Instagram: Why your Direct Message isn’t getting a reply (and how to change that)

Instagram: Why your Direct Message isn’t getting a reply (and how to change that)

The magic of Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook is that the people who you choose to follow often aren’t celebrities, they’re just normal people you have something in common with who are sharing parts of their lives. Maybe you like their photography style, or their careers, or the way they use certain words. Maybe it’s that girl who you went to elementary school with who posts all her life drama (and you follow it like a soap opera) even though you haven’t spoken in 10 years. Whatever the reason you follow them, the mere act of following them makes you feel closer, makes you want to reach out. 

When you message someone for the first time who doesn’t follow you, your message doesn’t go directly into their inbox and they may not even get a notification for it. It goes into a filtered folder and opens up a request (similar to a ‘spam’ folder on email):

  • At that point the receiving person can decide to either ‘accept’ or ‘reject’ the message
    • Accepting can’t be revoked, so accepting the message means that from then on the person will be able to see when you were last online and the only way to revoke this is to actively block an account
  • These messages expire after approximately 3 weeks if no action has been taken
    • If the person does not respond in 3 weeks, it’s likely they can’t even see your message anymore
  • The ‘unread’ number maxes out after 100+
    • If a person does not actively check this folder they likely don’t even know they’re getting new messages

This mechanism is a kind of privacy and safety net so random strangers can’t harass you and force notifications to come up on your phone. As your follower count grows, the number of messages in this outer-inbox increase and you have to develop a way to figure out how/if you’re going to monitor this folder, what messages to accept, and what to let expire.

If you’ve ever messaged an Instagram account and wondered why you never got a response, it might be because of these*:

*Disclaimers:
1. These are guidelines and observations based on personal anecdotes over the past 6+ months running a personal account on the topic of technology. I do not offer professional services via Instagram.
2. Volume is an important factor here, if an account has over 10k followers and receives 50 new DMs a day, accepting all of those messages (every day) and keeping up with those conversations is logistically not feasible for a single person. Choosing to not accept messages isn’t a personal statement, it’s time management.

7 Reasons Your Message isn’t Getting a Response

Reason #1: They do not owe you their time

This one is probably the biggest: unless you’re messaging a business or celebrity with a PR person, you’re trying to get in contact with a real-live-human-being. When you’re looking at accounts, it’s easy to forget that they’re real humans with jobs and errands to run. Responding to messages takes time and energy that could be spent doing other things, like, sleeping.

All of the caveats mentioned in the preface apply here – they may be getting a high volume of messages and literally can’t reply to all of them or they may not regularly check the filtered inbox and the message has expired.

While you might have the best of intentions, that’s not true for everyone. The person you’re messaging has no way of knowing that before accepting your message.

I have absolutely met people through DMs who are wonderful, but for the most part I choose to spend my time in real life with family members, my significant other, my coworkers (because I’m literally paid for that), and friends who I love and care about. Those are the people who I willingly allow to interrupt my day and take up time where I could be doing laundry, reading a book, gardening, going to the grocery store, etc. 

My notifications for social media are turned off, so if I respond to messages, it’s because I’ve set aside time in my day to respond to them (and sometimes life just gets busy).

What would be a better message: Candidly, it doesn’t matter what message you send, people do not owe you their time if you don’t have a personal or professional arrangement

Reason #2: Your message might make them uncomfortable or be interpreted as rude

As a woman (this type of message is typically from men) I have people that will comment on my appearance. It’s the equivalent of a digital cat-call. If you want to see how much girls enjoy it when it happens in real life check out how much fun this girl is having. 

I’m not going to green-light the message to continue the conversation if you’re telling me how beautiful I am (or if you’ve noticed I’m gaining weight) because quite frankly that isn’t the focus of my account and I don’t want to encourage that behavior. 

If you look at the comments section on this blog post, you can also see how not accepting every single message can be interpreted as a personal offense – if you’re truly looking to engage meaningfully with a person you may have a better chance by changing your messaging than calling them names (which may get you blocked altogether). 

What would be a better message: If you want to comment on something purely aesthetic, look at what their account content is about and show appreciation for that.

