Instagram Pods: Benefits, Risks, And The Controversy Behind Them

Instagram pods are groups of users who band together to increase each other's engagement. Learn about the benefits and risks of Instagram pods, and why they are so controversial for both influencers and brands.
Andie Schilstra
Updated November 28, 2018

What is an Instagram pod?

An Instagram pod is a group of users who band together to increase each other's Instagram engagement. Moreover, influencers use this mechanism to help each other boost their likes and views on their social posts, as well as gain new followers. Instagram pods can be very affective for gaining likes and comments, but they are also super controversial.

How does an Instagram pod work?

The most basic rule of a pod is to like everyone's recent Instagram posts. Influencers must like and comment on a post every time someone in the pod posts a new photo, in order to help boost their engagement (after following everyone in the pod, of course). If influencers do that for everyone else, the rest of the group will do it back! Simple, right? Not always... some groups are really large, and it may take a long time to like and comment on everyone's posts. Influencers will often have a time limit (determined in the pod's rules) to finish their rounds of likes and comments! Because of this, they have a hard time completing the task, as it is very time consuming.

It is not easy for an influencer to join a pod. They are very secretive groups, and are exclusive only to members who follow all of the rules set by the pod. If influencers do find a pod to join, members make sure they follow every rule listed, or else they will quickly be kicked out. Influencers cannot use the pod to start conversations or have any pleasantries, as pods are purely used for increasing post engagements.

Small pods versus large pods

Some smaller pods are more of a “niche” group, having around 50 users or less. These groups are a little easier to control, as influencers have less posts to like and comment on each day. While they're easier to be a part of, influencers have a harder time finding and joining these groups. Niche groups are very particular when it comes to who joins their pod, and they are much harder to pick out on Instagram.

Other pods have between 50 to 1000 users, making it more challenging to participate in. While bigger groups have larger engagement benefits, participation is more overwhelming due to the volume of members. These groups are easier to pick out on Instagram, and can be easier to join (or easier to get kicked out of)!

Smaller pods are good for niche influencers, and those who don't have as much time to dedicate to liking and commenting on hundreds of other posts per day. On the other end, bigger pods are helpful for influencers who want a lot more engagement on each post, and for those who have more time to give back the engagement to all other users in the pod. There are pros and cons for both sized groups, so it's up to the influencer's needs whether small or big pods are right for them and their dedication.

How do you use pods?

The three main ways influencers can join and use pod groups are the following:

1) Through the Telegram platform. When Instagram caught pod members, people moved to Telegram as a way to use pods off of the Instagram platform to avoid being caught. Telegram is an automated bot that compiles lists of users pod members have to follow and like/comment on. It has a timed window for pod task completion, which will automatically kick members out if they don't follow the guidelines in the set time frame. This platform is good for bigger pods, as it helps members track all of the new users to follow and new posts to like and comment on. Since the bot is a tracker, it can easily tell when pod members don't hold up their end of the pod agreement, so it's also easy to be kicked out of a large Telegram pod.

2) Instagram groups are a very common place for pods, where pod members join a DM (direct message) group on Instagram and let other members know when to like and comment on a recent post. With this kind of group, pod members only like the posts/pictures other members ask them to, by sending their post to the DM group. Users then have to go to each Instagram page and like/comment on the post each influencer requested them to. This kind of group is harder to track, as there isn't a bot helping compile new lists for each member, and influencers may not always be online when members ask for others to like their post. This makes it harder to stay up to date and on time with engagements.

3) The third way people use Instagram pods is through post notifications. Rather than sending a DM to pod members every time someone want likes on their new post, all influencers have to do is turn on post notifications for every user in the pod. By doing this, a notification is sent to each member's phone every time someone posts, and everyone has to then go like it and comment on it. This method is often used in conjunction to DM groups, as it helps notify members when a new post is up. This type of Instagram group is easier to track, since influencers are given direct notifications on what new posts go up, and it also gets more engagement. Normal DM groups are typically selective on which posts they want likes on, but notification groups give influencers the pod engagement on every new post they have on Instagram.

