One of the most frequent questions I am asked is about social media likes and followers and how to ‘boost’ those numbers.
There are a few questions I will always ask:
1. Why? Simple first question. What is your goal? Why do you want more likes or followers? Is it for personal reasons (for example an ego boost or a feeling of validation) or is it about making a living (you are looking to sell your brand and need those numbers to maximize potential sales)?
2. What are you currently doing to work towards this goal? This could be a simple question such as, “how often are you on social media ?” because we all know Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, etc. are businesses and a business wants to make money. They need to see you as a bankable asset, and engagement by you equals return.
Also when you are online how are you interacting with others, are you just spamming on images, or are you making meaningful connections? Think about if you were to pass someone in the street and mutter “hi” (the equivalent of a like) or you were to stop and talk to them about their day or compliment them on an item of clothing they were wearing (the equivalent of a comment)? Which do you think would mean more to that other person and which could potentially lead to a deeper friendship?
3. Finally, depending on your goal, how are you managing your content, and is it “good enough” to reach your goal? Now ‘good enough’ is very subjective. However, I have seen people who have sent me images that would be categorized more as ‘snapshots’, with little consideration to composition or subject, and have asked me why they aren’t getting attention.
Now you need to remember you are in a sea of millions upon millions of images, so you need to be doing something to stand out — the image needs to grab you in some way. There does come a point when you have ‘loyal fans’ (which I will touch on later) when the support becomes more personal, but initially, looks do matter. It’s like that first date — you need to attract the opposite person.
Do ‘Likes’ Matter?
We all want to be liked as individuals, going back to those childhood days of being in the playground and having that awkward feeling of trying to join a new group and make new friends, feeling that joy if you are accepted, or worse the disappointment to find that your friendship is not wanted. It can be a tough time and that feeling never really disappears.
We are social creatures. We want to mix and share our lives, our hobbies, and interests with others. We also put a lot of time into our art, so we want to know that people are liking what we are doing. Therefore, I understand completely why people want to see a high number of likes against their work, it brings a sense of achievement (but is that achievement of value? More on that later).
But the question needs to be, what does being ‘liked’ more offer to you as a photographer? Does it make you a better photographer if you have 500 likes on an image? Do you think, “Well, 500 people like this, therefore I am an amazing photographer”? Because to be brutally honest, it does not mean what you feel it may. Likes are not a resource you can use to measure quality.
Now if we focus for the rest of this article on Instagram, as this is the only platform I am active on, let’s discuss something that a lot of people forget when it comes to the number of likes an image gets, and that is reach.
Instagram has something called reach, which is the number of accounts that have seen your image. You have the functionality in Instagram to see what the reach of your posts are and if you look at this it is very obvious to see a correlation between the number of likes an image gets and the reach it hits.
Remember when I said Instagram is a business? This is exactly where this comes into play, because if your image is generating initial interest then Instagram is going to put it out there in front of a lot of people.
Let’s create a scenario where you have taken a photograph and you print it out. You then hang it in your hallway. Over the next two weeks you have 30 visitors (your reach) and from those visitors 26 said they liked the photograph. Now you take the same image and put it in the middle of a high street for 4 hours and over that time it is seen by 3,000 people. Statistically, there is much more chance of more people liking the image because more people have seen it.
For ease, let’s say that 1,000 people from the high street like the image. More likes. However another way to look at it is that from the 3,000 only 1,000 liked it (33%) however from the 30 that saw it in your hallway, 26 liked it (87%), so which is the most successful? It is the same image, yet the size of the audience has dictated the number of likes because of its reach.
My own images work exactly the same as this. I have images that have had a reach of over 18,000 accounts and received say 3,000 likes (what a talented fella), yet some images receive 500 likes but only reach just over 1500 accounts (having a bad day). But again, the ratio of likes to reach would say that actually the image with the lower number of likes is liked by more who saw it.
You also need to consider the ease with which people ‘like’ an image and the reason why they click that little heart. Maybe they just follow the photographer and want to support anything they produce, or maybe they are just trying to show Instagram they are engaging on the platform to help boost their own images and just ‘spam like’ anything posted on a hashtag over the past 20 minutes without even looking at the image.
