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Cleaning Your Instagram Audience: The Why and How

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Updated Dec 28, 2020 – Instagram will now prohibit you from seeing your followers if it detects suspicious activity, like you removing followers via the app or using another app to identify inactive accounts. This is to “fight the bots” and will lock you out for a day or so.

Before you continue reading, let me pose a question for you to think about. What’s more important to you: having a large Instagram following, or having a more engaged but smaller following?

TLDR: You do have fake & inactive accounts following you that are hurting you.

Keeping up with changes in Instagram

Instagram has undergone quite the metamorphosis in the past few years.  They’re doing their best to keep up with the evolving user base and tactics, and it ultimately affects everyone. 

If you take audience engagement seriously – after all, it is a social network – you need to keep up with the changes also.

Also Read: Instagram is Ruining Everything

Audience size – bigger is better?

In the “old days,” the mark of success on Instagram was a huge base of followers.  Oh wow, that person has 250,000 followers!  So, of course, many people gamed the system.

There were a number of ways in which people gained a large following:

  • Paying people to follow them
  • Subscribing to automation to “interact” with people for them
  • Hiring virtual assistants to interact with people for them
  • “Comment pods”
  • Following thousands of people, hoping they follow back, and then unfollowing them

In just about every case, there was one common theme: low engagement rates due to the low quality of followers.  But no one cared, because, large following.

Instagram engagement rates

The metric of “engagement rates” has recently become more and more important.

It’s estimated that 95 million photos and videos are posted to Instagram every day in 2018, and growing.  Instagram needs to find a way to figure out which photos to put in front of an audience.  It’s physically impossible to show all of them.

The engagement rate – the ratio of how many people like or comment on your photo to how many followers you have – is one way Instagram determines which photos to show people.

Math example: a person with 10,000 followers posts a photo that gets 50 likes & comments in the first hour.  That’s an engagement rate of 0.5% in that hour. 
If someone with only 1,000 followers has the same engagement, their rate is 5%.

Instagram wants people to stay on their app because it’s good for their business (ads). You’re the product. So they’re going to keep you there by showing the photos with the highest engagement rate first. Instagram users feed on eye candy, and higher engagement rates typically equate to more delicious eye candy.

And no, you can’t buy engagement anymore.  Instagram has been actively identifying and penalizing this.

Why Instagram engagement rates matter

Maybe you just want to post photos.  And that’s cool, more power to you if you don’t care about statistics. 

But if you’re trying to take advantage of the power of Instagram and build a community, engagement matters.

This isn’t just something I made up.  I’ve spoken to a number of editors and world-famous photographers lately who echo the same sentiments. 

Follower quantity doesn’t mean nearly as much as the quality of interaction between you and your followers.

There are two main reasons why Instagram engagement rates matter:

  • It matters to real human beings, editors and marketers, evaluating if they could leverage your Instagram audience to get their message out.  And it should matter to you because this should be fun.  Do you have a close community?
  • Instagram uses the number to figure out how often your photos are shown.

A good Instagram engagement rate is around 4%.  You’re on fire if it’s near 10%. 

Your numbers will be on the lower end the larger your audience is; that’s just the nature of it and people understand that.

A person with millions of followers, like the Chris Burkards and Jimmy Chins, are expected to have rates around 2%.  The rest of us should be shooting higher.

So if your account has accumulated thousands of disengaged followers over the years, these followers – fake accounts, inactive users, ghost followers – are lowering your engagement rate significantly.

You can use a tool like HypeAuditor to determine the makeup of your audience.

What can we do?  Clean our Instagram followers!

Related: Do you even need Instagram to be a successful photographer?


Which followers should you clean from your Instagram account?

Fake accounts

These fake accounts are fairly obvious, and you should remove all fake Instagram followers. 

They’re the accounts with no profile photo or profile, no posts, a couple dozen followers, and following thousands and thousands of accounts. 

They were most likely paid by someone else to follow you, even if you didn’t pay them.

clean fake instagram followers
Something fishy about these accounts…

Mass followers

Instagram has imposed a “following” limit of 7,500.  Who honestly wants to follow 7,500 accounts?  How many of them do you actually see on a daily basis, or even really care about?

The people who do follow 7,500 accounts are only doing so to gain followers.  The “I’ll follow them in hopes they follow me back” play.  We’ve all done it, but hopefully not to this extent.

They will never see your posts, and you can verify this by checking “ghost followers”, explained later.

clean instagram mass followers
These are just two of the hundreds and hundreds of followers who will never see my posts.

Inactive followers

Some people have taken a break from Instagram or have stopped using it altogether.

The “dormancy” period is up to your discretion, but I’m comfortable with 180 days.  If they’ve been out for more than six months, they’re most likely not just “off the grid” on vacation. 

Chances are high they’ll never be back, and you can remove these Instagram followers if you wish.

