The Follow/Unfollow Instagram Strategy

The Follow/Unfollow Instagram Strategy

If you are active on Instagram as a brand or as a personal account, you are already a victim of the Follow/Unfollow Method — whether you realize it or not. You create a high quality creative and post it using well-researched hashtags for your niche — it gets some engagements and new followers within hours of the posting. If you look close enough you will see that some of those followers are not even remotely related to the audience, you were trying to target but still, positive engagement is always welcome. What happens next is that after a period of 2–3 days you notice that your total follower count is down from what it was previously. This is the result of the Follow/Unfollow strategy wreaking havoc on unsuspecting users. This also leads to confusion amongst service providers like us, who handle client accounts when we see positive engagement on a recent post but decreasing number of followers after the post.

The Follow/Unfollow method can be defined as a strategy where an Instagram account follows someone with the sole purpose of getting a follow back. After a period of 2–3 days, if the person does not follow back, the account is unfollowed. Even if the person follows back, they are unfollowed in the majority of cases. This is basically a way to grow an Instagram account with a skewed Followers/Following ratio, favouring the Followers numbers. This growth method is not limited to merely Instagram but is most prevalent on the platform.

If you are wondering why this happens on Instagram majorly, it’s got to do with how Instagram functions as a platform. There are two main reasons for this phenomenon:

Instagram limits the number of followers for an account to a mere 7500 — this was done to get a hold on accounts posting spam content. This acts as a bottleneck for those who follow an account solely for the purpose of a follow back. What do you do when you reach the 7500 — you unfollow or lose your growth and for a marketer, the choice is pretty obvious?

Instagram focusses on showing only positive engagements and as does not show notifications of metrics for people who unfollow your account. So, if you unfollow an account there is a high probability that the account will not unfollow you back as in most cases, they will not be even aware of the unfollow.

The combination of these two factors make sure that follow/unfollow is a logistically viable strategy for Instagram. So why is there a love/hate relationship with following/unfollow method for marketers? A substantial portion of marketers cry afoul of this strategy and regard it as detrimental to a brand in the long term.

The morality vs. Fame argument — the follow/unfollow method goes against what social media is all about, it is simply taking advantage of the way Instagram overcomes.

Loss of Credibility — when people notice that the number of accounts you are following is massively fluctuating each day, you lose credibility in the eyes of the followers.

Account suspension — Instagram has rules and regulations in place for something like this to not occur and as such, there is a daily limit to the number of accounts one can follow.

If you are active on Instagram as a brand or as a personal account, you are already a victim of the Follow/Unfollow Method — whether you realize it or not. You create a high quality creative and post it using well-researched hashtags for your niche — it gets some engagements and new followers within hours of the posting. If you look close enough you will see that some of those followers are not even remotely related to the audience, you were trying to target but still, positive engagement is always welcome. What happens next is that after a period of 2–3 days you notice that your total follower count is down from what it was previously. This is the result of the Follow/Unfollow strategy wreaking havoc on unsuspecting users. This also leads to confusion amongst service providers like us, who handle client accounts when we see positive engagement on a recent post but decreasing number of followers after the post.

The Follow/Unfollow method can be defined as a strategy where an Instagram account follows someone with the sole purpose of getting a follow back. After a period of 2–3 days, if the person does not follow back, the account is unfollowed. Even if the person follows back, they are unfollowed in the majority of cases. This is basically a way to grow an Instagram account with a skewed Followers/Following ratio, favouring the Followers numbers. This growth method is not limited to merely Instagram but is most prevalent on the platform.

If you are wondering why this happens on Instagram majorly, it’s got to do with how Instagram functions as a platform. There are two main reasons for this phenomenon:

  • Instagram limits the number of followers for an account to a mere 7500 — this was done to get a hold on accounts posting spam content. This acts as a bottleneck for those who follow an account solely for the purpose of a follow back. What do you do when you reach the 7500 — you unfollow or lose your growth and for a marketer, the choice is pretty obvious?
  • Instagram focusses on showing only positive engagements and as does not show notifications of metrics for people who unfollow your account. So, if you unfollow an account there is a high probability that the account will not unfollow you back as in most cases, they will not be even aware of the unfollow.

