Due to large demand (=thousands of messages I receive every month) about how to grow your Instagram followers, I’ve decided to share with you some of the lessons I’ve learnt from my 7-year using the app to the latest tricks that I’ve been testing in the last few months, despite the (f**king) algorithm.
Let me first say, that the focus shouldn’t be having a large account, but I do get why many people aim to that, however, if you only want to gain thousands of followers, please google “buy Instagram followers” and stop reading this.
This post is mainly written for small brands and people who wish to expand their exposure AKA followers on Instagram and be part of the game. Nowadays with 800 million monthly active users, Instagram is booming like never before. From personal brands to bigger businesses, it’s becoming a priority for everyone to leverage the power of Instagram. Why? Simple, people are switching off their Facebook accounts and spending more time on its sister app.
But let’s do a bit of rewind first…
When I joined Instagram back in 2010 upon my then flatmate suggestion, I was super excited to have found an app to share my (shitty) pictures. I had a fotoblog since I was 14/15 years old but that was long deceased, so Instagram represented the digital union of my two passions: photography and writing. Back then, there were very few people on the app and the ones who downloaded where, like me, amateur photographers. If you can’t imagine it now, I can understand but just think about a mix of Unsplash and Flickr without the madness around adv, influencers and money.
It was only in 2012 after Facebook bought Instagram that things started to change. Suddenly, it was about all marketing and money. The little photo app was suddenly flooded with selfies, blurred photos and horrendous close-ups of food (and I’m not saying I’m Henry Cartier-Besson or Sebastio Salgado) but I wasn’t posting 547594388 random pictures of my daily life, I was trying to express my love for photography along with my storytelling and bits of my London life.
Fast forward to October 2013 when on Halloween’s morning I woke up to 10K more followers on my account. I remember thinking that my account had been hacked and that the devil took it over. I was wrong, after briefly checking my emails, I realised I was on the famous -and mysterious – suggested user list. In the next few days, I gained around 50K followers. To my surprise, this happened again a few months later and I gained even more Ks.
## Was this amazing?
I would be lying if I said no. It was great, I suddenly felt recognised for my work and passion (in the meantime I had attended several photography courses, including one at the Central St. Martins’ School of Arts in London and my photography improved dramatically). But did I really deserve it? Well, for the “SUP rules” absolutely yes. At that time, the SUL was mainly focused on the #communityfirst philosophy, recognising users who committed to creating opportunities for fellow instagramers to meet and share tips and the common love for photography. At that time, I had already started my global collection of coffee-shops and I was also organising events in London and abroad for fellow brunch- and Instagram lovers. On top of this, I also had an additional account featuring the best London houses pics. So yeah, I was giving back to the community and building one around myself. This was what was necessary to make it on the popular list. And I did it. Twice.
## But then, I went travelling…
Back in September 2015, I left my London life and job to travel the world and after the first three months in India, landing in Australia where data is so expensive and wifi not so easy to find in the remote parts I’ve travelled to, I was over the addiction. It was a matter of months for the decline to hit me. I started losing thousands of followers every month and here’s when the new algorithm came to play.
## the fucking algorithm…
Following the Facebook acquisition, Instagram became a marketing platform vs a photography app where the chronological order was killed and shots became more and more similar. I had a couple of years of love-hate relationship with Instagram. I kept posting occasionally on it, but without engaging much and not replying to comments left on my feed. I was exploring the world, getting lost in faraway lands and the time that Instagram required to grow and keep the audience was something I wasn’t willing to take away from living in the moment and my travels.
## My strategy today
It was only around Christmas last year that I’ve decided to give one more (last) try to Instagram, which gave me so much in terms of new gigs, exposure, travel opportunities and so I’ve decided to try something new and set up to hit the stars again. At that time, in fact, my blog wasn’t as popular as it is today, I didn’t have a writing portfolio to vouch for me, so my Instagram audience was (and still is) a big magnet for small and big brands. It was through that I got to work with brands like Airbnb, Daniel Wellington, Royal Caribbean, Shinola and many others.
Here’s how I did and my top tips to grow your Instagram audience
1 WHO ARE YOU? CREATE A NICHE
At the beginning of my instalife, I wasted so much time building a generic community based on friendships and taste, but I later realised that I was just wasting my efforts. Since implementing my new strategy, I’ve focused more on the style and galleries which are more related to me (i.e. travel, coffee, minimalism, interiors, digital nomadism, stationery) but also to people who can inspire me to get better at this game.
How to create your niche? In order to create a niche and to beat the algorithm, I’ve turned the notification on of my favourite accounts, so I am sure I never miss their posts. Plus, I’ve also created a list of accounts I want to stay connected with which I (try to) check regularly and engage with.
