Automagram – The Rise and Fall

It’s crazy how things can go up and down very fast sometimes. My last blog entry was about how Automagram started to work great and generate revenues; not even two month later, here I am writing about its shutdown. I’ll try to explain in details how I got Automagram high, how it all stopped, how I managed to controll the issues related to it and what I’ll remember from this experience.

 

The Rise

Few days after my last blog entry, I did a talk at Microsoft Research Asia for Barcamp Beijing about Automagram. The talk title was “How I got a startup by accident” – a little catchy as I never really considered Automagram as a start-up, but more as a passive income. I mainly talked about how I came up with the idea and how things went crazy as soon as I setup the premium membership page. At this time, the statistics were going up, but slowly, same for the income generated by the premium memberships.

After the talk, seeing the interest in the product growing, I decided to take it to another level by working on Automagram SEO. I started to buy a lot of social marketing gigs on Fiverr and other places, in order to get a lot of social signals to www.automagram.com. I also took care to redirect the non-www traffic to the www and optimized the homepage title (from “Automagram • Grow your influence on Instagram” to “Automagram • Free bot for Instagram automation”). I also tweaked the description a little (from “A free service to get targeted followers on Instagram based on your topics and interests” to “A free service to get targeted followers on Instagram. Automate your like, follow and comment interactions to start getting quality followers”). Small but effective changes, the application of what I’ve learned with Mon-Instit, the first project I ever built and now very solid in the SERP. A week later, Automagram was on the first page for many of my main keywords, including “instagram bot”, “instagram auto like” and their variations. That’s when everything started to go out of control.

People like numbers, so here you go: right before it stopped, Automagram was receiving 3.000+ visits a day and had 6.000+ users; the premium memberships were generating between 100$ and 300$ a day; the app was used to send more than 1.000.000 likes to Instagram each day.
I think it’s that last point that made the system collapse.

Automagram Shutdown

The Fall

I reached the inbox zero few days before everything started to go wrong with Automagram, so yeah, I definitly remember that email. I thought it would be yet-another-support email with an easy question or something, but it wasn’t. A user reported an issue that never happened before, so I postponed and decided to take a look at it after my office hours. Through the day, I received bunch of other emails reporting the same issue, making me realize that something serious was going on.

My office hours done, I decided to investigate the issue right away and quickly faced this error message from Instagram API while debugging: “We’ve taken extra measures to protect the Instagram API from abnormal activity. Since you have recently created your API application, please contact apidevelopers@instagram.com to receive whitelisting for a higher rate limit.”. At some point, Instagram finally detected the abnormal activity going through Automagram client. Coincidence or not, this happened just few days after Instagram released major security updates targeting the black hat scene and system abuses – followers delivery was sometime leading to the “follow” button getting frozen and unusable for any new user wanting to follow the customer who paid for the delivery. Of course, I was aware that Automagram was anything but respecting Instagram TOS and that it could happen – I assumed all the people that were using Automagram were aware as well, but that’s another thing.

Anyway, being aware of this, I already thought about many scenarios where Automagram would get ban and came up with a workaround quickly: I ordered a new VPS at DigitalOcean to get a new IP, created a new Instagram account to hold the new Instagram API client Automagram will used and backup then restored everything on a fresh new config, with a fresh new client, IP and all. It did the trick. So I decided to redirect all the traffic from www.automagram.com to my new IP – not a transparent redirection, a 301 via htaccess to get rid of the automagram.com domain, just in case Instagram also banned the domain as it was used as a callback in the old client. It was working when I was testing, so I thought that was the final step for a back to normal. I then went to smoke my cigarette, after rushing all the thing described (in a nutshell) above, thinking I handled the situation. But when I came back, I realized the issue occurred again, on the fresh version of Automagram. That’s the moment I started to loose hope.

I saw I started to play a hide’n’seek game with Instagram that I had no time for. I would probably have find a solution and/or an alternative to go through their security measures again (especially by digging the signed_body parameter they’re using in-app to make their API calls) but that would not have been worth it for me in term of personal investment and timing.
So I sat and took some time to think about the situation. I came up with the controversial decision to just shutdown Automagram.

Closing Automagram

The Bad Buzz

From the moment I decided to shutdown Automagram, I knew a lot of angry users/customers would complain. I’m not a community manager, but that’s the deal when you’re doing things alone: you have to do everything on your own.

