Why Your Follower Count Doesn't Matter

How many followers do you want?

10K to get the story "swipe up"?

20K to gain notoriety?

1M to try to get that elusive blue verified check?

While these goals are certainly understandable, especially for "influencers" who get sponsored and paid by companies who are looking to invest in users with a large audience who can share their products more effectively, follower count is only the tip of the iceberg.

First, let's look at the history of Instagram.

When Instagram first rolled out in October 2010, no one really knew what was going on, how to use it, or what they should be sharing. But quickly, this visual storytelling platform gained speed, and soon, users were figuring out how to monetize their feed and use Instagram to promote their business.

Soon, businesses were looking to partner with influencers with massive followings of 50K to 1M for paid partnerships. Influencers were being flown to tropical resorts, shipped products to try, and paid big bucks to share their experiences and sell it to their followers.

As with all things internet, other people saw an opportunity to make even more money.

Buying Followers & Bot Followings

If all that companies were looking for were massive followings, then why not take advantage by finding out ways to get followers fast and charge users for the service?

Companies started springing up all over the place offering to grow your following by the thousands! These companies created hundreds of thousands of fake Instagram accounts, then sold those fake followers to users who were looking to grow their following fast, by any means necessary.

Yes! Money in the bank!

But it wasn't long before Instagram caught on and started shutting down fake accounts. Suddenly, users who purchased followers saw their follower count drop by the thousands as Instagram unveiled its latest algorithm update. Code was programmed to patrol user accounts looking for strange, nonsensical usernames and missing profile pictures, in order to seek and destroy fake accounts by the hundreds of thousands. This was a major hit for influencers.

Not surprisingly, tech kids had something new up their sleeve. Next came third-party engagement apps (also known as "bots"). Bots have been a violation of Instagram's terms of use since the beginning. These apps circumvent Instagram's API and allow users to program and automate their activity. By automating their likes, comments, and follows/unfollows, Instagram users were able to spend less actual time on the app.

This was great for some accounts and social media strategists who had the forethought and wisdom to be able to understand the consequences of using these tools. For those who knew how to use specific targeting to engage with users who were genuinely interested in their content, bots were incredibly valuable, even though they didn't offer exponential, instant growth like buying followers did. If you know how to program a bot, it acts more like a sniper-style engagement robot on a search-and-convert mission to turn users into followers based on the hashtags they use and engage with, who they follow, etc.

But for most people who were using bots, they simply signed up, kept all of the default settings, and pressed GO. This is the social media equivalent of throwing a grenade with your eyes closed. You have no idea who you'll hit, if they have any real interest in anything you have to say, or if they're even real.

This did not impress our friends over at Instagram, so they did two things:

  1. They made some major changes to their algorithm and to the home feed. Updating the algorithm to block certain hashtags (a practice known as "shadowbanning") meant that using these often popular hashtags would prevent your posts from being seen on the explore page or in hashtag searches. Then, by switching the home feed to engagement-based vs. chronological, your followers no longer saw your content if they weren't liking and commenting on it. 
  2. They shut down the bots and fake accounts. Yep. One day everyone who was using a bot woke up and their entire system had been pulled out from underneath them. While their follower count had climbed into the tens—sometimes hundreds—of thousands, their engagement dropped to a fraction of a percent overnight.

The Influencer Awakening

More than a year after Instagram shut down third-party engagement apps, and Instagram is still working to prevent IT companies and hackers from taking shortcuts to grow their following and engage with users. And while they have finally opened their API to third-party scheduling apps which allow you to automate your posts as long as you have a business account (you can find a review of my favorite scheduling apps here), they're still blocking bots from automating liking, commenting, and following.

(Note: There are still some apps and companies out there who are in violation of Instagram's terms of use. Using these apps can result in your account being permanently shut down, so be careful and do you research before you agree to use a growth service.)

Shortly after the proverbial sh*t hit the fan with bots and fake followers, companies began catching on. If Instagram was shutting down these accounts over their violation of terms and inauthenticity, then what did that mean for the hundreds of thousands of dollars companies were spending on influencer marketing?

Now, companies are looking to micro-influencers (users with 100K or fewer followers) to sell their products. I've even heard recently from James Nord, the founder of Fohr, that companies are targeting the 5K to 30K micro-influencer market. But now, they're not only looking for follower count, they're looking for high engagement, too (the best sign that your following is real. loyal, and willing to trust you when you review products or services that are of interest to them).

Do you focus more on engagement rate or follower count? Have a question about it? Let me know in the comments!