“Jesus founded this big movement, even after thousands of years, people still believe in his story, yet he only had 12 followers.”
All religious beliefs aside, this joke illustrates the current Instagram frenzy. When we think about Instagram, the first thing which comes to mind is the number of followers. A high number equals Instagram success. The so-called “influencer” will get collaborations and is considered a lucrative partner for brands. However, recently, there has been more and more discussion about the sole focus on the number of followers.
Behind the Numbers
Firstly, just a high number in followers alone does not make you an influencer. (I really have problems with that term because it seems that everybody today thinks they are one. But maybe this is a topic for another post.) There have been countless articles about how people bought fake followers.
Furthermore, there is the “follow-unfollow-game”: some accounts follow you to draw attention to them. After a while (usually between a day or a week) they unfollow you again. You may have followed them thinking it is a genuine interest in your account. It may sound like an easy way to gain followers. It may be, but I really do not recommend it. The reason is that this strategy does not guarantee a good quality of followers. Just because a lot of people follow you back does not mean they will engage actively with your account in the long-run.
The first popular indicator in addition to the following is the account’s engagement rate. This means the number of likes divided by the number of total followers.
Imagine you have “only” 1,000 followers but you get 200 likes for your photos. That is an engagement rate of 20%. This is actually pretty good. It did a quick calculation with the “super-accounts” on Instagram: celebrities like Kim Kardashian (with 137 million followers at the date of publishing) or fashion influencer Chiara Ferragni (over 16 million followers) have engagement rates of 1-3%. (Of course, in absolute terms this is still a high number of people but I wanted to put engagement rates in perspective.)
20% engagement means that a fifth of your followers see and engage with your comment. The first one has actually become quite important: Due to the changes in Instagram’s algorithm, followers see the content which Instagram deems “relevant” – whatever this really means. I have decided for myself that it is probably a mix of how often a follower interacts with your account, how many of their friends do, which time you post and, yes, sadly, if you paid for a post promotion…
But there is more than just the likes. Likes are a good start, they boost your post and are a first indicator. But due to the above-mentioned algorithm it has been quite challenging to ensure a high number of likes just by providing great content. Another key indicator is the comments on your pictures. Taking time to leave a comment shows interest. I am not talking about the “thumbs up”- and other emojis or even pre-written texts which are used by bots. (Bots are programmes which automatically follow, like and comment on accounts using certain hashtags. Another article I should actually write.) I am referring to genuine interaction – when people express their feelings or even tag a friend. The latter is great for you because these people may be potential new members of your audience.
Unlike Facebook there is no direct sharing option on Instagram. However, there is the above-mentioned option of tagging someone in a comment to draw attention to your post. Furthermore, people can share posts and accounts as private messages. The latter is hard to track. There is an option to track shares of a post if you have a business account with Instagram. But I have not found a way as yet to track if someone shared my account via private messages.
Story Followers and Engagement
Due algorithm change and Instagram’s development as a platform, the Instagram Stories have gained clout. As a consumer of Instagram, I rarely look at the photos anymore or even visit someone’s profile. I mostly watch the stories. And I guess that has become the norm.
Therefore, the Stories are not to be underestimated. Followers have the feeling to get a “behind-the-scenes” into your life. Because Stories are (or at least seem) less staged and edited than the posted pictures on the profiles, followers feel they can relate to you.
Assess not only how many people watch your Stories but also how many take part in your polls, questions or further engagement tools or even send you reactions to your Stories via direct messages (see below).
DMs – Direct (Private) Messages
The so-called DMs (direct messages) sent by your followers to you are a very important indicator as well. I actually think they have become much more relevant than likes because your audience direct addresses you. It allows you to build a very personal relationship. This indicator involves reactions to your stories, posts but also general questions and enquiries about you and your brand.
I think a lot of people focus on followers, likes and engagement rates based on likes and comments because this data can be accessed to anyone – even people who do not register with Instagram. Shares, Story engagement and DMs require information provided by the account owner. But they are much more relevant.
Conversion, Conversion, Conversion
Last but definitely not the least: the most important thing is how many people actively leave Instagram, go to your website/store and BUY something. Virtual engagement is great but it does not pay your bills. It is like investing in the most beautiful shop window where people may stop and have a look but never enter the store to buy your products.
Using the example above: even if you “only” have 1,000 followers: if these followers love your content and products and if “only” 1% buy something at your store, that is 10 paying customers.
I think this example makes it quite clear that there is so much more to Instagram than just a high number of followers. In the end, it is a tool to discover you and your products/services, to connect with your audience and to drive sales in the long-run.