Behind the Secret Instagram Hacking Pods You Never Knew Existed
If you join a secret Instagram hacking club, does that make you a fraud or a strategic influencer?
It took six years for Justine Iaboni to gain 120,000 Instagram followers on her @jetsetjustine account. But it only took three months for the Toronto-based fashion and beauty blogger to go from zero to 84,000 followers on her second account, @jetset.beauty.
Her secret? Well, that’s secret, but what she will reveal is that she experiments with strategies, such as varying posting times, using specific cover images for her videos and engaging with her audience, in hopes of getting around the app’s ever-changing algorithm so that her content will land on the coveted “Explore” page and at the top of followers’ feeds.
While for some a big following is just a boost to the ego, for others it translates into paid opportunities with brands and agencies through sponsored posts. After the “Great Instagram Purge of 2014,” when the app cracked down on fake accounts (including spam and handles purchased to boost followings) and cleared them from the platform, influencers began resorting to sophisticated methods like hacking.
The purge left users—most notably celebrities and influencers—with significantly lower followings, which resulted in accusations that those affected had bought followers. Justin Bieber dropped a whopping 3.5 million followers, while Kim Kardashian West lost 1.3 million. It sparked a big discussion about fake accounts, buying followers and the ethics around transparency and ultimately led to some Instagrammers resorting to other strategies to organically grow their followings.
But while some argue that hacking is equivalent to search engine optimization (SEO) practices, others suggest it’s as shady a practice as buying followers. In Iaboni’s case, she learned of an invite-only Instagram hacking underground in 2016 through a close friend who knew several people with followings over 500,000. (“If you make friends on Instagram, you’ll find your way into some fun little rabbit holes,” she says.) Shortly after, she was invited into the “Instagram illuminati,” where she began learning how to make her content more visible.
“Nowadays, everyone is part of some type of group or chat where bloggers exchange ideas and support each other. If someone figures out a strategy, they tell [the others],” says Iaboni.
After seeing bloggers in Europe and the U.S. posting viral video content, Iaboni decided to try it herself. (Instagram tends to favour video content, often featuring it more prominently than photo posts.) However, the videos raised concerns with her followers and the brands she worked with. (Iaboni focused on style, so they seemed off-brand.) Since she was still curious to experiment with video content, she decided to launch an experimental account.
“I wanted to play with and figure out algorithms,” she explains, adding that she “can’t really afford” to play around with her main account because it causes “too much controversy.” “So I experiment with @jetset.beauty, and if I find that something works there, then I can tailor it to my strategy for my main account.”
Iaboni’s strategies are much more advanced than the well-known tricks in the general Instagram community, such as tagging big accounts to get featured, like @ootdmagazine (2,400,000 followers); joining “comment pods” (where influencers comment and like one another’s photos); and creating content that raises media attention, thus going viral, such as celebrity recreation (where people hilariously recreate famous celeb photos) and meme accounts.
Iaboni reveals she’s only ever used one hack (“I used it four to five times in one week”), which consisted of copying and pasting a list of celebrity Instagram handles into a photo caption, resulting in the photo landing at the top of her followers’ feed.
“Those images had higher impressions that week than the photos I didn’t use the celeb tags on that same week,” Iaboni says of the hack, which stopped working two weeks later, likely because Instagram figured out it was being used. “And is that wrong? People were following me anyway. The hack just made them see it, and then they liked it. I didn’t force people to like it; I just put it in their face, and they liked it.”
“…is that wrong? People were following me anyway. The hack just made them see it, and then they liked it.” – Justine Iaboni
But not everyone agrees with Iaboni’s decision (and that of her underground comrades) to play the system.
“[Using hacks] is just a load of sh**,” says Jay Strut (@jaystrut), a Toronto-based fashion blogger with over 56,000 Instagram followers. “Having to desperately cling to whatever fraudulent methods for relevance is all doable for growing a following, but I think it’s really about the person’s vibe and aura.
“There are so many ‘influencers’ out there with plenty more followers than me…going all sorts of crazy trying to get likes and followers. But I haven’t seen them lounging in Mademoiselle Chanel’s apartment or shooting Versace campaigns.”
“We are into creating pure original content for our Instagram and blog,” they told us in an email. “We never upload other people’s videos, or try to hack anything. We don’t loop other people’s videos or put up things just to get likes or followers. It’s not about that for us.”
