It’s 2018; the war on the algorithm is still at large, SocialBlade is slowly but surely helping to sort the pros from the faux, and a tweet from Kylie Jenner lost Snapchat US $1B in a day - there’s no doubt that the rise and power of social media is in no way showing any signs of slowing down.
As more and more top tier influencers are turning their instagram profiles into their primary and fruitful source of income, those lower down the pyramid have become all the more determined to follow the same path. Enter; influencer pods.
What is an Influencer Pod?
An ‘influencer pod’ is when a group of instagram influencers form an allegiance with one-another to boost engagement, build their audience, fight the algorithm, and most importantly, to increase their earning capacity and sponsorship opportunities. While there are influencer pods comprised of users who have organic and legitimate followings, there is no escaping the fact that influencer pods are bad.
An influencer or comment pod is formed when a group of users make an agreement to comment and like each others posts with the sole purpose of gaming the algorithm to get more reach. The group communicates through direct messaging and each user as a member of the pod is required to give love, likes, LOLs, and RUOKHUNs to other members of the cartel.
Essentially, influencer pods amount to the equivalent of insider trading in finance, or performance enhancing drugs in sport, as they unfairly skew results and damage those who do the right thing.
Australian beauty guru and multi-platform social media sensation, Chloe Morello, dedicated avideo on her YouTube channel to the growing issue of social media fraud. Morello discusses buying followers or likes, the use of bots and Instagrammers who join influencer pods. Garnering 710k+ views, the video generated enough heated speculation and arguments in the comments for Morello to disable further discussion.
The video sparked widespread debate online and brought many social media myths to light for her 2.4m strong YouTube audience, and international media who ran her story or referenced her video. In Morello’s eyes, any calculated or dishonest activity on social media amounts to fraud, and she in no way supports influencer pods of any kind.
Furthermore, according to an article published by Digiday, a days worth of posts tagging #ad or #sponsored contained over 50% fraudulent engagements, and out of 2,000 posts, only 36 were free from pod activity, fake comments and fake likes...that’s less than 2%.
How to Spot an Influencer Pod
As all of the collusion is going on behind closed doors, spotting an influencer pod can be a little tough. The whole point of this kind of influence juicing is that it appears as natural as possible, and with usually around 30 members to the pod, separating the wheat from the chaff can be near to impossible.
One dead giveaway is that influencer pods are designed to fake engagement, and therefore deliver an unnaturally high engagement rate on the platform. Check the influencer’s presence on other social media platforms. Is there a large disparity in their followers, fans or engagement on Facebook for example?
Another sign of a genuine influencer is that the type of comments left from fans are more nuanced than just “You’re so pretty!” and “OMG Cutest!”. This Renegade Love suggests checking out their contest posts specifically to see that real entries are being submitted.
The same goes with regular post types, as members of large pods have to be constantly commenting on each others content to meet their obligation. It’s exhausting work, so comments quickly deteriorate into half-hearted emojis and affirming cliches.
This Instagram account is part of a pod
If you see the same few users leaving the same crappy comments on multiple posts, then you have probably got yourself an influencer pod. Either that or just a really boring community.
If you want to take your influencer pod spotting level up to expert, then you can also use a tool like SocialBlade to dig a little deeper into your influencer’s audience.
It’s easy to track growth trends over time to not only check for unnatural spikes in followers, but also for drop-offs after growth, indicating that the new fans came from performance enhancing tactics.
Example of organic audience growth
Look for a nice smooth growth curve, without massive follower losses, like the growth shown in our account above.
Are Influencer Pods Penalised By Instagram?
In some sense, there is nothing really wrong with influencer pods, as they are just an extension of a close community on social media. The reason for bringing together this community is a little strange when compared to groups of people with shared interests, but hey, isn’t being instafamous and getting free stuff an interest too?
The reality is that this kind of collusion has been going on for almost a decade on the internet in some shape or form. Ever since the early days of spamming links on blog comments and in forums, to automatic like/unlike apps in more recent years, users have been finding ways to use “black hat” tactics to gain influence online for a long time.
In terms of scale, the impact that these pods have on the algorithm is relatively small. A network of 30 users will provide low value accounts with a little boost, but this kind of influence is not really scalable in the long run. This means that pod members will likely see an initial period of growth, but when they start getting real new followers the content still has to be good enough to create engagement.
Currently there is no evidence that Instagram are actively hunting down pods and punishing users. However, they don’t need to as the false engagement generated by a pod will eventually end up sending the natural signals that your account has peaked too soon, as your engagement rises but you fail to attract new fans.
Instagram also are notorious for shadow banning users, removing their content from the public feed altogether. As the algorithm gets smarter at determining fake engagement from the real deal, we can expect that instapods will come into focus and much like Google dismantled link networks back in 2012, we will see Instagram crush the accounts of many #YOLO’ing wannabe stars.
Google embarked on a similar crusade back in 2012 with an update that penalised link networks, sponsored blog posts, guest blogging and more. Being a somewhat benevolent evil overlord, they released a tool that allowed site owners to limit the damage by marking or “disavow’ing” the bad links on their site with a tool. This made a massive impact on many brands at the time, and many spent years repairing the damage they had done through this kind of unnatural linking.
On social media networks like Instagram, the algorithm has become even more ubiquitous than back in 2012, and with competition more intense than ever, plus growing concerns about fake new, we don’t see Facebook allowing users to discount their spammy likes and comments.
Although Instagram might not penalise comment pods right now, they might well do in the future, and when they do, there’s no going back. Proceed with caution.
What brands need to know about influencer pods
From the perspective of brands, influencer pods are important because they distort the value of a post from a particular user.
Carrying out these checks on your potential influencer partners can be tough, but look out for the tell tale signs that we discussed earlier in the article and you should be able to get a clear idea of which accounts are artificially boosted through sneaky tactics.
We recommend using an established influencer marketing partner. At Hello Social we created our very own influencer platform for Hello Socialites. We work in close partnership with thousands of influencers who have all gone through a rigorous application process and assessment before joining the network.
Before we carry out a campaign for a client, we investigate each influencer individually to ensure that their audience is genuine and relevant to the client, using thousands of dollars worth of social media analytics tools to calculate their value and reach.
Ultimately if a user in a pod posts about your brand, or comments on your posts, it’s not going to do any harm to your account. The risk comes from your active participation in the pod, so as long as you stay away from exchanging like for like in a formal agreement you will be safe.
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