Our industry is headed towards a reckoning. Much like many innovative technologies and services that came before it, influencer marketing has exploded onto the scene in recent years with little regulation and increasing saturation, but the end of the wild, wild west of our world of influence is nigh.
Here’s the basic conundrum:
As influencer prices have skyrocketed – we’ve doubled the amount we’re paying bloggers year over year – brands want influencers with larger and larger numbers (Impressions! Impressions!). All the while the platforms like Facebook and Instagram scramble to push that content down in the feed, lest you pay the toll of promoting your posts. These conflicting needs have encouraged shady practices like purchasing followers.
Recently, we’ve been hearing grumbling from our clients when they see an influencer’s sponsored content receive a large proportion of comments, likes, retweets, and shares that all seem to come from their fellow influencers. While sometimes those comments are natural, more than likely the influencer has reached out to their brethren asking for commentary seeking to increase their ranking. How do they do it? They belong to private groups, they share their content and they ask said group to comment. This phenomenon is referred to as a comment or Instagram pod. The groups or “pods” that generate comments range in size from a few people in highly-specific niches to groups of hundreds of people who spend the time liking 1,000+ posts to receive the same in return from their brethren. Their origin story is rooted in the algorithmic changes from the social media platforms that buried content and drastically lowered the visibility of posts.
While created with innocuous intent, as with most things, it takes only a few to spoil the bunch. We went to our own Everywhere Society – our Facebook community to ask their opinion on the matter and it sparked a heated debate.
Some of our influencers argue that the pods are the only workaround to get your content past the algorithms without spending tons of money on boosted posts. Some of our influencers protested that influencers buy products too – so the support provided by their fellow influencer is no different or less authentic than that of any regular consumer.
There were many who came out guns blazing against this practice, and they held it akin to purchasing followers and engagement – an abomination to the many who worked hard to create and cultivate an audience organically.
Here are some of the thoughts of our influencers:
Aimee Gertsch of 4 The Love of Animals:
Not in any pods myself, but there are bloggers that I know in person who I always interact with, and they do so back. It’s real engagement based on friendships made in the “real world.” This could look like a pod to others, but it’s real… so how could anyone tell the difference? And maybe pods can build real engagement too after a time, so it might not actually be bad.
Katie Brown of All things Lovely:
I think it’s important to remember that support threads and like pods do more than just “inflate” engagement. The more interaction your post gets the more likely it is to be pushed higher in the algorithm and seen more by others. So by bloggers supporting each other’s content by liking and commenting, it’s actually more likely to get seen by more “authentic” accounts, so to speak.
Lisa Morris Frame of A Daily Pinch:
If I look at your feed and there is no engagement on your normal tweets, and all of your tweets that are ads have 100+ retweets and likes all from other influencers, that’s going to cause me to raise my eyebrows, as that engagement is superficial and, at that high level, manipulative. But let’s also be realistic. Twitter is a link farm, and Facebook now owns Instagram, which means Instagram is now pay-to-play, and they want you sponsoring your posts.
Sarah TYau of Our Life is Beautiful:
I think if we all stopped taking shortcuts or cheating (yes, I think pods, buying followers/likes, massive loop giveaways are cheating), all of our engagement and growth would be low, which becomes the norm. When the algorithm sucks more than usual, everyone will be hurting, so brands look at that and say, “Oh, everyone’s engagements dropped – it must be Instagram, not the creators.” When people cheat, they are viewing other influencers as competition, and not as a community. But the truth is we are all in this together! If a next-door influencer is succeeding, that’s making the influencers as a whole that much better! If one is getting paid a lot, that’s great, when I get to that level, it means I charge that much too! The honest influencers are paving the way for our future, while the dishonest ones are burying their own future in the process. I’m so glad brands are noticing.
As an agency tasked with showing results for our brand campaigns, builders of our own influencer network, and long-time proponents of authenticity in the space – and man, we are feeling the effects of all sides of this debate.
We will continue to personally vet and choose influencers based on their engagement and judge that engagement on what we think looks like real people with real commentary, but our job is getting harder every day. Our focus is on bridging the gap between consumers and brands through authentic influencer content and we know that’s here to stay. How we navigate the world of metrics and algorithms remains to be seen. We hope that what will stem from all of the workarounds and engagement inflation will be a return to our roots. The influencers who produce the best content that resonates with audiences will rise to the top, and the rest will simply be weeded out by better reporting data and keener selection.