The Art of the Follow-Back: Why Popularity on Social Media Feels So Good



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Over the years, social media brought a slew of new terms into our cultural lexicon, such as “follow-back” which refers to the act of returning the favor after someone has followed you.

“Following back” is something that teens and Millennials value greatly, but sometimes it’s difficult to discern who is returning the favor. That’s why social media users are talking a lot about a new Instagram feature that will make it easier to decipher who among the people you follow, follows you back.

Instagram is only testing the feature right now. To access this information, you will simply need to search for someone in Instagram’s “People” search tab. A “Following” or “You Follow Each Other” tag will be displayed next to the person’s name below their Instagram username. The update also includes a “Mutual Friends” feature that indicates which of your friends follow each other.

Why is there demand for this functionality? Because for people, especially younger people (teens), that feel more important with more followers, which makes them feel more well-liked and popular. In the digital era we live in, popularity – and even fame in some cases – is measured by numbers followers.

The Rise of the Social Media Celebrity

Today, some social media celebrities have become more famous than traditional entertainers. Amassing followers is the way to achieve social media fame, so people want to get as many as they can to build their personal brands. Names like Jenna (Mourey) Marbles and Michelle Phan are becoming household names among Millennials and Gen-Z because of their ability to leverage social platforms by engaging audiences through their content.

Jenna Marbles has 15 million subscribers to her YouTube channel, and Michelle Phan has over 8 million subscribers and is one of the highest paid YouTube stars to date.

Marketers are recognizing the power and influence of these creators, with more personalities gaining popularity each day. Brands and advertisers are tapping into these individuals and changing their marketing strategy to reach a loyal audience through these stars. “Influencer marketing” is a growing tactic in the industry, with 75 percent of marketers saying they plan on partnering with content creators this year. By identifying social media celebrities to help promote their brands and products, brands can enter relevant conversations and reach large audiences than on their own.

Schemes for Gaming the Follower Count

On Twitter, #TeamFollowback has been a trend for years. This hashtag is part of a strategy where those seeking out followers offer to follow someone back. A similar movement is taking place on Instagram, where strategies of using hashtags like #FF (Follow Friday), #instafollow, #l4l (Like for like), #tagforlikes and #followback are often utilized in addition to maxing out the 30 hashtags per picture limit with themed or popular words to make oneself more visible to other users by increasing their presence within the Instagram network.

The fact is, many people don’t emphasize who their followers are, even if a bot or spam account is on the other side of the screen, as long as that number beneath their username slowly ticks up.

There is still a notion that a high ratio of followers-to-following entitles the user to more influence, and also gives more meaning to their potential impact. Many people still try to game this ratio, and will follow accounts solely for a follow-back, and then quickly unfollow. This move will become more transparent if Instagram’s latest test becomes a permanent function of the platform.

Street Cred in the Form of Brand or Celeb Follow-Backs

Another critical goal for social media profiles is obtaining the magical blue badge (“Verified” status) on their account, which Twitter popularized, and now is used by other social networks such as Instagram. It’s a huge deal whenever a celebrity or brand follows someone on Instagram. Not only because it means they caught their attention, but also because they now have the ability to Direct Message them. If people see a celebrity or brand follows an individual, that person is more likely to follow them as well because they trust that account.

Need proof? Go ahead and search Twitter for “OMG followed me” and you’ll see a thread of statements of elation, mostly all in caps and followed by numerous exclamation points and crying-face emojis. Of course, there is a psychology behind this type of emotive response. According to research discussed in Psychology Today, receiving “likes” online stimulates dopamine through reward cues and unpredictability.

This may seem like strange behavior, but social platforms are changing how people interact with each other, and this shift is important for marketers to understand these behaviors when developing new ways to reach their audience and foster community.

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