Let’s be real—buying followers on Instagram is very tempting.
When every blogger and mom-and-pop store seem to have more followers than you, with hundreds of people blowing their comments and engagement rates through the roof, how are you supposed to compete?
With Instagram becoming one of the top new sales platforms for e-commerce, the temptation to buy followers has never been stronger.
Get more followers, and even if they’re “fake”—the thinking goes—real people will take notice and start to shop in your store.
Buying Instagram followers could be a way to “growth hack” this new and incredibly powerful channel.
But does this theory hold any water? We set up an experiment to find out.
So, What’s the Deal with Buying Followers?
Buying followers generally falls into two categories:
A company makes a bunch of fake pages, and then they “follow” you. The bad news is that Instagram has been known to crack down on fake accounts, plus the only thing it does is inflate your follower count. We didn’t test this tactic out—since the “followers” are shell accounts, they clearly aren’t going to drive revenue or engagement for your business. It’s also an easy way to get banned.
A company uses a bot that automatically follows/likes accounts and then unfollows them. Within this cycle, people will see that your account followed them, check out your page, and give you a follow. This technique works because it plays off common Instagram etiquette—follow me, and I’ll follow you back—but here the other account gets unfollowed after a few days. You can choose how fast you want the bot to work, but it’s generally faster than what your crazy-dedicated intern could do on a few energy drinks.
We decided to go with the latter because it was more likely to actually work as a method of increasing your brand’s social media strength, given that our followers wouldn’t just be a bunch of empty accounts.
Laying Down The (Experimental) Law
The experiment would be relatively straightforward. We already had a real Instagram account with a store—Not Your Girl Shop—attached.
We’d taken note of our Instagram results (followers gained, engagement on our posts, etc.) and also had a variety of metrics from how well we converted those people to visitors to customers on Shopify.
Then, we’d ramp it up. We’d pay for a bot to do the work of getting followers for us—at super speed. We’d compare the results from our bot-following phase with our natural results, and finally get some answers as to whether or not buying followers is worth it.
We are going to measure:
Running The Experiment
Step 1: Making our Instagram Account
We knew that the experiment would have to have a good Instagram attached. We followed our own advice for setting up a good Instagram account and made the Not Your Girl Instagram, scheduling pictures that hit on the aesthetic we were going for. Not Your Girl is curated to appeal to edgy, fashion-focused millennials.
All the images are high quality, and we posted regularly, but not excessively—about once per day. The Instagram is linked to an online shop where you can buy some branded Not Your Girl gear and a few other items.
We also used a bunch of hashtags on each post, to help the organic aspect of our growth. We used the same hashtags throughout the entire experiment, to keep everything but our follower-gaining tactics consistent.
Step 2: Gaining Instagram Followers – The Real Way
Outside of using hashtags to tap into our potential audience, we followed pretty much best practices for gaining followers the usual way. We looked at accounts that had a similar aesthetic to Not Your Girl, and went into their followers. We then followed some of their followers and liked some of their posts.
Those users then saw that we had engaged with them, and hopefully followed us back.
We didn’t go in and comment on posts or DM any of the people we followed, because we wouldn’t have been able to keep that consistent with our bot.
Step 3: Gaining Instagram Followers – The Bot Way
We temporarily stopped gathering new followers and posting before we switched over to buying followers. This gave us a nice clean break when we went back to look at our results — there is no overlap at all between our bot results and our human results.
There are a lot of bots and services out there you can use to buy followers on Instagram. These types of services are abundant, and often seem pretty fake. We used Boostgram, which claims to help you fully automate your account and give you “real followers, likes, and comments.”
It’s pretty easy to set up: you link your Instagram account with Boostgram in their dashboard, choose some quick settings, like how fast you want the bot to run, and you start “generating” followers.
The generation process is pretty much the same as what you would do yourself (find, follow, unfollow) but much faster. With Boostgram, we targeted people following four popular stores that have the same target audience as Not Your Girl.
There are a few more targeting options on Boostgram (gender, location), but we kept ours targeting to just those four stores.
After setting up our account on Boostgram, we were almost ready to go. The monthly cost for Boostgram is $99 and up, so we had to take care of footing the bill, and then we let Boostgram run and waited for the bot to do its thing.
Bot or Not? Our Results
Our regular follower acquisition ran from July 2nd to August 13th, and the bot follower acquisition ran from November 23rd to December 19th. In that time, the regular method gained 401 followers, and the bot gained 111.
Since the regular method ran longer, it makes sense that it would gain more followers. However, the regular method gained an average of 9.3 followers per day, while the bot method gained an average of 4.1.
It is worth noting that, at the very beginning of the Not Your Girl Instagram, we had three days of +20 follower gain. Though this skewed the regular method up a little bit, the regular method clearly beats the bot when it comes to acquiring followers, even though the bot was “working faster” than a human. It is worth noting though that there is time saved with the bot.