If they post about going to the gym, talk about their gym workout or their sense of fashion. Talk about the composition of the photo, the colors, etc. etc.

Reason #2.5: You “just want to get to know them”

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While I share very specific parts of my life/creativity on Instagram, when internet-strangers want to be included in other vague parts of my life “just because” it isn’t a compelling reason to accept the message. This line is different for everyone, but personally that’s a hard boundary that I don’t cross.

What would be a better message: Ask them about the theme of their account, why they started the account, what they want to do with it. Look at what they are willing to share and ask about that.

Reason #3: You’re getting really, really, familiar

Social media breaks down perceived boundaries, that’s one of the great parts about being able to do this whole micro-blogging thing: sharing common experiences. However, nothing throws up a red flag faster than accepting a message to respond to a specific question and weeks later a complete stranger questioning “Hey, why haven’t we talked in a while?”

Why does that throw up a red flag? You might just be trying to be nice, but in a world where internet stalkers are very real and situations can escalate quickly, someone you have had limited interactions with giving you attention without additional context can cause some serious anxiety.

There’s a big difference between a reciprocal relationship and one-sided communication, IRL and online. The internet makes everyone accessible, but it doesn’t mean they’re always available or desiring to interact.

What would be a better message: If you want to follow up with someone, then make it meaningful. Send them a link related to what their interests are, ask a question. They may or may not respond to that and that’s okay!

Reason #4: Your message has no content

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Saying only “Hello” is not a great conversation starter if you aren’t on a dating application or in real life. From an account management perspective, there’s no context for where the conversation is going to go, so these messages often get forgotten about (particularly if there are other messages with more content and context to them). 

What would be a better message: Check out the list below

Reason #5: You are trying to sell something they don’t need

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This is the equivalent of a cold-call message or templated reach-out on LinkedIn. Accepting this kind of message typically leads to a sales pitch, not a productive conversation. 

If I’m not going to use your product I won’t accept the message and waste both of our time, I also don’t want to get harassed for four months because I tried to be nice and say “no” gently. 

What also falls into this category is if you’re trying to promote something. If your first message to me is “Hey, tell people about my website” with no context, that doesn’t leave a great impression.

What would be a better message: Target your messages and if you think you’ve got something good then send it as a request, not a demand.

As an example, I am happy to share resources and recommendations on my account, but only if I feel like I can actually get behind whatever I am recommending.

Reason #6: They don’t need to prove anything to you privately

When my account started gaining enough attention that strangers started messaging me, I felt like I had to accept those messages and respond. If they asked what languages I programmed in, if they asked if I was really a developer – it felt like I was being interrogated** and if I didn’t respond then the world would end. What I eventually realized is that it wouldn’t end, and my life would be better if I didn’t respond to those individual messages because they never stopped coming.

Because I do think questions are important, I started an FAQ page, I created an “Ask” link which people could submit questions to that would get publicly answered if selected, and I made those as visible as possible on my social media profiles.

What would be a better message: If you’re genuinely curious, have you done your research first? If not, has the account provided an avenue for asking questions? Do they have their comments open to questions?

** For some cultural context, on Instagram a common criticism is that female developers look more like models than programmers, or the delightful sentiment is shared that “Girls can’t code” – as a woman who can code, that’s not a great thing to read in her own personal comments section

Reason #6.5: You’re giving unsolicited advice

There’s no good, honest, response to unsolicited advice that makes everyone happy.

Reason #7: You are asking them to help you with your projects/job/networking (for free)

I think this one is pretty straightforward (for me at least):

  1. I have a full time job
  2. I have personal projects that I work on when I am not doing that job
  3. It is not my job to do your job
  4. I’m not an expert in everything, and if your question is totally unrelated to my area of expertise, I may not even be able to start to help you

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I do connect people who seem like good fits (ex: if you’re a WordPress developer and someone asks me if I develop on WordPress, or you’re looking for remote work and someone legitimate asks me if I am willing to work remotely). If I say that I can’t be of use to you then I’m not lying or trying to hide resources from you, I just honestly don’t have the capacity to help and trying to push me further isn’t going to get a positive (or any) response.

