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The first five minutes are the most crucial. They can make or break you. Every double-tap, every comment, every DM in these first few minutes determines the fate of your post. Or at least that’s what the Instagrammers say.
To get engagement in those first five minutes, you need people mobilized to respond to your content. You need, in other words, fans: people who pay such close attention to what you post and when you post it that they’re ready to comment the second you put something up. But for a young blogger, finding fans is the hardest part — unless, of course, she fakes it.
That’s where Instagram pods come in. An Instagram pod is a group of (hopefully) like-minded creators who agree to comment on and like one another’s work in the hopes of boosting its visibility. Right now, Instagram pods are still underground. “I don’t think it’s that widespread,” Amanda Schulze, the founder of the Be Well Squad, which focuses on health, wellness, skincare, and nutrition, says. But pods are certainly growing. Amanda’s group has almost 100 people in it, split into six groups that function as pods or squads. “I’m really passionate about women entrepreneurs and community and connecting people,” she says. “I realized I’d love to do that for a space I’m also really passionate about.”
Bloggers who focus on fashion, for instance, might join a comment pod based on a style, or a particular brand, or simply on a color that permeates their content. Inside Facebook groups, text chains, and Instagram DMs, Instagram users are trying to game the algorithm to get views, and along the way they’re creating communities reminiscent of the early days of blogging.
Instagram pods spread by word of mouth. Every pod member I spoke to said they’d learned about their group from a friend or a Facebook group of like-minded bloggers. InstaRevealed, which creates guides to increasing your popularity on the app, runs many of these Instagram pods. The site was created by Liz Dean and Teri Didjurgis, and it has more than 225 niche pods. One blogger told me when she joined Dean and Didjurgis’s Facebook group in September 2015 it had about 300 members. Today, more than 20,000 people have joined. Similarly, many users find their pods through the Rising Tide Society’s Facebook group, a closed group for creative entrepreneurs, where new pods are announced every day. For the most part, the growth of these groups of creators has been organic and rapid. They’ve existed for fewer than two years.
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Until the update in March 2016, how Instagram worked was very straightforward: Posts appeared in chronological order in each user’s timeline. In this way, Instagram was pure, as far as social apps go. But in March of 2016, the game changed for Instagrammers. Suddenly an algorithm determined how high up a post appeared on a user’s feed, and a brand-new page with random content called “Explore” appeared. Many Instagrammers think that by joining a pod and getting more engagement on their posts, their content will rise above other pictures on users’ feeds. Several social-media strategists, however, say this is not the case.
“People think pods work because they do work on Facebook,” Jenn Herman, a social media strategist, says. “And people assume the Instagram algorithm is the same as it is on Facebook... which it's not. To ‘beat’ the algorithm on Instagram requires better content, a selective posting schedule, [...] good captions, and effective calls-to-action.” And the way the algorithm determines “good content” is based on which content gets a response from viewers in the form of likes, comments, and shares. In other words, there’s no quick fix, according to Herman.
That’s because Instagram’s algorithm is individualized based on the engagement habits of each user. If I heart all of my best friend’s posts, her stuff pops up at the top of my feed. No amount of engagement on a post will cause it to jump to the top of my personal feed. Where the pods might work, though, is in the mysterious Explore tab.
“Posts are selected automatically based on things like the people you follow or the posts you like,” an Instagram Help post titled “How are photos and videos chosen for Search & Explore?” explains. But it doesn’t reveal how, exactly, those posts are selected automatically. If I like 100 photos of golden retrievers, for example, my Search & Explore page will probably be filled with golden retrievers. But how does the service choose which golden retriever pictures it gives me? No one knows, really, and Instagram did not respond to requests for comment. But most Instagram pod members think that good engagement on a post can’t hurt a post’s chances at making the page.
Because of the way Instagrammers believe the algorithm works, most pods have rules. You have to share your post in the group with other pod members as soon as it goes up, so that other members have time to comment. Comments on posts cannot be emojis, since those aren’t seen as “meaningful,” and should be more than three words. Ideally, a good Instagram pod would be made up of people whose content is similar enough that they can create true engagement. If everyone in your pod loves hair design, for instance, it’s easy to get excited about commenting on a fellow member’s post about a cool braid.
Brita Marie Long, who blogs at BelleBrita, founded a comment pod almost a year ago around the color pink. Its 14 members all post content that’s pink. That sounds simple and silly, but it allows her members to follow and respond to content that they already know they’ll like. “My first comment pod, which was too broad, sometimes felt kind of forced because it was an experiment,” Long says. “Commenting on the pink pod is really easy because we have so much in common and are genuinely interested in each other’s comments. Even if I stopped using Instagram for work, I would still be following these people.”
Interestingly, this “meaningful” engagement can also make Instagrammers seem more influential than they maybe are. Sure, a bunch of comments might get a post to the explore page and gain them more followers, but it could also have more immediate benefits as well. “I work at an influencer/marketing agency,” Julianne Cronin, who runs The Wink Blog and left her first Instagram pod after a couple of weeks, says. “We’ve had several discussions about how Instagram commenter pods are ruining everything for us.”
Many Instagrammers use their platform to promote products for money (#sponcon), and those brands determine how well a post has done by how many “relevant” comments a post gets, Cronin explains. But the Instagram pods have skewed the data. Because of the meaningful-engagement requirement, most of the “relevant” comments are actually from other bloggers who aren’t necessarily interested in the product. This is bad for brands, but might actually be good for bloggers, whose very engaged comments could help them get more sponsored content deals. “There must be some kind of appeal beyond getting a lot of comments,” Cronin says. “Maybe you’re doing all of this as a blogger to get more recognition from brands who want to partner with you.”
The only barrier to entry, then, is time. “The amount of times that people would share was unreal,” Cronin says. “Fifteen girls sharing multiple times a day. You can imagine how insane that would get. I stopped commenting on other people’s posts because it just got completely out of hand. I just kind of left.”
That seems to be the only real downside to participating in one of these organized groups. Several bloggers I spoke to admitted to leaving their Instagram pods for the same exact reason: They just didn’t have time to keep up. It takes less than a minute to comment on someone’s new post, but the necessity of doing it right after their teammates posted meant that women who were in meetings or busy when a post went up could easily miss a call to action.
While the groups are too new and too personal to be carefully studied for effectiveness, there are other tangible benefits. Instagram pods that aren’t solely focused on growing business and upping views can be really beneficial to bloggers trying to just find a community. Schulz’s Be Well Squad, for example, works to connect like-minded people.
“Instagram can be a lonely space,” Schulz says. “Your friends and your partners don’t want to talk about your Instagram all day.” And for people trying to build an audience, or even a brand, those kind of networking conversations can be the difference between feeling confident in your growth and feeling lost at sea. “Regardless of how people plan to move forward in terms of growth of their accounts, it’s important to find a group you can bond with and be part of a community,” Schulz says. And she hopes her group can be that for people.
Jenn Herman, who is skeptical of the effects these groups can have on the algorithm, agrees with Schulz on this. “Others will see that engagement and may be more inclined to comment too,” she wrote on her blog, and “you may make some new friends and connections via the pods and grow your network.”
There’s some fear, of course, that any effectiveness a pod might have could be diminished if Instagram decides to crack down, or change its algorithm again. “Once they become more popular, there will be changes added to the algorithm to start detecting that kind of thing,” Schulz says. “In some ways, I don’t want anyone to know about it.” But if an Instagram pod creates a community that’s supportive and engaged, no algorithm change can really take that away.