“Instagram Created a Monster” – On the Inevitable Decline of Social Channels

Every social network that gets popular inevitably declines. They all decline in the same way. And the decline happens for the exact same reason.

If you don't know about this, you'll fall into the "trending traffic" trap again and again. You'll be lured in by "social starlet" success stories, jump on a new platform when it's already too late and experience yet another disappointment.

Read on to discover what drives the inevitable decline of social platforms (and why you need to own your platform, instead).

More...

The Instagram Monster

This is a story that perfectly illustrates what I'm talking about here. It's worth reading in full, but I'll briefly summarize here:

  • This is the story of someone who built a good following - and started making a living - on Instagram.
  • She starts out growing her audience organically, posting good content and essentially getting rewarded for the good work she does.
  • Later on, she finds herself doing things she never wanted to do. She's gaming the system, exploiting loopholes. Cheating, basically. And she has to do this to retain her reach on Instagram
  • In short, she's had to stoop to tricks and techniques to keep going, she no longer finds joy in what she does and Instagram seems to make things increasingly difficult and expensive for her, just to keep afloat.

This is a story that reflects the experience of thousands of creators, on every social media platform that has come and gone since the dawn of the web.

Why has nobody told you about this before?

I don't know. They were probably too busy selling you something.​

What Happens

Technically, what happens as a social media platform grows is simple: organic reach shrinks proportionally to the growth of the platform.

That means you can have followers on Instagram, subscribers on YouTube, followers on Facebook etc. who never see what you post, even though they ostensibly subscribed to receive your updates.

A perfect example of this is the introduction of the "bell" in YouTube:

Note that it doesn't replace the subscription button. It's there in addition to it. So, someone can subscribe to your channel, but they may or may not see your updates. If they really want to see your updates, they have to "bell" your channel as well.

Did you know that the exact same thing happened on Facebook? It looks like this:

It used to be that YouTube showed you all the content from channels you subscribed to, Facebook showed you all the updates from pages you liked to and Instagram showed you all the pictures from accounts you follow. But now, you have to take extra steps to see those updates.

Seems weird, right? Why ask people to subscribe twice?

The reason is that most people don't subscribe twice. Out of everyone who follows you, few will take the second step and double down on their subscription. And thanks to this, the social platform can reduce organic reach over time, which it must do to keep growing.

Why it Happens

This limiting of organic reach happens as a consequence of a social platform gaining traction. It happens because soon, there's too much noise and not enough signal. It happens because the platform runs out of "inventory".

Here's what that looks like:​

A platform's success is the fuel for its own decline. The more people use it and the more businesses are successful with it, the greater the competition becomes for each individual user's attention.

There are only so many updates any given user will consume and what people say they want to see is not a reliable indicator of what they actually want to see.

That's why the network can't rely on subscriptions and has to instead apply filters and rules and algorithms that ensure people see stuff that's as engaging as possible to them. Show them the flood of updates that are irrelevant or annoying to them and you lose them as a user.

A Closer Look: YouTube

Let's get a little geeky and look at YouTube as an example: the longer someone remains a user, the more channels they are subscribed to and the older some of those subscriptions become. YouTube would lose your interest if they only showed you updates from your subscriptions, on the YouTube homepage. Because all the stuff you've subscribed to is actually not the stuff that will get the most clicks and the most view minutes from you.

A better determiner of what you're actually interested in and what you'll actually keep watching is behavior based targeting with algorithms I won't pretend I even begin to understand.

As a result, your personalized homepage would show a lot of stuff you're not that interested in and have no more room for the floods of new material coming in all the time, that may get more view time from you (and view time = ad revenue for YouTube). It is therefore in YouTube's interest to not show you updates from channels you've subscribed to and instead let their algorithms work out what to show you.

For YouTube creators that means: the better these algorithms become, the fewer subscribers they can reach, on average. After all, there are only so many hours in the day someone can be watching YouTube videos. There's too much noise, too much content for YouTube to show you subscription updates and maximize your view time engagement.

