What I Learned On The Way to 100,000 Instagram Followers

My instagram follower count

I recently passed the 100,000 follower milestone on Instagram. I was late to the game on Instagram, but I’ve made up for it the past 18 months by making it my top priority in social media.

Much of my success was due to constant testing with my own posts and observing what worked with other successful accounts. Most of the information I found regarding success on Instagram on blog posts is either totally wrong or outdated.

I’m writing this post as a guide for others who want to know what works best on Instagram. As you are aware, this is social media, not physics. You can find exceptions to most of the things I discuss, but for the most part I think they are true.

Also, for the record, I was never put on any suggested user list for Instagram. Everything was organic. There are some things I did that you might not be able to easily replicate, so I’m not claiming that my tips are universal or are able to turn everyone into an Instagram superstar.

Instagram Overview

The process of gaining followers on Instagram, or any other social platform for that matter, consists of 2 parts:

  1. Discovery
  2. Conversion

Discovery is simply the act of finding out that you exist. There are hundreds of millions of Instagram accounts floating around all vying for attention. Getting someone to even notice you can be difficult.

Conversion is getting someone to follow you after they have discovered who you are.

You need to excel in both things if you want to gain someone as a follower. Either one without the other is rather useless.

Images

Instagram is a photo sharing platform. Period.

I’ve had many people ask me, “quality images aside, what is the secret to success on Instagram?”.

The answer is, you can’t just put quality images aside. It can’t be done. It is the heart of the platform and images are why people will discover you and why they will decide to follow you.

I can easily see the difference in engagement between an A photo and a B photo. It really does make a huge difference and far too many people dismiss the importance of image quality.

As such, you need to do whatever you can to improve the quality of the images you post to Instagram. This includes:

  • Use an SLR or a mirrorless camera, not your smartphone. While Instagram was intended to be place to share mobile images, the truth is that photos taken with a smartphone are just not as good as those taken the proper cameras. Less than 5% of the photos I post to instagram are taken with my iPhone, and that is true for many other top Instagrammers as well. If you think that this violates the spirit of Instagram, or if you want to keep it real, you are free to do that, but you will be hurting yourself.
  • Edit your photos. As with any great photo, you need to do some basic editing before you show it to the world. That means editing in Lightroom if you are using a larger camera, or even editing on your phone if you are taking a smartphone photo. The editing tools in Instagram itself have gotten quite good. I do not use filters. Instead I edit every images by hand to get exactly the look I want.
  • Choose your subjects carefully. Despite the common wisdom floating around the internet, I’ve found that selfies and food photos just don’t work very well. Celebrities might be able to get away with it, but other than that, most people just don’t care. As a travel photographer, I’ve (sadly) found that images of people and animals don’t perform as well as images of landscapes, or historic buildings. As you will see below, knowing what people actually like is critical to growing your audience.
  • Check all the boxes when submitting a photo. This tip comes to me second hand from a company that has worked directly with Instagram. Make sure that you have a caption, tag another account, put in a location, share the photo on at least 1 other social platform, and do at least some basic editing in the Instagram app. If you do all these things, it will increase the odds of it being promoted by Instagram. Also, putting in a location and geotagging is very important as it is a means of discovery.

If for whatever reason you can’t take good photos, then you need to look for great photos elsewhere online. There are many large Instagram accounts which just regram photos from other people.

It should also be noted that videos perform horribly. Either don’t post videos at all or do so sparingly as their engagement rates are horrendous.

Discovery

So, how exactly do people discover you? This is the major issue for most Instagrammers. Even if you have a conversion worthy portfolio, if no one sees it, it doesn’t really matter.

One thing I figured out quickly is that the vast majority of people who discover you on any social platform, do so inside the platform itself. That means they aren’t following you because of some widget you have on your website. When I redesigned my travel blog last summer, I removed all the social media widgets. I now just have a small icon available if someone wants to follow me, but nothing more. When I removed the widgets, there was no adverse change in my follower growth rate.

The exception to this is if you are placed on a “best of” list of Instagram account from a popular website. I’ve seen spikes of several hundred followers, and in one case about 1,500 followers, from mentions on such lists. However, you don’t really have any control over your inclusion on those lists, and the bumps are always temporary. To get on these lists you probably already need to be a great photographer or have a very popular account.

The biggest way you can get discovered is within the Instagram app itself. There are 4 ways I’ve identified how this can be done:

  1. Engage directly with other users. This is a fancy way of saying you should like and comment on other people’s photos. This is especially important if you have a small following. Just roll up your sleeves and start searching for great photos. Search hashtags (more on hashtags later) or other terms. Find people who do not have large followings themselves and like or comment on their best photos. Because they don’t get many likes, a like from someone they don’t know will usually pique their curiosity and make them check out your gallery. One technique I used was simply commenting on photos that were taken in places I’ve been. Making some sort of intelligent comment about an image based on first hand experience goes a long way. Sometimes, however, it would something as simple as “nice shot!”.

