Scientific Proof on the Follow/Unfollow Strategy: Twitter & Instagram

May 30, 2018 • By

Scott Ayres

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WARNING!!!!

Today’s experiment is gonna be a bit controversial. Most don’t want to talk about this and those that do either love it or hate it.

So don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Does a Follow/Unfollow Strategy Work?

It’s 2018 and we’re in the day and age of more responsible, thoughtful social media marketing.

I don’t believe anyone can argue against that.

But can a strategy used on Instagram and Twitter years ago still be beneficial in today’s social economy?

That’s what we’ll aim to test in this experiment.

Some Background

So what the heck is the follow/unfollow strategy?

Here’s what Stevie Dillon from Stevie Says Social says about it :

“The Instagram follow unfollow method refers to an account following a TON of other social media accounts with the sole objective of getting a ‘follow back’ in return.”

Basically a user follows someone on Instagram or Twitter in hopes that person follows back.

Some hate this method, while others depend on it solely to grow:

” If you’re playing the follow/unfollow game, you’re essentially stunting your growth as a blogger or social media influencer. Sure, you may have “grown” number-wise, but you aren’t actually genuinely growing as a blogger, influencer, collaborator, or person. When you focus your energy on building up a following in an inauthentic way, you’re really just hurting your influence (credibility, community, engagement). ” – Coffee with Summer

“We have been using Instagram automation for years with much success. We have proven that the follow/unfollow strategy is one of the most effective ways to gain Instagram followers. As an example, one account that we help managed grew to 90k+ followers in just under a year with this method.” – WorkMacro

This sounds like a worthy challenge for us to test in the Lab!

Hypothesis: Using a follow/unfollow strategy will gain more followers, but not engagement

follow unfollow hypothesis

How I’ll Test

You could do all of the following/unfollowing manually. But let’s be honest, no one is likely going to do that — and it’s a pain in the butt as mentioned in a previous test.

How a person would ever keep up with who to go back and unfollow or how many to do each day would be maddening.

In order to do this I’ll try a program for Instagram and Twitter to see how they work and let it do the heavy lifting.

I won’t however be naming these programs or providing screenshots from them, as I don’t want YOU connecting to them and risking your account. We’ll take that risk for you instead and then let you decide if it’s something you want to do.

We also won’t list any programs you could possibly use to do this, as again you need to decide if it’s for you or not, and evaluate those programs. There are many out there that a quick Google search will find for you.

And there are many that are reputable and follow the rules of Twitter and Instagram, but again it’s your decision if you want to use this method or not.

Time Frame for Testing

Some accounts I have had running the programs longer than the others.

  • @agorapulse Twitter – February 1, 2018 – April 4, 2018
  • @scottayres Twitter – May 12, 2017 –  April 30, 2018
  • @thesmbuzz Twitter – September 28, 2017 – April 30, 2018
  • @agorapulse Instagram – February 9, 2018 – April 30, 2018
  • @scottayres Instagram – December 1, 2017 – April 30, 2018
  • @spacewalkctx Instagram – December 1, 2017 – April 30, 2018
  • @gracebiblegatesville Instagram – November 28, 2017 – April 30, 2018

Accounts Used

To test on Twitter I used these accounts:

  • @agorapulse
  • @scottayres
  • @thesmbuzz

For Instagram I used these accounts:

  • @agorapulse
  • @scottayres
  • @spacewalkctx
  • @gracebiblegatesville

The @agorapulse and @scottayres are pretty obvious as to who they belong to. @thesmbuzz is a secondary Twitter account of mine for a blog and podcast I was had (and sometimes still post to). I am however active on Twitter with it.

The @spacewalkctx account on Instagram is my local business account and has been active for a few years. The @gracebiblegatesville is the Instagram account for the church I attend, and I do some social media for.

All of the accounts used were established and actively posting before, during and after the tests.

Follow Methods Used

Although I was doing all of this for a test I also wanted to do it like anyone else would and to increase engagement on the accounts.

So I didn’t just follow people randomly, for each account I followed people based on different criteria.

  • Strategic hashtags
  • Followers of competitors
  • Location (this was on the 2 local Instagram accounts)

I don’t want to get into an exhaustive list of every hashtag used for each account but here’s a quick summary for each account on both Twitter and Instagram so you get a general idea.

Twitter

@Agorapulse: Followed users that had tweeted certain hashtags

  • #bufferchat #contentwritingchat #sproutchat #blog #content #hootsuite #influencers #podcast #smm #smmw18 #socialmedia

@Scottayres: Also followed users based on hashtags

  • #agency #agorapulse #blog #blogwriting #blogger #podcast #smallbusiness #entrepreneur #socialmedia #influencers

@thesmbuzz: This account also followed users based on hashtags

  • #smm #twittermarketing #marketingtips #startup #socialmedia #facebooklive #smallbusiness

Instagram

For the Instagram accounts the options to follow users was  bit more robust, allowing me to try a few different methods.