Why would you use a pod?

Instagram algorithm updates have drastically changed the way users view their feed. While the old algorithm showed posts in chronological order on your feed, the new algorithm highlights the posts it believes you'd be most interested in seeing (based on who you interact with most on the platform). Users experience lower engagement rates due to the algorithm change, as their posts don't always show up on their follower's feeds. The way to fix this issue, then, is to get your posts to show up on the top of everyone's feed using pods.

Most pod members use the pod to increase their social engagement to work around the Instagram algorithm. Some influencers also look for opportunities to work with brands, and increased engagement can help land them jobs. Pods essentially came about to work the system due to the algorithm changes that hurt some users' engagement. Pod members want their posts to gain more likes and comments, as well as gain more followers from the other pod members. Having more likes, more comments, and more followers, essentially makes a pod member look like a larger influencer than they typically would be without a pod. Because the Instagram algorithm rewards people for having popular posts by making their post more visible to other users, pods are created to boost users posts as if they were organically popular.

Does this system always work? Not exactly. Pods have become very controversial, and have plenty of downfalls to go with the boosted engagement benefits.

What is the controversy behind pods?

Not Organic Engagement

Pods are essentially fake (not organic) engagement. Since it's an agreement between pod members to like and comment on each post, the boost in engagement is not organic from followers and users who are interested in an influencer's posts. Forced likes and disingenuous comments don't help gain as big of a following as you'd think it would.

The Instagram team updated the algorithm to put content each user cares about most at the top of their feed. This means that if you always engage with a user's posts, their content will appear at the top of your feed. This also means, however, that even if a user you follow is really popular and gaining a ton of engagement, but you don’t engage with them, they won’t appear any higher on your feed than they did before.

This is why pods don't always work. While members use the pods to get more engagement and new followers, the only people who will see their content higher on their feeds are the other members of the pod who engage with all of the influencer's content. Their fake engagement won't bring their posts any higher on other feeds. Essentially, all they are doing is guaranteeing a group of pod members liking their posts to make them seem more popular, when they really aren't gaining new, organic engagements.

Free Boosting

Instagram has boosting features, which allow users to pay for higher promotion of their posts. Boosting brings an influencer's post higher on people's feeds, and shares that post with other users that may not already follow them. Members use pods as a way to boost their post without having to pay for the promotion. While pods don't work as well as true paid boosting does (again, pod engagements don't necessarily make the post more visible to other users) they are still a way of boosting an influencer's engagement for free, without paying for promotion benefits.

Brands Don't Work With Genuine Influencers

When brands use influencers to write sponsored reviews of their products, they often look for influencers with a certain follower count or with high engagement. Pods skew influencer's organic following and engagement numbers, which can lead to false advertising to brands. If a brand chooses to work with an influencer who gets most of their engagement from a pod, they likely won't see a high conversion rate from the sponsored post, due to the pod members only having to like and comment on posts (not buy products). Having fake engagement can also result in misrepresentation to brands regarding that influencer's account quality and recommended fees per sponsored post. So, using a “fake” influencer would be detrimental to both the influencer and the brand because followers and those engaging with the sponsored post are not truly interested in the content being shared.

Not In Your Niche

Large pods consist of random Instagram users who want higher engagement on their posts. Therefore, the target audience is not actually liking each pod member's post. Smaller pods do a slightly better job at being niche-specific, but most pods are random groups of people who don't share a common interest. This makes the engagement also look fake, because users outside of the pod can see that an influencer's followers, comments, and likes are coming from people that shouldn't be interested in their content.

Comments Are Low Quality

When everyone in a pod has agreed to comment on each other's posts, the comments can get a little sloppy and routine. While there are often pod rules on how many words each comment can be (at a minimum), there are still a lot of comments that stand out as being disingenuous and low quality. “Love this post!” or “Really cool photo!” don't stand out as being top comments, and when all of an influencer's posts contain tens to hundreds of these, users can easily spot someone who either has fake followers or who is part of a pod.

