Building an organic following on Instagram isn’t easy. In the past, would-be influencers crammed dozens of hashtags into captions for discoverability or turned to bots and fake followers to boost their numbers.
In light of Instagram’s algorithmic feed re-ordering, though, some Instagrammers are turning to a new trend called “pods.”
A pod is a group of creators or influencers who team up on Instagram to help make each other’s posts more visible and discoverable. Instagram’s algorithm pushes the most popular posts to the top of users’ feeds and weighs likes and comments in that equation.
By liking and commenting on one another’s photos, members of the pod can manufacture engagement and game the algorithm.
Many pods have strict rules and are particular about admission. Mashable reporter Rachel Thompson recounted her experience attempting to join pods, only to be rejected “countless times.” Pod admins might evaluate those looking to join for thematic fit, aesthetic, following, or any of a handful of other factors.
These pods typically communicate through group direct messages in Instagram, though larger pods sometimes use Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, or other social media networks to communicate due to the limit Instagram places on the number of people that can be in a single DM. Once users are accepted into a pod, they can post their recently posted photos to the group and other pod members will go to work liking and commenting to drive up engagement.
Some pods are adamant about users liking and commenting on photos posted in the group very soon after they go up, but others are more lax on timing. Generally, though, good commenting practice is leaving a comment that’s more than four words and is specific to the photo posted (rather than a generic comment like “love it!” which Instagram may not count as valuable engagement).
Instagrammers who have joined pods have reported that the average number of likes and comments that they receive on photos increased. The idea is that in liking and supporting each other’s content, these Instagrammers can make themselves more discoverable and give their accounts a follower and engagement boost that doesn’t violate Instagram rules the way that bots and fake followers do.
Pods are still a way of gaming the system by “faking” organic engagement in the strictest sense, but unlike botting, pods aren’t human-free automated ad fraud systems. There are real people on the other end of those likes and comments, and though they’re engaging for the purpose of supporting a creator in exchange for the same support, pods may be a more tolerable long-term alternative to bots.
Fake followers and forms of ad fraud that are unique to social platforms pose a major threat to brands and advertisers. Does the same hold true for pods? Are they bad for advertisers?
Pods are still relatively new. It’s difficult to tell what pods might look like in six months or a year from now, but at least in theory, pods could be beneficial to brands — provided they know how to tell which Instagram accounts benefit from pods and which are built solely on pods.
Though they’re less insidious than an army of bots following and liking an account in exchange for money, pods still amount to engagement and followers that aren’t purely organic. Pods don’t amount to users buying followers by the hundreds or thousands, but it is a kind of contract that isn’t based purely on authenticity.
Still, there are ways in which pods could benefit brands. Pods that work as they’re meant to push an influencer’s content closer to the top of followers’ feeds, making that content more visible and immediate. Instagram’s feed reordering has made it nearly impossible to sift through new content in an orderly fashion and it prioritizes popular content. If a brand partners with an influencer who’s part of a pod, the content they’ve worked with the influencer to create or sponsor may find its way to the top of the feed thanks to the help of the pod. It’s optimization without the extra cost.
It’s always important for brands to carefully select and vet influencers, and that’s still true with the rise of pods. Though we may see fewer bots, brands must be able to recognize which accounts have organic followings supplemented with pods to optimize discoverability and which ones lean too heavily on pods to create the appearance of active and popular accounts. The task of determining organic accounts from those built with pods will be tough, depending on how pod members engage, but it’s a new variable to consider in the vetting process.
Pods are designed to trick the system, but unlike bots, they’re not explicit ad fraud built on software. Pods consist of people, and those people work to get content seen by other Instagrammers — other real people. It’s not totally organic, but if brands and marketers can learn to spot the work of pods and find a way to use the actions of those pods to make their branded and sponsored content more discoverable and successful, pods might actually help brands in the long run.