The Popularity Game: Instagram, Influencers and The Rise of Engagement Pods

Jan
16th

It’s no secret that Instagram is one of the biggest social platforms for influencer marketing. With each scroll through your Instagram feed, you’re bound to see sponsored posts, branded collaborations, or advertisements featuring the image of a blogger or content creator. It’s a platform that has helped to create the mainstream growth of the ‘influencer’ – a regular person who, through the content they put out online, amasses a following and in turn, has the ability to influence peoples’ opinions (a status that was previously reserved mostly by celebrities).

But like most things where money and competition for attention are involved, sneaky practices for growth ensue – and in this case, it’s influencers buying their followers, boosting their engagement with comment pods to fake their influence, and using follow/unfollow bots to grow their following… just to name a few.

And although these shady tactics have been a growing frustration for content creators and influencers who aim to grow their brand organically, this post is one I’ve been hesitant to write. Not because I wanted to shy away from a controversial topic (when have I ever been that person?), but because I didn’t want to write this post as a complaint – as whiny or ‘holier than thou’ or accusatory towards the influencers using these tactics (some of whom are peers that I really like as people). Because here’s the thing I realized:

I’ll never be able to control what other people do with their lives.

I’m not able to restrict how they use their social accounts or dictate what they should deem to be acceptable. None of us can. And if someone’s looking for a way to cheat the system to grow their brand? Well, that’s their shit to deal with. They know what they’re doing, and they’re taking that risk. And trust, it used to stress me out to no end – seeing the people that I know use shady tactics get big brand deals frustrated the shit out of me. But I realized that constantly stressing about what other people are doing only takes focus and energy away from growing my own brand… and this chick just ain’t got time for that. I’m busy growing an empire here, people. 🙂

But what I do think is necessary for our industry, is to talk about it more. To explore how the fuck we’re shaping these powerful platforms, and what we can do to make them better. Not point fingers or instigate a witch hunt, but openly discuss how certain tactics can hurt the industry as a whole, and as an influencer, can be seriously damaging to your personal brand as well. As content creators, we can shape the way the industry moves forward, and the best way to do that isn’t necessarily to name names of sneaky influencers, but to educate – educate new bloggers on the reasons why they should avoid unethical tactics, and also educate brands on how they can find creators with authentic followings that will give them a legitimate ROI.

You guys with me? Let’s get started…

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My blogger friends, my online influencer pals, my excited new content creators who are just launching their brands – this part is for you. To educate and provide perspective on the current influencer landscape and consider how your actions online can impact your personal brand.

First, let’s take a look at some of the tactics that users are currently using to fake their engagement on Instagram to appeal more attractive or popular to brands and other users:

  1. Buying followers – users boosting their follower base by using a paid application that creates fake accounts to follow that specific user.
  2. Buying ‘likes’ – similar to the above, but the bot will create fake engagement on the user’s post with likes from fake accounts.
  3. Engagement/comment pods – this is one of the newer tactics that a lot of influencers use to try and combat Instagram’s algorithm (which has significantly lowered post reach and impressions). Influencers will join a private group of users that usually communicate through DM, and once in the group, they agree to like and comment on each member’s posts. Might sound great in theory, but if you’re a brand that’s paid for a sponsored post from that influencer, you can’t view the likes or comments from the pod members as authentic because they’re REQUIRED to engage. Plus, the comments left are often vapid, mundane and have little to say about the actual post.

And the list goes on….

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I totally understand where the appeal is for new users to join engagement pods or use follower bots to try to keep up with the Joneses – the Instagram algorithm sucks and it’s now harder and harder to grow an audience authentically. You see influencers with a ridiculous amount of comments on a basic AF post and think it’s an easy way to do less work for more reward. But people are catching on. Brands are catching on. Most contracts I get now explicitly restrict the use of tactics or paid apps that skew post engagement. And to me, jeopardizing the reputation of my brand just isn’t worth it.

If you’re a blogger or new content creator that is considering using a follower app or joining an engagement pod, here are a few reasons why you would want to think twice (or five times) before taking that step:

  1. There’s no going back.
    Once you buy your followers or you join a comment pod, you set an engagement level higher than what you have, making it difficult to back out later and watch it all plummet.
  2. You can’t measure your audience’s actual interests.
    This is a huge one for me, and a main reason I won’t join a comment/engagement pod. The level of engagement I receive on a post or the conversations created around it helps me to determine what my audience responds to best. If I have the same amount of comments on every post from people that are required to leave them, how am I to tell if my content is actually resonating with anyone?
  3. It doesn’t translate to other platforms.
    You might ‘appear’ to be killing it on Instagram, but what about when you want to start a YouTube channel, or even try to launch your own product? If your following isn’t legit or your engagement is forced, you’re not going to be able to drive your audience to other platforms to grow.
  4. You can’t control your own account.
    When I first started using Instagram for my blog, I joined an app that allowed me to input different hashtags and locations and it would ‘like’ photos within those feeds. A few weeks in, my sister messaged me and said she saw I liked a hardcore pornographic photo on Instagram and I immediately kiboshed that shit. YIKES. Although the app didn’t skew any numbers on my own feed (it simply automated something I was already doing – liking photos from niche hashtags and locations I frequented), I hated that I didn’t have total control over my own account. Not worth it, friends.
  5. You’re jeopardizing your personal brand.
    Think of how you feel when you discover that one of your favourite athletes took steroids to cheat their way to the top. Or when you go to see your favourite performer live and notice they’re lip syncing. You view that person differently, right? Well the same goes for you and your personal brand. Skewing your engagement jeopardizes your reputation not only with fellow Instagram users, but the brands that you’re looking to partner with, too.
  6. It’s just kinda weird, yeah?
    I mean, let’s be honest – how turned off would you be by someone in real life who bought their friends or forced strangers to compliment them every day? How did we get to this point where we’re so obsessed with the perception of popularity that we’re requiring people to like everything we do? Perspective is key.

So just think about that, guys. Consider those things before you jump head first into an app that will grow your following overnight or a group of people whose content you may not even particularly love, but you’re required to leave positive comments on. Instagram can be a powerful tool for growing a brand, and the way in which you use it can have lasting effects (both positive and negative).

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As for brands and small businesses, influencer marketing needs to be part of your marketing strategy – it’s here to stay, and has never been more powerful.

That being said, it can also be tough to determine which influencers have a legit following and authentic engagement. And if you’re a brand who’s allocating part of your budget to influencer marketing, it’s important that you’re not wasting your money on people whose influence is inflated by fake growth/engagement tactics. There is no ROI in forced comments, there is no value in fake ‘likes’.

So when it comes to partnering with influencers for your next campaign, aim to find a content creator who is a great brand fit, coupled with a good, authentic reach. We already discussed the ways that influencers are able to alter their engagement and following, so let’s take a look at how you can find content creators that have a legitimately engaged audience and that will make influencer marketing work for your brand.

  1. Use Social Blade.
    Social Blade is an excellent tool that allows you to plug in any Instagram user’s handle and view their growth pattern. Massive spikes in followers often indicates the use of a follower app, as do big jumps in followers every few days (creating a pattern). Like all things, it’s not perfect, but it’s pretty damn accurate – you view the numbers and make the assessment for yourself.
  2. Analyze the user’s comments.
    If you’re looking to partner with an influencer who has a genuinely engaged audience, analyze their comments. Are people leaving valuable feedback? Is there a conversation being had around the caption or brands mentioned? Having 120 comments on a single post is great, but when the comments say things like “This makes me smile!” or “You’re such a babe” on a post where the user is sharing something sad or personal, it’s easy to spot whose audience is actually engaged (and who is just leaving a comment because their pod requires them to). Also, look at who is commenting – is it regular users on Instagram, or is it all just other bloggers?
  3. Look at contest post performance.
    You’ll sometimes see Instagram users partner with brands to host contests on their feed, with requirements to tag a friend or leave a specific comment to enter. Take a peek through the comments and see if they are actual entries, or random comments like “Nice!” and “So cute!” – actual entries mean the users have read the caption and entry requirements and are genuinely interested in what’s being offered.
  4. Don’t get stuck on numbers.
    Every brand wants to get as many eyeballs on their product/service as possible, but as this whole post has hinted at, numbers don’t mean shit a lot of the time. If you want influencer marketing to work for you, look for creators making quality content, who are starting a conversation with their posts and that don’t just have their audience engaging on one platform.

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What do you think?
Are you okay with engagement growth tactics?
Do they frustrate you?
How do you think brands should approach influencer marketing?


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  • Gabriella says:

    Really resonated with this post. I’ve been struggling with growth and it’s so frustrating when you see these activities going on and it seems so easy for some people. Just gotta keep doing me!

    xx gab
    pastelsandpastries.com

  • Kate says:

    Wow! Really well written, Lauren. I say this in every comment but I seriously love your posts. This one is great for me as I took a pretty big blogging break and have changed the direction of my blog a few times so my following has never really grown significantly in the last year or so. I have some nights after scrolling through IG wanted to figure out how to bring more exposure to my account, but I just can never bring myself to join a pod (plus, I have no idea how?!) or buy likes or whatever simply because of what you stated. I cant take it back and brands will see the dishonesty right away!
    Thanks so much for sharing.