What would be a better message:

  • If the person already has a job and you think you might want to employ them: say that.
  • Connect on LinkedIn, ask about what kind of work they want to do in 5 years.
  • If the person is an artist/freelancer then ask about rates, or ask if they’re taking new bookings (if it isn’t clarified on their website/profile).

4 Types of Messages that Anyone can Appreciate

Not all direct messages were created equally, and there are some that are always cool to receive. If you aren’t getting responses to the messages below, then the person running the account is probably just really busy doing their thing.

Message #1: You’re telling your story/genuinely asking for advice

Stories are awesome, I like hearing about people succeeding (or people who need encouragement). I am so down for that (and assume other people are too). 

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When talking about advice, I’m not talking about “What should I program in?” (I don’t know what you should program in). I’m talking about ‘Hey, this is my situation, I see that you have experience with x”

“X” could be: the Dallas job market, working as a developer in consulting, working for the specific company I’m with, what the real world is like versus being in school, etc. If enough people ask the same questions I will probably write a blog post about it. 

Caveat: When your question is specific to your life/region I can’t help you out. I can really only speak to my own experiences

Message #2: You’re asking about something I have mentioned in a story

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If I mention something and you don’t know what it is – I will absolutely tell you. If I’m posting about it then it’s just general knowledge for me, but not necessarily anyone else. I also really appreciate people who ask questions in the comment section of my posts because it can then help other people as well.

Note: The answer might not come in the form of a direct message, it might be a follow-up story or post answering the question because several people have asked the same thing.

Message #3: You are providing encouragement, camaraderie, or talking about something that helped you

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The greatest thing I have achieved in social media thus far might be more people buying this shirt (“Petting Cats is my Cardio”)

It probably won’t start a long conversation, but I will probably say thank you if I have time. When people tell me what I do that they appreciate it helps me know what content I should be focusing on more (talking about personal experiences, technical things, or posting cute pictures of animals, etc). 

Message #4: You are asking me to do something for you that could potentially help or encourage other people 

Things like asking me to write something up for a blog, do an interview, or recommend a legitimate product. If it’s something that makes development more accessible, I’m all for it. If you’re a company that wants me to recommend something then I’m not going to unless I have personal experience with it, but I am always open to trying stuff out. 

Caveat: Life gets busy and these things take time, sometimes that’s the biggest factor in whether these messages get a response or not. If you’ve gotten one response then radio silence, reminders are great! Just a quick “Hey, are you still interested in this?” Can go a long way.

Message #5: You are a real human in close proximity to me and we just haven’t met yet

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I had a coworker who I vaguely knew message me on Instagram and ask me to grab coffee – I said “yes” in a heartbeat because:

A. I knew she wasn’t a serial killer or stalker and

B. It was a great idea.

Working a 9 to 5 is hard in that sometimes you’re so focused on your work that it’s hard to make friends.  Also, if a reputable company holds an event in Dallas (like a coffee shop or a technology event) I totally want to hear about it if they’re doing something cool (and invite people, and tell the world about it).

TL;DR

It’s important to remember that the people on the other side of the screen are people with lives and feelings (this goes both ways). Just because social media gives you opportunities 24/7 to contact people doesn’t mean that people are open or available to connect 24/7.

Someone may not respond for the simple reason that they never see your message, or it may be because the message you sent wasn’t relevant to what they’re trying to do online.

Though personal messaging can be tricky, social media is a great place to network with people who have different experiences than you and to learn from what others are willing to share.

Do you have a different way of handling your inbox or are sometimes baffled as to how to respond to weird messages? Let me know in the comments below.

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17 thoughts on “Instagram: Why your Direct Message isn’t getting a reply (and how to change that)”

  • I’m not getting responded to because I’m being targeted by silicon valley. I want to nuke that whole area so badly.

  • You’re a girl and this experience is based on male to female communication. Specify that. This dynamic is different in other situations.

  • Randy, while I appreciate your concern for gender dynamics, these messages aren’t all based on male to female communication. I do have a disclaimer at the opening that these are all based on personal experiences running a personal account 🙂

  • I want to DM this youtuber, can I DM them by saying thank you? I just want to tell them that there videos really entertained me or helped me calm down when I was in a bad mood. But I scared that they’re gonna thing I’m weird.