Pods Getting Banned

If common users can figure out who has disingenuous followers and engagements, then Instagram can figure it out too. When Instagram recognizes pods being used, they not only shut down the pod itself, but can shut down pod member's accounts for violating the Terms of Service of Instagram. Their account can also get suspended, meaning their posts will be “invisible” to other users and will not show up on feeds. Instagram takes violating their rules of usage seriously, even if their punishment is harsh.

Facebook has cracked down on pods recently, removing more than 10 groups they found violating the terms of Instagram (now owned by Facebook). These groups have thousands of users, all doing a like-for-like and follow-for-follow trust system to beat the Instagram algorithm.

What do brands think about pods?

Brands face quite a few issues with pods generating fake influencers. As mentioned before, influencers they use for sponsored content won't have true engagement from their followers, which misrepresents their true engagement and quality of their posts. From this, brands would pay higher fees for lower quality reviews and lower conversion rates.

In addition, when an influencer posts content for a brand, their sponsored reviews don't end up reaching new followers since they only appear on the feeds of others in their pod who regularly interact with their content. So, while influencers might get more comments and likes on their sponsored content from using a pod, they won't get new followers or new likes from people they haven't reached yet. This defeats the brand's purpose of using influencers for sponsored content, because fake influencers won't get the brand new shoppers or higher sales.

Another issue brands have with influencer pods are skewing target audiences. Pod members typically have to be in the same target audience or niche as each other, otherwise they are signaling to brands that their target audience is different than their true niche. If all pod members are from different niches and have different interests, brands can see that their content attracts a different kind of user than they intend it for, so brands won't see their influence as helpful to growing brand awareness and sharing their content with users in the right niche.

Brands don't just see issues when using influencers to boost engagement, rather, they also see issues when trying to use pods themselves in order to boost brand engagement. The impact brands have on their target audience may be minimal using a pod, in comparison to the amount of work they have to put in liking and commenting on everyone else's posts in the group. In addition, pod groups will not become a brand's customers. They will simply gain the brand's posts more likes and comments, but not actually drive new sales. Brands can better spend their time building a genuine following and building up their brand awareness, versus spending time in a pod that may not result in sales or true engagement.

Instagram doesn't only discriminate against influencers using pods, meaning brands can also get their accounts disabled and their pods removed if they are caught using pods for fake engagement. That isn't often a risk many brands want to take, so (smart) brands tend to avoid pods when thinking about the longevity and legitimacy of their growing brand.

How do you join a pod?

Hard to Find, Hard to join

Most Instagram engagement pods are very hard to find and require an invitation to join. This blog made a list (found at the bottom of the page under “bonus materials”) of Telegram pods influencers can access if they meet the requirements, which makes joining a pod much simpler. One way to pick out pods from Instagram accounts is to look for recent posts on user accounts that seem to have the same group of people liking or commenting on them. This takes a long time and can be hard to do, but if you find a few accounts with similar engagements, you can DM them and express your interest in joining their pod.

There are also private pod Facebook groups out there, although these are also very tough to find and often require a thorough check (Instagram follower account and niche/interests) to be accepted into. Overall, the easiest ways to join pods are to either make one yourself (learn ways to do this, here) or to use Telegram to find already active pods that aren't hiding in Instagram or Facebook groups.

Pod Rules

Most pods have group rules. “The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club,” rings true for pods. Since so many of them are getting shut down by Instagram and Facebook, you have to be very careful who finds out about your pod, and how noticeable your participation is.

Pod rules often include time frames in which members have to like and comment on other users' posts, as well as what kind (length and quality) of comments are made. Some rules include commenting more than 4 words, others specify that comments have to be relevant to the post, and most rules note that comments have to avoid over-generalization, like, “love this.” Some pod rules even ask members to tag the user in each comment to make it more authentic.