  • Solianny says:

    Loved this. So many very popular blogger did all of this before Instagram changed their algorithm. It’s pretty messed up and dishonest. A few months ago I unfollowed a bunch of bloggers I liked because I realized they were doing all of this along with these follow loops, and comment pods is one that irks me the most. Great read and full of info.

  • Daniela says:

    Really well written. I’m trying to start a blog and Instagram is the only social app that I use. I was noticing that when someone followed me and I followed back two days or just one day later they would unfollow me. In the last couple days it was making me crazy. Thanks for opening my eyes I didn’t know that there is an actual app to follow and unfollowed people.

  • Chanel says:

    Former podder here and I left the comment pod business for the exact reasons listed here. First of all, it felt like a part-time job, and the pods I was in weren’t even that big. But having to constantly find something to say about photos I wasn’t really interested in was exhausting. And getting the same comments over & over was exhausting as well. I wasn’t really connecting with the people in the pods using this tactic. I would have a genuinely interesting (in my opinion lol) caption encouraging engagement and it’s like they weren’t even reading it because they had 20 other photos to comment on. Not knocking anyone who still participates in them, but having given it a try myself I’ve definitely decided it’s not the route for me. I’d rather work on figuring out what people really want to see/need from me & work accordingly. Thanks for sharing this post!

  • Chaun says:

    I loved every bit of this article…I have personally used a company who follows people of your niche and hashtags and etc but it wasn’t worth the money because these people still weren’t engaging. If they were engaging it seems the comments were so lame that most times I didn’t know how to respond

  • Janelle says:

    This article is amazing! I first came across your brand at Blogpodium and Ive been following you since. I teach Digital Marketing at RED Academy and this is a conversation I have with my students ALL THE TIME. How they can determine TRUE influence for campaigns they want to create, and why they shouldn’t fake the funk. Thanks for sharing this, it’s great to hear someone who’s actually considered an influencer talk about this in a honest manner.

  • Elizabeth says:

    Love this post! I’m so inspired by all the authentic bloggers (especially in Toronto) who are continuing to work hard everyday to grow their brand organically. I used a free trial once for one of those like bots and it totally freaked me out. It feels gross and weird! But also glad I did it so I never again feel tempted to buy engagement. Yuck.

    On the other hand I hope people don’t start regularly using things like Social Blade. After Chloe Morello put up that video calling out fake girls on Instagram I was like ohhh, here we go. I find it equally weird that some people are becoming a bit obsessed with calling people out. In the end it matters less to me who’s faking it because brands will figure it out and then it’ll all come tumbling down for that person. Eep. I’d rather focus on me.

    x

  • I’m so glad that this conversation is being had more and more by larger bloggers. It bugs me to no end to see the loop giveaways and watch bloggers that genuinely had good content before resort to these “growth” tactics instead of just being authentic and evolving over time. I try not to get so snarky about it but it’s frustrating, especially now that the algorithm has changed yet AGAIN, and being seen if you’re a smaller blogger is borderline obsolete. My focus is shifting back to my blog and building an email list bc I want a real community, not just a number.

  • Diana says:

    This post was seriously one of the best!! I have always believed in inspiring people from the heart. I don’t want to grow a fake following, I want people to follow me for who I am and what I stand for 💗 much love Diana

  • Thank you for writing this. I’ve been struggling with the numbers game and wanted to write on my blog about the frustrations of the follow unfollow game on instagram. It’s frustrated me to the point of wanting to close down my account.. but I didn’t… cause I love instagram💛✌🏼

  • Rhiannon says:

    Loved this article, Lauren!

    I’m a social media coordinator specializing in content strategy at an agency, and my team has struggled with battling all of these tactics for months. I really appreciate you, as an influencer, opening up about this! Authenticity is so important.

    People and brands need to consider their engagement rates when buying followers! Higher engagement with fewer followers is much more valuable.

    I’ve shared this write up with my team.

    Can’t wait for the Instagram live!

  • Natasha says:

    I actually joined a pod and I did not even engage. They actually got annoying and started arguing and I ignored it. The I just left the group. It is not worth it in my eyes. I am just going to post what I want and hope for the best.

  • Lindsay says:

    As the owner of a brand that has had some awesome and some terrible experiences with influencers this post was a good start for brands just getting their feet wet with influencer marketing. I’ve found the sneaky part of Instagram disheartening when deciding on which influencers to work with and invest in. We are a small, family business that has to have an ROI on each collaboration and these tips would have been so helpful when we were starting out! I look forward to more bloggers being accountable for growing real followings and actually providing value for their partner brands!