The combination of these two factors make sure that follow/unfollow is a logistically viable strategy for Instagram. So why is there a love/hate relationship with following/unfollow method for marketers? A substantial portion of marketers cry afoul of this strategy and regard it as detrimental to a brand in the long term.

  • The morality vs. Fame argument — the follow/unfollow method goes against what social media is all about, it is simply taking advantage of the way Instagram overcomes.
  • Loss of Credibility — when people notice that the number of accounts you are following is massively fluctuating each day, you lose credibility in the eyes of the followers.
  • Account suspension — Instagram has rules and regulations in place for something like this to not occur and as such, there is a daily limit to the number of accounts one can follow.

The issue with all these arguments is that they are subjective in nature and appeal to our morals and ethics, which is a good thing but we have to see the larger picture here. Follow/Unfollow is simply a method which lies in the grey area. The purpose of any account on Instagram (we are assuming it to be a Brand/Business account) is either Branding, Traffic, Lead Generation or Sales. An unbiased analysis of the Follow/Unfollow strategy would be to see how it impacts our Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) in the long run. Something that my experience in marketing and dealing with clients has taught me is that getting a large number of followers is not an end result in itself if it does not impact the KPIs.

Automated Follow/Unfollow strategy will always trump manual one as this is, at the end of the day a mechanical process based on certain parameters — hashtags, niche, locations, etc. Anything that has a pattern to it is bound to be automated at some point. According to a social experiment done by Workmacro , the follow back rate lies somewhere between 20–35% when you follow an account. When you unfollow an account, an obvious conclusion is that the person will also unfollow you back but there is in lies the gap of Instagram — it only highlights positive engagements and does not show you who has unfollowed you. Only people who are hyperactive on Instagram will keep track of their followers either manually or using some third-party application. So the majority of the people will be none the wiser and according to Workmacro, the churn rate is between 5–8%. Their experiment also stated that automation is three times as effective as the manual process and therein lies the grey area. Automation is against Instagram’s Terms of Service as stated below:


You must not create accounts with the Service through unauthorized means, including but not limited to, by using an automated device, script, bot, spider, crawler or scraper.


 Instagram’s Terms of Service 

Detection of violation can lead to a temporary action ban or permanent account suspension in some cases. Good luck explaining to a client why his Instagram account with 50K followers is gone for good. There are even restrictions to the number of accounts one can follow/unfollow depending upon the age of the account — ranging from 20 for new accounts to 50 accounts per hours for older accounts.

So far we have seen that the Unfollow/Follow strategy does yield results in increasing relevant follower count when done strategically. We are yet to see whether or not it impacts our KPIs in the long run. There is an interesting experiment being conducted by Scott Ayres to validate whether or not the engagement is effected by the follow/unfollow strategy and not just increase followers.

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The first image is that of the engagement using the Follow/Unfollow Strategy whereas the second is using normal growth strategies. The conclusion of this experiment was that the follow/unfollow strategy does yield results positively impacting the KPIs when done strategically.

The takeaways from this experiment are clear as follows:

  1. Proper selection of automation of Tools: Choose only the tools that are in compliance with Instagram’s Terms of Service. It is not worth risking suspension of a client’s account and would be detrimental to both the brand and the service provider.
  2. Apply Strategy: Formulate a Proper strategy and goals to be achieved from the follow/unfollow strategy. This is like any other growth strategy when properly executed.
  3. Successful implementation depends upon unfollowing using an optimal timeframe.

So where does that leave us? — does Follow/Unfollow really work? It is just like any other Growth Hacking Strategies — Proper research, design, execution and analysis. Ethically speaking, it does fall into the grey area given how the Follow/Unfollow strategy seems to be exploitative in nature but one has to remember it is due to Instagram’s limitation of the number of following accounts — that is rightly placed there to cur spam account. As long as an account produces engaging and useful content to their audiences and follows all the best practices for marketing, Follow/Unfollow can be regarded as the latest growth hacking strategy to be out there.

Stay tuned for our more posts on Instagram marketing strategies.

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