Podghazi: Instagram influencers use comment collusion to game the algorithm

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Comment pods are growing in popularity among Instagram influencers — established and upcoming — and are causing some consternation among advertisers.

Instagram comment pods are a relatively new phenomenon. Essentially, they’re groups of up to 30 Instagrammers (the platform allows up to 30 in a group chat) that work with each other to comment on each other’s posts on a daily basis. The idea is to hack Instagram by increasing engagement. Because of the way Instagram’s algorithm works, this leads to Instagram “favoring” pods, which means influencers in pods often appear in the Explore tab, leading to more visibility. Pods emerged because influencers were left scrambling to keep their work visible when the Instagram algorithm debuted — the relationship between posters and users as well as timeliness determines what is seen. 

“For brands, working with an Instagrammer that is part of a pod may mean their own numbers are wrong,” said YouTuber and editor Zach Bussey. “If you had hoped to get your message in front of X number of people, if you subtract other pod members, that number is dramatically reduced. That said, it’s not impossible for those pod members to be interested in the message — it’s just not their reason for being there.”

SwellShark, an indie media buying agency that works with clients including Applegate and pet food brand Wellness, said it is working with attorneys to put language in contracts with influencers to disclose if they are part of a pod. CEO Nick Pappas said pods can and do skew results. For example, say the company was working with a client that wanted to reach mothers who are into clean eating. When contracting with an influencer, it did research on the demographic of that influencer’s follower base to make sure it was those mothers. Influencers will provide numbers on average engagement. With pods, it ends up being five to 10 influencers who are friends with the person — not five or 10 influencers with the right kind of audience. “OK, so my post is getting engagement, but it’s not with the right audience,” said Pappas.

Pods are also skewing payment. Agencies evaluate influencers on size of audience. But top influencers who are showing high numbers are commanding high prices, and the brand or agency no longer knows if the engagement was genuine. “I want the transparency behind it,” said Pappas.  

Pods don’t have to be bad. If the pods are of a similar interest group to the target audience, they can actually increase engagement and visibility of posts. “I’m OK if you’re in a pod, and it’s all other food bloggers who are closely tied. But I need to know,” said Pappas.

Publishers are also feeling the effects of pods. One publisher said that while it has seen less Instagram engagement, new publishers (mostly bloggers) are joining pods and growing in multiples, adding a couple of thousand followers a day.

An example of a Facebook post from a user seeking to join a comment pod

Erin Dwyer, a branding consultant and former svp of global ecommerce at Haven, said the issue goes back to validating the true value of influencers versus them simply excelling at hacking a platform for gain. It also goes deeper: Dwyer said it comes down to how platforms create this kind of behavior and further it because of secret algorithms and curation. Essentially, platforms created this beast.

There’s no doubt pods create results. Influencers report going from around two comments a day before joining a pod to 40-100 comments on the same post after being “activated” in the pod.

In the closed Facebook group for The Rising Tide Society, a community for creative freelancers that mostly includes bloggers and photographers, a search for pods brings up hundreds of requests to either join a pod or start one.

Many rules govern pod behavior. Comments should be at least four or five words. Emojis aren’t good enough. Avoid language that is too generic, like “love it.” Don’t post in the pod — just direct people to your account because a “like” inside a comment thread doesn’t count toward total engagement.

 

Overall, those who have left pods overwhelmingly say pods end up hurting the Instagrammer, too. Bussey said his look inside pods shows they create false competition. “If you’re a small, organically grown Instagrammer, how do you compete with someone who is corking the bat? You see people in pods growing rapidly, getting brands’ deals.” Pod members are also harmed because pods artificially improve numbers, and it’s not sustainable.

Jas Deol, a graphic design consultant who has participated in many pods, said she left because they’re too much work. She said she’s also seen paid pods, where moderators request between $5 and $20 from users who want to join a pod, which keeps people accountable and wanting to participate. She said she’s seen followers jump from 12,000 to 120,000 because of a pod.

Pods are in some ways a throwback to the beginnings of the influencer industry, when bloggers would form a supportive group to grow each other’s communities, said Cait Weingartner, a blogger who runs the Pretty & Fun blog and director of collaborations at Collectively. But now, there is a “shadiness” to it. Pods will often focus on sponsored posts that brands paid for and ask pod members to make sure to leave comments about the brand. For instance, for an outfit post, pod members’ approach could be to comment about how much they love the watch in the post because the watch brand sponsored the ad. “It can add a layer of recommendation, but it also needs disclosure,” said Weingartner.

Instagram did not respond to a request for comment. Nothing in its terms of service forbids this kind of engagement farming. Jeremy Leon, vp of strategy at Laundry Service, said pods can be beneficial to brands if they generate or lead to more organic distribution and that the platform wouldn’t be worried about pods. “Instagram’s algorithm exists to make sure someone sees good content and keeps them on the platform longer, so they can be served more ads,” he said. “[Pods keep] them on the platform longer. That’s it.”