Reid Hailey, the founder of Doing Things, a media company that manages a network of Instagram pages with a collective 14 million followers, says that around 75 percent of the accounts he oversees are set to private. “If you’re public, people just always see your stuff and they don’t feel the need to follow you,” he says. Hailey sees it as partial relief for stagnant follower counts: “It didn’t really become a mainstream thing until the algorithm started hitting hard I would say about six months ago or so. People are hurting for growth. A lot of meme pages aren’t really growing.”
Hailey says that before one of his large accounts went private, it was growing at an average of 10,000 new followers per week. Once it flipped to private, that number jumped to 100,000.
Reaching the Instagram Explore page, which surfaces posts from accounts you don’t yet follow, used to be the default way to grow for most memers. Just a couple years ago, large meme pages would jockey for spots on Explore, often forming Instagram Pods or groups aimed at gaming the algorithm. Now, going private is the faster way to grow.
Several months ago, Sonny, who runs several large meme pages and goes by only his first name online, flipped four of them to private. He says that the growth on those accounts has far outpaced anything he’s been able to get from making it on Instagram Explore.
“When you run a private account, you don’t get in the Explore page anymore, but I’ve noticed it doesn’t matter,” he said. His main account, @Sonny5ideUp, is still public, and gets around 200 followers if it reaches more than 1 million people via the Explore page, he said. But his private accounts can get as many as 10,000 new followers in a day.
Some top meme admins also think private accounts are less likely to be unfollowed. Unfollowing a public account just takes one click, but when a user goes to unfollow a private account, a pop-up appears asking them if they really want to take that step and reminding them that they’ll have to re-request if they want access again. Many people find it easier to just keep following.
Some Instagram meme pages flip-flop between public and private as a way to game both systems. Many will tease the possibility of going private, posting announcements in their page bios like, “Going private in the next 24 hours,” to entice people to follow while they can.
To some memers though, the hack feels desperate.
Elliot Tebele, the founder of the Fuck Jerry Instagram account, which currently has more than 13.7 million followers, says that while he’s dabbled in going private, overall he doesn’t think it’s the right strategy for his brand. “I’ve tested it once or twice to see and it does work,” he says. Tebele says that growth hacks like this tend to come and go (commenting on celebrity photos is another popular way to get your account noticed right now), but it’s more sustainable to hunker down and focus on building your public brand.