The most general rules include liking every new post in the pod, liking them within the time frame, and making relevant comments. Saying they are “done” liking everyone's posts without having done so will immediately get a member kicked out of a pod. Following the key rules is important! If members don't follow the rules, the pod won't help boost their content either. It's a give and take kind of group.

Easy To Get Kicked Out

As I mentioned before, members can easily get kicked out of pods. If members don't like everyone's new posts, they get kicked out. If members pretend to like everyone's posts but lie about it, they get kicked out. If members don't finish liking the posts in time, they get kicked out. It's a real commitment! Telegram has a bot that kicks members out if they don't complete their tasks in the time frame, and even DM groups or Facebook groups have admin that check everyone's activity and make sure pod members are all participating and not just reaping benefits from the pod. Admin often have to do less liking, or have a longer time frame to do so, because they spend a lot of time keeping the group in check.

There are some groups that allow influencers to buy their way back in if they don't complete their engagement tasks in time (or fail to stick to the pod rules). Buy-in groups can charge influencers around $15 to join again, but some can ban people entirely if they did not follow pod rules. They can really be a tough crowd!

Is it worth it?

Benefits and Risks

Some say it's worth it, some say it isn't. It all depends on what each influencer is looking to get out of the pod. So what are the benefits weighed against the risks of joining pods?

Benefits of pods include:

  • Increased follower count
  • Increased post engagements
  • A group of people you can count on to boost your Instagram posts

Those are, in essence, the main benefits of pods. If all you're looking for is to get more likes on your posts, no matter where they come from, then pods can definitely help with that. If you want pods to bring in new organic engagement, then you might not get the most out of them.

What, then, are the cons and risks? I've listed them all here:

  • The work doesn't produce meaningful results
  • Pods are very time consuming when you have to like hundreds or thousands of posts
  • Your posts aren't boosted to users who don't already like your content
  • Results (comments, and similar likes on each post) look suspicious
  • You get lazy comments on your posts which make your content less interesting
  • You have to like and comment on stuff that isn't relevant to your brand or niche
  • Instagram's algorithm is smart enough to figure out you're cheating
  • Your pod can get shut down and your account can be banned
  • People notice your engagement is fake, which makes your personal brand disingenuous
  • You can lose real followers and engagement if other users notice you're cheating the system

Overall, case studies show that pods don't always increase organic engagement. They also don't drive up engagement on posts that members didn't specifically ask the pod to like. Using Telegram may help that (since members have to like every other member's posts and not just ones members ask them to like) but influencers are still not getting new users to like their content. Quite a few members get kicked out of pods for not engaging with everyone's content in time, which makes pods hard to keep up with.

Ethical Dilemma

If you look beyond whether pods are good or bad for increasing engagement, there is also an ethical dilemma behind using pods. While users want to drive up their engagement to look more popular or gain more followers, they are also cheating the Instagram algorithm and lying about their true engagement. Brands look for influencers to help sell their products, and if an influencer is not getting real engagement or followers, they are cheating the brand out of more money, and not driving up their sales at all. They aren't really an influencer, then, if their engagement is fake and planned using pods.

People can also tell when a user's comments aren't genuine and that they may be gaining fake followers. This can result in true followers losing interest in an influencer's personal brand, and actually lower their organic engagement rather than increase it. Being pods are fake engagement, the ethics of having fake followers and fake likes are something influencers have to deal with if they're choosing to use pods for boosting their posts.

What is my final position when it comes to pods?

After all of my research, I do not think pods are worth the effort and risks. They take way too much work/time, they only bring you fake engagement and don't drive new organic engagement, they are easy to pick out and get caught using, there are too many rules to follow, your true followers will think you're fake and unfollow you, and cheating the system is something I do not think is helpful for your ethics or personal brand. At the end of the day, pods will get you more likes on your posts, but the cost does not outweigh the “benefit” of appearing to be a larger influencer than you truly are.