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With all the buzz around social media, I find the statistics about the fastest-growing Instagram accounts fascinating. I’m updating this post on October 8, 2019, from its original publication on June 10, 2016, to see how social media trends have changed and who seems to make the most progress on gaining followers on Instagram.  The individuals behind the social media may be of even greater interest and definitely can teach business a few tricks.

Question: In 2016, who “broke the record (on Instagram) held for almost a year by former soccer star David Beckham, who took twice as long to gather 1 million followers”(1)? Don’t cheat by looking at the quote attribution. I’m happy to share. Answer: The Pope


“(Pope Francis) hit the million-follower mark in just 12 hours, making his ‘our fastest growing account on Instagram to date,’ said Stephanie Noon, an Instagram spokeswoman.”(1)

In 2019, there are numerous reports and posts about the fastest growing Instagram accounts. I’ve found many of these accounts to be tied to fashion and Hollywood celebrity, especially scantily clad women. In fact, NeoReach published the “Top 10 Fastest-Growing Instagram Accounts” article on August 12, 2019 with an interesting list and reasons for each account’s popularity. According to the article, the number one fastest-growing Instagram account is held by Maura Higgins, aka @maurahiggins, a contestant of the 2019 season of Love Island.(2)  She’s experienced a whopping 942.24 percent growth with 2.5 IG followers as of October 8, 2019 and 1,052 posts. How does @MauraHiggins’ followers compare to Pope Francis’ today? Franciscus, as he is called on Instagram, engages a mind-boggling 6.3 million followers with 773 posts. While growth can be focused on year-over-year statistics or another time period, I’ll point out that Maura Higgins’ first Instagram post was February 1, 2012. Pope Francis’ first IG post was March 19, 2016, so since its start, Franciscus has experienced record-breaking growth in less time than Maura Higgins. I also wonder how many of today’s IG influencers can stand the test of time. Or are their social media accounts simply a flash in the pan? Can you tell I’m having fun with this?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for a person’s (a woman at that) freedom of speech. Maura Higgins and tons of other IG influencers are using the social media platform for just that. If their expressions on social media help them professionally and/or personally, more power to them. However…

What does this all mean? At first glance, you might see that a religious leader is more popular or at least more followed/connected than the world’s most popular athlete or model/actress. Celebrities and businesses pay big bucks for this type of following.

What else does it tell us? The Pope has found a way to connect with people, especially younger generations in a way that they want. Catholics and historians may remember that Saint and Pope John Paul II was well recognized for reaching out to youth, yet how he did so was more limited than any of us can do today. Saint John Paul II connected with people in person (often in the hillside) and followers found him on TV, read books and articles about him, and heard about him in religious circles. Yet Pope Francis today reaches far more people around the world by taking his message of tenderness and mercy to social media.

The Pope has selected Instagram and Twitter as primary social channels. “The decision to open an Instagram account arises from the Pope’s conviction that pictures can reveal many things that words can’t,” according to a post.(3)  Likewise, each business should prioritize their social media channels based on whom they’re trying to connect with (Facebook tends to be favored more by Baby Boomers, while Instagram is loved by Millennials and Snapchat is making major strides with those even younger) and what they’re trying to communicate (a business with widgets that can be photographed a lot can take advantage of Instagram while Twitter is better for a bit longer text). As is true with marketing in general, know your product, your audience and your marketing channel.

Somehow I think posting photos is easier than writing (and I’m a professional writer). A picture is worth a thousand Pope Francis kisses baby in Mozambique, captured on Instagram by Vatican Newswords after all. When you are posting photos on any social media channel, think about what it’s expressing to your followers and the general public, if it gets picked up widely. Many people believe this is a big reason Pope Francis has such a strong Instagram following. His true intentions are truly seen in a single snapshot. It’s challenging to write the right words to capture this type of tenderness. Still, I challenge businesses and their social media experts to really think about how a single photo can capture the real essence of their product and business. If you’re focusing (even at the moment) on the written word, really focus on the writing. Being authentic really seems to resonate with audiences because, I think,  at a time when connections are made in seconds and Instagram feeds are scrolled through quickly, even cavalierly, people crave meaning and true connection. That’s what I see in Pope Francis’ IG feed. 

This next photo was taken of me & my daughter in November 2007. It’s my all-time favorite (It still is in 2019.), not because a fancy photographer took it or because of our designer clothes. Quite the opposite, this is our genuine, authentic selves, snuggling and giggling. Life as it should be. That sweet little girl is now in high school, but even now she’ll give me a hug so tight that I’m quickly reminded that as she goes out into the world, my bond with her is irreplaceable. That, my friends, is captured in this one still shot from many years ago.

On Twitter, “U.S. President Barack Obama has more followers, but Pope Francis’ average ‘retweet’ and ‘favorite’ rate is more than eight times higher than Obama’s.”(1)

Perhaps at our core, we can really commit to what our businesses are about and connect with followers in a more sincere way. The public appreciates the genuine approach — in words, photos and handshakes. I think those are really worth talking about.

  1. Social engagement: Pope breaks record on Instagram” Texas Catholic Herald. April 12, 2016.
  2. Top 10 Fastest-Growing Instagram Accounts” NeoReach. August 12, 2019. 
  3. Pope Francis’ Instagram account exceeds 4 million followers” July 19, 2017.