A few years ago, I wrote a blog post called 7 Steps to Instagram Success. While most of the information in that post is still relevant, a lot of time has passed. During that time I’ve lived & breathed Instagram (and perhaps gotten a little too obsessed now and then) and it has paid off. We just recently hit 75K (as of May 2017) followers and are continuing to grow by 50-100+ per day. Experimenting with different methods, I discovered what was effective and what was not, and now I want to share my strategies with others.
I’ve never been very analytical. Step-by-step processes don’t tend to work for me. I guess you could say I run on intuition, which can be both a good thing and a bad thing. In the world of blogging and social media marketing, however, you need a bit more of the strategic mindset to really kill it. I’m no blogging guru (nor social media maven for that matter), but with a combination of random strategies, luck, and hard work, (and intuition, too!) I think I stumbled upon what works, and was able to grow our couples travel Instagram to more than 60K followers in a couple years.
I say random strategies because, well, I never had any precise set plan of what I was doing. I tried almost every method out there for Instagram growth (short of buying followers or likes – I have never done that and never will.) Did I know what I was doing all the time? Nope, not really, but despite these varying and often random strategies, I still managed to grow from under 2000 followers in August of 2015 to 62K as of January 2017. I should note, too, that some of the strategies mentioned below were actually applied on test accounts or are suggestions from other bloggers and Instagrammers. So some of the successful results I observed were not necessarily applied to the Two Drifters IG. You’ll discover that different strategies work for different accounts.
Over that time, I’ve had a modicum of success–and I feel really proud of our Insta. Growth is great, but I’ve also made many friends on the platform and gotten to feast my eyes on the stunning images others post. This visual platform makes me happy, and I love being able to share so much of our travels and our lifestyle there. Financially, I’m not making a full-time living from Instagram (not even close!!) but I do get to partner with brands for sponsored posts, free products, and the like. Hopefully the frequency of those opportunities will continue in the future, with some more pitching and outreach on my part, because it’s a part of our business… and the end goal is to make money. Making money from Instagram—that’s the dream! Check out this simple guide for monetizing your Instagram.
So how did I grow our Instagram account? How can YOU do it?
What Works for Instagram Growth
Bear in mind, every account is different–and your niche will largely determine what strategies work best. It may come as no surprise that outdoor/landscape accounts tend to perform best on Instagram. Who doesn’t love a stunning mountain view? These photos and accounts often have an easier time growing and receive better engagement. Although the competition for such accounts is tough, and if you know about Instagram’s mysterious algorithm, you probably know it’s harder than ever to get seen on the platform. In fact, that is probably why you’re here! So let’s dive into some tried-and-true strategies for growing your Instagram—things that work in any niche.
I believe engagement is the single most beneficial thing you can do to grow your Instagram. This is a multi-tiered strategy that can look many different ways (and I’ve probably tried them all!)
Of highest importance is to engage with your followers–especially those liking and commenting on your photos. Recent IG updates have made it easier than ever to reply back to comments, so try to respond personally to every comment. This can get a conversation started and also is a nice way to get to know your followers. When possible, I also try to return the love, heading to commenters’ accounts and giving them some likes and comments back. This just feels like a good practice to me, and I’ve observed that many of my fellow Instagrammers who are really rocking it are avid commenters.
You can also reach a new audience by engaging via hashtags. Stay in niche when possible so that you’ll attract those most likely to be genuinely interested in your stuff (and you will likely find some awesome new accounts to follow, too). Some evidence suggests also that engaging in the hashtags you use on your own posts can have a positive impact on your visibility, maybe even making it easier for you to get into the coveted top 9 for a tag.
Another great way to boost engagement and build community is to join niche-focused Comment Pods. Check out this link to learn about the value of these groups from the original comment pod creators.
The thing about the right Instagram growth strategy is, you can’t just do one thing to experience real growth. Sure, you can grow your followers, but if you’re not engaging with them, they’re not going to stick around and grow with you. Hashtags are a vital part of a comprehensive IG strategy, and you should use the heck out of them.
There are a lot of schools of thought regarding hashtag usage. At one time, word on the street was that 7 hashtags was the magic number. Then it was 12. 20. I’ve heard that the “best” Instagrammers use none whatsoever. I’ve heard that you should only use ones where the competition is low enough to land you in the top 9. I’ve heard that you should incorporate a mix of big, medium, and small hashtags (based on how often they’ve been used across Insta). I’ve also heard that you shouldn’t use hashtags out of your niche—yet I’ve witnessed some accounts getting lots of likes and comments who don’t obey by this rule. They mix it up with hashtags, sometimes using random and non-relevant tags.
So, my personal opinion is, stick mostly with niche-focused hashtags, and use your maximum of 30. Spend some time researching to see what others are using. Try different approaches and see what works best for you. I always max out my hashtag usage, but this is a tough nut to crack. Even after all this time I don’t think I’ve found the perfect combination. Trial and error forever. I do like the tags I use though. Want my list?
#3 Quality Photos
Don’t forget, Instagram is first and foremost a photo-sharing platform. No matter how strategic you are, if you don’t have great photos (or the right audience for your type of images), your account will never go as far as you’d like. But great images alone don’t equal success. There are countless amazing photographers on Insta whose accounts are very tiny. Maybe they aren’t looking to grow and just use IG as a hobby. Or perhaps they’re not approaching it strategically. Either way, be sure you’re posting awesome photos, and only post your very best. Occasionally I forget this rule, and I see the dip in engagement. There’s some jaw-dropping, spectacular imagery out there. Unless my latte photo is un-freaking believable, I should probably pass on posting it. 🙂
Sharp, well composed photos are ideal. They don’t have to be taken with a fancy DSLR; plenty of Instagrammers do well using just their iPhones. If your photos aren’t coming out great, keep honing your craft, and don’t forget about post-production. Today’s editing tools are powerful, and can also help you find your “look.” Finding a signature style is a nice touch on Insta. I personally drool over those consistent accounts that have a specific color spectrum or just blend seamlessly. Sigh….. So many Instagram crushes, so little time.
