Instagram is a harsh, cruel, competitive world to be in right now.
There are millions of things fighting for your audience’s very limited, very superficial attention. Like Bitcoin. Or Trump. Or fluffy kittens. Who on Earth can compete with that?! Especially when the algorithm is literally eating you alive, when Stories and Recommended Posts are dominating everyone’s feeds, and your own content is becoming pretty much invisible.
These were the thoughts I was having the other month, on one particularly miserable afternoon, sad and alone, contemplating my Instagram, my followers, and my growth. And when I say “growth” what I really mean is all those followers that are unfollowing me and all those followers who COULD be my followers but they aren’t.
Again: not fair!
Now, what was the brilliant solution that I came up with that day?
Playing the follow for follow game.
I know, I know. It’s against the rules… Or is it? Doesn’t it often seem like a lot of big accounts became big by bending the rules a bit? Can follow for follow really help you build an audience? And be a sustainable growth strategy?
As they say, you never know unless you try. So I decided to try for myself and see if follow for follow really works. The goal was: follow 10 thousand people (yep! I aimed high!), wait until they follow me back, and then heartlessly unfollow them all and see what happens.
So if you guys want to see if follow for follow really works, read on! Because in this article I’m documenting each and every step I made on my follow for follow journey to (hopefully) eternal Insta-fame.
Time period: 3.10.2017 — 19.12.2017
Number of people I followed: 10,000
Number of people who followed me back: 2,051 (20,51% return)
Number of followers I had when I started: 1,478
Number of followers I gained: 3,529
Number of followers I have as I’m writing this article: 3,342
#1: Developing my follow for follow strategy
First things first, I knew I needed a strategy. Not having one is one of the most crucial Instagram mistakes you can make — and god knows, if I was to get shadowbanned for using dodgy follow for follow practices, I at least wanted to fail with dignity.
Now, when creating an Instagram marketing strategy, the first step is always the same: Audience Research. You’ve gotta ask yourself:
- Who is my target audience?
- What audience do I want to attract?
- How am I going to attract it?
For this experiment, I used my personal travel account, @therussianabroad, where the audience is primarily interested in, well, travel. That’s to answer the first question. As for the second, I wanted to attract more people who are interested in — drum roll! — travel. Which means that I didn’t want to follow for follow just anybody out there — I needed to find accounts that were similar to mine and whose target audience was similar to mine, too.
By spying on my competitors.
Luckily for me, Iconosquare allows me to do exactly that. If you go to Analytics —> Competitors, you can select up to 3 accounts (if you’re on the PRO plan and if your competitors have Business profiles) to monitor their growth, engagement, frequency of posting, etc.
I thus decided to focus on three specific competitors, whose followers I intended to steal (and I’ll explain how I did that in moment). It was perfect: all three post similar content to mine and have a similar audience.
Next step was to develop a content plan.
What am I going to post? How often am I going to post?
For that, I used these two Instagram marketing tools: UNUM, to plan my feed ahead, and A Color Story, to make sure my feed looks nice and pretty. Also: I decided to post once every 2-3 days, which I thought was often enough not to be too annoying.
#2: Implementing the strategy and monitoring the first results
Once I had a strategy, off I went!
Here’s what I did:
1. I went to my first competitors’ IG page. (I started with @whereistarablog.)
2. I clicked in a photo posted recently and saw a list of people who liked that photo.
3. I literally went down the whole list and followed everybody I could. There wasn’t one person I skipped.
I followed aggressively, because at first I hoped I could do this fast and be over with in no time.
However, this is where I faced my Obstacle Number One: Instagram’s follow limitations.
It appears that the platform only allows you to follow about 160 accounts per hour. And in case you’ve been following too many too often, that limit decreases, so you can be stuck at only being able to follow, say, 100 or 60 accounts in one hour. And then you have to come back to Instagram and follow the next 100 or 60. So in other words, you can’t use the dearly beloved “bulk method”.
And then, there was also a Truly Frightening Moment, when Instagram thought I was being spammy (I mean… duh) and told me this:
I thought I was blocked forever.
But apparently, you only get a 24 hour ban (phew!). I took this as a warning, though, and decided to chill and follow less accounts less frequently — which substantially prolonged my follow for follow experiment.
