Tempted to use bots to comment and like other people's accounts on your behalf? Here's why most Instagram automation is a trap to avoid.
How do you imagine your life with Instagram automation?
Your phone’s blowing up with likes and follows, and you’re leaning back into your chaise longue, your hands behind your head, smiling the smug smile of the person whose social marketing efforts are scaling effortlessly. You sip your cucumber water. The infinity pool sparkles.
Well, hello from a blizzard in rural Finland, where I have spent a week tied to my keyboard trying to achieve that dream. And let me tell you, making an Instagram bot work—let alone work well—is not hands-off, reliable, or fun.
Depending on your standards, I’m not even sure it’s possible.
Bonus: Download a free checklist that reveals the exact steps a lifestyle photographer used to grow from 0 to 600,000 followers on Instagram with no budget and no expensive gear.
What is Instagram automation?
Instagram automation, the kind we’re talking about here, are bots that like posts, follow accounts, and comment on your behalf.
You define your target audience, and your trained pet bot crawls through accounts that might be interested in you, interacting with them in a pre-defined, hopefully natural-seeming way. In an ideal world, the bot does what you’d do yourself to earn Instagram engagement, if you only had the time.
If automatic Instagram likes sounds a little too good to be true, that’s because it is. It’s a black-hat social media trick, like engagement pods, which we tried out in 2018. Or buying Instagram followers—which results in an inflated follower count, zero engagement, and a long list of obviously fake followers.
But with automation, some self-described “growth hackers” argue that if it’s done right, and you pinpoint the “correct automation targets,” automation is the most efficient way to build up a “real” audience of fans.
However, there are problems with Instagram automation:
- People don’t like bots, and they can tell when a like, follow or comment is fake; and therefore
- Instagram actively works against practices that degrade the user experience; and therefore
- Automation services must try to evade detection, or else run the risk of getting shut down.
For instance, in 2017, Instagram shut down a bunch of automation services like the former go-to tool, Instagress. Ever since, it’s been a bit of a crapshoot as to where to even find a functioning Instagram comment bot.
While I was trying to choose which tool to use, I read up on the “safest most reliable” services, according to a few different experts. The problem is, even the people who swear by automation admit that many bot providers malfunction or just don’t provide results. Meanwhile, the providers themselves aren’t that convincing. For instance, InstaRocket’s FAQ:
How do I know if you guys are legit?
You are free to try out our Trial for 3 days. Trial and Subscription are exactly the same.
Regardless, you have to pay for each tool you try. And don’t expect a bot to be upfront with you if it’s not working. As I found out, this can lead to a lot of wasted time, and money.
What is NOT Instagram automation?
To be clear, there are legitimate Instagram automation tools and software that take the grunt work out of your marketing efforts without crossing the line into behaviour that could get your account suspended:
- Scheduling Instagram posts ahead of time so that you’re not scrambling at the last minute
- Customized Instagram analytics reports delivered automatically with the data that matters to you
- Social listening and hashtag monitoring tools that surface the conversations your brand wants to be a part of (or just keep on top of)
What happened when I tried Instagram automation
Ok, now that we’re clear on definitions, let’s take a look at the long, convoluted process of trying to get results from Instagram automation in 2020. (Please direct my Pulitzers and Nobels straight to the sauna.)
My accounts started with some uninspiring benchmarks.
@akaprincessrosebud (the Instagram creator account where I re-post my neighbour’s dog photos) started with:
- 26 interactions and 12 accounts reached in the previous week
- 787 followers
- 37 following
@princessrosebud2thesequel (my non-business burner account, where I post even more photos of my neighbour’s dog) started with:
- 5 likes on my most recent post
- 758 followers
- 2 following
Sidebar: My follower ratios for both of these accounts is so skewed because I bought 1000 “organic” followers back in October for a different experiment—interesting to note how that number has diminished over the last few months.
So, let’s trace the different steps I took to automate both of these accounts.
Step 1: Sign up for an Instagram automation bot and spend 3 days wondering if it works
First, I tried InstaRocket, which supposedly automates likes, comments, posts, direct messages, follows, and unfollows.
