Last week, I published a blog titled “Why it’s important to talk about fake social media followers…” – and a lot of you really enjoyed my insight into the topic, being a recent grad in Communication Studies. I thought I’d write about a similar issue that’s been a hot topic on Instagram over the last year: Instagram pods.
What are Instagram pods, you might ask?! Simply put, an Instagram pod is a group of influencers that agree to engage with their fellow members’ Instagram content. This takes place in the form of likes, comments, and follow-backs. Many Instagram pods communicate via Instagram’s direct-message platform, but many have shifted to WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger.
Before we get into things, let’s establish what led to the popularity of Instagram pods. In 2017, Instagram stopped displaying content in chronological order, which angered a lot of users. As a chronological platform, all Instagrammers we’re given an equal opportunity to achieve engagement. If Influencer A uploaded a picture at 12:00pm EST, and Influencer B uploaded a picture at 12:03pm EST, Influencer A would appear after Influencer B. Everyone felt that their content had a fair shot to receive engagement.
As a replacement, Instagram opted for an algorithm-based platform that displays content with an interest-based approach. This came at no surprise, with platforms such as YouTube & Twitter already opting for an algorithmic approach. With an algorithm at the forefront of content dissemination, engagement became key. Suddenly, flashy follower counts were reprioritized to the background, and engagement was king.
As such, Instagram pods are essentially a big F-U to the algorithm’s dissemination. Influencers joined pods to increase their ‘organic’ engagement (I use this term very lightly), in order to be prioritized by the algorithm. Think of the algorithm like a mediator; if the mediator sees a wealth of engagement upon upload of an Instagram picture, it increase your chances of ending up on the explore page.
I’d like to take a moment to say that I’m not part of an Instagram pod. However, I’ve been contacted by a few different pods to get me to join their groups. In one instance, the pod solicitor cited their “500 members…with 400k+ followers” to entice my interest to join. The pod solicitor even attached a well-produced video, highlighting the pod rules and perks. The pod rules included “liking all members’ posts” and “only quality comments! 4 words + emoji!” Yikes. That seems like a lot of work for extra engagement…
Let me be clear: this situation is not the exact same thing as purchasing fake followers. The likes, comments, and overall attention is real. There are real people liking and commenting on each other’s posts, which appears harmless and unified! But let’s talk about where this situation enters the grey zone of ethics. Let’s say TV Network X is selling commercial space to prospective advertisers. The advertisers are informed on TV Network X’s demographics, including its main audience’s age, gender, and location. What the advertisers don’t know is that 30% of TV Network X’s viewers are other advertisers, who are primarily concerned with advertising their own set of products and services. Would it be ethical for TV Network X to continue along this path? I would argue not.
Instagram pods, much like TV Network X, are contributing to inflated engagement. As such, advertisers are painted a picture that isn’t entirely true. An advertiser might spend X% of their marketing budget on an influencer campaign, only to receive a fraction of the authentic engagement they were purchasing. While members of an Instagram pod might argue that their arrangement is simply “artists supporting other artists,” the fact is that inflated engagement numbers really screw with advertisers’ view of Instagram.
Here’s where the story gets unfortunate: there’s no real way to tell if an Instagram account is utilizing inflated engagement, since the comments and likes appear natural. This means that brands and agencies have to rely on both quantitative and qualitative aspects of an influencer’s advertising worth, which can be very tricky. The only indicator of a pod member might be their comments section, which would be filled with engagement from other influencers. This isn’t the best metric for measuring, as one might argue that comments from other influencers are simply “friends engaging with friends.”
So if we can’t properly tell which Instagram account is part of a pod, what can we do? Sometimes the hard truth can be the best medicine. If you’re part of an Instagram pod, you are wholeheartedly wasting your time. You’re spending hours daily, engaging with other Instagrammers in hopes of receiving similar attention. Instead, you could spend those hours drafting unique ideas that help build your brand from the ground up. Now, it might take a bit longer to receive the desired engagement, but you’ll be assured that your time was not well wasted.
Travel host & producer, Gunnarolla, once tweeted, “Are you really an “influencer” when all of your engagement comes from other “influencers”? Trying to wrap my head around this…”. I remember when he tweeted this last year, but I didn’t fully understand it until I started learning about Instagram pods. The core of the word is influence – the ability to persuade an audience towards your lifestyle or brand. If the only people you’re able to influence are other people trying to influence, the process of influencing becomes meaningless and arbitrary.
There’s no shortcut to success as a creative. Whether you’re a writer, video creator, or photographer, the key to fulfillment is creating content. Turning content creation into a numbers game ruins it for the rest of us. When you work hard, act as ethically as possible, and create content that you’re proud of, the audience will follow.
// michael rizzi
Michael Rizzi is a YouTuber and blogger from Toronto, Canada. Follow his blog for up-to-date posts that will brighten your day.