Hopefully, I received some support messages from comprehensive users wishing me best of luck and saying thanks for the help provided by the service, but mainly, messages I received was full of anger and almost all were asking for a refund as I didn’t respected the “lifetime” membership they signed up for. Unfortunately for myself, I didn’t took the time to write any TOS for Automagram as I thought everybody understood the nature of the (black hat) tool  and that it could be stopped by Instagram anytime. So obviously, “lifetime” meant “lifetime” of the service but,yeah, looks like it was not that obvious for everybody. Of course these kind of messages can easily affect you as a human being, but in my case I just focused and thought I have to move on, keep on working and find solutions instead. To be able to refund as many angry customers as possible – on a first claim, first served basis for customers who really didn’t have time to enjoy their premium membership for long – I decided to sell the domain to a Chinese competitor that was interested in it and who contacted me through Skype. That gave me some more immediate funds that I was able to use to start sending out refunds.

I quickly realized I did a lot of things wrong while trying to manage the bad buzz (redirecting directly the domain to the Chinese competitor without any further more explanations for instance) but, yeah, that’s just one of the many things I learned the hard way with Automagram.

What I’ve Learned

When I first started Automagram, I never thought I’ll learn so much through it.

First, I discovered a whole new aspect of social media marketing I wasn’t aware of. I discovered an active scene of people hacking on about all the existing social medias. It was interesting to exchange with them about their journey and see how some made a living out of this kind of activities. I also learned how to make a service up from the ground, how to monetize it, how to assure customer support, how to grow and convert an user base etc. I don’t say that was a complete success, but at least I tried and had a first glimpse of what entrepreneurship could be.

On the other hand, I realized I did a lot of things wrong among which: trying to build a product or a service based on a third party – especially if you’re not respecting that third party terms; trying to offer many features and not automating as much thing as possible right from the beginning; trying to sell lifetime subscriptions instead of monthly, yearly or so; trying to do everything alone; and many other things I took note of.

 

Try. Fail. Learn. Repeat.

 

Last but not least, I would like to present my sincere apologies to all the users that supported the project and who are now disappointed. My thanks go to all the early-users who followed me in the project and who never stopped sending me good feedback or support messages, that’s greatly appreciated, thank you.
I know this entry and apologies won’t be enough for some, but life goes on. I learned a lot with Automagram and I won’t stop working on new projects, but I don’t think that will be related to the blackhat scene anymore. So consider this as a goodbye.

Thanks for everything.

 

Automagram kicks off

Well, that was unexpected but it looks like Automagram starts to kick off. It has recently reached the 1.000 active users milestone and started to generate revenue through the premium memberships I quickly setup last week before going to my business trip in Hong Kong. To throw out some numbers, Automagram is now worth (within the last week) 3.400+ visits, 17.000+ page views, 5 pages / visit, 7’29” average visit duration, a 21% bounce rate and 22% of new visits.

How did we get there?

I didn’t really started to promote Automagram, just created some social profiles there and there but with no real effort to promote anything like I did with the social media strategy for WeLiveInBeijing. Thing is I think Automagram really answers to a need and is warmly welcome by its users. Proof is people promote the service themselves to their network – like this guy who has more than 20.000 followers on Instagram.

What’s next?

Automagram has been a little bit overflowed by this rapid growth. A lot of people bought premium memberships even if it was clearly indicated that all the premium features were not available yet (early-adopters offer). So I first need to finish all the promised features, then migrate to a bigger server as the current one wasn’t planned to get that much hits a day – it’s the same which is hosting this personal blog. With some of the money made out of the premium memberships sold, I already bought a new VPS just for Automagram at DigitalOcean, which offer the ability to scale up within 1 minute if I reach the limits again. Wen I’ll finish to set everything up, I’ll start promoting the service and improve it with all the feedback I already got. I am also thinking about extending Automagram to Twitter.

I’ll come along later with a longer and more detailed post about Automagram monetization, but first I’d like to give myself some weeks before making any comments on it, just to see how things evolve and to be able to make a proper feedback in retrospect.

Rebooting WeLiveInBeijing – Part 1

As I mentioned in previous posts, I’m also working on a project called WeLiveInBeijing. WeLiveInBeijing is an online community for locals and expats living, working and/or studying in Beijing. It has been created and launched during 2008’s summer by four of my current co-workers at Bloc – they are often mentioned as “The Vikings” on WeLiveInBeijing as they’re all from Norway, but never-mind.
The online community – also known as WLIB – has known its best moment in 2009 (and the following years), while the four founders were still living and promoting the website to the nightlife of WuDaoKou (五道口). Back to the time, online communities and social networks were just at their early stage, so there was definitely a position to take, here, in Beijing. WeLiveInBeijing took it with success and quickly became one of Beijing’s biggest, online and English-speaking community.