And while posting or sharing other people’s content is common (think of how many times celebrities share images from a magazine spread they’re in), it’s still a questionable practice, even when the original poster is credited. As per Instagram’s community guidelines, users should only “post authentic content,” not anything that has been “copied or collected from the Internet that you don’t have the right to post.”
The Beckermans stand by that guideline: “It’s very important to us to create our own thing. Simply good content is what we are all about, and it’s enough for us.”
But Iaboni and her manager, Sara Koonar, are among those who think that these underground tactics are simply like SEO—using tactics to ensure that a website appears high on the list of search engine results.
“If you think about SEO, it’s almost identical,” says Koonar, co-founder of the influencer management agency Platform Media & Management. “Everyone puts keywords in their websites, trade links and tags to get their website to the top spot of Google.”
Koonar says hacks are more acceptable than the outright purchasing of followers, as they’re simply a way to increase visibility to get authentic follows. “It’s kind of interesting why someone wouldn’t want to do that.”
From a PR perspective, however, bigger followings don’t always reign supreme. Micro-influencers (those with lower followings but higher engagement) are becoming more popular with brands because they’re considered more trustworthy.
“Engagement goes way beyond the numbers,” says Teddy Wilson, an account executive at Edelman, a Canadian communications marketing agency. He says brands watch for signs of “hyper-engagement,” such as several one-word comments and inauthentic likes (from bots or spam accounts).
“Are all their comments coming from other influencers with tons of followers?” he asks. “Is the influencer posting off-brand clickbait videos that go viral and deleting them once they’ve run their course? These are big flags we watch out for.”
“Are all their comments coming from other influencers with tons of followers? These are big flags we watch out for.” – Teddy Wilson.
Brands are also conscious of the engagement-to-followers ratio. They look at the likes, comments and video views a post has in comparison to the poster’s following. If an influencer with 150,000 followers receives roughly 300 likes and 20 comments on a photo, it’s clear that those followers are not engaging and are most likely not real. Koonar notes that engagement rates will always go down as your following grows, as those with smaller followings (such as 10,000) most likely know their followers or have at least met them before.
“The bigger you get, the less of a person you are to people, so they don’t necessarily feel they always need to give you a like,” she explains. “[A] 10 per cent [engagement rate] is exceptional. But once you hit over 200,000 followers, that’s nearly impossible.”
The average influencer with a following of 100,000 or more has an engagement rate of 2.4 per cent, according to a report from influencer platform Influence.co. However, calculating an influencer’s engagement rate isn’t exactly foolproof, given that Instagram users can buy likes as easily as they buy follows.
“I wouldn’t say [the engagement-to-followers ratio] is the best way to judge,” says Koonar. “I look at quality of content, comments, likes-to-followers ratio—even though that isn’t totally reliable—and if they have good affiliate sales. I also use [analytics tools like] Social Blade to see if their new followers are a steady climb and there aren’t too many lost followers.”
“[A] 10 per cent [engagement rate] is exceptional. But once you hit over 200,000 followers, that’s nearly impossible.” – Sara Koonar.
Rob Loschiavo, senior conversation manager at Conversation Agency, doesn’t have a problem with people using strategies to give their following a boost, as long as it doesn’t compromise a user’s personal brand and authenticity.
“It’s a smart move for someone to take advantage of any/all opportunities to grow their following; it’s done in marketing, sales and business development daily,” he says, noting that being an influencer is, indeed, a business.
So can good content stand on its own, without a user hacking the system? According to Daniel Ocean (@mr.danielocean, 47,000 followers), Toronto blogger, influencer and co-founder of Platform Media & Management, yes.
“I don’t really covet tons and tons of followers,” he says. “You always want to grow, but for me, that’s not what makes me proud of my work. I get off on having the best photo I’ve ever created rather than getting the most likes.”
He cites “great photography,” “knowing [his] demographic” and getting featured on men’s style accounts as his keys to success. “I mean, I’m very familiar with all the different tactics, but I decided to take a different route.”
For Mina Gerges, the brains behind celebrity recreation account @itsminagerges (143,000 followers), creating content that his followers enjoy is what’s most important.
“My Instagram is, first and foremost, a place for people to smile and feel comfortable and get something positive out of it,” he says. “As an influencer, my content is a lot more important than my following.”
Ultimately, finding what works for you and your brand, and what resonates with you morally, is what really matters. As Iaboni says, coming up with strategies to get around Instagram’s algorithm is just a game—one that she doesn’t mind playing.
“I treat my Instagram like I’m gambling. Sometimes the house wins, and sometimes I win.”