In this post, I’ll be walking you through how I found myself shadowbanned from Instagram in December 2019 and the steps I took to make sure that this was a time of growth for my account, not decline. I’ll also be sharing my timeline and experience with the so-called gray ban that follows the better-documented and more widely recognized shadowban.
While instagram was (unfairly) throttling my account, I got a bit of revenge by using the time as an opportunity to grow my account in creative and profitable ways.
For my general guide on growing an Instagram account, check out my post on 26 steps to gaining 26k followers in one year.
This post comes in two parts:
On December 5, 2019, I had a post removed from Instagram after being flagged for violating TOS. I continue to believe that the post (a text-based image on an evidence-based approach to harm reduction) did not violate Instagram’s “community guidelines,” but it incurred the wrath of a removal + shadowban + grayban anyway.
Defining Terms: Greyban and Shadowban
WHAT IS A SHADOWBAN?
A shadowban typically begins immediately after one of your posts is removed for violating Instagram’s terms of service (or “community guidelines”), or after having a post removed to do to another user filing a copyright infringement claim.
A shadowban is Instagram’s punitive measure on accounts that they – or their bots- believe aren’t playing by their rules. You will receive an official notice of shadow ban, and if your account is very small, a personal account, or already has limited reach you may not notice any obvious effects. The primary markers of a shadow ban are:
- other users report not being able to load your profile page
- when you load the “recent” tab of hashtag you’ve used recently, your post is nowhere to be found.
- You’ll get a notice that you are not eligible for branded content (possibly only applicable for creator or business accounts) and
- Your engagement on the new posts drops dramatically
- when viewing post insights, you will see few or no views from hashtags or explore, with most views coming from “home”
The effects of a shadow ban will end on the 15th day following the initial notice of TOS violation. For some accounts, their account will return to normal, although for my account – even though this was the first offense – at the end of the shadowban the grayban began.
WHAT IS A GRAYBAN?
some experts in social media marketing continue to insist that the “gray ban” or “soft ban” that occurs following the end of a shadow ban is only the figment of some users’ imagination. So I began to carefully document how my account was affected during this post shadow ban phase. Because my count was larger, about 80,000 followers with high engagement, the effects of the gray ban were very apparent. During the gray ban I experienced:
- posts appearing in recent hashtags but not “TOP” for hashtags, even when gathering 1,000+ likes within an hour or two of posting.
Insights showing 0 views from “explore”- where prior to the shadowban about 40% of my posts would get 1000k+ views from explore.
- Reposts of my work by other users routinely making the explore page or”top” for hashtags, while my original content did not.
- (an exception to the above, I noticed video-based posts would sometimes get views from explore, but the number of views would be under 200)
How I grew my Instagram account while banned:
Day 1-14 Shadowban
For exactly 14 days I had a clear shadowban, evidenced by:
– posts not appearing on “recent” tab of used hashtags
– users reporting that they were unable to find my profile, even when navigating through a direct link.
During the initial Shadowban, I expected my account to bounce back after 14 days, so I kept creating on a regular schedule, but not posting new content. Instead I began posting old content or not posting at all.
Day 15-45 Grayban Part 1
On day 15, the shadowban expired, and my profile became visible and posts began showing up on the recent tab for the hashtags I used. However, my account continued to experience aftereffects- what some in the industry call a “grayban.”
I kept posting “easy” content (reposts or edits of previous work) while my account was experiencing the effects. Each day I averaged 30-60 unfollows and 30-70 new followers, so the growth was consistent but slow- Aided by the occasional revival of older content by popular accounts sharing my work.
Day 45-90(ish) Grayban Part 2
I read online that other “graybanned” accounts report and ted going back to normal 1 month after the shadowban expired, so at the 6-week mark I began posting some new content to experiment with reach.
Frustratingly, when I posted new content, I saw reposts of it hitting “explore,” and those repost-mill accounts gaining followers rapidly, but at this point I was gaining and losing the same 200 or so followers for weeks.
I announced a hiatus. Although publishing to my existing followers had been profitable, I needed a break and some sources suggested dropping off the platform could be a way to circumvent the grayban.
How I focused my energy:
This time I went offline. I worked on a hobby project, devoted more time to my professional work and took a step towards growth in that realm. I continued to create content as I felt inspired to do so, and published it to my Patreon for paid followers.