The Vicious Cycle

In the early days of a rising social platform, there will be emerging social starlets who gain a large audience and start making money on the platform. Inspired by their example more people and businesses start flooding the platform. Soon, the belt is tightened on organic reach.

Suddenly, you have all these creators trying to survive as their reach and income dwindles. They start gaming the system, using automation tools and paying services to bolster their presence on the platform. Keep in mind, they game the system because they must. The alternative is losing their business and income.

The more creators do this, the more it becomes necessary to use automation and services and tricks to even get in the game. This creates price competition, as every creator starts spending a greater proportion of their income on keeping the income source alive.

In the end, it's a pyramid and only those at the very top survive and prosper. "Small creators" become a thing of the past.

What to Do About it

There's no way to fix this. You can't avoid this fate. The best chance you have, if you're on a social platform, is to become one of the big players early on. That way you have the resources to sustain your presence when things become more difficult.

Of course, that's not what I recommend.

What I recommend is that you are aware of the fact that social platforms function like this. And that should be reason enough to build your own brand, on your own platform.

Instead of making a social platform the very basis of your existence, use social platforms to boost your business. Keep using them for as long as they serve you and then ditch them when they're no longer worth the time and effort.

Instead of relying on a platform to generate enough income for you to continue surviving on the platform, generate your income from selling your own digital products. There's way more money in this (especially at a small scale) and that money makes it easier to stay in the game on social channels.

Prioritizing Your Time

An important take away from all this is that you need to prioritize time spent on social media correctly. In my post about budget friendly marketing automation tools, I mention that automation is especially important for social media.

If you join a platform in the early days, as the tide is rising, it may be worth investing a lot of time there. If you do it cleverly and build your own platform at the same time, you can get a positive ROI. But for established platforms with steadily dwindling reach (like Facebook, for example), you should limit the time you spend on them. Spending a lot of time hustling to get more Facebook followers is not a wise investment, because those followers lose value every day.

This is why I like using services like Missinglettr to minimize the time I spend to do any social media related work.

Only on Social Media?

The principle described here doesn't apply only to social media. In similar ways, other "business opportunities" can also become saturated and decline in value, as they become more popular.

An example comes from a recent comment from our Facebook page (irony not intended):

FBA - fulfillment by Amazon - was all the rage for a long time. But by the time most of us heard about it, it was already too late. The market was already being flooded with competitors, automation tools and services to help sellers game the system in an increasingly hazardous environment.

There are now various services for finding product opportunities, monitoring prices and competitors and automating a lot of the work related to running an FBA business.​ These tools may be really useful, but because tens of thousands of FBA sellers are using them, it means you simply cannot even participate in this game anymore, unless you spend $XXX/month on tools and services.

Before too long, Amazon needs to tighten things up, to prevent a flood of junk from ruining their reputation.

A few years before, the same thing happened with self-published Kindle books.

And remember the t-shirts craze? Or the "sell yourself as a social media expert to local businesses" craze?

Basically, this happens all the time. Everywhere.

And in my humble opinion, the only way to win at this game is not to play.

What's Your Take on the Social Media Monster?

Have you experienced this "monster" effect on a social media or other platform? Do you have success or failure stories to share? Do you think I'm full of it?

Whatever thoughts this post sparked for you, I'd love to read about them in a comment!

Shane's Signature

About the Author Shane Melaugh

I'm the founder of ActiveGrowth and Thrive Themes and over the last years, I've created and marketed a dozen different software, information and SaaS products. Apart from running my business, I spend most of my time reading, learning, developing skills and helping other people develop theirs. On ActiveGrowth, I want to help you become a better marketer and product creator. Read more about my story here.

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  • John says:

    This is a perfect explanation.

    I see this with the few Facebook pages I run. A like means hardly anything anymore.

