Why Pods and other 'miracle' tricks are bad for your Instagram strategy - Cendrine Marrouat Photography

 If you have followed me for a while, you know how much I love Twitter. However, for the last year or so, I have been a lot more active on Instagram. It is a better promotional platform for my images. Plus, fellow photographers are more engaging there.

Unfortunately, I also feel like saying: "Houston, we have a problem." There are so many spammers, bot accounts and trolls that it's not even funny. Some days, it is even worse than YouTube.

At first, I decided to turn a blind eye to the issue. After all, the social media world has billions of users. Spamming and trolling are likely occurrences.

In February 2017, while doing research on the latest "miracle tricks" in social media marketing, I came across a couple of Facebook Groups tooting the benefits of Instagram Pods.

A pod is a group of people who use Instagram's Direct Message feature or Facebook groups to interact with one another. Every time a member publishes a new Instagram post, they will leave a note in the group, and everyone will have to like and comment on it. It's mandatory, or you are out. The goal? Increase engagement, get genuine comments, and "fool" the Instagram algorithm into thinking that your content and account rock organically.

Honestly, it was fun at the beginning. People seemed really nice and eager to connect with me and my content. Then, a couple of weeks later, I started noticing that most comments from members looked alike.

During that time, a problem arose in a pod. Members posted content that, in my opinion, was repetitive and a little bland. But since they might have thought the same about my stuff, I would always try writing something constructive or asking questions to trigger conversation. This irked a couple of members, who expected everyone to leave them laudatory comments. As a result, they decided to discuss my "trolling" behaviour in the pod, as though I wasn't there. Needless to say that I left that group right away.

I saw a consistent amount of amazing content from some people. But I also saw an upsurge in selfies, food shots, and self-aggrandizing posts. Don't get me wrong, tooting your own horn or showing your face occasionally is definitely ok. But every day and even multiple times a day? As a photographer, people don't just want to see you. They also want you to share your amazing shots. They want to see the places you visited through your eyes.

The other problem was that liking and commenting on all the posts in the pods was a time suck. So, when people posted more than once a day, the groups quickly became overcrowded.

In April, I left all the Facebook Groups recommending Instagram pods. I was tired of seeing the word "influencer" misused and abused constantly. Further, 70 or 80 percent of the posts were boasting moments for members who had garnered 10,000, 20,000, or even 30,000 followers in six months or a year. The rest of the interactions were questions about how they had achieved such "amazing" results. It was truly a smorgasbord of social media fakery 101. And I made sure to let people know in my comments.

(That may explain why several members called me a troll and blocked me.)

I also left those groups because of what their creators recommended -- the follow / unfollow method. This method consists in following as many Instagram accounts as possible and then unfollow them within hours or a day. The goal is just to get people's attention, and no matter what you do, you will be unfollowed anyway.

The proponents of the method are easy to spot. The number of followers doesn't add up. For example: 

Easy example here: Not only is this account fake, but you can also tell there is automation in play. Why? Because the people / businesses who leverage the follow / unfollow method don't do it themselves. It takes too much time. So, they rely on apps that will do the work for them. Worse still, those apps will post comments on their behalf.

(Thankfully, Instagram keeps an eye on what is going on and recently forced one such app to close down shop.)

Still in April, I started losing a larger-than-usual number of daily followers. A month later, within two days, my follower count dropped by 30!

My content hadn't changed and I was getting the same amount of engagement on my posts. So, something was up.

I easily found out that most of my loss came from followers / unfollowers. So, it wasn't the end of the world. However, at the same time, the most engaging and genuine members in the pods left one after the other, claiming that the groups were not working for them.

So, I left as well. And guess what? Even though I don't get as many comments as before, the number of likes per post hasn't dropped much. And, surprise! My follower count has increased and the pace at which I lose followers has slowed down.

(There is nothing I can do about the follow / unfollow method, though. It will take years before many of its practitioners finally understand how inane it is.)

Better still, people have started emailing me again regarding my prints. It hadn't happened since my joining pods!

My Instagram audience is not very large, but it is not something I care about. However, after months of experiments and discussions with fellow photographers and marketers, it has become clear that "miracle tricks" still have a long way to go before they can replace the results that hard and smart work always yields.