# 2 ENGAGE WITH YOUR COMMUNITY
Instagram’s algorithm works a bit like karma: it basically gives you back as much as you are willing to give in. It decides who they will show your photo to (yes, I read about the latest chronological news but they aren’t going back to fully pure chronological, they are still playing the algorithm game and I can’t really see them dropping it aanytime soon (read never!). So, I was talking about instakarma: if you take the time to find similar accounts to yours, follow them and leave them good comments on a regular basis, sooner or later they too will take the time to return the favour (if they like your work, of course). Start by liking 5-10 pictures of a profile you admire and leave MEANINGFUL comments to their gallery. Something that sticks out, not the generic “great pic”, “wonderful” or some hideous emoji which might seem created by some random BOT. If you truly like someone’s gallery, let them know you do! I also feature the new profiles I find quite regularly and I have a highlighted story on my profile too (see under Inspired By) To give you an actual example, if you come by and never interact with my account, I’ll hardly notice you. But if you leave me comments on a daily basis, this is how I can see you and potentially (if you take good pictures!!!) have me to follow you back. And it’s not about ego, it’s more that it’s hard to keep track of everything, likes are superficial and too fast when you have a large following, but I ALWAYS read the comments left below my pictures. And by the way, this is exactly how I’m finding profiles to follow and to add to my community.
EXTRA TIP #1:
Photos that get the most likes in the first 15 minutes are most likely to show on top of the feed and on the popular page. So, if this is how it works, you want your followers to engage with your new photo as soon as possible and you can trick the algorithm by doing the same to their accounts who will be happy to return the favour (sometimes). If you manage to get at the top of the feed of many accounts, you also manage to create quick engagement so that your photo is shown to many more accounts than usual. This is what happened with this picture for example:
EXTRA TIP #2: Direct Messages are great and it’s obviously a great way to create a personal relationship with someone you admire, but bare in mind that checking DMs takes time and most people I know don’t open their request messages (a message received by someone I don’t follow) for months. WHY? Most of the requests I receive are spam or trying to sell me something, so I normally check them quickly every now and then. So, stop the DMs and start with the comments to be noticed!
Oh! and it’s not called social media for nothing, so reciprocate: if people leave you comments, reply to them! (sorry! I am guilty of this, sometimes real life takes over!!! )
3. FIGURE OUT WHAT YOUR AUDIENCE LIKES
Once you have done step 1 and 2 it’s time to look back a bit. Do a little research. If you have turned to business profile you already have some stats available there otherwise you can use other tools and software (let me know in the comments below if you are interested in this and I might write a specific blog post about the apps and software I use). Otherwise, you can simply go back through your photos and see which ones got the most likes and comments — and of course, the least. What hashtag and tags people click on your stories? Don’t be as stupid as I was a few years back when I totally ignored people’s feedback to my content. They wanted me to go back to storytelling, but I wasn’t keen to share stories of my life, they asked me for more London but I stubbornly kept sharing pics of my travels. I’m not saying you must do exactly as your followers ask – I should be posting naked selfies if I did – but do carefully listen to those aficionados who are genuinely giving you precious feedback.
4. CREATE A THEME FOR YOUR PHOTOS
So if you followed #1, #2 and #3, people will naturally start to notice your username popping up on their notifications and may check out your account. Now you need to give them a gallery to fall in love with!One of my most recent “strategic” actions, upon an insta-friend suggestion and help @maride_ was to create a theme for my photos. I always admired people who were able to create a consistent chromatic gallery, but every time I tried, there was a bright orange/red or b&w picture I wanted to post that would mess my gallery. Since, last month, I’ve decided to be more selective with the pictures I post to keep the chromatic feed I choose.
On top of this, use the limited space of your bio to describe who you are and what you stand for: it doesn’t need to be wordy, but it’s essential to give an idea of who you are here which is the first thing people normally check. With the latest update, you are also able to add hashtags and other accounts you manage to your bio, so use it well to show your entire portfolio/brands.
5. CREATE A HASHTAG AND ENCOURAGE OTHERS TO USE IT, TOO.
This is a great way to build a community around your account. In the past, I had launched two hashtags which became quite popular: #makeitremarkable and #livemoredomorebemore but back then I didn’t know how to use them and in fact I wanted to keep them for myself only. I was in fact, annoyed when people did use them (SORRY!) I only understood the real power of creating hashtags when after abandoning my coffeeshops account I checked #cafesaroundtheworld and it now has almost 8000 pictures. It was organic, natural and fabulous, but I did not jump on the winning horse, I instead changed handle and hashtag as part of my new strategy and focus on digital nomads (follow @digital_cafes and tag your work-friendly spots with #digital_cafes).
I know I need to do this more and more often, but I’ve seen other accounts creating a viral ripple effect with the use of this technique. My favourite is @disasterofathirtysomething, an adorable and witty girl who created the hilarious and brilliant #thepeakandpitcollective, where people share the ups and downs of their lives like Sarah does on a daily basis.
