The Most Effective Black Hat Growth Tactic Instagram Ever Had
And how to replicate it today without breaking Instagram's rules.
The most effective growth tactic ever on Instagram was something called the mother-child method, also known as the mother-slave method or the fan page strategy.
Discussions in marketing forums suggested that it’s something that had been used for years among celebrities to boost their followings, and while I haven’t looked into that any deeper, I don’t doubt it. Celebrities have been caught buying followers since the early days of Instagram, so it’s clear that they care about how popular they appear — enough so to partake in shady social proofing. Interesting fact: Akon lost 56% of his Instagram followers in 2014, when Instagram purged bots from its platform.
The mother-child method, however, was very different from buying fake followers. It gave an audience of real people. It was also very much against Instagram’s terms of service. And it made those who provided this method at scale a ton of money.
From what I observed from the sidelines, it peaked sometime in the spring of 2019, with a lot of providers popping up to offer the method as a service for people wanting to grow their accounts. Some seemed to have long waitlists and the prices weren’t cheap compared to other growth services. There were a lot of discussion about how to do it yourself too.
The mother-child method still doesn’t seem to be fully extinct, but Instagram has crippled its effectiveness so much that the effort needed to set up an operation like this, or the cost of having someone do it for you isn’t worth it anymore.
The interesting part is that I think we can take the basic principles of the mother-child method, and reformulate a strategy that can be just as effective, with sustainable growth — all without breaking any of Instagram’s rules and constantly playing the cat-and-mouse game with them.
How it worked
Instagram automation used to be about mass following and unfollowing. You’d connect your account to an automation software, give it some rules on who and how many to follow, and at what limit and after how many days to unfollow them. Comments and likes were also automated.
It’s not difficult to grasp the idea: thousands of people get a notification that your account has followed them or engaged with their post. A certain percentage of these people would then check out your profile and a percentage of those people would follow you.
Effective from a growth perspective, no doubt, but very annoying for users — which is why Instagram started implementing action limits. You could only follow a certain amount of people in a day and leave a certain amount of comments and likes. This didn’t kill the follow-unfollow spamming, but suppressed it.
These action limits led to people coming up with the mother-child method.
Here the idea was to have your main account — the mother account — do no automation at all, to lower the risk of Instagram flagging your account. What you’d do instead is to set up so called child accounts to drive growth for you.
You could have tens or hundreds (even thousands!) of accounts targeting relevant audiences and pointing them to your account. If you were a hip hop artist, for example, you could have fan page accounts, hip hop related accounts, or streetwear themed accounts. Anything where people are likely to also be interested in you.
The accounts would be fully automated of course, following targeted people, and auto-messaging new followers something like “Thanks for the follow! Clearly you’re a fan of niche, so if you aren’t already, go give @mainaccount a follow.” To circumvent Instagram’s spam filters, the auto-DMs would have spintax on them, meaning that the message would randomize within certain rules so that they’re not sending the same message hundred times a day.
Tagging the main account in the bio was common too to funnel people to the main account.
These child accounts would of course be restricted to Instagram’s action limits, but it didn’t really matter, as you could simply create more of them. Of course each account would jack up the cost of the service, but it was worth the price for many.
Imagine having 500 automated accounts constantly working to tell people about you. Yeah, it was pretty effective.
How to replicate the essential part without breaking Instagram’s rules
The most overlooked part of the mother-child method was how easy it was to get people to follow these content focused, theme accounts (the so called child accounts). Yes, the automated system allowed for scaling, and you had the power of pure volume on your side, but was the approach itself that carried the magic.
When you have an account that’s built around a niche, with a primary purpose of posting interesting content instead of selling something, it’s easy to get new followers. It doesn’t matter where on the awareness ladder people are — often it’s enough that they simply have general interest in your niche.
If you sell hiking boots, and 100.000 outdoorsy people see your Instagram account @joeshikingboots, how many of them are even remotely planning a purchase? It might be the wrong season. They might be temporarily unemployed and strapped for cash. Maybe their current shoes are still good for a year. It’s very difficult to get someone with no buyer intent at that moment to follow your brand.
All of these people could, however, very well be future customers. Seasons change, people get new jobs, and old shoes wear out. While the buyer intent isn’t there now, an interest in the outdoors means that it might be there down the road.
Compared to @joeshikingboots, an outdoor theme account is easy to use to catch potential future customers, regardless of how interested they are in buying hiking boots at this particular moment.
You can then regularly promote your main account (@joeshikingboots) on the outdoor theme account (which could be named something like @outdoorvibes, just to give you an example). This way you get people who are in the market to buy new hiking boots to follow @joeshikingboots. Remember that this group is constantly changing, meaning that you will have a constant stream of new people funneling over from your theme account to the main account.
So instead of having hundreds of half assed theme accounts doing the promotion for you, build a proper theme account with quality content, and leverage that single account in the same way. The results aren’t quite as effective in the beginning, but if you’re able to build an audience for the theme account, the results will compound and you’re better off in the long run.
Plus, you don’t have to wake up every morning and check if Instagram has deleted your account.