Like many people during 2020, I found myself at home, out of work and looking for something to do with my time and talents while the pandemic prevented me from getting on with my normal job (which was producing an immersive show, for my sins). I had dipped my toe in the world of Instagram, but had never really made any concerted effort to build my profile, gain followers, get paid brand collaborations or turn Instagramming into a living.
Despite putting a lot of effort into (what I hope) wass useful and attractive content, I found it hard to get anyone to look at or engage with it, and even harder to get my followers number to grow. One day, by total chance, a dad I happened to follow messaged me to ask if I wanted to join his Engagement Group. Having no idea what this was, I was intrigued, and once he explained how it worked, I joined.
Why is Engagement Even Important?
Apparently, in 2016, Instagram changed the way you see posts in your feed, changing it from a chronological feed (i.e showing you all the latest posts from the people you follow in chronological order) to an algorithm feed, which, they claim, shows you what you’re most likely to be interested in. It’s been quite a controversial change, and many argue that it means that Instagram posts with the most engagement tend to get featured in people’s feeds more, because more engagement must mean more interest, leaving the little-engaged-with posts largely unseen.
If you’re wondering what engagement even means in Instagram terms, we’re talking likes, comments, saves and shares. The stuff that shows that people are actually interacting with the content you post.
What is an Engagement Pod?
The theory is that if your posts have high engagement, this will send a signal to the Instagram algorithm that the post is popular, so the idea behind engagement pods is to trade follows, likes and comments on Instagram content in order to boost how many followers your post is shown to, and even have it potentially shown on the Explore page. Supposedly, this skyrockets the reach for your posts and helps it perform even better.
Here’s what joining an engagement pod involves:
- You are invited to and subsequently join a chat group in your Instagram Direct Messages.
- Normally you’re required to follow everyone else in the chat group (though rarely, some pods don’t request this).
- Whenever you post, you send your content to the group, (or alert them to it with a coded message) so that all the other members can engage with it by liking, saving and commenting on what you’ve posted.
- Many groups will allow you to post up to three times per twenty four hours, but some will stipulate that you post only one.
- In return, you sell your soul. Joke! But actually, I’m not completely joking….as you’ll see if you read on. In reality, in return you have to engage with everyone else’s posts in the group too. Up to thirty two people can be added to a group message, so that’s potentially thirty two people posting up to three posts a day, which you need to be prepared to keep up with. Most pods will stipulate that you need to catch up with twenty-four hours worth of group posts every time you request engagement for yours, whereas some go further and expect you to post every day and keep up with all the other posts.
And that’s pretty much it! So what’s so bad about that, you’re thinking? You gain thirty+ new followers, and you get an ego boost every time you post something and people actually read and comment on your posts. Sounds good, right? Well it is, until you get hooked…
One Engagement Pod Turned Into Five…Which Turned Into Ten
Of course there was nothing wrong with joining the one engagement pod that I started out with. A group of like-minded mums and dads, many of whom had small children the same age as my son, and all of them easy going, down to earth and friendly, and always open to chatting and sharing advice. Crucially, the group wasn’t too prolific in their posting either, so it was easy enough to keep up with the engagement that I owed in return for the likes and comments they gave me. Often, there was only one or two posts to catch up on per day.
After a while though, I began to look for more ways that I could increase my reach. Gradually, I began to learn about Engagement Hashtags (more on them in a separate post), and Follow Loops, and through using both of these, I started getting invited to more engagement pods. Keen to get as much engagement as possible to boost my reach via the algorithm, I said “yes” to everything I was invited to, and quickly ended up in thirteen separate groups, all of which were populated with either just mums, or mums and dads. The more I joined, the more I started to realise what a big operation engagement groups really are.
Here’s what I started to learn:
How Engagement Pods Are Run; A BIG Operation
- Often there are several “admins” who run the groups, and they will most likely be running many groups in addition to the one you’re in.
- Admins will often stipulate that they are exempt from having to follow you back, or engage with your posts, but you must follow them and engage with all of their content, or risk being removed.
- Because of the sheer size of the operation they’re running, they will often, out of necessity, have to be quite blunt and authoritative in their tone within the group.
- Many groups run a “three strikes and you’re out” policy with regards to rule-breaking.
- Inactivity or infrequent posting will normally result in you being booted out of the group.
Contrary to the friendly, low maintenance group I had started out with, the extra engagement groups I’d joined really started to feel like ‘work’, and I had to deploy a lot of self-discipline to prioritise time in my day to keep up with the posts I was obliged to engage with. In many ways I didn’t mind this as, happy to treat Instagram like my job, I was keen to build my profile to the point where I could make a real living out of being a Content Creator. And after all, my likes, comments and saves on each post had gone from just a handful per post to hundreds, so it all seemed to be going in the right direction.
