Today I am writing about Instagram. More specifically I am writing about the way that travel photographers or really anybody on Instagram are cheating the system to grow their accounts.
I hear a lot within the industry and even outside the industry that the only way to grow your account now is by cheating the system and while I think that`s patently untrue there might be some small truths to it. Today I want to walk you through the process of how people are cheating the system. I do want to clear a couple of things up before I get into this.
First is I do not judge people. If people want to cheat the Instagram algorithm or whatever I do not judge them. I understand that there is a lot of money changing hands and there are a lot of people who got famous by cheating the Instagram algorithms. I do not judge you and even though it might sound like I am judging people on this because I get really excited I am not judging anybody.
The second thing is to be sure to subscribe to my newsletter and grab your free book about making money as a travel photographer right now. Because in a couple of weeks I will create a long and very detailed article on how you can actually grow an authentic audience on Instagram without cheating the system. Just with good content and with using tried-and-true methods that I think are totally ethical.
Now let us jump into the cheating stuff. I have jotted down six methods people are using to cheat Instagram. I am going to write about what they are, how helpful they are, how they are harmful and if I have ever done it by myself.
Many people think a bot means a fake account, but in reality a bot is a running script that can be used on totally authentic accounts. For example one of the best ways to grow on Instagram and one of the things Instagram themselves talk about is engagement. That means engaging yourself within the community commenting on photos, liking on photos and doing other stuff. A bot can do all that for you. The script runs through and likes all the photos in a certain genre or niche or whatever.
Let us say that I have an account called “Incredible Beach Photos” and it shows just photos of beautiful beaches. If I am running bots for this account, it may like every single beach photo of relevant posts that get posted via certain hashtags like #beautifulbeaches or #beachfever. If other users tag their posts with #beautifulbeaches or #beachfever my account “Incredible Beach Photos” likes them automatically. You can also run the bot to do things like comment and follow or unfollow.
Is it helpful? Yeah, absolutely! It is helpful because many people will see and possibly follow your account. I think the limits on Instagram – do not quote me on this because I do not know for sure – are about 200 likes an hour. So if you have a bot liking 200 photos an hour of a certain hashtag within your niche that means potentially up to about 5.000 different accounts will see your name show up in their notification tab! It puts your account in front of the eyes of people within your niche.
The catch is that Instagram may delete your account. Their terms and conditions specifically say that you are not allowed using any automated tools. Every single day people get caught doing this. If Instagram catches on you they can delete your account immediately. It does not matter if you have grown your account to five million followers or more. The punishment comes immediately and without warning.
Another harm is that you can get caught doing some spammy stuff. For example, there is a friend of mine who works in the travel industry that generally posts really epic travel photos. Her grandmother died, and she posted a photo of her with a pretty sad caption. Another travel company that everybody know had a bot running. The bot left a comment under the picture of the deceased grandmother saying “Ha Ha! This is really funny!” Nobody knew about the bot run by this travel company until this comment was placed under the photo.
You can leave yourself open to some really terrible things happen if you let robots run the world. The devils advocate say this is marketing. You are marketing a brand and this method allows you to get your brand in front of more potential customers. I think using bots is spammy and inauthentic.
Have I ever used bots? Yes, I confess. I used bots about four years ago for a span of about a month or so. Instagram caught me, my account was deleted and I did it never again.
Using virtual assistants
The second method that people use to cheat on Instagram is using virtual assistants. You can hire them from places like India, the Philippines or Bangladesh for as little as two or four dollars an hour. Like a human robot virtual assistants can do the same things a bot will do. They like photos, comment and follow or unfollow people. The benefit of this is that they are a bit better than a robot. Virtual assistants are human beings that can refrain from doing dangerous things like too much commenting. Or leaving terrible comments under the pictures of deceased grandmothers.
Using virtual assistants is not unethical. In fact, a lot of really big travel photographers do not do their own social media posts. I do not believe Steve McCurry does his own Instagram. I am sure almost that it is one of his assistants that is posting his stuff on social media.
