When did people start judging each other based on their number of Instagram followers? It is not unusual to be asked for your Instagram handle immediately after being introduced to someone new. We all know what comes next, their phone comes out, and your conversation is interrupted as you watch as you are judged based on your popularity on an app, right in front of your own eyes. There is the smug smile when they have more followers than you, or the quiet contemplation when they are impressed. Instagram has distilled our popularity into a number that anyone can look up online.
I started blogging 6 years ago simply because I love writing and I wanted a creative outlet. After four years of hard work and hundreds of blog posts, I had built my blog and professional connections to the point where I could quit my 9-5 to pursue blogging as a career. Around the same time, Instagram began its takeover.
When bloggers started to amass thousands of followers, brands caught on to the fact that Instagram was a powerful tool for reaching potential customers. Brands started to tap bloggers for sponsored Instagram campaigns. Once money was on the line, everything changed. Instagram marketing companies sprung up and just as long as you had 10,000 followers or more, you could start getting paid for posts. As everyone raced to get the coveted 10,000 followers, a market for “Instagram management” tools was born. These companies promised you more followers and more engagement. You just needed to pay $30 a month and spend five minutes setting up an account.
Some of these automated “bot”services (including Instagress) have been shut down, but they worked under the premise that if the service liked and commented on thousands of photos a day on your behalf, some of those people would start following you. And it worked. If services like Instagress didn’t work quickly enough, other services sold bundles of followers at a bargain price. You were just $150 away from 50,000 followers – and a new income as an Instagram influencer.
Before Facebook bought Instagram, you could count on periodic account clean ups where purchased followers were systematically removed from accounts. This leveled the playing field again, and brought temporary embarrassment to those who bought followers or used bot services. Once Facebook purchased Instagram these follower purges ceased, and Instagram quickly became unregulated and unchecked.
With so many people cheating the system, the bloggers and influencers who were not using bots or buying followers started to lose out. Instagram became the go-to way for marketing companies and brands to find potential collaborators. Many bloggers started losing gigs to people with more Instagram followers, despite the fact that their websites had always been their primary platform.
It wasn’t just about paying gigs, it was about access to events, freebies, and all expenses paid vacations. Events that used to be filled with traditional journalists and a handful of relevant bloggers were suddenly filled with anyone with over 15,000 Instagram followers – “Instagram Influencers” as we call them. The problem was, how did these people build their followings seemingly overnight and how would their Instagram posts help the company sponsoring the event?
One of the biggest challenges with Instagram is that it is incredibly hard to track the return on investment (ROI). Brands know that sales are tough to track through Instagram, so instead of ROI they are seeking the elusive “exposure”. Brands want to see the Instagram posts they sponsor to perform well. This only feeds the need for the bots since Instagrammers want to impress brands with their engagement level to secure more paying gigs.
Even if brands find legitimate influencers to collaborate with, Instagram should be part of an overall marketing plan, not the entire strategy since Instagram posts have a short lifespan. Brands seem to conveniently ignore the fact that Instagram is a fast moving platform that is not indexed by Google. The new algorithm shows posts to only a fraction of someone’s followers. Couple that with the fact that Instagram moves so quickly that a post is dead and buried within 24 hours and Instagram posts seem like a riskier marketing investment.
Why are brands investing their money on Instagram posts when they can sponsor blog posts? Unlike Instagram posts, blog posts can be indexed by Google meaning that they show up in online search results garnering long term organic engagement. Another plus is that blog posts can be shared on Pinterest. Unlike Instagram, Pinterest is effective at driving traffic to websites, and the platform allows for exponential growth and reach since each time something is “pinned” it is shared to that person’s followers. Even if someone only has 5,000 Pinterest followers, their overall reach can be as high as 4.5 million users. Shockingly, despite the host of advantages of other platforms, some brands are still primarily focusing on Instagram.
The only winners in the Instagram game seem to be the people who are cheating it. People with inflated follower counts and engagement are stealing gigs from bloggers who specialize in long form content created with SEO in mind. Brands are blowing marketing budgets and seeing less return on investment than they might if they used different tactics.
So where do we stand? Brands are ignoring talented bloggers and focusing on an app that equates someone’s popularity to a publically available. Those of us who have been patiently waiting for the world to tire of Instagram Influencers are becoming increasingly frustrated. Although many of the bot services have been shut down, some are still around. Worst of all, Instagrammers who cheated their way to six digit followings have held on to their followers.
Instagram can be utilized as a marketing tool to increase brand awareness, but brands need to choose influencers wisely. Before hiring an influencer, check their account for suspicious activity. If someone is liking photos all day long, and they aren’t very compelling images, it is most likely bots at work. Keep in mind that some people only turn the bots on overnight to hide their bot use from the public. Another sign of bot use is an abnormally high engagement rate. A normal level of Instagram engagement is about 1-2%. Anything above that is cause for concern.
Since bot use that involves constant liking of images is publically visible, the sneakier Instagrammers are just buying likes on their posts. Prices start at just $1 per 100 likes, and the services automatically track when you post and likes your photos boosting your engagement. And thanks to the new algorithm, the more people who engage with a post, the more that post appears in peoples feeds. This is a subtle tactic. Maybe only 10% of someone’s engagement is purchased – but all they need is that extra boost of likes to show up in more peoples feeds which will then lead to organic engagement. Click to see who is liking photos, fake accounts tend to be easy to spot.
My advice to brands? Work with Instagrammers who have a following outside of Instagram. It’s much harder to fake your way to success on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or most importantly your own website. Do some due diligence and look beyond an influencer’s Instagram following. Check their Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Blog numbers. Websites like WorthofWeb.com can provide an estimate of someone’s website traffic. SocialBlade.com tracks changes in Instagram users’ follower counts so you can see any surges in followers, or bot activity of constantly following and unfollowing people.
And to the bloggers and Instagram Influencer hopefuls out there, remember that Instagram is just an app. When used correctly it can be a component of an overall strategy, it should be part of a larger ecosystem. It shouldn’t be how you value yourself or others. Instagram is a popularity contest where people show the world the shiniest, glossiest, and prettiest moments of their life and beg for attention in return. With any luck, Instagram will be replaced with something more authentic – and harder to fake. I recommend focusing your attention on a personal blog, something that you own and control, and can develop into a source of passive income.