However, despite throwing myself wholeheartedly into the engagement business, I was starting to ignore the downsides, one of which was the creeping sensation that perhaps all this catching up wasn’t really the best use of my time, especially given that I had a young child to look after, and that the catching up was now taking literally hours every day.
Here are some of the negatives of being in engagement pods:
- It takes time, and a lot of it to keep up with engagement groups, especially the ones that post prolifically. If you think that there are a maximum of thirty-one other members in a group, posting up to three times per day, that means that in just a single busy group you have up to ninety-three posts to engage with every day, in addition to creating your own content and keeping on top of your captions and hashtags. At my busiest, I was a member of no less than thirteen groups, many of which were prolific posters, so do the maths and think how many posts you need to be engaging with every single day. The pressure! I started to feel really quite overwhelmed with having to keep up with all the reciprocal engagement, often glued to my phone while my toddler was whinging and whining at me to play with him, or my partner was trying to engage me in conversation!
- As lovely as many of my fellow members were, quite a lot of the content that I was obliged to engage with just didn’t interest me. Of course this is subjective, as everyone likes different things, but to me, I felt like I was staring at very repetitive content every day, and I would have to constantly think of original and interesting comments to add to posts that, in all honesty, I didn’t find interesting. Because I was obliged to engage with this content so much, the algorithm would interpret this as me having a genuine interest in it, so all these posts would come up on my feed as well, and before long, the interesting accounts that I followed out of choice were just never presented to me, lost in the noise of the ones I was commenting on out of obligation. It became a vicious cycle.
- It became quite clear that my content didn’t interest them, either! Often the comments on my posts from the other members were disappointingly generic, and sometimes, despite the rule of writing ‘proper’ comments of four or more words, they would just contain a few emojis and no words at all. It’s quite disheartening getting these sorts of copy-paste comments day after day, when you’re putting in a lot of effort to create original and creative content.
- Even more disappointingly, more people than you’d think just don’t like to play fair. Sometimes you’d get people posting their content to the group, expecting engagement, but would never, ever engage with your stuff in return. Because I was in so many groups I often didn’t notice this was happening until someone would point it out, but once you notice it, it does leave a rather bitter taste in your mouth.
Is This Instagram, Or The Army?
These large-scale engagement pods are often run with military precision, with extensive rules being posted on the regular, and anyone not falling into line being swiftly booted out. The admins can often be quite business-like and therefore cold in their manner, and they suffer no fools, which is an understandable stance given the scale of what they’re managing, albeit a little alienating.
Unlike that very first group I had joined, which has always been so friendly and chatty, most groups will stipulate that you “keep the chat clear” so that posts requesting engagement can be clearly seen, and not clogged up with chatty messages. If you have a break for a while, or get your account gets suspended by Instagram, you may find yourself unceremoniously removed from the group for ‘taking up space’!
Every now and then, a bit of drama ensues in these groups because someone or other is feeling disgruntled with the way they are run. Normally it’s due to a particular member not playing fair; benefitting from all the engagement the rest of the group are giving them, without bothering to give it back. Often the admins will be too busy to notice, so it will only be highlighted if someone else speaks up. Sometimes this is done behind the scenes, but often the offending party will called out publicly within the group, and in these cases things can get a bit nasty.
I’ve seen people arguing back at their accusers, getting defensive and leaving the group abruptly in a huff because they don’t like having been called out. I’ve also seen it happen where a member will argue with an admin over the fact that the latter are not required to follow back or engage. Sometimes the drama can be entertaining to the onlooker, but more often it just brings down the mood and adds to the growing negativity you may be starting to feel towards the whole Instagram shebang.
Starting your Own Engagement Pod
After a while, I decided to try and start my own engagement pod, to counteract the negative feelings I was experiencing from participating in all the pods I’d been invited to, and to enrich my feed with long-lost accounts I found interesting and inspiring again. I spent a long time composing an introductory message to send to people I followed and admired, to explain what an engagement group was and why I was inviting them.
It was basically cold-calling, and I felt quite vulnerable contacting people out of the blue on Instagram to ask them to be a part of my group, especially as quite a few just ignored me, and some turned me down. Luckily though, enough said yes to assemble a little group and it made a refreshing change to interact with people who felt a little more real and a little less “Instagrammy“. I deliberately chose accounts whose posts had heart and soul, and who clearly made an effort to create images and captions that had a bit of thought behind them.
