Instagram. It’s not only the 2nd largest social network, it’s also seen a huge growth in influencer marketing spend on Instagrammers who yield great influence. No wonder why a huge industry has been formed feeding those who seek “influence” through purchasing fake followers and engagement. This partially explains the large number of people who only follow a few people yet have thousands of followers. On the other hand there are a number of others who seem to have an interest in you and follow you only to unfollow you soon thereafter. The art of following on Instagram seems to be a very different beast when compared to other social networks.
As a business or person who wants to grow a larger community on Instagram just like you do on any other social network, how do you navigate this completely different environment? How do you yield more influence both in Instagram and within your own Instagram follower community there?
As part of writing my book on influencer marketing, The Business of Influence, I have spent a LOT of time both doing research as well as engaging on Instagram myself in an attempt to better understand Instagram communities and what makes Instagram users tick.
On this podcast I first compare the concept of an Instagram follower policy with that of other social networks and then focus on detailing my experience on Instagram to help you create a policy that will help you grow Instagram followers and engagement. This is by far my longest podcast episode ever, and at sometimes you might not follow my thought process, so please listen until the end where I assure you it all comes together! Feel free to view the show notes below as you listen to this week’s podcast.
Welcome to another exciting episode of Maximize Your Social. I really like this rhythm of having my own Social Business Unplugged, the original name of this podcast, monologues combined with interviews with experts in the industry I truly respect. There are a lot of podcasts that just focus on interviews. Some in social media just curate other people’s content without having an opinion of their own. I want to make sure this podcast stays balanced and always has my own personal perspective and point of view stamped on every episode. This is why it’s important for me to maintain these monologues while still offering expert interviews on every other podcast.
There’s a lot of great stories out there and no one has a monopoly on storytelling. You should be listening to as many podcasts and reading as many books as possible because there’s so many different perspectives out there and we grow as humans and professionals by being bombarded by different opinions and perspectives on similar subjects.
Today’s Topic of Instagram
Today’s podcast is going to be about the topic of Instagram and I really want to zero in on Instagram following and followers. Instagram is my most strategic social network right now. Its where I tend to spend most of my time when I engage in social media. I find tremendous benefits both personally and professionally and it really is the focus of the influencer marketing industry which I am currently writing a book about.
Part of the reason I spend a lot of time on Instagram is for my own R&D, myself, my brand, and my clients to better understand how influence and influencer marketing works on that platform.
The follower/following phenomenon is a very interesting subject. I’ve been on Instagram for about five years. I’ve gone through a lot of different phases on Instagram, and perhaps you or your business is in one of these different phases of launch, growth, pruning, focusing on increasing engagement, etc. If you are a personal profile you inevitably begin your Instagram experience by connecting with Facebook friends and phone contacts on Instagram and before you’ve even published your first post you are already following a few hundred people and have very few if not zero followers.
A lot of what I will talk about here is what I also talk about with Twitter following and LinkedIn connection policies and I have been talking about LinkedIn connection policy since 2009 because it is really the same concept (you can read more about that concept in this blog post I wrote about maximizing LinkedIn). At the end of the day, you need to have your own policy as to how you want to use Instagram (Personal, business or both?). You need to have a policy about who you are going to follow and when someone follows you, are you going to follow them or not? Should you consider unfollowing at certain times? And what type of Instagram branding? What about your follower vs following ratio – a topic I explain in this blog post on Twitter followers vs. following ratio.
Instagram is a ‘special beast.’ There are many influencers on other platforms who I am connected with on Facebook or Twitter who will not follow me on Instagram despite my efforts to follow and engage with them on Instagram. At first, I was a little bit bitter but now I realize this is because Instagram is a ‘special beast.’ This is why your follower/following strategy/policy on Instagram is going to be vastly different than on any other platforms.
LinkedIn Connections Relevance and Engagement
Lets first talk about limitations. On LinkedIn, you are limited to 30,000 connections. For a lot of my clients, I create customized playbooks like my social selling playbook for LinkedIn and other networks to work out how many connections to consider connecting/following on a regular basis. A best practice might be to consider following anywhere from 10 to 100 targeted users a day. Of course, LinkedIn will slap your wrist if you try to invite too many people too soon and not everyone will except your invite. Even if you manage to send out 100 LinkedIn connection requests and get a 50% success rate, this will mean going through 60,000 invites to get to 30,000 connections. 60,000 invites at even 100 a day will take you almost two years!.