    I look at the self-publishing ebook thing and shudder at the crap that now pollutes the surface entirely. I realize that should be opportunity but it seems like that’s how all these markets have gone. Opportunity leads to $500 and $1000 infoproducts about opportunity leads to everyone doing it leads to stagnate pond full of strange junk.

    Maybe I’m just down today!!! LOL

    How does this advice you give square with Gary vaynerchuk, though?. He seems to advocate jumping in at whatever the new hot thing is.

    • Yes, good question regarding Gary. I think what’s important is that he advocates getting in early. Don’t try to build on the platform that is already established and already has the flooded market problem. Instead, try to find out what the next thing will be and get on that.

      Personally, I don’t follow this advice either, because it still feels like I’m wasting my time, building on these constantly crumbling platforms. But it seems to work for him.

  • rzullo says:

    Great article, Shane, I totally agree with the premise. As you’ve mentioned in other posts, social media can be one tool in your bag, but not the whole shop. Instagram, in particular, can be a real time-suck, and there’s no great way to link out to your own platform. Thanks for the reality check!

    • Thank you for your comment! Social media can definitely be a time suck and I think a lot of entrepreneurs end up wasting their time, even if they tell themselves they do it “for business only”. These things are designed to capture your attention and not let go, after all.

  • Michael says:

    Like always this is a value based article. Thanks a lot!

    I also fall into the pit of trying and using the latest platform hacks and it is an endless story. For every platform, there are countless strategies and there are the latest sh*t we have to learn to acquire customers.

    This was so time consuming and of course a customer last approach.

    Since I am listening to your podcast, I have stopped being on every Plattform, don t read any e-Mails from the latest Marketing hacks (Neil Patel) and concentrate my time to get the best value for my customers.

    Apparently today, I have startet to get out of the “earn a zillion Euros with your automated online course funnel bla bla” and startet a coaching page that I have send to my existing mailing list.

    Time I needed with Thrive Content builder = 3 Hours (but only because I wanted to make it pretty :).

    I am super excited what will happen next and I will definitely not advertise on any platform or pay any ads. Instead, I have mailed the over to a couple of former clients and friends. Easy going :). Lets see if the approach works.

    Warm regards,
    Michael

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Thanks for your comment, Michael! I think it’s great that you’re taking action like this and focusing your efforts. It may not be as exciting as whatever the latest fanfare about new platforms and extreme growth is, but it’s a path to building something real. I wish you the best of luck!

      • Michael says:

        Cheers Shane, I am very happy and thankful for your words. You are doing amazing valuable work … and this is something rare to find!

  • George says:

    Interesting article and a perspective that I had not been aware of. Good information!

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      I’m glad this opened your eyes to something new, George!

  • Violeta says:

    It’s an eye opening post

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Thank you, Violeta! I’m very happy to hear that. :)

  • John Wagner Stafford says:

    Thanks Shane. What is the image tool you use to make your drawings…. I use skitch but I love the look and feel of your images. Please send me a link?

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Hello John,

      Georgiana, one of our designers, makes these. We got an iPad with the Pencil for this and the tool used is (I think) ProCreate.

      However, I have to say that after having used the iPad and the Microsoft Surface, I think the Surface is a superior product in every way. If I had known more about the iPad, I would have gotten a Surface with the new pen and either Leonardo or Mischief as the drawing app.

  • Ragnhild says:

    Unique article with a very interesting perspective and insight. Thanks for sharing:)

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Thank you for your comment! I’m glad you liked it.

  • tmcalpine says:

    A perfect analysis of a fundamental systemic issue.

    So many Gurus (conveniently) fail to mention that their internet success is path dependent. In fact, everyone’s success owes some to much to such dependencies. (So was the “business success” of the latest occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, Washington, DC, but I digress).

    Failure is also partly path dependent. Change path, change outcome. But again I diverge…

    Thanks for your direct honnesty and clarity.

