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 Most of the information I found regarding success on Instagram on blog posts is either totally wrong or outdated.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.
The process of gaining followers on Instagram, or any other social platform for that matter, consists of 2 parts:
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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).
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
- Image quality matters…..a lot.
- People will usually discover you through the Instagram app based on engagement and location search.
- You need a compelling gallery and bio to convert people who discover your account.