I signed up for a free 3-day trial, and entered my ideal audience parameters, so that Instarocket will find, like, and comment on accounts who like or post photos with certain hashtags, live in certain countries, or who follow big influencers or brand accounts that I think target a similar audience.
And then I made up some cool comments that Instarocket will automatically post for me, to earn attention for my account:
Nothing happened in the first day after I set it up. It was listed as “pending.”
After two days, I had two choices: email support, or buy a monthly subscription. So I emailed the Instarocket support team to see if my account would be up and running before my 3-day promotion ends. I never got a response.
Step 2: Try to find a second automation bot (one that does work)
While I waited for a response, I thought maybe I’d try a higher-end Instagram automation service.
First, I tried Instamber— the “#1 most reliable and effective Instagram automation bot,” according to more than one recent list. But the sign-up page gave me a 404 error. Yikes.
Step 3: Ok, try for Bot #3
I was ready to jump up my budget significantly, and shell out the €79 Ektor.io wants for its software, which boasts that it uses “facial recognition AI” (um, okay) and is “100% undetectable by Instagram” (I doubt this is true).
Perhaps foolishly, I was even willing to download its desktop software, in the name of our exciting experiment. Alas, when it became clear that I would need to “download Python” (isn’t Python a language?) just to install it, I decided to search for another route.
Step 4: Ok, go back to Bot #2 and run a campaign
Instamber’s sign-up page was loading at this point. So I decided to try another 3-day trial. This time I signed up using my burner account, @princessrosebud2thesequel.
Instamber is not as nice-looking or clear as InstaRocket. On the plus side, their support team does email you back (more on that later.) Mostly the dashboard was comprised of buttons urging me to pay more money.
First, I ran a 24-hour “promotion” targeting fans of @andrewknapp’s page. He has a huge audience based almost entirely on photos of his border collie Momo’s gorgeous face.
After 24 hours, Instamber’s bot had followed 69 accounts, liked 138 posts, watched 958 Stories and left 42 comments on my behalf.
The result? I’ve gained 8 new followers. Instamber tells me that’s a 0.7% conversion rate, though the math is a little… opaque.
The new accounts the bot followed means my feed is now jammed full of cute dog photos, and I am not complaining. However, I can’t help but wonder what kind of cringey interactions my account is having.
I’m worried it’ll be as bad as the last time we ran this experiment, when Hootsuite writer Evan LePage used the now-defunct Instagress to get 250 followers in 3 days. He reported:
“I [automatically] commented “your pics > my pics” on a selfie of a boy who was clearly in middle school. In fact, his account was composed of only four pictures, three of them selfies. I felt uncomfortable. The teenage boy told me I was being modest.”
When I check, it turns out that Instamber is mostly just leaving over-the-top emojis on people’s normal posts:
These don’t seem like believable comments to me, but they worked for my 8 new followers.
Step 5: Go back and check on Bot #1
Meanwhile, my InstaRocket account, after two of my three free days, is still “pending,” with absolutely no activity to show. Except, actually, I have lost 8 followers.
So I bite the bullet, and pay the $7.95 USD for the personal plan for one month. But now I must wait for admin to approve my order. (Still no response from customer service.)
Step 6: Try out a second campaign, with less spammy techniques
I’m very curious: is there a legitimate way to automate your Instagram interactions for growth? Using automation bots will never be lawful good, but maybe there’s a way to use them that hits at least chaotic neutral.
Some growth hackers believe it’s possible. So, I’m going to try one last experiment while doing my best to avoid being spammy and ruining the experience for myself and everyone who interacts with my dog-bot.
This means refining what I allow Instamber to do.
Under Settings > Actions I unclick boxes until my bot is only allowed to view Stories and like posts. I do not allow it to follow, or comment.
According to these settings, my Instagram bot will like between 1 and 3 of a user’s posts, and possibly watch their Stories.
That gives them four different opportunities to see my account, and it’s a softer touch because I’m not doing anything intrusive or obviously inauthentic, like leaving cringey emojis or following them out of the blue.
So, what happens after 24 hours of non-spammy automated liking?
Alas, I don’t know. Instamber asked me to pay for an additional month, so I paid the $15 USD. Then they asked me to download some desktop software. I did that. But my Macbook refused the sketchy software, and so I emailed support, who told me, repeatedly, that I need to “install bluestacks as the android emulator and run social bridge and Instagram via that.”