6. SPREAD THE WORD ABOUT YOU!!
For the first two or three years, I was so shy to let people know about my photography, that my closest friends and family did not know I had an Instagram account. I remember the shocked face of some of my closest friends when I told them I managed @the_storyteller. I also recall a very funny episode when at a London meet up I met a girl who was raving about how much she loved my account, without knowing I was right in front of her. I might be weird, but I’ve always wanted to keep my social life separated from my real life (blog post about this coming up soon!!), so much that I don’t use my real name on any social media, I didn’t show my face for years on any of my pictures and I struggle so much with the current trend of being in every single photo. Anyhow, I learnt that people want to get to know you, they want to connect with you (or your brand) so it’s necessary to give parts of you every now and then. And so, a couple of years ago, I decided to link my blog, Twitter and Facebook and tell people I was on Instagram. Well, this resulted on thousands of new followers who did not know I had an instagram account before.
7. CALL TO TAKE ACTION
People are incredibly lazy. I’ve seen people scrolling Instagram for 30 minutes without double-tapping once!!! It’s crazy if you ask me. What’s the point of staring at a screen without reading the caption or interacting with people? Do you remember that the pictures you see are (mainly) taken by actual people who put a tiny effort to create something. But also: what’s the point of following someone if you have no intention of interacting with them. Are you just another stalker? I know we are the voyeur generations, but how crazy is this? I have people – now blocked – who kept stalking me on my stories but would never interact with me via comments or likes (in fact a few of these people are actual friends from real life). So, nope, stop stalking me if you are not willing to give something back.
8. GEOTAG YOUR PHOTOS
Posting a photo of that cool restaurant or city you recently visited? Geotag it! This allows people who are researching for a specific place through the search bar can actually end up on your photos. Obviously, London and New York already have millions of photos geotagged, so try to be more specific by tagging a neighbourhood or even a street or a shop/restaurant.
9 USE HASHTAGS, BUT NOT TOO MANY
Hashtags are a great way to get your photo seen by people who aren’t following you. But unlikely 7 years ago when I first started using the app when we were all aiming to get featured by the giant hubs, today is all about finding the right niche hashtags that fit with your gallery and style.
How do you find the right hashtags for your account?
It’s been a few weeks now that I regularly take the time to “analyse” a profile or two that I like. I normally check out the kind of hashtags they use and then see how and who are using them. When you find good hashtags then check out the number of posts that hashtag has and what the top 9 grid looks like. I’ve recently read an article that suggests to use a mix of small (<10K pictures tagged), medium (between 10k and 100K pictures) and large (above 100K) to your pictures. I also read that using the whole available capacity of hashtags (30) can also get you into the shadowban (if you don’t know what this is, leave me a comment below and I’d be happy to explain it to you).
I personally don’t like to see the hashtags directly posted on the caption, so I normally add them as a separate comment. I use an app to preview my feed which also allows me to save set of captions divided by theme/category. You can also do the same on your notes app on your phone.
Some niche hashtags in travel are:
I’m also entering the Instagram digital nomads community, so I often use the followings hashtags:
Some popular lifestyle/architecture hashtags I like and use are: #seeksimplicity, #flashesofdelight, #thatsdarling, #livethelittlethings, #morningslikethese, most recently I fell in love with @theshopkeepers and I regularly check their #sharingaworldofshops.
10 THE POWER OF INSTAGRAM STORIES
Since we are a consuming-focused society, people are switching more and more to Instagram stories. They are totally passive, easy to consume and very much like television you can spend hours checking them. However, they are a great way to reach current and new followers. Most people use it to show some sort of behind the scenes, to make tutorial videos and so on, I personally use it to interact with my community on a more personal level. I still find it hard to be consistent with them now and that’s why I created for myself and my clients a sort of editorial calendar for the stories too. Also, an extra point you can achieve with the stories similar to the photos is to get featured on the Explore tab which will obviously boost your account. So these new users, if they like what they see, they might even give you a follow! This is another great reason to try to have an active Instagram story up at all times and maybe carefully features a few as highlights
Remember to use location and hashtags as you could be featured there too and exactly like with posts people search a lot by geotag and #s. (Do you know how to geotag a picture or add #s? if not, please let me know in the comments and I’ll write a specific post about it!)
WRAPPING UP – HOW TO GROW YOUR INSTAGRAM FOLLOWERS
Well, I’ve been playing this “new game” for about two months now and I’ve realised that’s working. SLOOOOOWLY, but it’s working so, as long as I have the time to do it, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing as best as I can. That’s all for now folks! As requested by you, I’ll be sharing another article about how to work on Instagram very soon. Stay tuned.
And you? Do you have any other interesting strategies on how to grow your Instagram followers? Are you experiencing the opposite? Leave me a comment below or drop an email if you’d like to have a private free evaluation of your account (limited to the first 5 emails I receive).
Sabrina Andrea Sachs is an Instagram Strategist – among other things – and in the past three years, I’ve helped dozens of brands and people build and grow their Instagram presence. With my 85k (total) followers and over 6 years of Instagram experience, I will be hosting my first Instagram workshop in Italy in September 2018 while my Instagram course will launch the following month.