    Larger accounts won’t notice what you are doing, so don’t bother. This is very time consuming process and doesn’t really scale that well, but it can get the ball rolling when you are starting out. I stopped doing this once I was around 50,000 followers as I couldn’t keep up anymore, and it became a smaller and smaller percentage of my growth.

    I do NOT suggest autofollowing people, or following people back because they follow you. These accounts are garbage and they will not engage with you. As you’ll see below, engagement is everything. Inflating your follow count at the cost of engagement can actually make things worse as it will make your account look suspect.

  2. Get mentioned by larger accounts. There are some Instagram accounts in the 6, 7 or even 8 figures. Many of them use photos from other users. If you can get their attention, it can be a HUGE boost to your ability to get discovered. Just to give you an idea, here is a photo of mine which was used by Beautiful Destinations, an account with over 4,000,000 followers. The photo got over 140,000 likes and 1,600 comments.

    Port-au-Prince, Haiti By: @everythingeverywhere ? Share your global travels with #beautifuldestinations

    A photo posted by BEAUTIFUL DESTINATIONS (@beautifuldestinations) on

    To get the attention of these larger accounts you can use their hashtag. I found that once one of them used my photos, others discovered me and started using my photos. I now get at least one mention on a six-figure Instagram account per week. Needless to say, you need top quality images to be able to pull this off. The image you see above from Haiti appeared on over a dozen different accounts after it was featured on Beautiful Destinations.

  3. Engagement. This is the #1 way I now get followers, and it is why so many big Instagram accounts get bigger. It is so simple and obvious, but I’ve never read an article about Instagram that mentions it. In the Instagram app there is a tab for activity. There you can see what all your friends are doing. Every time someone likes one of your photos or follows someone, all of their friends can see it. This is simple network effects. When someone engages with you (likes or follows) you have the potential to reach their friends. The more engagement you have, the more people will see that engagement. This means that Instagram growth is a lot like compound interest. The bigger you get, the bigger you get.

    It also means that the most important metric is really engagement, not followers. If you have strong engagement, you’ll get followers, but followers do not necessarily lead to engagement.

    I should also mention the power of people tagging friends in comments. Because I post photos of destinations, I get a lot of comments where people flag their friends about taking a trip there, or reminiscing about past trips they’ve taken. This is another great means of discovery if you can pull it off.

  4. Search. With changes Instagram made in the summer of 2015, searching by location made it easier for people to discover you. You should be geotagging EVERY photo you post. Every photo is an opportunity for people to discover you via location search. If you haven’t been doing this, go back and do this to your old photos.

I’m currently averaging 340 new followers per day (taken from the last 30 days). That number has been growing as my audience has grown, showing the compounding effects I mentioned above.

I should also address the issue of hashtags. Hashtags are mentioned in almost every single article on how to get Instagram followers. I’ve never seen any evidence that hashtags do anything. I’ve done extensive testing and I haven’t see any significant impact to using hashtags. Moreover, I’ve never seen any hard data from 3rd party sources that indicate they work. It is just conventional wisdom that keeps getting passed around without any basis in fact. The only time you want to use hashtags is if you are part of an event, or you want to get the attention of a particular large Instagram account (see above).

Conversion

Just because you’ve gotten someone’s attention doesn’t mean you’ve accomplished anything. The next step is to get them to actively want to see more from you in the future. This is conversion.

There are many people who get attention but then have such an unappealing account, that they fail to convert.

There are several things I’ve done to maximize my conversion odds:

  1. Have a clear profile photo. Let people know who you are. Don’t have photo where your face is blocked or otherwise hard to see. A clear photo says you have nothing to hide and makes a personal connection with the user.
  2. Have a compelling bio. You only have 500 characters to play with in your bio, and it is the only place you can have a link in Instagram, so space is a premium. My bio tells two simple facts: I’m extremely well traveled, and I’m an award winning photographer. Those two things combine to create a promise to the user that I’ll deliver high quality and interesting images. I’ll be worth their time to follow.
  3. Have a killer photo gallery. This is by far the most important thing in terms of conversion. People may discover you because of a single photo, but they will follow you based on your body of work. This means you have to constantly have high quality images. If you post something which dramatically underperforms in terms of engagement, you are better off deleting it than leaving it in your gallery. When I suggest that people delete photos, they are often shocked at the suggestion, but it’s true. Curate what people see when they arrive to your account so you are showing your best work.

Posting

For most of my time on Instagram, I’ve been posting exactly one photo per day.

As I figured out the relationship between engagement and followers, it dawned on me that I could get more gross engagement by just posting more. I’ve been experimenting with posting 2x per day and even 3x per day a few times. I post almost everyday, unless I’m in a place without internet access.

