Get some influencers together in a Facebook group and it won’t be long until someone starts talking – okay, complaining – about people who play the follow/unfollow game.
I’m a blogger and full-time social media manager responsible for driving best practice for 200-plus accounts. I also work across influencer marketing on both the brand and content creator sides of the fence.
Let me start this post with a controversial statement: follow/unfollow is not the worst sin you can commit as a blogger or influencer.
It’s the second worst.
What is follow/unfollow?
It’s exactly what it says on the tin. Follow/unfollow is a tactic often promoted by ‘growth hackers’ for platforms such as Instagram where you can follow someone without needing their approval. It’s designed to grow your followers quickly to build your influence.
The premise of follow/unfollow is simple: if you follow someone, they may follow you back. (It’s claimed that 20-35% of users will do so.) Once you have followed them, few will notice if you then unfollow. This is particularly true on Instagram which does not make it easy to see if another user unfollows you.
It’s easy to spot. Tell-tale signs include accounts who follow several hundred accounts per day and unfollow just as rapidly. (Tools such as SocialBlade make this simple to track, as shown below.) Or they may have a huge number of followers despite being only a few days old or having few (if any) posts.
This is annoying to those who are building their followers in a more organic way. While it’s flattering when someone new follows you, it’s no fun when they unfollow within days or even hours, even if you’ve followed them back. It leaves you feeling like a commodity, another notch on the bedpost of someone who’s using you just to get ahead.
Not surprisingly, that’s why many people hate the tactic.
Why do people do it?
So if follow/unfollow is so disliked, why do people do it?
Simply, because it works.
The influencer space is an ever more crowded and competitive market. You can be very talented or very lucky and strike gold quickly. But that’s rare. For most, it’s a long grind to grow your follower base.
Alternatively, you can employ the get-rich-quick method of follow/unfollow.
Often brands prefer bigger influencers because they provide access to large, loyal audiences. It’s easier to work with one influencer who has five million followers than a thousand who have 5,000 each. Once you’ve reached a certain level, brands come to you more and offer more money. That’s the holy grail for most influencers.
The flaw in the system
Many agencies and brands use follower count as the primary basis for recruiting influencers. It’s the easiest, most visible measure to obtain and, well, big equals good, right?
Lots of followers don’t guarantee lots of engagement. Engagement rates – the percentage of followers who like, comment or share your content – can vary widely. And because engagement is one of the key drivers of social media algorithms, an account with low engagement will drive fewer impressions than one whose audience is highly engaged. There’s no point having lots of followers if hardly any of them actually see your content.
With Instagram, there’s also a practical reason for unfollowing people because the platform limits you to 7,500 follows. So if you’re following lots of people as part of a strategy, you have to start unfollowing to stay under that limit.
Finally, let’s be honest, it’s also just human nature to want a large following. And when agencies state openly that they only want to work with influencers who have a minimum of X followers, it only fuels the desire to grow as quickly as possible.
Is it evil?
It depends on your definition of ‘evil’, really.
Is follow/unfollow illegal? No.
Is it unethical? I think it is. Someone who uses follow/unfollow is misrepresenting their ‘popularity’ because they have grown their audience in an artificial way.
I don’t buy counter-arguments such as, “I’m just trying to earn a living”, “Everyone else is doing it” or “No one’s really getting hurt by this, are they?” Sorry, the end doesn’t justify the means.
At a time when both the industry and the public have a pretty dim view of influencers – as evidenced by the ASA’s recently announced investigation into Mrs Hinch – authenticity and trust have become key themes. Simply put, many people view influencers as ‘fake’ and practices such as follow/unfollow don’t help to counter that negative view.
So is follow/unfollow evil? You decide. But it’s certainly not honest.
I’m not going to categorically say you shouldn’t do follow/unfollow. But I don’t approve of it myself. To me, it crosses the line that separates good from unethical practices.
What I will say is that times are shifting and people who use follow/unfollow will eventually find their tactic working against them.
Slowly, more brands are starting to understand the unreliability of looking only at follower counts. Increasingly, they are looking to reach (so-so) and engagement rates (better) as better indicators. Really clever brands look to more downstream metrics – click-through rates to their websites and e-shops, for instance. This is what really matters: do influencers help move people along the path to purchase? A million followers aren’t worth anything if none of them clicks through.
Marketing platforms are becoming more clever over time too. I’ve mentioned SocialBlade already but tools such as Upfluence can, for instance, use AI to assess how much of your following is ‘real’ and calculate the value of your audience.
We’re closing in on a tipping point where follower numbers matter less than your ability to influence purchase. And more marketers will have access to tools to identify the best influencers with engaged audiences, not just the biggest ones who have gone all-in to build big numbers at any cost.
It will become much harder to fool the system by playing follow/unfollow. If you’re going to do it, that’s your choice. But don’t be surprised when it comes back to bite you.
So, what’s worse?
I started off by saying that follow/unfollow is only the second worst sin you can commit as an influencer. So what’s worse?
Follow/unfollow is at least partially defensible. The people who follow you do so out of choice, even if you’re deceiving them about your intention to immediately unfollow.
Buying followers, however, is indiscriminate. This is more than just fake friendship. It’s more like throwing a party where you’ve paid everyone to attend. They’re not ‘friends’ lured under false pretences; they’re a rent-a-crowd of mostly bots bought solely to attract or deceive others.
Influencers who buy followers will fall even harder when the pendulum swings back. Why? They always have low engagement rates because their followers aren’t real. It’s already easy to spot today. If you’re considering buying followers, don’t. Just don’t. Spend your cash somewhere more worthwhile.
I’d consider follow/unfollow to be unethical. But buying fake followers? Now that really is evil.