If you are a power networker, something I have talked about in length about in my book ‘Understanding, Leveraging & Maximizing LinkedIn’ and I still cherish and employ, you may be at a point where you need to prune your connections. I have a podcast on this very subject: ‘Why It’s Time to Prune Your LinkedIn Connections‘
It may be time to prune your connections, even if you are not at the 30,000 limit. These are evergreen concepts which are applicable to different networks but applied in a different way with each network. I was at 30,000 connections on LinkedIn and I connected with a lot of people as a LinkedIn open networker. Some of these connections were undoubtedly fake profiles as well as recruiters who wanted to acquire the greatest network possible to have visibility and access into a lot of people. If a third of these connections were irrelevant, when I publish on LinkedIn, that third of my audience won’t engage with my content and therefore my content will not get exposed to the large potential it has for exposure on LinkedIn. In other words, my engagement is already being reduced by the same percentage of irrelevant connections I have in my network.
As with all social networks, LinkedIn takes a data sample – a percentage of my connections – and sends that content to them after I publish. If no one from that data sample engages with the content, no one else will be able to see it as LinkedIn will simply stop introducing it to my network and instead introduce more engaging content from other users. The size of your community is obviously important but quality is even more important. If the quality in the relevance of your connections is not there, your content is only going to be seen by a limited number of connections. This is the way that pretty much all social media algorithms work.
The Concept of Pruning Connections
Also, if you have been on LinkedIn for a few years, you may have tweaked your branding or you may now be in a different industry or role. That’s why pruning connections on a regular basis or disconnecting with irrelevant people while simultaneously connecting with new people in order to increase engagement rates for your content is something I do on a daily basis, especially on Instagram.
This pruning process to increase relevant engagement can be applied everywhere. Two podcasts ago, I talked about the freshness of content and the notion of deleting irrelevant content from my Maximize Social Business website to increase search ranking and relevance with Google. Maybe you have cold email subscribers that you regularly delete to increase the relevance of who gets your email marketing messages. This same concept is applicable to social media today. I believe it is a best practice, especially so for Instagram, which I will discuss in a bit.
I don’t mention this in the podcast, but the other benefit to pruning above and beyond increasing the engagement for your content is to help you better manage your own community and engage more with their content by focusing on following fewer people. More on that when I talk about Instagram further below.
Twitter Followers Relevance and Engagement
With Twitter, there is no limitation. There is the 2,000 follower limitation (you must acquire more than 2,000 Twitter followers to be able to follow more than 2,000 people), which is pretty easy to overcome over time. Twitter is by far the most open network with the fewest restrictions. That being said, you shouldn’t be too aggressive and it is best to follow no more than 100 people a day until you reach a certain mass number of followers.
LinkedIn will show you how many connections you have. When I do social selling training, my goal is get clients to 500+ connections on LinkedIn. With Twitter, everybody sees your follower/following ratio. That ratio will become part of your personal brand. You can’t just follow 10,000 people if you only have 5 followers – this will make you look really bad. On the other hand, if you are a new brand with 10,000 followers, who only follows 5 people, and no one has ever heard of you, you might be seen as having purchased fake followers. I believe it’s important to show real, relevant potential followers that you follow back. I have nearly 220,000 Twitter followers and I follow about 80,000 for that reason.
The argument for pruning Twitter followers is different than LinkedIn. I don’t expect every Twitter user to read all of their tweets in their timelines. Not every tweet gets seen. A lot of views and engagement come from searches, not timeline/profile views. This is why you can be a little loose with connection policy and follower/following ratio on Twitter and still get engagement from your tweets.
Facebook Limitations, Pruning and Engagement
When we talk about Facebook, the limit is 5,000 friends. You can have more than 5,000 followers of your personal profile, should you wish to enable this feature. There are no limitations for Facebook pages but you can’t follow people with them. The same applies to LinkedIn company pages.
Over the last few years, you might have seen some social media influencers start to prune their friends on Facebook. This is because some never engage with them and others may not be engaging any more. As with LinkedIn, you should prune to get maximum engagement on Facebook. B2B sellers should prune their LinkedIn following daily but it is important on Facebook, too, due to the 5,000 friend limit.
I tell people and I mention this in my first LinkedIn book, that just because I disconnect with you on LinkedIn or I don’t friend you on Facebook doesn’t mean we are not friends. It may be that we use social media for different purposes, that’s all. But the social media connection is only a virtual one, not a physical one.
Why So Many Instagram Followers Yet So Few Instagram Followings?
There is also the notion that there are two different types of social networks that exist and why Twitter and Instagram are more engaging for profiles (something I will cover in more depth in my upcoming ‘The Business Of Influence‘ ) than LinkedIn and Facebook for companies. Compared to Twitter, however, Instagram does have a limitation: You cannot follow more than 7,500 people. When I began writing The Business of Influence, I found people with tens and thousands of followers on Instagram who I had never heard of. Some didn’t even have a blog post or a website or even a You Tube channel. I wondered how they got to be where they are on Instagram today. How did they acquire this many influencers when they don’t follow that many people?