“Ghost” followers

Accounts that are following you but haven’t interacted with you for some time, if ever.  I use the Unfollow app and set it to tell me who hasn’t interacted with my last 100 posts.

The list of “ghost followers” most often includes “mass followers,” people following more than a couple thousand accounts.  They never see your posts among the thousands of others.  It will also include inactive followers.

It will also identify business accounts that obviously followed you in the hopes you’ll follow them back and/or give them business.  Like the advertising agency in Sicily – I’m sure you do great work, but seriously?

clean instagram ghost follower
Thanks for the follow, but why is an ad agency in Sicily really following me and 7,495 other accounts?

How to clean Instagram followers

Manual removal

Identifying bad accounts can be extremely tedious, especially if you have a large following.

You can remove Instagram followers by going to their profile.

  • Go to your “followers” list to see all accounts following you.
  • Tap on the profile you want to remove.
  • Tap on the three dots on the upper right in that profile.
  • Select “Remove Follower” from the menu that pops up, and confirm the removal.

These Instagram followers will be removed from your account.  They will no longer be following you, and they won’t be notified you did this.

Using automation to clean Instagram followers

There are a few apps that can clean Instagram followers for you automatically, or at least aid you.  They’re finicky and not without their problems (mostly due to Instagram limiting third-party apps), but they’re better than nothing.

The app I use is Unfollow (available for iOS).  It’s free.  Some people also use Cleaner (iOS | Android).  No doubt others have come out after this was published. Instagram is constantly changing third-party app access, and these apps are also always changing. Look on the app store and find one with the highest, most-recent reviews.

I hate full automation.  I don’t trust it, so I use this as a tool to help me identify accounts I may want to remove.  I have it tell me who hasn’t been active for 180 days, and who hasn’t interacted with my last 100 posts.

Then I assess the account and manually remove them on the Instagram app.  Remember that if someone hasn’t interacted with your last 100 posts, maybe it’s just because Instagram chose to not show them your posts.  If it’s an honest account, active, with similar interests, not following thousands of people, I’ll leave them be.  I don’t want to alienate a potential sincere audience.

But if they haven’t interacted with my last 100 posts because they’re following 6,000 people, they add no value to my community.

The other thing I don’t like about the full automation is that it can’t “Remove” Instagram followers from your account.  It can only “Block” them, and I don’t want it to block thousands of people without my input.

Cleaning your Instagram followers manually is tedious and time-consuming.  But I think it’s the most effective middle-ground to maintaining your audience.


Some final thoughts on cleaning Instagram followers

Community.  I’d rather have a close-knit group of folks gathered in a small room.  Having an arena full of countless zombies doesn’t seem fun.

I was shocked to learn how much of my audience was either fake, dormant for a year or more, or hasn’t interacted with my photos for over a year.  But it made sense looking at my engagement rates.  It hurt, but call it necessary housecleaning.

I’ve been at it for a week and have removed over 33% of my followers, with much more to go.

Stay on top of it by removing or blocking obviously fake or dishonest Instagram followers as they follow you.

Now, this doesn’t mean you should go deleting all but your most loyal ten followers to get an engagement rate of 100%.  That’s not the goal.  Audience size is still a factor – you still want to maximize your reach – but you should also be looking at your engagement rate as a more important metric.  Clean the spam.

Objectively ask the question: Will this person add value to my community, or will they detract from it?  This makes it easier to determine which Instagram followers to remove.

Please leave your thoughts or questions about cleaning Instagram followers in the comments below!

How do you remove followers on Instagram without blocking them? - Famuse : #1 Models, Actors, Agencies, Photographers & Talents Booking Platform

Tuesday 13th of July 2021

[…] Ref 1 […]

Emma Jane Clark

Monday 7th of June 2021

John - Would you tell us the source of your update to this article about the "suspicious activity, like you removing followers via the app or using another app to identify inactive accounts" - I'd be very glad to know where you learned that. Thank you!

John Peltier

Monday 7th of June 2021

That’s from my own experience and I’ve read similar experiences from others in reviews of “cleaning” apps. Some of my account features were always disabled right after using these.

Katie Brandner

Tuesday 1st of June 2021

I downloaded the Unfollow App like you suggested. How long does it actually take to delete these people off your IG page? As of now they are all in the pending tasks category.

John Peltier

Tuesday 1st of June 2021

I do it all manually (instead of letting the app do it for me) so I'm afraid I couldn't tell you. IG is always changing permissions that third-party apps have too, so IG might actually be blocking it.

How to Clean Up Your Instagram Followers – Sandra Campillo

Wednesday 7th of April 2021

[…] digging into this mess further, I found an article from John Peltier that dove deeper into the subject and gave me more […]

Neda

Tuesday 5th of January 2021

Thank you for your precious well classified info.