with the end of your blog – insta stories seeing best engagement….for the moment lol. Sharing your blog 🙂

    • April 26, 2018

      Insta Stories are great as a supplementary storytelling tool but not necessarily worthy of spending big marketing bucks on. Thanks, Nancy!

  • April 27, 2018

    I’ve experienced so much frustration with working with destinations looking for “influencers” lately that I want to just go to sleep.

    • May 2, 2018

      That nap is going to last a couple more years, I fear, but at least the hibernation period is shortening.

  • April 27, 2018

    I become a bit depressed when I read all this. I have my blog for fun, I also have my Instagram account for fun. The fact that people employ bots to gain more followers & likes annoys me. The fact that I sometimes get the most random comments also annoys me. At the end of the day, what counts for me is that I see beautiful photos on Instagram and that I experiment with my own photos on there. Nothing else matters 🙂

    • May 2, 2018

      I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to depress you. At the same time, I know of so many people on the Gram who don’t realize why their followers are dwindling or why X account has so much more engagement than theirs when they put so much time and effort into it, so I wanted to expose the shady underbelly of this world.

    • May 2, 2018

      Also, I wonder if it’s more of an American thing to do (that constant quest for the “American dream” by way of financial independence and the flexibility to carve your own career path by starting a blog/Instagram). I don’t know this for certain, but a lot of the Grammers I follow who do this stuff are American and Canadian.

  • April 27, 2018

    Probably one of my all time favorite posts you’ve ever written, THANK YOU!

  • April 28, 2018

    OMG thank you so much for keeping it real with us. Instagram is so annoying now and I haven’t even reached 2000 followers in the 3 years. I am not down with fake followers, PODS, Loops, or buying followers. So it makes it highly frustrating when the fakes get all the follows and collaborations….Sigh ..Anyway this article was GREAT! Thank you so much for sharing!

    • May 2, 2018

      Thank you, Olena! I’ve just had it with all the fakery social media has created (Instagram isn’t the only culprit) and I’m trying my best to constantly remind myself of my reasons for having an online presence in the first place (to connect with others and to share travel/home/career inspiration).

  • April 28, 2018

    Great post and I can see how frustrated you must have been. Social media, at times, is a vortez: it sucks you in and when they are done with you, they spit you out. Those clients that drop you, because of numbers, are brain dead and will use any excuse that suits them.
    You have a loyal following, you are doing just fine!
    Debby

    • May 2, 2018

      Debby, you’re so kind! At the end of the day, Scott and I have always favored staying true to ourselves over making money, selling out or doing anything that doesn’t feel right to us, but it’s just frustrating when you see others with a totally different approach to business continue to excel in the industry. I just have to trust that karma will eventually come into play.

  • April 29, 2018

    I’m with you on the final outcome, I was in panic mode and now yes I just use IG as part of my overall SM presence with less engagement but at least I’m doing it on my own terms and for pure joy of doing the platform.

    • May 2, 2018

      Exactly, Noel! It was like a pressure relief valve opened the moment I decided to go back and use it for pure joy and not personal gain.

  • April 29, 2018

    EXACTLY! Thank you for putting into words exactly what I was experiencing.

  • April 29, 2018

    Yes!! I’ve always seen Instagram as such a fickle platform, and it finally seems like that might just be its downfall. I’m glad a lot of companies are recognising how fake it is and the dirty tactics, but it’s a shame so many still don’t get it.

    • May 2, 2018

      “Fickle” is the perfect way to describe it! I so agree with you, and I think the companies who aren’t recognizing it actually know what’s going on but are choosing to turn a blind eye, and that part is infuriating.

  • April 30, 2018

    Your wonderfully thoughtful post echoes what a friend recently told me about the impact of Instagram’s algorithmic changes. Great job pointing out the challenges of navigating the murky waters of social media!

    • May 2, 2018

      Thank you, Mary. I just want other content creators to know they’re not alone—everyone, know matter the size of their following, is experiencing similar frustrations.

  • April 30, 2018

    I love reading about stuff like this, so I’m going to tell you a secret Kristin.

    I’ve never been on Instagram. Ever!

    And why? I just don’t have the time for it, but most importantly, I just can’t be bothered! And yes, sometimes PR people ask about it, so I tell them that I’m not on Instagram.

    And neither are my (corporate / professional) readers!

    • May 2, 2018

      I love you even more knowing that fact, Victoria! Keep on rocking it!

  • May 2, 2018

    Thank you for sharing this! You have voiced so many of my frustrations with Instagram – and as someone who has a TINY number of followers, it’s great to hear that even those with large numbers of followers feel the same way.

    • May 2, 2018

      I think whether you have 300, 3,000 or 300,000 followers, you’re bound to get frustrated with a platform like Instagram that was taken over by a giant like Facebook and changed, but not for the better. At least we’re all in this together, right?

  • May 2, 2018

    I’m grateful we got to chat about all of this while you were in Bloomington. Thank you for sharing it again here too because it only reaffirms my choice to not obsess over Instagram.

    • May 29, 2018

      Me, too! Just keep doing your thing and make it fun, not work 😉

  • May 2, 2018

    Aaargh, Instagram. I really like it as a platform for showing off photos, but I HATE all the efforts to game the system for followers. It’s a total turnoff. I do think that sooner rather than later, the people who’ve used shady techniques to get followers are going to be exposed and embarrassed. I’m seeing lots of unrest really starting to snowball online. But yeah- In the meantime, it’s hard to see people making significant $$$ off Instagram who’ve clearly bought many/most of their followers.

    • May 29, 2018

      Same, girl. Same. I just want to post fun photos and have them be seen by the people who opted to follow me. I HATE the f/uf game so so much.

  • May 3, 2018

    At the end of the day, you just have to be true to yourself.

  • May 14, 2018

    I have been blogging almost two years and totally lost sight of WHY I started in the first place because I’m constantly being told Instagram is such a huge part of the game.

    It was very refreshing to read this post and so glad I stumbled upon your blog this morning. In just reading a little about y’all in a couple different posts, I know I need to realign my approach to blogging.

    Key takeaways – it’s my quality work and content creation that has true value, not some silly following or number. Thank you for sharing, Kristin!

    • May 29, 2018

      Exactly, Gina! Keep staying true to why you’re doing all of this and try not to let some silly, arbitrary number get to you. (Easier said than done, I realize!)

  • May 25, 2018

    All of this is so on point. I used to spend 1-3 hours a day trying every strategy in the book (never automation, but just about everything else listed here) until one day I realized that my time would be better spent crafting more quality blog posts, lol.

    • May 29, 2018

      It’s freeing isn’t it? Like, why was I wasting so much time on what is essentially a vanity project and not a huge driver of business? I’m glad we’ve both seen the light, Anna =)

  • June 1, 2018
    Christine

    I love this! I’m so frustrated right now! I work so hard on my blog and Instagram account just to see accounts grow ten times faster without even having a blog! Thanks for posting.

  • August 5, 2018

    I love this! My life for the past 5 years has been nothing bust stress…my supposed business account, has only fed my fear or irrelevancy and I am just now starting to really see how there could be a new way to look at all of this social media stuff.

    Thank you for such a supportive helpful read, its a struggle not to care but I appreciate your words, they have helped me just a little more 🙂

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