Obviously, one way of building up a community is through ‘social signals’ One tactic used for that along with commenting and liking, is to follow people.
One of my social media consulting clients was a Grammy award winning musician. When I look at his Instagram profile, I get why this happens. He has a few hundred thousand followers and he follows several hundred people. Of course on Facebook and Twitter he has a few millions fans and followers, so this translates over. But how do other people get to where they are by following so few people if they are not famous on other social networks? This raises the question as to how many of someone’s followers on Instagram are real. You can always buy fake Twitter followers but Instagram has further accelerated the gamification of follower count. Having lots of followers on Twitter isn’t nearly as valuable today as having a lot of Instagram followers because of influencer marketing spend going into the platform.
Instagram has become extremely popular for brands to utilize for marketing. Therefore, for Instagram influencers there’s free product to be had, there’s money to be had, and therefore, all of this is what fuels the influencer marketing industry – and the fake followers industry in tandem.
I wrote this ebook about how artificial intelligence is really revolutionizing influencer marketing. By using different data points, we can now help brands find out if their followers are real or fake. There’s also a great service I recommend called Hype Auditor and another for Twitter users called Twitter Audit. You can see how many of your followers are fake and block them if you need to.
The Importance of Instagram Engagement
We should have self-imposed limitations like having a follower/following ratio in terms of personal/professional branding. Whether you are a business profile or personal profile on Instagram, you are still limited to 7,500 followers. We have the notion of pruning to maximize engagement and once again, even more so than on Twitter, brands are really looking at the amount of engagement on profiles. Just as you can buy fake Instagram followers, you can buy fake Instagram engagement. Even if you don’t buy that engagement, there are ways of gaming the system to garner that engagement.
There are few blog posts about ‘Instagram Pods‘ which I do not recommend engaging in but I do recommend understanding. These ‘pods’ generate a lot of engagement because brands are looking at what type of engagement does your content have. Even if you have only 5,000 followers, you might already gain a certain amount of micro-influencer status. The next question, then, is how much engagement do you get from those followers to sustain that status as an influencer.
The 1.5% Instagram Engagement Rate Standard
A 1.5% engagement rate is seen as an engagement standard, so when I see someone with 20 or 30 likes on their last post yet they have thousands of followers, that is an immediate red flag that they bought fake followers even though this may not be the case. This is another reason why you should reduce your followers if they are fake or irrelevant and if they don’t engage.
This is one way we begin to look at the importance of follower/following ratio and average engagement rate. You want to get to 1.5% engagement on most if not all of your posts. The golden sign of fake influence is when someone gets the same approximate engagement rate on all their posts. If I post a photo of my ‘Maximizing LinkedIn for Business 2018‘ ebook , it gets a lot less engagement than when I do a selfie and my selfies lose out to my sunset and business trip pictures.
1.5% is considered the average, but you really want to aim for 3%, which is considered doing very well. It’s about getting to that engagement ratio that proves you are building an engaging tribe on Instagram. Are your followers seeing your photos and videos? if they’re not, it makes no difference if you have a large following. If brands want to hire you as an influencer, its because they look at your Instagram activity and consider you an influencer. Even if you don’t want to become an influencer, your business should become more influential. I’m working on a chapter about this in ‘The Business Of Influence.’ That’s why this podcast and book are both geared towards brands and people because influence in social media is equally valuable.
It Might Be Time to Prune Your Instagram Followings
Assuming you are already on Instagram and already follow a lot of people, if you follow way more people than follow you, you need to step back and look at all your followers. Why aren’t they following you back? I will follow influencers that don’t follow me back because I don’t expect them to. I don’t expect Leo Messi to follow me back but I like to see his stuff in my timeline! I know my son enjoys it every time I show him a Leo Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo post! The sign of a true influencer is when you don’t expect them to follow you back yet still continue to follow them, right?
An anecdote that influenced me is a small business that responded to a Twitter follower/following ratio post of mine. They said that a strategy of following back very few people on Instagram worked really well for them. When they pruned their followers and only followed back 10% of those that followed them, they started to get a lot more followers. Its social proof that people perceive these people or businesses as more influential and won’t unfollow if they follow back.
The first thing is understanding this 7,500 limitation and to make every Instagram follow count. You should not follow people through abstract keywords like #instagood. There is a lot of keyword spamming on Instagram where people use hashtags like #influencer marketing, #Instagramtips and #influencer to get more eyes on their giveaways. When we try to build our engagement, early on in Instagram, we might even experiment with apps that I have tried myself. These ‘like ten posts for ten likes’ or ‘follow ten people for two follows’ type apps represent a double whammy. You end up following irrelevant people and irrelevant people follow you. This will send your engagement rate per post into a nosedive.