Roll all of this together, reach and if a ‘like’ is genuine or not, and really think how much weight that number actually has.
Follow Me… PLEASE
The flip side of likes is followers. Again it is another quantitative measure that people put a lot of focus on. Similar to likes, it can be seen as being popular. “400,000 people have chosen to follow me! They are all sitting, waiting for me to upload my next image, they idolize me… I am a genius.”
Well, hold that thought.
First of all, how many of those followers are genuine? How many are bots or people who made an account, followed a bunch of people, and then never returned to Instagram again? How many of those people are following you for a totally different reason to you being a photographer? Maybe they like you as an individual, maybe you have a YouTube channel, or you are a famous person and you drum up followers because of you, not your photography.
Also just because you have 400,000 followers doesn’t mean that every image you post will be seen by each and every one of those followers. If you head into your Instagram feed now and look within the ‘least interacted with’ section you will see a bunch of people who you follow but may not have seen their posts for months and there are even more than this within the account list of who you follow. The reason? Again, Instagram is a business and they will show you the content from the creators who you interact with most, also increasingly space is being taken up by advertising, promotions, etc. (got to keep the money coming in somehow) so that space is limited even more on your feed.
Now if you are a brand or selling a product, of course there are more benefits to having a large following. You could be seen as an ‘influencer’ (I hate that word) and you may get opportunities to try out products for reviews (usually biased in some way, or stated to be unbiased but then bias to keep the companies on board), and this, in turn, generates money or more companies to take interest and it could snowball.
Follower count can equate to positives. However, outside of the money side of things, how important is a follower count really?
When I first started on Instagram, I really wanted 1,000 followers. I have no idea why I chose that number — I just thought it sounded cool to be able to say 1,000 people follow me. Fast forward to when I hit 1,000 followers, and I remember waking up and seeing I had 1002 or 1003 or something like that and thought “YES!! I have 1000 followers… Ok, now what?” It was a totally empty celebration.
I hadn’t suddenly become a great photographer, the emails weren’t suddenly pouring in offering me sponsorships and book deals. It was a great eye-opener for me to see that actually what I had been chasing over those months was something that ultimately didn’t really matter if I thought long and hard about it. Actually, what had mattered over those months were the friendships I was making and seeing my work grow and my own style developing. This led me to realize two important things: the importance of loyal fans and that of value.
I mentioned earlier the concept of loyal fans. These are followers you have who love your work, they like your style, your ethics, maybe they have spoken to you a few times and a connection has been built up, they want to see you do well. There is an article online about how in order to make enough money to survive within photography (or any art form), you just need 1,000 genuine fans — 1,000 people who will buy whatever you create because they are invested in you.
Loyal fans play a huge role in, say, a YouTuber’s Instagram account and there is a feeling that a large YouTuber could post a photograph on their feed of a dog turd on a pavement and it would generate thousands of likes and receive multiple comments of “wow this is great” or “deep photography man, really made me think about life”, and that is because they love that person for who they are. It will be those people who buy every photobook they release or watch every video on their channel, and that is the fan base or following that (from a money-generating point of view) you want.
However, what about from a personal point of view? Let’s take money out of the equation. I love an analogy, so imagine you had a dinner party (because I am old and I don’t hold raves anymore). Imagine you had a dinner party and it was open door, during this dinner party you had 500 random people show up and they came, ate your food, and left. They didn’t really speak to you or to each other and just came, took for themselves, and left.
Now imagine the next evening you had a dinner party and hand-selected 30 of your friends or people you had come to know and you all sat and ate and talked about your interests and what was going on in your life and then they all left. Now for me, that smaller dinner party where I was making connections with people would hold so much more value than the party where I had more people show up but fewer people take any interest. I see followers in the exact same way.
I have people on my Instagram I speak to almost daily, we talk about photography, life, movies, Netflix recommendations, music, and even use each other as a sounding board to bounce ideas off or get advice from. I would say this core group is my loyal fans (actually I would say they are my friends and 95% of them I have never met in person, yet I love having them in my life).