    That is why your emails will NEVER go to any “guru inbox” :-)

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Yes, that’s very true. A fundamental guru problem is that by the time they make their big info product or software or whatever about the new fad, it’s already on the decline and the stuff they did (as early adopters) to get great results won’t work anymore.

  • Matthew Whelehan says:

    Shane,
    Spot on! I totally agree. I have been really enjoying your podcast. It came at the right time for me. I think the bottom line is all these networks are pay to play.

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Thank you, Matthew!

  • Tony says:

    It’s so interesting that we all get sucked in by the growing user bases of these platforms. However, when you become an actual “user” and not just a advertiser, you realize that many of the niches are in decline. I participate in a number of hobby related groups, as a hobbyist, not a marketer, and I’ve seen these declines first hand. Even with valuable content being shared, and very little marketing, they are still in decline.

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      That’s interesting, that you’re seeing this from “the inside” as well. I’m not a user on any social platforms, so I actually only know about what I wrote here statistically and from a marketing/advertising perspective.

  • raul says:

    Thanks for the good post :) Even being aware of the “latest shiny object sindrome” it has not helped me to not get catch several times, specially with social media. I have more failures than successes on this field. For example, thinking that just being on social media will make sell more products, later trying to sell directly or drive traffic to engaging posts and get ads revenues. None did work for me. At the same time, I agree that social media needs to be included in the strategy. For me, that is after dominating email marketing. Next to try will be series like: social media –> problem solving post –> sell product ; or social media –> relevant engaging post –> email for comunity building –> selling product. But as you say, even when it is tempting, better not forget that it is about product. Kind regards.

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Yes, I agree with this idea. I think it’s very important to be clear about priorities and do first things first. The idea of mastering email first and worrying about social media later is a very good one. :)

  • James says:

    GaryVee is a BLA; BLA BLA guy … Not worth the time.

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      He creates an enormous amount of content and I would say he’s not exactly a master of information density, but I wouldn’t discount the guy entirely, either. He knows his stuff and he has a knack for predicting the ebb and flow of Internet stuff.

    • Brian says:

      I couldn’t agree more. Wish he’d just shut the f*(k up. Drives me nuts and he sure seems to love the attention.

  • Nate says:

    By far, one of the most “non-conversion focused” and applicable posts for me as I relaunch my social wi-fi marketing business in early Oct (on vacation for 3 months). Some of my colleagues are so frightened that ZenDesk, Yelp, and even Facebook are supposedly helping small businesses via offer wi-fi marketing services. One just have to sniff a little hard to understand who will lose in the long run. I really do appreciate your insight, forward looking and most importantly providing candid and descriptive content. You can’t please everyone, but the majority of those that you do sincerely appreciate it. Okay, back to my vacation in Greece — gotta go catch another sunset. A happy Thrive Member.

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Thank you, Nate! Enjoy your time off! :)

  • Michiel says:

    Thanks for this post Shane, you’re absolutely right! I rode the waves of the Kindle gold rush for some time and was making good money off of just a few books. But then everybody started doing it and the competition got much stiffer. It’s oh so tricky to put all your eggs in the basket of a 3rd party, whether that’s Amazon, Facebook, Google, Instagram, or YouTube.

    Organic reach will take a serious hit once the competition increases (or once the platform starts offering advertising like Facebook did, which killed organic reach of businesses even further). Also, the platform can change the rules from one day to the next, which could be the end of your income. They can change the rules for obtaining reviews, change the algorithm for organic keyword rankings on their products etc. Entire business that were dependent almost completely on organic search engine traffic have been wiped out when Google released their Panda and Penguin updates.

    These channels are great for selling stuff and getting traffic, but you should never be dependent on just 1 or 2 of these third party platforms, as you’re in serious trouble once your sales start declining there for whatever reason or your organic visibility declines.

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Yes, exactly. I lost a big income stream to one of Google’s updates as well (I can’t even remember which one it was, anymore). Luckily, I was already selling my own products and wasn’t 100% reliant on SEO traffic anymore at that point. But I’ve made the experience personally of having too many eggs in one basket (and not even a basket I own…).