The strategy is pretty simple: more photos = more engagement = more growth.

As for when to post, that is something you will have to experiment with based on your audience. I’ve personally found that around 9am ET and 3pm ET work well for me. I’ve experimented with later posting times, and I found they didn’t do quite as well. Even if other times don’t perform quite as well, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t necessarily post at those time, as you will still get engagement, just not quite so much.

I personally only use the Instagram app to post. I don’t use Latergram or any other apps. I could revisit this in the near future.

Stats

I’ve been keeping pretty careful stats on my follower growth. There is little in the way of analytics which Instagram provides, so I’ve been rolling my own.

I pay for the Iconsquare Pro account and use it to get a daily follower count update. I put that number into Excel where I can do things like do projections and figure out moving averages.

Summary

  1. Image quality matters…..a lot.
  2. People will usually discover you through the Instagram app based on engagement and location search.
  3. You need a compelling gallery and bio to convert people who discover your account.

38 Comments

  1. Great post and pretty much in tune with what I’ve experienced (although I’m years away of achieving the photo quality I want, but I’ve discovered recently that I could easily get addicted to photography). I would add, from my experience, that instead of following what all the “experts” say, put yourself in the shoes of the user (especially it’s a social platform you use a lot as a user too); chances are you know most of the answers to what you’re doing wrong or right. I tend to like photos from like-minded people (aka that don’t just write “beautiful sunset” in the caption) because I like to know the back story to that photograph, in return I get engagement and sometimes followers (you know because social media is about being social…). As a user (and I believe most users do the same), I don’t search for specific hashtags or locations; I have always used the explore feature of the app. I actually think the “trending hashtags” only works on Twitter, because it was the Twitter users who first came up with hashtags (for that platform’s users it’s something organic; for other platforms not so much).

  2. What a great article! I think this is not applicable only for Instagram but for Twitter and Facebook as well. I totally agree that picture quality matter probably the most from all of these things. Although I’m on the beginning of my blogging journey and social media promoting, I’m realizing lot’s of things mentioned in this post. However I have learnt a lot new information. Thank you Gary for sharing this knowlege with other!
    Regards,
    Barbara

  3. Thanks for this write-up! Really helpful stuff. I just hit 20K followers, and it’s been a great milestone to achieve. I’m always looking for new ideas, and tyring to post only my best travel photos. Definitely will be implementing some of these other tactics as well.

  4. I think any SLR or mirrorless camera will produce better images than any smartphone, just due to sensor size and lenses. I’m looking at getting the Sony a7rii for my next camera.

  5. Couldn’t agree more about people loving landscape photos! I took one out the front door of my hotel room in Banff the other night, with an iPhone, in about 4 seconds….and it’s now my most liked photo ever! So ironic that I spend way more time on photos of things like buildings, and they only ever seem to preform half as well as mountain shots.

  6. Thanks for this Gary! I’ve been reading all of the “get 1,000 Instagram followers!” posts too and at least the one thing they do all have in common is the quality of images. I love the no nonsense do you testing approach as it really is the only way to know what will work for you and your desired audience. Super interesting about your experience with hashtags! I use them a lot to find interesting photos or accounts, but should do testing with my own photos too. Thanks for the great post!

  7. Thanks for sharing your insights Gary and congrats on the big 100k! You know, this is the only post I’ve read about growing your instagram account that actually got me thinking. I can’t wait to put your tips to use and do some testing.

  8. I took over our Instagram account a few months ago and just applied some logic and trial -n- error experimenting and grew from 160 followers to over 5,300 in a short time. Now I come across your great article and am encouraged so much more with a few more tidbits I gleamed from this and a pat on the back for doing some of the very same things. Thank you greatly for sharing Gary as I have again learned more from your experience just like I did during the photo walk in Girona. I owe you another beer some day.

  9. Well written, Gary.

    But benefit have you received from having 100,000 Instagram followers? Are they visiting your Website, or following you on Facebook or Twitter as well?

  10. As usual, great insight Gary. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    I’m curious… You say you use the IG app on your iPhone to upload your pics. How do you transfer the final image once you have postprocessed it from your laptop to your iPhone? In other words, how do you optimize your workflow so that you can regularly post once a day?

    Thanks! :)

  11. You missed on important tip that falls under the “have a killer gallery” section.

    Make the grid look good. When I see your photo, I am likely to like it and comment. If I click your name, it means I am genuinely interested. The next thing I see is your profile page. The first 9 images are visible in a grid. Make them count. Vary the colors, organize them, set a pace. Don’t post blue lake, blue lake, blue lake unless you want me to think your feed is boring.

    Make sense?