Reader, I did not do that.
Step 7: Analyze the results
While I can’t confirm on Instamber, these are the overall results of my experiment.
24-hour likes + comments + follow promotion ($1 USD)
- 8 new followers
- 24 likes
- 14 Story views
- 67 new accounts that my account followed
48-hour non-spammy likes-only promotion ($15 USD)
- 2 new followers
- 5 likes for my most recent photo
No promotion happened, because despite extending my payment for another month, my account is still pending. And still no word from the support team. But I:
- Lost 6 followers
- Got 10 likes from what looks to be a fellow dog-bot
- Received 2 savage burns (from a burn bot?)
On the one hand, I’m surprised that my experiment was so shockingly ineffective.
On the other hand, Instagram has been at war with automation services for years. It makes sense that a company that pulled in $9 billion in ad revenue in 2019 has the resources to make bots effectively useless.
Bonus: Download a free checklist that reveals the exact steps a lifestyle photographer used to grow from 0 to 600,000 followers on Instagram with no budget and no expensive gear.Get the free guide right now!
Lessons from Instagram automation
There’s no such thing as a legitimate, risk-free Instagram automation service
The websites will tell you they are safe, reliable and effective. The websites are lying.
Even if the bots work (doubtful), the service could get shut down at any moment. Even worse, your account could be limited or banned for violating Instagram’s platform policy.
For instance, the second I linked my account to Instamber, I was notified of a “suspicious login attempt.” (Good job Instagram, because if I was in North Van I’d be eating Honey’s Donuts with Meghan and Harry.)
At no point did I feel confident, secure, or relaxed. I was uneasy about handing my credit card details over. I was uneasy about downloading desktop software. The services are arbitrarily priced, and many look like outright scams. Do they work? Many don’t, but there’s no knowing until you pay. At the end of the week, I just felt mildly ashamed for tarnishing my neighbour’s dog’s online reputation.
If you’re responsible for a professional account for a legitimate brand, I’m going to go ahead and say that you really do not want to risk a push notification that says “we’re removing inauthentic activity” or “your account information is compromised.”
And even more importantly, you do not want to risk alienating your fans, customers, and audience with weird behaviour.
And on that note, a personal aside to the indie band that followed and unfollowed me three times over the course of the last six months: The first time I was flattered. The second time I unfollowed you on Spotify. The third time I looked up who runs your social media so that I can avoid working with them in the future.
The tech is clunky, and support isn’t supportive
Instamber wanted me to download desktop software, an android emulator, and its own app. Oh, plus Instagram itself, though “best practice” was to sign out and leave the app alone while my campaign ran, to prevent any more geographic discrepancies. I think there was something about a VPN in there, too.
It’s not that these extra steps—see Point #1, Instagram is watching—are impossible for a motivated social media manager, it’s that they’re a hassle. You have more important things to be doing.
Meanwhile, as far as I can tell, every time I emailed Instarocket’s customer service, they forwarded it straight into a sarlacc pit.
“Undetectable by Instagram” and “not spammy” actually means “so slow you may as well do it yourself”
The days of skyrocketing vanity metrics are over. Instagram doesn’t even display likes anymore, so in many ways the pressure is off for many brands to merely look popular.
Plus, now that Instagram monitors and limits pings to its API, no automation service can realistically provide the kind of volume I was imagining back at the beginning of this blog post.
For instance, back in 2017, the first time we ran this experiment, Evan LePage went from 338 to 1050 followers on his personal account using Instagress.
This time around I got 8 new followers, many of whom seem fairly fake themselves, a handful of Story views, and about 30 likes total. Weeks later, I also have a creeping suspicion that my accounts are now permanent bot-magnets, even if my credit card isn’t getting charged.
What would have happened if I’d spent this week devoting myself to genuine engagement, great content, and executing this list of tips for getting more Instagram likes? I’m going to go out on a limb and say I’d not only have more followers, I’d be relaxing with a cucumber water by the infinity pool, after a job well done.
Save time and your brand’s face by automating your Instagram activity the right way. With Hootsuite you can schedule Instagram posts in advance, engage with followers, and edit your images all from one, easy-to-use dashboard.