The only problem is that using virtual assistants takes the social part out of social media. The big reason people follow travel photographers on Instagram or any other social media platform is not to see their photos. They could always go to their website. The reason is that they want to have contact with those photographers. They want the social aspect and by using a virtual assistant or a bot you take that social aspect out of social media.
The argument of people using virtual assistants is just the same as it is for the bots. It is about marketing, it is about getting your content in front of as many eyes as possible.
Have I used virtual assistants? Honestly no. I have not used a virtual assistant for anything just because I have trust issues and because I am a bit of a control freak.
The Follow/Unfollow game
The third method is one everybody hates. Instagram allows you to follow approximately 45 users an hour. It also allows you to unfollow 45 people an hour. So if you are “Incredible Beach Photos” you visit the hashtag #beaches or a big account with photos from beaches and you just follow everybody involved in that niche. Every hour you follow 45 people and then, after a bit of time passes, you do one of two things: You unfollow everybody who does not follow you back or you just unfollow everybody that you followed.
What is the benefit of it? It simply works! And it seems like a pretty good deal. You get excited when somebody follows you so you will check their account and see what they are about. If they are about something you care about there is a good chance you are gonna follow them back. It is a tried and true marketing method of getting your brand in front of other peoples eyes.
But in the end it is harmful to your account when you play the whole Follow/Unfollow game. You do not get engaged audience members. You only get people who follow you because you followed them and so your engagement levels on your account is gonna suffer big-time. I have seen this happens a lot in the industry. People that play the Follow/Unfollow game just do not have engagement on their account. What is the point of having a hundred thousand followers if nobody looks or comment on your pictures?
Another problem to this is every single person in the world can see if you are playing the Follow/Unfollow game. If you are playing this game you are probably following three or four thousand people. Regular humans do not follow thousands of people. It is just not normal. On top of it everybody can easily run apps like type auditor and Socialblade and find out if people are playing this game.
The advocates say that you know peoples accounts have grown doing this and again it is just marketing and getting your brand in front of the eyes of other people.
Have I done it? Guilty, your honor. I did it for a month or so. I had my bot do it for me and I would say that my account grew approximately four thousand people over this month. But I will also say that the engagement was not growing at all. I got a few likes and comments but that was far from real engagement. And you know the end of the story. Instagram deleted my account, game over. I felt dirty, took a pious shower and absolved myself.
The fourth method people are using to cheat Instagram are engagement pods. Huge engagement pods took over Instagram for a span of two years and I did not know it. I had no idea. I was totally blind to it.
But what exactly are engagement pods? Let us say you and 50 or 100 people join a secret group. That group is usually on telegram or another messenger-app. When my account “Incredible Beach Photos” post a photo every single member of the group likes and comments on that photo. Instagram`s algorithm leans towards engagement and specifically engagement at the very start. To enhance this engagement everybody in the group posts at exactly the same time. For example, at 5:00 pm everybody in the group drops the links to their photos into the telegram messenger. Within 15 or 20 minutes every group member comments and likes on that photos. Instagram thinks this post is engaging and kicks it to the explore-page for real peoples eyes to see. The theory behind is that people who do not know your account will see the photo, click on it and follow the account.
Sometimes I feel stupid because I did not know that this was happening. I watched accounts grow massively and had no idea they were doing it with the help of engagement pods. Years later I was on a press trip and all photographers with an Instagram account that were there worked really hard. They ran around shooting photos. The were totally active all the time. Then, at exactly 6:00 pm all of them stopped. They found a seat and stared in their phones for 30 minutes. I know now that they were all using engagement pods. I watched those people grow their accounts massively. Some of them were at ten fifteen thousand at the time. Now they are at a quarter million followers!
This is how it works. When your photo goes to the explore-page after Instagram has detected enough engagement real people interested in your niche will see it.
