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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 a metamorphosis in the past few years. They’re doing their best to keep up with the evolving user base and tactics, affecting everyone. 

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

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 several 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 almost 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 “engagement rate” metric has recently become increasingly important.

It’s estimated that 95 million photos and videos were 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 images 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 will keep you there by first showing the photos with the highest engagement rate. 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 engagement matters if you’re trying to take advantage of the power of Instagram and build a community.

This isn’t just something I made up. I’ve recently spoken to several editors and world-famous photographers 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 actual 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 reasonable 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 pretty 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. 

Someone else likely paid them 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 see daily or even 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 stopped using it.

The “dormancy” period is up to your discretion, but I’m comfortable with 180 days. If they’ve been out for over six months, they’re 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, hoping 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 pop-up menu and confirm the removal.

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

Using automation to clean Instagram followers

A few apps can automatically clean Instagram followers for you or at least aid you.  They’re finicky and not without their problems (mainly 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 not to 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; 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 hadn’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 delete 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 consider your engagement rate a more critical 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!

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Friday 18th of August 2023

Do you have another suggestion for an app? This one says it's not available in my country, I'm in the US. More maybe it's just not longer available


Sunday 14th of August 2022

Thank you for your article! I’m going to clean :)


Saturday 7th of May 2022

Thanks for your comprehensive post. I've removed 2000 fake account in a day and now my business page is removed (suspended or deactivated) by instagram. How long does it take to reactivate my page. Regards


Friday 27th of May 2022

@Mo, After 4 weeks, my account is still disabled!


Wednesday 26th of January 2022

I have no problems deleting people I don't know or who are trying to "find romance" that's not the place for it. IF I don't know you. I don't add you. IF I know the person in real life or in the blogging, or any other interest I will add you. IF in time I get bad vibes then off they go.

John Peltier

Wednesday 26th of January 2022

That's a pretty good rule to follow :)

Elle Boyd

Friday 21st of January 2022

How did removing the ghost followers affect your engagement? Did it help??

Comments are closed.

Apologies but I've had to close comments on all posts older than a couple weeks. Keeping up with spammers is a nightmare game of whack-a-mole. Please email me if you have any questions.