Instagram Statistics: More Followers is Not Better

I read an interesting–if a bit dry–article on Instagram statistics over at the Buffer blog.

I say it’s a bit dry not because of the writer’s delivery, but basically because it’s another post where social media is being picked apart by what time of day is most likely to get you more likes and what filters are likely to get you comments, that kind of stuff. I don’t typically read this kind of information; I am not a social media marketer, even if I provide seemingly similar services, I was just curious to see what the average number of likes per follower are on Instagram.

When I’m not building the Internet, I also run a web mag for full-time travelers and those aspiring to do so. Along with that comes an Instagram account. Posting photos of code for ClickNathan doesn’t seem like a good use of a social media network which is all about posting beautiful images, but for a travel mag, it’s spot on.

Apparently, for every 1,000 followers you have, you can expect about 37 interactions per post. I have 372 followers and get about 15-30 “interactions” (likes + comments) on average. We’ve gotten up into the 40s, and some photos never make it to 10, but anyway, I thought a bit about why it might be that we’re doing better than average based on percentage of followers to interactions, and did a little not-so-scientific research. Let’s see what I’ve come up with.

So firstly, 37 out of 1000 is 3.7%, right? So according to the study that the originally linked post was based on, you can expect to about 4% of people who follow you to like and/or comment on your photos.

We’re averaging closer to 6%. 5.914% to be more precise, but let’s keep this as close to round numbers as possible. Why are we doing better than average?

Firstly, most of my followers are not actual friends. You could argue that people with a lot of followers who are real life friends are more likely to bring in a skewed number of likes, but less than 10 of my followers are actual people I know in real life as actual friends, and less than 25 are people I’ve ever even met in the real world.

I then thought, well perhaps it’s simply that people love to see travel photography, and posting pictures of big beautiful mountains and dramatically lit sunsets over the Pacific just tend to generate more interactions. But I’m not the only person doing something like that. Two other accounts I follow have a much larger audience than I. I’m not looking to pinpoint any particular individual’s accounts, so I’ll allow them to remain nameless, but we’ll just call them Travelers A and B.

Travelers A have 5500 followers and Travelers B have 24,500.

Travelers A regularly get around 250 interactions. That’s a 4.5% interaction rate.

Travelers B average 1,000 interactions, putting them at 4.1%.

Both of these Travelers are families with young children, similar to us, who travel by a similar means (an Airstream travel trailer) and do it full-time or very near full-time. We all post similar stuff–big beautiful landscapes intermixed with photos of our children, shots of our homes-on-the-road and cute diners or interesting signs along the way.

I would love to have two or three times the followers–for obvious reasons–but particularly for this study I wonder if a smaller following is just more likely to get you more interactions. The less people who follow you, the more likely they are to be actual fans instead of just the type of people who follow a lot but don’t interact, or who followed you at one point, but are no longer on Instagram. Still, percentages are supposed to account for this stuff.

So why are we getting a 1.5-1.9% higher interaction rate than these folks? I don’t believe it’s the quality of photos–none of the three of us are professional photographers and all of us are in a similar line of work–web design and development–which theoretically has some relationship to art and therefore gives us at least a basic understanding of color and composition.

Let’s look at some other, bigger names, who I’m happy to mention as we have no personal relationship at all.

Rob Lutter is an adventure photographer. He quit his job some time ago and has been cycling around the world, thus far from London to Hong Kong, and Instagramming along the way. Like one of the families above, he was featured on Instagram’s blog, and received the massive boon of followers that creates: a little over 54,000 at the moment. He’s garnering 1500 interactions per post. That’s only 2.8%, significantly lower than the average 3.7% (which I should mention was based on a study of Fortune 500 companies’ accounts). He’s doing something amazing, much more than the three of us mentioned above simply because he’s alone, on a bike with no home other than a tent, and dammit, he’s cycling around the world!. He’s also a photographer by trade (though not before this journey I might add), so he knows what he’s doing, and he’s taking pictures with something significantly more powerful than an iPhone. But he’s getting less love than brand names like CocaCola (4.4%). I mean really? Is Coke somehow more interesting than riding thousands upon thousands of kilometers through European mountains and Asian deserts?

And then it dawned on me. Rob didn’t necessarily “earn” his followers. I’m not saying he isn’t deserving of a huge audience, he most certainly is, but by being on Instagram’s blog, he got a ton of traffic he wouldn’t have otherwise. Media, the press that is Instagram’s blog, they gave those followers to him. I know this to be true of at least one of the other traveling families I’d mentioned above.

To me, this puts the key to Instagram, and indeed all social media, in the hands of those who pursue it as a way to put their own passions out into the world. When you’re given a following, whether by purchasing them or due to some type of media exposure, you’re actually weakening the base of your following.

If likes and comments can be seen as somewhat equivalent to purchases in a store, then a smaller customer base who is more loyal is better than a larger one that’s only popping in and out occasionally. Think about that though, if you run a coffee shop with one store and 1,000 people come in every day, buy a coffee, eat a croissant, buy another coffee, repeat six or seven times a week, and then your competitor has twenty stores and gets only 13,000 people in every day, most of which just have a coffee or use up your free WiFi before moving on, who is going to be more successful? The guy with one store has less overhead, less stress, more profit.

I’m not saying that all or any of these people–except of course CocaCola–are on Instagram for some kind of potential profit. The examples above are just my way of deducing what’s happening here. But if you’re a social media marketer, or looking to hire one, getting 15,000 followers through questionable means, or even legit ones like media exposure, may not be the best route for you and your client.

Having a smaller, more closely knit following that is more passionate about you is, in my opinion, going to be the better route.

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