You won’t get engagement on your posts when people like this follow you. You have also wasted your follows on irrelevant people. You need to prune these people from your followings and its OK to prune friends if they are not active or don’t engage with you. I have unfollowed friends on Instagram because I use Instagram differently just like I have disconnected from some on LinkedIn and unfriended some on Facebook.
The 1,500 Instagram Followings Rule
In addition to the 1.5% percent concept there is also the 1,500 rule. How does this apply to Instagram? It apples when you follow someone who follows 7,500 people. They may have 10,000 followers and you may know them but will they see your photos in their timeline if they already follow 7,500 people when you are competing with 7,499 other profiles for attention in their news feed? They won’t be able to. This is less important on Twitter because there is a lot of searches going on. If you drop out of the Instagram engagement circle, you may never get that engagement back.
Every impression counts. It was Hype Auditor that brought up the 1,500 concept, but it makes a lot of sense: Anybody you follow who follows more than 1,500 people – even if they are influencers- unless they really know you or engage with your content, are probably never going to see your content or engage with it. They have a high chance of becoming a “Ghost Follower,” so you shouldn’t be tempted to follow them in the first place.
One of the reasons some people follow so many people is to build up their followers. Everyone listening to this podcast probably wants to build a larger rather than smaller following on Instagram and I get that. But from a personal branding perspective and the notion that you follow a lot of people with over 1,500 followings, you’re probably not going to get engagement with them. What Hype Auditor is saying is the more ‘normal’ or ‘average’ people – defined as people with under 1,500 followers – are more likely to see and engage with your content. Those are the people you have the greatest opportunity to build a community with and the greatest opportunity for engagement.
So we have the 7,500 limit, the 1.5%-3% engagement rule, then we have the 1,500 followings and all of this has really affected the way that I decide who to follow and follow back. I used to follow back the majority of people who followed me in the spirit of open networking as I do on other networks, but Instagram is so different and requires a different model of thinking. I’ve stopped randomly following back people because of fake profiles and bots and for the other reasons mentioned above to try to build a truly engaging community. If you have the same ideas about Instagram as me, I will definitely follow you back, especially if you are a relevant marketer/social media marketer or share my interest in Japan. I engage with those who publish daily posts that show heavy investment in Instagram.
Have You Published Too Few Posts on Instagram?
There’s another key thing I look at when analyzing Instagram profiles: How active are you in the community? I can’t see your likes and comments, but I can see how many times you have posted. If you are following thousands of people but haven’t posted yet, why would I want to follow you? And are you for real?!?!?
If you only have, say, six posts cumulatively published, you’re not invested enough in Instagram and I probably won’t follow you back. Therefore, when you start to follow people as a relative newbie, make sure you have invested in the community. You invest in the community by publishing content. I have a minimum threshold which might be 10, 25, 50 or 100 posts published before I consider following someone back. The only way to prune connections is to have these thresholds in addition to some of the others mentioned above. To summarize, the threshold should be minimum number of posts, maximum number of followers, and whether they frequently post or haven’t done so for months.
As you can see, I’m really passionate about this subject. I think it’s very misunderstood and I promised a lot of people via Instagram DMs I would talk about my policy. I’m not going to give exact numbers as they will be different for everyone and it depends on your stage, whether you need to prune, grow or your current level of engagement. I hope this has opened your eyes and if I have unfollowed you, send me a message and I will rectify that.
An Instagram follow is a virtual world. Don’t be offended when someone unfollows you even if you know them. If it’s a big deal to you, DM those people and ask what happened. Mistakes happen, sometimes the tools you use unfollow people without you knowing. Twitter had a famous bug where it unfollowed people without permission. Instead of focusing on that, focus on building your own community and the strategic people you want to connect with, and, of course, your own content.
Conclusion: Create Your Own Instagram Follower and Following Guidelines
Decide your own pruning policy, connections policy and thresholds. Tweak them over time depending on your current stage. This is the best way I can describe this type of Instagram follower/following auditing process that I encourage you all to have. And remember that the numbers might be different on other social networks, but the concept carries over.
I have not translated my personal profile over to a business profile on Instagram for fear that my engagement will drop similar to how Facebook Pages underperform Facebook personal profiles, so throughout this podcast I have spoken only of personal profiles. The concept, however, translates 100% to and is equally important for business profiles on Instagram.
If I didn’t cover something here, leave a comment on my show notes here on this page. If this was insightful, please review and rate this podcast on iTunes so others can be exposed to it. A lot of food for thought today. If you found this podcast fruitful, let me know. I’ll be back next week with another expert interview. It’s going to be related to influencer marketing but less on the Instagram side, more on the content and blogging side. Until then, make it a great social day!