I have said it many times. But I'll repeat it once again: Numbers are not a guarantee of success. Only organic growth matters.

I know what some of you will say: "It's all fine and dandy, but I want to be an influencer and make money with my posts. And the only way is to have hundreds of thousands of followers."

Honestly, I get it. If I could give you a shortcut to reach the top of the social media ladder overnight, I would. But there is none.

Actually, anyone telling you the contrary is lying to you.

The photographers who get sponsors and make money on Instagram have worked their butts off (sometimes for years) to be noticed. The companies that approach them care about the size of their social media following for 15 minutes. Then, they look at what they write, what their captions and responses to comments reveal about them, and how good their work is. Quality is paramount to a brand that wants to be represented in the best light.

So let me ask you the following questions:

- Do you want to be seen as fickle, disingenuous and untrustworthy?

- Or do you prefer hearing that people find you genuine, caring and personable? ⠀

- And most importantly, do you really have the time to interact with hundreds of thousands of people and get to know them? ⠀

Considering the reasons why you read this blog, I know what you are likely to answer. So, keep working hard, treat others with respect, and be patient. Your time will come soon. ;-)

Should I buy likes for my social media accounts?

Below is an email exchange from a few years ago.

"Bonjour Cendrine,

Do you offer guest blogging services in French? I am looking for writer to write and publish articles about social media on related websites to improve my website rankings (SEO). I launched a French website selling Youtube views, Facebook Likes, Twitter Followers etc… I am interested in hiring you for a weekly blog post on my website.

Let me know,

Merci, XXXX"

"Hello XXXX,

Thank you for your email. I appreciate your offer, but buying fans and views is against my policy. As a result, I will have to refuse your offer.

Best regards, Cendrine Marrouat"

"Hi Cenrine,

Thank you for your reply. I know what you mean, I also hire an english social media writer who is against buying views and fans, but she writes blog posts for me under a fake name and makes $4000 per month from all the work I give her. I can give you a lot of regular work.

If you change your mind let me know,

Thank you, XXXX"

Things didn't stop there. The person left public comments on my Facebook page. They wanted me to recommend other bloggers. I was annoyed, of course. But I just said that no one I knew would accept it.

"We are not thieves," they stated. "According to many social media experts, buying fans and followers on social networks is a good way to get started in social media. Apparently, you don’t need to make money like the rest of us."

A friend of mine's and my subsequent responses weren't kind. Unfortunately, the person deleted the thread before I had time to take a screenshot.


Those offers are so common that they could inspire a series of books. The fake follower industry has been booming for years.

Would you bribe people to get good reviews, buy your products, or make your business look good offline? Of course, you wouldn't! So, why is such a practice so widespread online?

Sure, brands with hundreds of thousands of Twitter or Facebook subscribers are attractive. With such a big audience, they must be good, right?

Well, look past the numbers and observe what they share. How do they interact with others? You will quickly understand if they have cheated their way into fame or grown their audience organically.

Likes and follows do not equate successful connections. If they did, buying that kind of support would result in real interest and interactions. Instead, expect robot accounts and fake fans. Nothing targeted or useful.

According to TwitterAudit, 52 percent of Justin Bieber’s Twitter followers are fake or empty accounts. The accounts of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Britney Spears are also right there -- at 55 percent, 61 percent, and 47 percent respectively.

Another example. A couple of years ago, Google decided to start auditing view counts on YouTube videos to remove fraudulent activity. This is what the company has to say about fake traffic: When some bad actors try to game the system by artificially inflating view counts, they’re not just misleading fans about the popularity of a video, they’re undermining one of YouTube’s most important and unique qualities.

If you want to win at social media, focus on organic growth. Because your 500,000+ Twitter or Facebook followers are only impressive the first time we see the number. Afterwards, our attention will turn to your message, ethics, transparency, and approachability.

So, the next time you wonder how you could increase your following, take an honest look at your current audience instead. Ask yourself the following questions:

- Who are these people?

- What do they want or need from me?

- Why did they decide to follow me?

- How do they respond to what I share?

- Do I acknowledge them enough or just broadcast content?

- And most importantly: Do I really have the time to handle a bigger audience?

Social media is not a numbers game. The size of your audience does not matter. What matters, though, is the people who are part of it.

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