If you look at the gray bars above, it is again clear that the regular method beats the bot method. The average likes per day for the bot doesn’t crack 100, but the regular method is garnering over 200 likes a day—that’s double the likes.
Comments are a similar story.
For the regular method, we cut off the first day because the first day was an outlier and skewed our graph, which is why this starts on the 3rd of July instead of the 2nd.
The regular method was pushing ten comments/day, and the bot method hovered around four comments/day, so, once again, the regular method gave roughly twice the results as the bot method.
Engagement rate is so important when using Instagram—its per-follower engagement rate is 4.21%, calculated using 1.5+ mil interactions over 160 Instagram posts. This is 58 times higher than Facebook or Twitter. And with Facebook now using its algorithm in our Instagram’s feeds, engagement matters more now than ever.
While yes, buying fully “fake” accounts isn’t what’s happening here (the bot is following real people), our engagement still sharply decreased via such an automated tool.
It’s always worth having your eye on your Instagram engagement rate. To do this, combine the number of likes and comments on a post and divide by how many followers you have:
While we didn’t rake in the dough with either campaign, there was a definite difference in number of customers who visited our web store from our Instagram when we used the bot and when we didn’t.
The regular method averaged between 15 and 20 visits a day to our online shop.
Meanwhile, the bot averaged between five and ten visitors a day. Again, regular outperformed the bot.
And the trend just continues.
The regular method actually drove interested customers to our shop—ones that put items in their cart and purchased. The bot, meanwhile, only had one person put an item in their cart.
What this shows is that the types of people who were following our Instagram and visiting our shop during the regular method were people who were actually interested in our product, which is exactly what you want when you’re building a follower base on social media.
All purchases during the experiment were made during our regular method time frame.
With the regular method, we got consistent sales throughout the month or so of the experiment. However, the bot once again disappointed.
“There were no sales during this time,” is something you never want to see as a business and a massive demerit for the bot.
We can also say that having more followers doesn’t necessarily mean getting more followers, at least not if the difference is a few hundred people. Although social proof can be a powerful marketing force, we gained more followers starting our Instagram from zero using the regular method than we did starting out with 1,000 using the bot method.
Maybe there would be a difference in follower increase if Not Your Girl suddenly had 100,000 followers, but at the rate that our bot was going, it would’ve taken decades to get us there.
Here’s the takeaway: When you’re starting a new social media account for your business, build social proof by having engaged customers and authentically connecting with people who follow you.
You Can’t Bot Your Way To A Business
Automatically following and liking accounts was the epitome of a quick fix. It got us followers, comments, and “engagement”—but only on a vanity level. It took no work; we just pressed a button, and it started happening.
But was it worth it?
We didn’t sell any merchandise during the period of buying followers on Instagram (via the bot). We weren’t going out and engaging with potential fans of the shop and trying to get them to follow us back—we were relying on the bot to bring us customers. And our Shopify metrics tell a dark story about just how much these botted followers cared about our business. They didn’t.
Why Did The Bot Fail?
Why the bot performed worse than the regular method could come down to a number of things.
The bot can’t discern who might follow you back. If it went into, for example, Forever 21’s followers, it can’t tell which followers are bots, brand ambassadors, inactive accounts, etc. that won’t follow you back.
People can tell we used a bot, and were put off by it. They might have poked around the Not Your Girl Instagram and discovered a high followers to following ratio, or the bot could’ve liked three pictures in rapid succession, tipping off an Instagram user that we weren’t really engaging with them.
Our targeting wasn’t quite right. Perhaps followers of H&M’s Instagram just didn’t want to follow us or buy our clothes.
It unfollows too quickly. If someone doesn’t check their Instagram every day, they would have missed the bot following and unfollowing them.
Elbow Grease Makes the Difference
Get on Instagram. Post every day. Get followers. Cash out—that’s how building a business on social media works, right? Karen Horiuchi of Glambot disagrees. “Although an impressive following on Instagram is nice to have and gives the appearance of success,” Karen says, “what really matters is money in the bank. An e-commerce startup needs to focus on revenue through conversion. Survive first then flaunt later.”
Flaunt later? That seems too easy for someone who’s already succeeded on social media to say!
But it’s true. Building a brand on social media isn’t about getting more followers than everyone else, it’s about getting into a niche market and building connections with real people that appreciate your product and—most importantly—are willing to spend money on it. While there’s a lot that technology can do, for now a robot still can’t find that sweet spot without any help from humans.
Interaction with organic followers is the best way to learn about your audience as well. Whether it is through the comments on your pictures or visiting their Instagram pages, learning what your followers are truly interested in can help you further define your niche in the market.
Creating a rich, engaged follower base takes hard work—work that will pay off in actual dollars and cents if you give it the time it needs. Even though it may seem daunting to set out a plan to increase your follower count on Instagram, a little strategic planning, and some elbow grease will get you the followers—and customers—of your dreams faster than a bot ever could.