Accounts that did this method two years ago grew faster than everybody else. But there is a catch. Only accounts with really good photos are actually growing because of course pushing your photos to the explore-page is not enough. People have to see your photo on the explore-page, go check out your account and follow. If you are a terrible photographer this method is not gonna have any benefit. But if you have a really good account it will have a very positive effect.
The vast majority of people who use this method try to make money. They are selling their engagement to brands as advertising. If you are telling a client “I get 10.000 likes on every photo and 150 comments” that is what you are selling. But those comments are fake or manipulated. You are essentially cheating your clients and honestly I think if they find out that you are using engagement pods they have good reasons to terminate all contracts with you.
I also think it is very dangerous to serious travel photographers. I have never used engagement pods. But if I went back in time and could see the way that people have grown their accounts using engagement pods I would be very hard-pressed not to have tried or done it.
I should also mention that the use of engagement pods has kind of been curtailed by Instagram. They have changed the algorithm a lot to try to dissuade people from using engagement pods and I think that is working. For the most part, a lot of these pods are not having the same effect they did let us say one year ago.
Buying likes, comments and followers
Method number five is buying likes, comments and followers. If you do this stop it now. There is no way that this is good, and I am not going to explain this because it needs no explaining.
You can visit sites like fiverr.com and buy likes and followers for a couple of bucks. There are even subscription services on the internet that are about $50 a month or so, and they will add 500 likes to every photo you post. It is very easy to do, like buying stuff on Amazon. But these followers are not real. And if they are not real what are the benefits? I do not think there is any benefit.
But there are many harmful things. Instagram could block or delete your account because they do not like fake followers. If a client pays you and finds out that you are using fake followers this client can sue you.
What would the devils advocates say (I thought for a while that there were no devils advocate here, but there always is one)? There is psychology that says people are more likely to follow accounts that have a big number of followers. If you have two accounts that are nearly identical – both with outstanding content – one with 600 followers the other one with 60.000 followers, people are more likely to follow the account that has a lot of followers. There are people in the industry who give you tips like “Buy your first 10.000 followers on Instagram. After that, other people will follow you too.”
Have I tried it by myself? Yes, I am guilty on all counts. The psychology did not work for me. No single user followed me solely for the reason that I had 10.000 followers. There was no engagement on my account because fake followers do not engage with your posts. They only like your money, not your photos.
Besides of that, your account looks very strange if you are living in a western country and have thousands of followers from Pakistan and Bangladesh. Never pay for bullshit like this.
The last method is paying for so called shoutouts. Some big Instagram accounts are taking money for shoutouts. You could pay 50 bucks or more for that. If you post a new picture after booking this service the big account will recommend it to its followers and this way all followers of the big account can see your stuff.
Years ago that was really helpful. A lot of people grabbed a lot of followers with this method. But I do not think this method works well today. I will give you an example. Five years ago I did an assignment for TUI, a German tour operator. They had roundabout ten thousand of followers and after they posted one of my pictures as a shoutout I got 500 new followers immediately. Three years later I did another project with them. Their account had doubled or tripled so they had up to 60.000 followers and when they shouted out one of my pictures I got only three new followers.
I do not believe that people are getting new followers from shoutouts anymore. That is why I do not think that people should be allowing these big accounts to share their photo for money. You are not getting anything out of it anymore.
Maybe people are done following other people. I think people are following enough people now and that the only way they are gonna follow somebody is if you have really specific content they want to follow or something unique they have not seen before. This shoutout-thing does not work anymore.
Is buying shoutouts ethical? Yes, absolutely. It is just the same as buying ads on Facebook.
Have I done it? Not at all. Because back in the days when it was effective I simply had no money for that. I think it was a valid and good way to grow your account years ago. But now, after I have enough money in my business that I probably could invest in something like this I just do not think it works anymore. So I do not invest any money in shoutouts and that is it.
That is all for today folks. Stay tuned and do not forget to grab your free book.