  • Claudemir Martins says:

    That’s a very good information Shane.
    What is your opinion about Affiliate Marketing ?

    Guys like Crestani and John Chow are also pioneers in their market and starters will have a hard time to succeed trying the same path ?

    What I believe now is that hard work building my own brand and products is the way to go, even if that takes more time, it will be something more solid than promote somebody’s else product. Am I in the right way ?

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Hi Claudemir,

      For sure, the early days of affiliate marketing were a gold rush. There was a time when it was easy to get search traffic for almost any keyword and you could get ad clicks for next to nothing. Early adopters could put up a simple website, add affiliate links and drive massive amounts of cheap traffic to it. Easy money.

      Affiliate marketing itself can still be a great income source, but the tactics that made the early adopters rich don’t work anymore, at all.

      I think there is still a lot of opportunity in many markets for affiliates, mostly because most affiliates are incredibly lazy and it’s easy to outperform them.

  • John Halderman says:

    Very good post- congeals several ideas related to social media.

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Thank you, John!

  • terry says:

    Very good stuff! These are totally different business models. Well said

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Thank you, Terry!

  • Paul says:

    Ebay wasn’t mentioned, but I think the same thing has happened to the collectibles market there. People found out their “rare” collectibles were not that rare and the number of serious collectors in a specific niche (Hummels for example) was much smaller than what was needed to support the valuations.

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Interesting point, yes. For sure there was a “sweet spot” for ebay sellers, where there was already a large number of buyers, but the platform wasn’t flooded with professional sellers yet.

  • Nick says:

    Fantastic article Shane. You totally nailed it. I had this exact conversation with a mastermind buddy from the east coast of the USA. I am up in Canada on the west coast. I did $300,000 with Amazon FBA Aug 2015 to May 2016. And then EXACTLY what you describe started happening. Like “WHOPPER” said in the movie “War Games” – “The only winning move is not to play”.

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Thanks for your comment, Nick! I’ve heard similar stories about FBA, from others who got in relatively early.

  • Karen McCamy says:

    Totally agree, Shane! As usual, you make a lot of great points. I was unaware of the actual causes of platform “evolutionary decline” but have been aware of the results for some time.

    As a WordPress teacher (for total beginners), I often get questions about “why not just go with Wix or Squarespace?” So I did some research: those platforms don’t even provide access to the underlying code (in case Grandma Jones is a CSS & PHP whiz!) The pint being, you can even hit your own dev if you want to!

    I tell my beginning students the same thing: you must have your own content on your own “space,” which in these cases is your own hosting account. It’s way easier to change hosting, but at least you can take all of your content with you…and the “platform rules” don’t keep changing if you own your own platform! ;-) LoL!

    Excellent information, but sometimes I fear we are waging a losing battle trying to keep sending out this crucial message! There is so much social noise out there!

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Yes, exactly! It’s so important to really own your business and not build it on “rented land”. Yes, it’s going to be a little bit more complicated, but it’s definitely worth having actual ownership of your content and business…

  • CHARLES says:

    GREAT READ SHANE, THNX

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Thank you, Charles!

  • justin says:

    Smack on the mark Shane….great article. I treat social media this same way.

    • Shane Melaugh says:

      Thank you, Justin!

  • Reona says:

    Shane, have you ever thought of creating conversion focused theme for ecommerce? I wish you guys could create one for Shopify since this platform is growing super-fast and becoming wordpress for online store owners.

    • Hello Reona,

      We have no plans to get involved with Shopify. Ecommerce we have been casting an eye on, but I don’t think moving away from WordPress would be a good move for us.

  • Thales Matos says:

    The awesomeness of this post is almost inconceivable!

  • Irena Stopar says:

    Hi Shane,

    I really enjoyed your post. We simply need our websites as the core marketing strategy.