Nowadays, the community is still up and running, WLIB having successfully created a high level of engagement within its community’s members, but. The four founders of the website, now CEO and employees of the start-up I’m working at, gradually started to focus on other businesses, leaving the community and the website behind. At first it might have work – I wasn’t there when it started – but today, WeLiveInBeijing is on the decline.

One of the first thing I noticed was that WeLiveInBeijing was invisible. Never saw it in the SERPs while searching for things about Beijing, never heard about it on Facebook or Twitter, same on Weibo etc. The most illustrating fact is that many people don’t even know WLIB although they’ve been living in Beijing for years. That’s why I decided to take the role of Community Manager and started working on WeLiveInBeijing online presence as the first step of the reboot.

WeLiveInBeijing's Instagram Series

Instagram

If you read my previous stories, you should know that I have been working on Automagram, a social media marketing tool for Instagram. It goes without saying that I created an Instagram account for WLIB and used the tool in order to promote it. It give me the opportunity to test Instagram/Automagram with an actual brand, and not just with my personal account.
So I created an Instagram account for WeLiveInBeijing and came up with an original idea that could catch interest of our target audience while promoting our brand. Resulted a serie of pictures of random people I meet while partying in Beijing,  posing with smiles containing the address of our website.
In term of audience  we are mainly targeting people from Beijing by working on the following hashtags: #igersbeijing #beijing and #北京. We also target Beijing universities students (#blcu #tsinghua #jiaotong …) and nightlife (#wudaokou #sanlitun …). All the work is automatically done by Automagram and doesn’t require any actions from me. Effortless and effective. As of today, we have something like 750 followers for 42 photos published.

Facebook

My colleagues already had a WeLiveInBeijing account on Facebook, but this one was unused. Plus, it was a personal profile. With a lot of friends, but still a personal profile. With the help of Bruce Hazan, I transformed the personal profile into a fan page in order not to loose the actual “fan” base – it would have been impossible without his help to switch from the personal profile (Welive Inbeijing) to the current fan page (WeLiveInBeijing) with the exact typo I wanted.
Even if it’s WeLiveInBeijing page, I’m not restricting myself to Beijing-related stuffs although I try to stay focus on China. I also try to alternate the type  of content I post on it: links to breaking news, events, pictures, videos, etc. … so it doesn’t turn into an images/videos board. Last but not least, I don’t hesitate to log as WeLiveInBeijing and interact with our fans and concurrent’s pages.
We now have about 1600 fans. This number is continuously growing and some post turn out to go viral, so it’s a good point.

Twitter

WeLiveInBeijing was not on Twitter, so I decided to fix this too. Nothing special there, I just curate news from all over China for now. The hardest part was to go through and save in my Google Reader all the interesting news feed I could found on the web related to China. Now it’s done, I don’t really loose time sharing link, it only require an hour at the beginning of each day to read and plan the tweets I’ll post. I also don’t hesitate to retweet and mention interest things our concurrent post.
It’s a little bit harder to start everything from the ground on Twitter and to built a consistent followers base, but still, it’s growing. Take a look at Followgen if you want to quickly grow a targeted followers base on Twitter, it uses the same concept as Automagram, but adapted to Twitter.
In terms of tools, in addition to Followgen, I use Googler Reader for the news curation, Bit.ly combined with our brand short domain wlib.co to shorten URLs and Tweetdeck web version as a Twitter client.

We now have more than 200 followers with an average of 10 new followers a day.

And also …

I also planned to make WeLiveInBeijing visible on YouTube, Tumblr, Weibo – the Chinese version of Twitter, WeChat and more. This part of the work is on-going and will be done anytime soon. Though, I’ve never really done anything on these platforms so it will definitely be a new challenge for me to see what the users expect from them, how they consume the content etc. but it’s alright: challenge accepted! I will update the links below when I’ll have created all the accounts.

So that’s it: a long journey to make WeLiveInBeijing visible on social networks.

As I mentioned it at the beginning of the post, that’s only the first step I started working on concerning the reboot of WeLiveInBeijing, but trust me, there’s way much more to come!
What I’m doing here is just trying to tell people WeLiveInBeijing is not dead, print the logo and the name of the website as much as possible in people’s mind, show them through the content we share that “we are cool” and, later, impress them with a huge come back. To put it in a nutshell, giving a face-lift and making it fashionable.

When we will be 100% back on track, we could then use all our online accounts to create new sources of traffic for WeLiveInBeijing. Meanwhile, let’s try to grow the fan base, create user engagement and brand awareness, and that will be enough :) Stay tuned for the rest soon!