  12. What are the benefits to any of those things?

    Why would following me on Facebook or Twitter be a benefit, but Instagram isn’t? Each social platform is its own thing.

  13. I host my photos on Smugmug. I then use the Smugmug app to get my images on to my phone and from there I just open them in Instagram.

  14. Thank you Gary for sharing all of these tips. I am quite late to the game, having just joined Instragram on Sunday (4 days ago). The nice thing is that I have an opportunity to do it right from the start. Interesting thoughts on hashtags. I am going to share this post around, and probably read it again, as I strive for conversion. (By the way, I am one of your 340 new followers today).

  15. Hi Gary- lovely to meet you at TBEX Asia in Bangkok last week. Love the tips but any ideas on how to find the big accounts – did you just stumble across them whilst engaging in the app or did active searches on Aunty Google?

  16. Annita

    Great tips Gary. Thx for sharing. I totally agree that you must take the time to comment, like, engage. That’s really the reason to follow – enjoying the photos of others and it promotes engagement/followers.

  17. Hi Gary,

    very interesting, so many of the posts are about “cheats” and in a competitive market ( I make a travel guide book and app), it’s tempting to resort to shortcuts. I totally agree the real test is engagement, quality over quantity. Thanks for the tips, useful info.

  18. Thank you for this very thoughtful post. I posted photos with people as my last three posts and my likes dropped (although I am on auch smaller scale than you), so your advice is spot on. I like the suggestion to delete underperforming photos, and thank you for responding to the question above about transferring edited photos back to your phone as that was my question too!

  19. Best advice I’ve ever read or heard on Instagram. Thanks for sharing your research and test results with the rest of us.

    “Have a clear profile photo.” Ironically, your replies to Comments here show a blank avatar. :)

  20. Thank you Gary! I see more ways I need to step up my game to get more followers. I have been growing, but not by the 100s. More work to do! Thanks again@

  21. What a great piece – thanks so much for sharing. Instagram has recently become my favourite social media as well (sorry Twitter, it was good while it lasted).

    The bit about geo-tagging was just the kick i needed to make sure I start doing more of that. I’ve been really hit and miss with that step and am now adding in locations to some previous posts. Thanks!

  22. Awesome post, Gary.
    There are various comments out there recently, as well as a recent study (I believe it was published on The Verge) showing engagement on Instagram is dwindling. It may or may not be related to pushing the platform towards a pay-to-play approach, as we’ve seen on Facebook over the past two years.
    Have you noticed lower engagement on your posts? Have you used the new Instagram Ads possibility (available through Facebook Power Editor)?
    Curious to hear your thoughts on this. Cheers :-)

  23. Nice article. I will experiment more with my hashtags. You know anything about “suggested people to follow”? If I choose to follow someone, then I often get a recommendation of three other to follow. How do they get there?

  24. I think you’ve missed the point of hashtags entirely, Gary. They’re great for being part of micro communities on Instagram. And while they may not get you loads of followers or huge volumes of engagement — they get you very targeted followers and very strong engagement in smaller groups that are active in different ways.

    For a good example, look at Katja Presnal and her #IGTravelThursday or #Skimbaco communities. Brooke Saward has also been successful using a hashtag to stay in touch with her community, I believe using #WOW or #WorldofWanderlust.

  25. I don’t deny there can be uses of hashtags, but many people are claiming that hashtags are going to grow your following. If you are using hashtags for a community, then they have already discovered you.

    I have over 18,000 photos tagged with #everythingeverywhere and I haven’t really been promoting it in months. It becomes overwhelming after a point and very difficult to keep up with.

  26. Excellent post. Have always been wondering how people get that many followers. Thanks for these tips. Will try these tips that you mentioned. Hope to see more followers and potential customers. :)

  27. Amy

    Hi Gary,

    Thanks for the great advice! You’ve inspired me to prioritize getting my DSLR photos edited quickly and up there right away, instead of going for the easy iPhone photo. :)

    Quick question about hash tagging for larger accounts. I know some bloggers have run into rights issues when they hash tag — for example, Travel+Leisure has a social media policy that basically gives them non-exclusive, perpetual, royalty-free rights to your content whenever you interact with them on social media. I’ve tried to ask Matador Network what their policies are with their #TravelStoke hash tag but haven’t had luck with a response yet. Do you research rights policies when hash tagging larger accounts or do you have a c’est la vie approach to it?

    Thanks so much!

    Amy

  28. You can’t just unilaterally dictate terms like that to people, and also, no one owns a hashtag. Whatever T+L dictates is manliness, unless you explicitly agree, and using a hashtag isn’t agreement.

  29. Thanks for the response, Gary. That’s kind what my friends and I have been stuck on — using a hash tag can’t possibly be a legally binding agreement. Still, their aggressive attitude has totally turned me off to their brand!
    Thanks again for your time!

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