What I did learn though, was that even in a relaxed group which is consciously trying not to be too authoritative and ‘rulesey’ , there still needs to be some control because, after all, you don’t actually know these people, and just because an account comes across as though it’s run by someone who would be reasonable and fair, doesn’t always mean that it is! I encountered (luckily very few) people who, even in my own pod, would post their content without fairly engaging with the other members’ posts. Understandably this upsets and angers the other members, and you find yourself as an “admin” having to wade in, impose sanctions and keep the peace!
It can be a bit of a minefield, and therefore it does help to make a list of rules and post them in the group from time to time, so that people know that things are meant to be done fairly. I definitely got a taste of what it must be like running multiple big engagement groups, and finally understood why the admins of these groups often come across as sergeant majors!
Eventually: Banned for “Contrived Engagement”
After a while, I found my groove with my engagement obligations, and had worked out a routine which enabled me to just about keep on top of it all (even if it did mean waking up at 5am to catch up before my toddler woke up, and having to plonk him in front of Peppa Pig for periods during the day so I could keep up), but I was soon to find that my success was to be shortlived.
My prolific engagement activity finally got the better of me and I was banned by Instagram from posting or engaging with anyone else’s posts for a week. It hadn’t come as a total surprise. In the months leading up to this, I had seen various other women in my engagement pods meet the same fate; too much of what is known as “contrived engagement activity” was resulting in them getting their accounts suspended for a week or more at a time, and they’d lament this fact in the groups chats, letting the others know why they weren’t going to be around for a while and promising to catch up on their return.
This is annoying at the very least, but at worst, a ban means that you can miss deadlines for ‘sponsored posts’ you’ve pre-agreed with brands who’ve either paid you to promote their products or gifted you stuff in return for your content.
I had watched as, one by one, several of my peers had received these bans, until one morning, while I was in the middle of posting a picture about my exercise routines, wham! I got a message from Instagram telling me I couldn’t post it! Due to my ‘recent activity’, they said, I was being restricted from doing anything on Instagram until a date exactly one week in the future. “F*ck!” I thought (actually, I didn’t just think “f*ck”; I believe I shouted it, loudly, in front of my toddler). It was SO aggravating as I had really been starting to get somewhere with Instagram; my numbers were steadily growing, my posts were all receiving loads of engagement, and I was getting in the swing of posting twice a day. Now my progress was being reversed and I was being forced not to post anything at all FOR A WHOLE WEEK!
So what happens next? Well, a week off Instagram was enough to force me to face up to some home truths, and it changed the way I use Instagram (probably) forever. Read about how that week-long ban made me change my ways in my blog post: “When Instagram banned me for a week I realised I was an Instaddict”.
The Verdict: Are Engagement Groups Worth it?
Having experienced the two extremes of being in no engagement groups versus being in thirteen (!), I would say that, as with everything in life, engagement groups can be good in moderation. Being in too many groups can skew how you spend your time and mean that you end up dedicating most of your day catching up with posts that don’t even particularly light your fire, only to receive engagement that, while looking great on the face of it, you know deep down isn’t real, organic interaction from people who are actually motivated to comment by anything other than pure obligation.
A lot of people (including me!) use the extra engagement these pods bring to appeal to brands, as it looks like your sponsored content is receiving lots of attention, but the danger is that you can get carried away with cultivating this somewhat ‘fake’ engagement, at the expense of using more long-term methods to grow your account to appeal to truly interested followers, which in the long run, are the type of followers you really want.
There’s also no evidence that all this extra contrived engagement really boosts you on the algorithm feed or in Explore anyway, so it could all be a lot of work for nothing, and after a while, the sight of another generic comment on a post you’ve put a lot of effort into does no good for your ego. Even if no one else does, you know that “love this hun!” comment was copied and pasted a hundred times for loads of other posts, and bares no relevance to the heartfelt content you’ve gone to the trouble of creating.
I would say by all means join one or two engagement groups, and look in particular for ones that really do interest you, and where you feel like there’s an opportunity to really connect with the other members in them. Don’t rely on them for all your engagement, rather keep up the other (albeit slower and more gradual) methods for growing an authentic, and truly engaged audience, because, as with all short-term easy fixes: if it seem too good to be true, it probably is!
Here’s a blog I found with some tips on how to build real, long-term engagement: Simple Ways To Increase Instagram Engagement. I’ll be trying some of these tips; let me know how you get on!
And read about what happened when I received a week-long ban from Instagram in my blog: “When Instagram banned me for a week I realised I was an Instaddict“.
You can also see what other Instagrammers think of engagement groups; here is The Adventures of Mama Bone, and her take on joining multiple engagement pods: Social Media – What is Real Anymore?
Thanks for reading! Let me know what YOU think in the comments, and if you fancy it, follow me on Instagram! My handle is @the_amateur_mama