Day 90-105 Grayban Fade
on March 5, A full 3 months after the original post was removed in December, I began posting new content again. Disappointingly, my reach when posting new content did not seem to be improved. I began to grow concerned that the effect on my account was permanent, and so, while distracted by the news of coronavirus beginning its march around the world, I didn’t really post any new content or pay particular attention to my Instagram account for the next few weeks.
Day 106(ish) Account Reach Restored
on approximately Day 106 since having my post removed for violating Instagram’s terms of service, my grave and finally expired. The only indication I received that there’d been a change in my account status was that I received a notice that I was now “eligible for branded content”- a privilege that had been revoked when my post was removed.
A few days later, when I posted new content, both the early engagement and, later, the insights made it clear that my account was finally free from punitive effects of the post shadow ban throttling. When I checked, my new post was appearing in top posts for the hashtags I had used, and later amassed many hits from explore, leading me to conclude my account was definitely back to normal.
it’s probably not what you want to hear if you are experiencing a shadowban and wondering how long you’ll be stuck fighting for placement in the algorithm, but it appears that the gray ban lasts for a full three months after the shadow ban has expired. So the formula seems to be two weeks of shadow ban and 12 weeks of grayban, a total of 14 weeks of reduced exposure. (Of note, an Instagram ban never ends on the day it “should,” but typically on the following day).
If you use these 14 weeks well, creating content to schedule for the future, and hustling diverse ways to move your content from growing followers to growing an income, you can use a shadowban to create long-term games both in followers and in passive income created.
How I Grew my Account during the Instagram Ban:
First, I had to shift my focus. Instagram can feel defined by the immediate likes and follows after a specific post, but long term growth and monetization requires strategies and long-range goals, so this off-Instagram work was what I kicked into gear during the grayban. For my art based account, growth looked like this:
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1. Experiment with New Formats
I got a new Apple Pencil and Procreate and began spending my lunch hour watching various Procreate tutorials on YouTube. As an artist, my Instagram ban gave me the freedom to focus less on output and to experiment with new styles and methods- ultimately this resulted in both my follower count and my Instagram-based-income increasing in the long run.
2. Develop your Presence on Alternate Sites
Patreon is a service that helps creators (of nearly any genre of content) partner with individuals who’d like to support their work.
By this time my Patreon creator account had been live for almost two years, with a decent monthly income, but hadn’t been updated since my initial launch. During my shadowban, I spent time reviewing the content from Patreon’s creator workshop I’d attended in Seattle (download my notes below) and learning even more about best practices for growing on Patreon. During my shadowban I changed the look of my page, my artist io, and my tiers so they were more in line with how Patreon executives had recommended in the workshop.
Download a PDF of my notes on how to grow an Patreon account
Impressively, I saw an immediate boost in Patronage! Rough estimate: in the months since that relaunch I’m seeing a 15% growth month-to-month growth in patrons, compared to the average month-to-month growth of around 5% before my Instagram shadowban sent me looking for alternative ways to grow.
3. Diversify how you Connect with (and Monetize) Your Followers
Feeding the Instagram beast keeps many creators busy. The problem is, the lure of Instagram-fame can keep us on a treadmill of constantly creating high quality for an algorhythm that’s constantly refreshing.
If you aren’t already, you MUST be crossposting to multiple platforms, preferably those you have creative control over. Media sites and even outlets like Patreon exist to profit off creators. Having your own website is the best way to take back creative control. WordPress (free software) paired with a WordPress-optimized, beginner-friendly hosting company is the best way to get started. Siteground has affordable plans for very small websites, and for no extra charge they’ll walk you through buying a domain name, installing WordPress, and setting up your site. Once you’re running WordPress, install the plugin Easy Digital Downloads for a free way to earn money by selling your content.
I was skeptical that my work would have appeal as a paid digital download, and honestly I’d never considered experimenting with it before being throttled by Instagram, but in the first 30 days after launch, my digital downloads brought in a profit of over $190, making me very glad I’d been put in a position to move it up my list of priorities.
4. Try some Experimental Marketing
Even if you don’t consider yourself an artist, you are producing content for a highly visual media format- and those images can be marketed. I partnered with a print on demand merchant in order to offer mugs, stickers, etc that featured my Instagram posts. (At around $15 profit after first 30 days this has been less profitable than digital downloads, but should continue to pay passive income in the months and years post-shadowban.)