The first results? Well…
I posted the first pic on October 3, which got an average 5-7% engagement rate.
On October 5, when I started the follow for follow game, the engagement for that photo spiked to 24%, and I got 5 more comments from random strangers. However, the comments were kind of.. well.. have a look yourself:
Truth is, they reached a depth of meaninglessness I never thought was possible. And the more I continued to post, the worse it got:
I also got comments from people who were publicly thanking me for following them, which was a bit embarrassing:
At first I tried deleting them to hide my embarrassment, but then I thought I’d better embrace it because my account got literally flooded with them. #YouCantHideShame
However, the interesting thing was that people DID follow me back! In fact, I saw almost an instant increase in followers, and by the time I finished, I grew my followership by 139%:
In fact, my so-called “vanity KPIs” went up: my impressions went up by 267.93% up, my reach by 200.98% , and my average ER per post became 23.79%, instead of the usual 5%-ish. Which looks amazing “on paper”:
My community KPIs actually went down. Yes, I was receiving more likes and my followers were growing, but ironically, I was receiving less comments. And those I did receive were from the example I shared above: one-syllable, emoji-infused comments that looked like they were written by a bot rather than a real person. Comments that were also not adding any credibility to my account.
Lesson #1 learned: You can fake engagement, but you can’t fake community!
It’s a mistake to believe that numbers always reflect the actual status quo.
Another drawback was that my Instagram feed started to look like crap. I used to love scrolling through my feed before. The feed fed me the stuff I liked from friends and celebs. Now, however, my feed was populated with posts from strangers whom I chose to invite into my life but had absolutely no interest in. All those Brittanys, Marias, Marks, and Johns from travelbabes81, grabmypassport901 — I have nothing against them. But I couldn’t wait to unfollow them all.
So when I hit Instagram’s 7500 following limit (when that happens, you get an “Action Blocked” message), it was time to start unfollowing, to free the space for the extra 2,5K in order to hit my 10K target.
#3: The unfollow stage (it’s worse than you think!)
Following people is easy — you hit the button, and voila. And while you still need to do it slowly, it’s still relatively fast.
Unfollowing, though, is another story. There are no “legal” automation tools to unfollow the accounts (or follow, for that matter), as Instagram wants to protect its users from people like me. So the only way to do this is, again, manually. And each and every time you want unfollow somebody, Instagram asks you if you’re really sure you want to unfollow that person — which it thoughtful, yes, but is definitely an obstacle if you need to unfollow fast.
And again: if you unfollow too much, too fast, Instagram intervenes. I received yet another notification that I was temporarily blocked, which slowed down the process even more.
Lesson #2 learned: It takes approximately 3x longer to unfollow accounts than to follow them on Instagram.
Once I started unfollowing, I also noticed that people started unfollowing me too. I guess they’ve figured out I’m a scam.
By the time I follow-for-followed 10K people, about 4K followed me back. However, half of those people still unfollowed me somewhere in between:
And here’s a bit more frightening statistic: a month after the experiment is over, I’ve been losing followers like crazy:
Which leads me to the final learning of this experiment:
Lesson #3 learned: Once you’re out, you’re out.
Follow for follow on Instagram works like pods: you can boost your followers and engagement while you’re part of the game, but once you’re out, your numbers will look exactly the same as when you just started, if not worse.
Conclusion: Is follow for follow a good Instagram strategy?
My opinion: not really.
Yes, your numbers will grow in the beginning — that is, if you follow for follow strategically, reaching the right target audience, you can expect an increase.
But your community will suffer. Numbers are easy to fake, but if nobody really talks about your brand, shows any interest, replies to your captions, or posts meaningful comments — what’s the point in numbers?
Also, my personal note on the follow for follow practice: it’s terribly boring, extremely time consuming, and I swear I lost a few brain cells while doing this.
Finally, never forget: once you’re out, you’re out. Follow for follow is definitely NOT a scalable strategy for growth: you need to be on it all the time and NEVER stop — otherwise, you’ll find yourself exactly where you were when you started: sad, alone, on a particularly miserable afternoon, contemplating your Instagram.
Maybe it’s just me, but it just seems wiser to invest in developing sustainable Instagram growth strategies, rather than wasting your precious time pretending to be something you’re not. Just sayin’.