#4 Getting Featured
An age-old question: does getting featured work? I’m not sure. Getting your photo shared (with credit) by a big account seems like it would lead to an amazing influx of followers, doesn’t it? The consensus seems to be that it can work, and it can’t. I’ve heard widely varying results from fellow travel bloggers: receiving a few hundred followers or as little as ZERO, even when being reposted by a big name. Perhaps it just depends on the account and its followers. It never hurts to get featured though, because having your work seen may have tremendous benefits down the road.
How can you get featured?
Branded hashtags are a good approach. Many pages say this is the best way to get featured (for example using #LiveTravelChannel can get you featured on the Travel Channel Instagram account). But with so many photos under that tag, you can also take other approaches. Tag @travelchannel in your photo. In fact, why not tag several accounts in your photo? Don’t get spammy, but if you have a shot you think would really do well on their feed, go ahead and let them know. Engaging regularly on those big accounts is also a strategy—it might require patience and effort, but this could help you to get noticed. If all else fails, why not send them a DM or even an email? I’ve never tried this approach, but it certainly can’t hurt.
What Doesn’t Work (At Least Not in the Long Run)
So now let’s talk about strategies you should forget about! In my experience, these don’t have much positive effect on your account, and some of the methods could be bad news.
Random, Untargetted Follow/Unfollow
As mentioned above, following and unfollowing accounts to get your name out there can be a viable strategy–when done right. There’s a big difference between targeting those users who would genuinely have interest in your niche and randomly following people. The first method is a business strategy. When randomly following, your focus is on just growing your numbers, not on finding the right people who will engage with you (and maybe even buy one of your products one day/read your blog posts/click on your affiliate links, etc). If you choose to do this method, be sure you’ve researched it thoroughly and you have a smart approach that gets you real, engaged followers, and not just empty numbers.
Not Using Hashtags
You too cool to use hashtags? Heck no! They are a really important aspect of a good Instagram growth strategy, so don’t ignore them. Put time and effort into choosing the right ones, and always use 30!
Nope, just nope. Don’t do it. I’m quite surprised at how many people actually do buy followers and likes for their Instagram. And if you didn’t know any better, you definitely would not notice. The problem is, this can wreak havoc on your engagement rate (500k followers is nothing if you’re getting 2 comments on every photo). Even worse, Instagram regularly “purges” the platform of these fake accounts. It could be quite embarrassing to wake up to 100K less followers one morning! Who knows, it could even result in your account getting shut down. I’d be so sad!
*I don’t think this strategy works at all, and I’d never pursue it myself. That said, people do still do this. Once you know what to look for, it’s not too tough to spot bought likes or followers. Although it is an unsavory practice (in my humble opinion), there’s no denying it seems to have worked for some. Crazy stuff!
Paying for Shoutouts or Features
As an experiment, I once paid $10 for a feature on an account with several hundred thousand followers. The price was cheap and I wanted to see what the results would be. Well, they weren’t nothin’. Though the photo received 10,000 likes or more, I did not see any uptick in followers whatsoever. Don’t pay for this stuff. Instead, spend an extra hour engaging or researching hashtags—I guarantee the payoff will be better in the long run.
Caring About Who Unfollows You
Somehow, a really negative connotation has grown around Instagram unfollows. Apps like Crowdfire used to make that information available, so if you wanted to, you could track it. Apparently, these no longer work due to changes in Instagram’s TOS, and maybe that is for the best. I admit, I used the app a couple of times. It’s oddly fascinating to be able to track these things. But what is the point in it? If someone unfollows me, so what? Should I “retaliate” by unfollowing her right back? Naw.. Follow who you want. Follow those accounts that appeal to you, inspire you, and brighten up your feed. By the same token, don’t feel compelled to follow someone simply because they followed you first. No reciprocation should be necessary in this platform, and it isn’t. When deciding whether or not to follow someone, you should only ask yourself one question:
Do I like these photos?
Boom, done. You’ll only see stuff you like, you won’t get caught up in petty high school drama, and best of all, you’ll free up your time to focus on REAL WAYS to grow your Instagram.
Getting Sucked Into Instagram Debates in Facebook Groups
The other day while browsing Facebook, I noticed a post in one of my blogging groups about the follow/unfollow strategy on Instagram. I started reading the (nearly hundred) comments. I didn’t join in the conversation, but 20 minutes later, I suddenly realized: what am I doing with my life? I had gone through and read every single comment and reply. Mostly I think the reason for it is idle curiosity. I’m only human and we all enjoy a bit of Facebook drama, I think. And people get UP IN ARMS about this topic!
But the realization hit me that I was truly wasting time reading this thread. Not only do I already know my own position on the topic, I’ve already got my own Instagram strategy in play. So I’m not looking for guidance on what to do. It occurred to me that those 20 minutes would have been far, far better spent working on my own stuff. Engaging on Instagram. Editing a photo. Doing blog research. It was then that I resolved to remember what matters in 2017. Not that there isn’t a time and place for strategy discussion—I’ve gotten tons of useful information and help from fellow bloggers and freelancers in Facebook groups. But sitting around discussing inconsequential matters (such as how “right or wrong” a strategy is) is simply not going to reap me the rewards I’m after for my business. Gotta remember to hustle at every opportunity! So, careful what you let yourself get caught up in. Time waits for no one.
Alright, let’s get grammin’!! What’s your best Instagram strategy? Go ahead, spill your secrets in the comments below. 😉