  • A thank you sounds like an awesome message to send, depending on how they filter their messages you may/may not get a response, but definitely worth a shot!

    I’d definitely send a “Thank you for making this because it makes me laugh/it brightens my day/etc.” which is a couple steps above “Thank you”

  • I’m sorry but I don’t approve of any reason ignoring someone’s dms. Yes there are super weird and annoying ppl out there but some ppl most honestly make a connection. There’s no reason to ignore them like you’re hot sht. Ignoring someone’s messages who really looks up to you and wants to connect is plain snobby and many times social media has become so cliquish in that aspect.
    Doesn’t hurt to show kindness & give someone a chance if they turn out to be putzes then ignore them. Just my opinion on this

  • Hey Selena, I totally agree that ignoring people for the sake of ignoring them isn’t a good practice in real life or online

    There does come a point when followings are growing that the number of people who reach out on a daily basis “just to connect” becomes untenable to maintain. At that point it isn’t about ignoring someone’s DM, it’s about choosing who to respond to with the time you have

    Often the only metric you have is what the person’s messaged you, and a great 20 minute conversation about a topic with a person who sent an intentional message can mean a lot more in the long run than spending 20 minutes responding “Hi” to 20 different people and then having to block them if they (I like the word you used) turn out to be ‘putzes’

  • I bought a couple products from this website three weeks ago. I contacted them through their website and got no response so I created an Instagram to DM them about it. They didn’t respond but sent a follow request instead. This might be a dumb question, but do I need to follow them or vice versa in order to get a response? Or are people able to reply to any direct message they get? Any help would be greatly appreciated!

  • I liked what another lady SELENA MARLOWE said here :
    I appreciate true behaviour online & offline.
    Even during the toughest project deadlines , i have replied to hot shits & made sure that conversations are going on & its not a big thing to do at all.
    Few reasons mentioned in this post may be momentarily correct & but overall it sounds egoistic & an article written by somebody having a don’t care attitude (like that i don’t care , i love myself, i don’t owe you anything type kiddy attitude)

    Its not a new thing that every single person in this world feels he/she is no lesser then anybody else.
    But at the end of the day , selflessness is what makes the world a better place.

  • T – Sorry I didn’t see this question earlier! I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of a business doing that. As far as I know they should be able to respond to you on Instagram regardless of whether you’re following them or not.

  • Avtar – I absolutely agree that selflessness makes the world a better place. This post is not intended to discourage people from writing messages by any means, but to encourage intentional messaging particularly in online spaces where people spend only moments of their day.

    If you read both the examples and suggestions, most of these reasons have very little to do with the person sending the message and more to do with how the person managing the account chooses to allocate their time and energy 🙂 You bet that if someone messages me in a professional context I will respond, or if they ask about something I can reasonably help with.

    There’s always another person on the other side of the comment or message, and that respect should go both ways

  • You know Jones, you know very well what i was talking about , don’t you.
    I am sitting right now in front of a PC at Samsung office , writing a Perl code & still writing a message to you , although we both agree on the value of a human interaction.

    Actually I would like to say one thing , i would like to write a letter to somebody, post it to them & then wait for there answer for days , but these days its the fashion of texting etc & that’s what even the sender & receiver seem to like as well , i don’t know why people fill somebody’s inboxes with bad words & why the receiver keeps on posting new updates & trying to project that he/she is a wonderful person , people writing big paragraphs under there Instagram post but mostly nothing to say when somebody talks to them , less trust & less time , but for what.

    This is not just about Instagram, people ignore each other even in the offices , while having lunch or parties, its all strange human behavior & we all know the reason for that : the people have habit to leave the conversations, relations & issues incomplete , sometimes it happens because of sender & sometimes because of the receiver 😅 , even a guy having a beautiful, Down2Earth wife divorces her one day, possibly this behavior is passed on by the previous generations to the new ones.

    I believe ignorance & being crisp & short is a very dear behavior that is more prevalent in our generation.

    There are good human interactions in the world for sure but there numbers seem to be too small.

    I believe that finally it takes you to the point what happened before the big bang 😅

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