    I use a lot of automation and spend just a few minutes on FB. For other social media, I just put automation to work for me, send visitors to my website and that’s it. For someone new in business I’d recommend to invest some money on FB advertising. Instead of endless conversations that don’t necessary bring the results, create a better product or more products and build a funnel. My experience: What I see is that I get new visitors for my website for as little as $0,01-$0,05/click (depends on my offers) and at least 3$ sales for every $I spend there.

    • Thank you for your comment, Irena!

      Just like you said: the core solution here is to make your own website the main platform for the business. Sounds like this is already paying off for you in a great way. :)

  • Terence says:

    Thanks for succinctly articulating what I long suspected about these platforms Shane.

  • John E says:

    Excellent article, Shane. My own experience with this “rented land” thing isn’t directly related to social media, but rather with Google. (So it’s closely related and the principle is the same.)

    I built a travel site that was getting most of its traffic as “organic traffic” from Google. The site was doing well and I was a happy camper. Then, one night, Google made a massive algorithm update (one of the Panda releases) and I lost 75% of my traffic overnight! My site was crippled after that. The lesson? Don’t rely on a source of traffic that you have no control over. If they pull the plug, you’re dead!

    So yes, you are spot-on with this post. Don’t build your business on someone else’s platform. Eventually you will regret it.

    • Ah yes, that sounds painfully familiar. I also had many sites that lost their value completely, during a series of Google changes. Luckily, I had also been building my own brands and products and wouldn’t you know it: those were completely unaffected by the same changes that wiped my niche/affiliate sites out completely!

      • John E says:

        “Painfully”… that’s also how I remember that sad day!

        I’m glad to hear that your own brands and products have withstood the Google onslaught. That strengthens your point about building your own stuff on your own platform even more.

        Thanks for sharing your story. I feel a little better about Oct 2011 now :-)

      • Haha, I wonder how many people have something like mild PTSD at the mention of October 2011.

  • Heinz R. Vahlbruch says:

    Shane, what should I say … Every single piece of content from you or your Thrive team is so valuable to me. I can’t keep up and read all of this besides trying to actually BUILD an online business. Thank you so much for sharing and for supporting all of us out there in the onlone business world.

    • Thank you very much, Heinz! It really means a lot to me, to get positive feedback like this. :)

  • Jon E. says:

    I wonder how the 20/80 rule would apply in this. 80% on your platform and 20% on social platforms I bet.

    • That’s probably a good approach, yes. In my case, it’s probably more like 5/95, but I wouldn’t say that my social media approach is the best one. :)

  • Sedelia says:

    Great article as always from you, Shane. So appreciated.

  • Stephane says:

    Great analysis once again Shane.
    I love those 2 different directions you give : Thrives is a great Webmarkting value and Activegrowth a great Operating Philosophy.
    By the way, isn’t it nearly the same problem with our Blog ? If Google stops to rank our website as Facebook is limiting Reach… :(

    • Thank you for your comment, Stephane.

      The difference with your own website is that if you lose traffic to it for some reason, it’s still your website. If you build your business on Facebook and Facebook makes changes to limit your reach, you have to rebuild everything elsewhere. If you have high-converting pages and engaging content on your website and Google stops sending you traffic, you don’t have to rebuild anything, you just need to find a different traffic source. Social media, SEO and so on can change quickly, but if you have a highly effective website now, it will still be a highly effective website next year.

  • Heather says:

    This is the best summary of this issue I have ever read. I was one of the first from my industry to embrace social media and now EVERYONE, including clients, are saturating the space with content. The returns are slower and it’s become kind of tedious to even bother to keep pace. I have a team now who keep that engine going for the audience who seems to still be interested, but I am now looking for better uses of our marketing resources and time.

    • Thank you for your comment, Heather! I hope you can find more effective ways to spend your marketing resource.

  • Eduard says:

    How somebody said own the racetrack and make the social media your ” bi××ch” not the other way around.

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