@Agorapulse: used 2 different methods

  • Followed followers from other accounts such as @smexaminer @mari_smith @sproutsocial
  • Hashtags such as : #socialmedia #smm #marketing #smmw18

@scottayres: used 3 different methods

  • Also followed followers of different accounts such as @hootsuite @isocialfanz @mari_smith
  • Hashtags such as: #smmw18 #smm #socialmedia #marketingtips #bloggers
  • Followed users in different locations: Houston, Waco, Dallas and San Antonio (I’m in Texas)

@spacewalkctx: used 2 different methods

  • Hashtags such as: #temple #gatesville #waco #wacotown
  • Followed users in different locations: Waco, Gatesville, Hewitt, McGregor, Hamilton and Belton (all within about a 40 mile radius)

@gracebiblegatesville: only used 1 method

  • Followed users based on location: Gatesville, McGregor, Hamilton, Crawford and Jonesboro (all within a 30 mile radius)

The Results of Our Testing

Let’s just say growth happened!!

Here are the details:

Twitter

@agorapulse: Followers have grown from 6543 to 9103, a 39% growth

@scottayres: Followers have grown from 7478 to 15016, a 101% growth

@thesmbuzz: Followers have grown from 5937 to 10281, a 73% growth

twitter follower count growth

The last 2 accounts have been running the program for much longer so the growth rate is higher than the Agorapulse account. But it too was on the same sort of path (we have since turned it off for the time being.)

Instagram

@agorapulse: Followers grew from 1265 to 3691, a 192% growth

@scottayres: Followers grew from 3130 to 6302, a 101% growth

@spacewalkctx: Followers grew from 1095 to 2532, a 131% growth

@gracebiblegatesville: Followers grew from 115 to 918, a 698% growth

instagram follower growth

The Agorapulse Instagram account has only been running the program for  about 2 months, but seen tremendous growth. The other accounts have been going for more than 4 months.

What this Growth has Meant to Engagement

It’s easy to see that every account has seem a great amount of growth, but does this correlate to more engagement? Or is it just crap followers?

To evaluate this we’ll look only at the accounts for Agorapulse.

I’m doing this for 2 reasons:

  • It’s our company profiles and the most important to us
  • These accounts were using the follow/unfollow tools the least amount of time

Take a look at the engagement numbers for the @agorapulse Twitter account for December 1 – Feb 1 (2 months before the test):

twitter stats

Now compare this to the stats during the test February 1- April 4:

twitter stats

While the engagement rate was about the same — .8% vs .9% every other stat was WAY up:

  • Link Clicks –  587 up to 846
  • Retweets – 425 up to 635
  • Likes – 1.3k up to 2.3k
  • Replies – 345 up to 655

Massive increases across the board during this growth period.

Can it all be equated to the increase in followers?

No..

But it’s a huge part of it for sure. There is no way to 100% correlate the engagement with new followers unfortunately.

I think it’s easy to make a correlation for most of it though.

The @agorapulse Instagram account saw similar increases in engagement.

Below is a snapshot of activity during the testing phase from 2/9-4/30 from inside the Agorapulse app:

agorapulse instagram

If we compare the 80 day period before our experiment this is what we find for the same Instagram account:

agorapulse instagram pretest

Notice the amount of posts published during both periods is relatively similar (8 more during the testing phase). But engagement, awareness and replies were way up. (as well as followers obviously).

Conclusion Based on the Data

follow unfollow callout

It’s clear to me using the follow/unfollow has been a huge success for all of the accounts mentioned in this experiment.

I’m basing this on :

  • Increase in followers
  • Increase in link clicks on @agorapulse Twitter account
  • Increase in engagement on all accounts, but specifically on the @agorapulse Twitter and Instagram account

This strategy is obviously still a viable method to growing your social media following, and subsequently increasing engagement.

But I should mention a few cautions:

  1. Choose the tools wisely. Some are against the terms of service on the different platforms. You may get suspended if you use them. There are many that are in compliance however.
  2. Follow strategically. Don’t just follow everyone. Follow based on hashtags, location (if you’re a local business) and followers of competitors.
  3. Whether you follow/unfollow using a an app or do it manually go slow. Twitter and Instagram both have limits on how many people you can follow/unfollow per day. The exact number is still a bit of a mystery. Some say on Twitter it’s down to about 250 per day without raising any flags. The restrictions on Instagram aren’t as easy to figure out, I’d also recommend no more than 250 per day to be safe. Usually if you go over whatever their limit is and they fell you’re moving too fast they will block you from performing that action for 24 hours.
  4. Don’t unfollow too fast. Some articles I read recommended unfollowing within 24 hours. I think that’s too fast. I prefer to give a few days in between following before doing the unfollow process. Not everyone is on their accounts daily and may not notice you followed them, and thus haven’t had a chance to return the favor.

Yes I know there are many out there that might scorn me for testing this and saying it’s a viable growth option. But data doesn’t lie.

Use with caution, and continue posting great content, while engaging with those that engage with you and that you follow.

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