I don’t want this to come across as ungrateful, as I am grateful for the following I have and I am grateful that so many people have chosen to add me to their own following. However, I would say that when choosing who you personally follow, focus on the quality they will bring in return be it in terms of friendship, inspiration, motivation, support, etc. and try to mold your following to your own needs.
It is nice to have a large following, but just as in the case of likes, it can be an empty number and interaction levels have much more value.
I mentioned earlier the value of likes (and I suppose followers too). I have a few photographers who follow my work who I aspire to be like and to reach their level is definitely an ambition of mine. If one of those people takes the time to like and comment on an image of mine I am genuinely humbled. High value.
Beyond that, I also hold value in a lot of the comments and likes I receive when you know they are coming from a good place. It can be tough without the relationship to know if it is a ‘spam like’ or a genuine one, but you quickly become accustomed to those other accounts who start to see past your images and see something in you and your body of work that is inspiring them. This then builds value.
Also, any comment that is beyond the usual ‘great shot’ or a smiling emoji is also valuable as someone has taken the time to stop their day and make that comment about how your image has made them feel. I receive direct messages, very supportive and encouraging direct messages, that hold value again in that someone has taken the time to send me those kind words. Those moments have so much power and carry so much more weight than any others on Instagram.
I would try and think more about the value of the likes, comments, and followers you have rather than the quantity. If you lose 100 followers who never interact with you and you have never seen their work either is that such a loss? Chances are they are only there for the wrong reasons.
A Few Quick Points
A couple of other quick thoughts regarding a few topics that always come up;
1. Follow / Unfollow. Unfortunately, a lot of people feel that quantity outweighs quality and therefore are in it just for the numbers. Personally, I find that shallow and very unfulfilling but each to their own. To that end, there will be people who will follow you and then either unfollow you because you didn’t do the same or unfollow you as soon as you follow back. It is a side effect of the platform and for many it is frustrating but again think about the value that person was bringing to you anyway. Is it as big a loss as you think?
2. Why don’t you follow me back? I receive messages almost daily from people wanting to know why I won’t follow them back. Now first of all having my account and managing a different account, not to brag, but I receive hundreds of notifications an hour on Instagram and I have zero chance of checking through each and every one of them. Therefore I do not see every notification for every comment or every follow so I don’t always get a chance to check them out.
I have actually recently found accounts that have been following me for months and I have loved them and returned the follow. It can be tough to keep up. Another reason could simply be the type of photography you shoot is not for me, not that it is bad or whatever (I controversially believe there isn’t bad photography if an image is presented as it was meant to be by the photographer, just not to your taste photography). And in order to ensure I am seeing work from photographers who shoot what I am looking for, I don’t want to fill up my feed with other work. It 100% isn’t a personal thing, just a subjective art thing.
3. Should I buy followers and likes? Just no. Why? That is like entering a photography competition and winning because you are the only participant. As much as I don’t believe all likes are from genuine people saying ‘I love this,’ a majority of them will come from a good place, so earn that love and trust me it is much more satisfying.
If you made it this far I commend your stamina and I hope that this has given you some insight into my thoughts on the topic of likes, comments, and followers. If you are just an ordinary photographer picking up your camera and going out into the world to share your vision then focus on that, focus on the enjoyment of pressing that shutter and freezing time. Focus on coming home and uploading your latest work to your little corner of the internet where you have your own loyal fans who love to see what you have been shooting, no matter how big or small that audience is.
The numbers really don’t matter if what you are doing you are getting pleasure from. The best feeling I believe you can get is from sitting in front of that computer at the end of a shoot and being proud of the images you have taken.
1. Don’t equate the number of likes to the quality of an image.
2. Don’t focus on having a large, faceless following (unless you are looking to grow your following for possible financial benefits).
3. Build a valuable community with people who respect and support you and want you to succeed.
4. Interact with others, don’t just spam that like button or drop generic emoji comments, and take the time to connect.
5. Finally, don’t put too much pressure on that side of photography, your enjoyment is far more important and the satisfaction with your images should always outweigh the numbers.
About the author: Lee Thirkellson is a photographer and writer. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Thirkellson is the founder of The Northern Street Collective. You can find more of Thirkellson’s work on his website and Instagram. This article was also published here.
Image credits: Stock photos licensed from Depositphotos