“How do I grow my Instagram?” … it’s a question I get asked often… too often. So I’m writing this article for my own selfish benefit. Rather than spend time repetitively composing a response, from now on, I can just link here when the next person asks me how they can grow their Instagram.
And look, I’m not going to judge you, or scold you, or tell you that you’re pursuing things for the wrong reasons, or that numbers don’t matter. None of that stuff. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re a grown-a** adult, and you can make your own grown-a** decisions. It’s your life, after all.
But if this is a decision you want to make, let’s just get this out of the way first and foremost:
It’s never been more difficult to grow on Instagram in 2019.
You could actually repeat that sentence every year for at least the past few years now, and I’m sure most of my friends would agree with me.
It’s tough. It’s a long road. It’s a ton of work. But it can be done, even as a pure photographer.
Even in 2019, not much has changed
Lucky for you, not much has changed over the last 5 years. There are still core concepts that reign supreme even after all this time.
Here’s some things to consider:
- Instagram, like many other social media platforms, is (now more than ever) an eventual engagement race to zero for most people.
- Instagram, like many other social media platforms, is a marketing tool designed to sell people ads, so you should treat it like one.
- Instagram, like many other social media platforms, is a place where follower count does not equal skill, especially in the world of photography.
Now, if you don’t believe in any one of those three things, then you’re probably either a romantic when it comes to the intersection of art and commerce, or you don’t really care about growth (which is okay too). More power to you. This article isn’t for you.
For everyone else, here are the core principles for how to grow your Instagram.
1) Content is still king
Content is king… always has been, and always will be. If you want to grow your Instagram, it’s more important than ever to figure out exactly what niche you’re in and how best to serve it.
If you’re a pure photographer, you’d better make sure you’re the best darn photographer in your niche, or at least aspiring to be. Get out there, learn every skill you can, and know what exceptional work looks like. Be real with yourself and learn to understand the delta between where you are now and where you need to be (and realize that properly evaluating yourself and others is a skill in and of itself that you need to learn).
Otherwise, why else would someone want to follow you over the next decent photographer? There are so many of them out there.
The same concept is true in any related industry. If you just want to be an “influencer” or “content creator” and don’t care about pure photography, go ahead and post those photos of yourself driving a sick car, or kick flipping a grenade with smoke coming out of your a**, or showing off your well-adorned feet dangling out of a helicopter at 6000ft. Hell, bonus points if you do all three at the same time.
Digital art? Fool us. Videographer? Entrance us. Musician? Move us.
Whatever it is, just stay true to yourself and figure out how to deliver value to your audience in the form of content and in a way that’s high quality, thoughtful and unique.
(And no, you don’t have to have a feed dedicated 100% to rehashing tired clichés, doing “Instagram photography,” or stealing peoples ideas to “make it.” Barf. Sure, some of that stuff is “OK” every now and then – sans stealing peoples ideas – but hey, you’re a grown-a** adult remember? You’re conscious of what you’re doing.)
2) Branding matters
There are just too many above-average people out there posting above-average content for branding not to matter. If so many people are above-average at their craft, what sets the successful ones apart from everybody else?
The answer is branding.
If you’ve got your content down, if you’re as skilled as they come, if you’re providing value, shift your focus to branding.
Put simply, branding is the promise you make to your audience.
This can manifest itself in myriad ways: a consistent looking visual aesthetic on your feed, thoughtful captions that show who you really are, detailed Instagram stories that are just plain better than everyone else’s… you’re only limited by your creativity.
What you’re looking to achieve is making a promise to your audience, and delivering on that promise consistently. The moment they see a piece of content created by you they should be thinking, “ah yeah, this is what I’m expecting from so and so. This is why I followed this person.”
What’s your story? What’s the overarching message you’re trying to tell? What’s the promise you’re making to your audience in exchange for their attention?
Look to people who are already telling their story well for inspiration. Once you find the people who have this X-factor, you’ll notice how they often have brands that go beyond Instagram—IG is just a slice of their overall strategy for business success. These people are exciting.
3) Frequent high quality
Post every day. Hell, post twice a day. But make sure it’s thoughtful and considered. And most of all, make sure it’s great stuff, frequently.
I can’t stress this enough: The more you post high quality content the more you grow.
It’s actually that simple.
If you find yourself posting once or twice a day for months and you’re not growing, there’s a good chance that either your content isn’t good, or your content isn’t a good fit for your audience, in which case you probably don’t yet understand them properly.
This is a good thing though, because it means there’s personal growth to be had, and personal growth is the key to happiness. Yay.
To put things into a realistic timeframe, in the pure photography niche, it’s not uncommon to see people attempt to rise from 0 to 10k followers organically over the span of 2 or more years.
That’s right: you have to post every day for that long. It’s hard work. If you’re clocking a time any less than that organically, well, hats off to you my friend, you don’t need my help.
In addition to organic growth, there are a great many things you can do to generate non-organic growth too, such as:
- Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate!? Share audiences with people who have larger or different followings than you by offering them something of value. No one does anything for free.
- Build an audience from another platform. YouTube is great for this. You’ll often see average photographers do very well on Instagram only because they have a good personality and subscriber count on YouTube. More power to them.
- Create timely and relevant content. If you know something is going to be popular (like the next Netflix blockbuster series), capitalize on the opportunity by creating content that’s relevant and timely, just make sure it’s still authentic to you. This is akin to beer companies showing beer ads at footy time. It just makes sense.
- Buy ads. Hey, I’m not gonna judge you. You do you. Only you know your own reasons for going down this route. If you have the money, it works… kinda. You’ll have to do a lot of work to keep the followers you earned through adverting, but hey, it’s better than straight-up buying followers (Never do that. Ever.)
- Over-engage. Engage with as many people as possible, as often as possible. Actually you know what? This is pretty important so…
4) Be too social
It deserves its own point.
You’ve gotta remember the “social” part of “social media.” It’s not just “media” – a one way blast from you to the world. It’s a two, three, four hundred-way dialogue.
The thing about being social is that every interaction you have leaves a node on the web of your Instagram social graph.
When you comment on someone’s photo, they see it. Other people see it. Some people like it. Some people see those likes. Some people come to you after they read your comment on someone else’s post. Some people get recommended content that you liked. Some people like your content and other people get recommended to you.
In other words: the more interactions you have, the larger your “web” (social graph) grows. The more nodes you have in your network, the more polkadots you have on your dress. I don’t know, come up with whatever analogy suits you best.
The point is, you should be interacting a lot. Too much. Spend several hours a day just commenting on random people’s content. Seriously. Every day. Just make sure that content is high quality and you’re golden.
It’s hard work, but it can be done.
It’s not a “hack,” and it might all seem obvious, but this combination of posting frequent high-quality content and leaving frequent high-quality interactions is the recipe for growth on Instagram.
What you don’t see behind your favorite influencers’ account is the thousands of hours they pour into creating it. Growing your Instagram is hard work.
But hey, you already knew that, right? If you’re reading this then I hope you already believe that the work will be worth it in the end… and maybe it is.
About the author: Pat Kay is an award-winning freelance travel photographer and multi-disciplinary content creator based in Sydney, Australia, and the author of “A Photography Guide to Tokyo.” You can find more of his work and words on his website, or by following him on Instagram and YouTube. This article was also published here.