If you’re an Instagram hobbyist, someone who likes to post when the mood strikes, and/or not looking to use the platform for business and monetary gain, this post is probably not for you.
However, if you’re serious about Instagram, throwing a lot of things against the wall to see what sticks, and/or losing sleep over the follow/unfollow game, keep reading.
Instagram can be an ugly place. Anyone who’s been struggling to grow for any length of time can attest to this.
But as someone who’s been in the trenches day after day obsessing over algorithms and determined to “crack the code,” I can honestly say, for those of you who are willing to fight the good fight, your hard work will be rewarded if you’re truly relentless.
I realize I could have saved you a lot of time by simply saying: “The secret to growing on Instagram is posting stellar content in famous places over and over.”
To be honest, this is in large part true. I’ve seen it happen for others and it finally worked that way for me, too.
But I think I’d be doing you a disservice by not giving you the full picture of what it truly takes to grow on this platform. So, I’m going to do just that.
You may want to grab yourself a coffee (or a glass of wine) because this is going to be a long one.
A quick search on Pinterest will show you that there are about as many articles written on this topic as I have Instagram followers. So you may be wondering why I wanted to add another to the heap.
Honestly, I believe there’s a lot more that goes into growing an organic Instagram following than the typical tactics you’ll read about online.
That said, a lot of those standard tactics do hold true. Yes, you need to have great content to succeed on Instagram and yes, engaging with other users is super important.
But I’m more interested in sharing some personal discoveries and mindsets beyond the obvious.
That, and because a lot of my followers have personally messaged me when I reached the big 10K asking me how I did it.
The number one tip I’d give to anyone desperately trying to grow a following on this wildly erratic platform is to adjust your mindset.
If your steadfast plan is to hit 10k by a set date, let that go right now.
While I’m all for setting SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based) goals, setting an exact date will likely cause more harm than good.
I should know. By narrowly skirting the illustrious 10k after a year of relentless work, I beat myself up. I can honestly say it’s pointless to do so and a waste of time.
The reality is, I hit it just over a month later than anticipated and I was still just as proud. In fact, I think I appreciated it more.
Another good mindset to get into is to expect that people will unfollow you. Yes, expect.
People that you built “relationships” with, those you trusted, those who you thought “had your back” will eventually let you down by unfollowing.
Trust me when I say, no unfollow is worth the tears. You can save yourself a lot of time and agony by accepting that hard truth right off the bat.
The reality is, unfollows happen all the time. In fact, they’re so prevalent that I dedicated an entirely separate blog post to discussing why they happen and how to recover.
Remember, outside of meeting people IRL, you never really know someone, especially behind a screen.
If you focus instead on growing a strong, consistent strategy, you’ll eventually outweigh the unfollows to the point that they won’t even phase you.
Plus, you’re much better off having people unfollow anyway, because those followers are not your true fans. If someone isn’t regularly engaged with your content (or even outwardly dislikes it), you’re much better off letting them go.
Trust me, your engagement rate will thank you. It’s also beneficial long-term, such as when you start working with brands.
As tough as it can be, try not to take unfollows personally. Yes, they’re annoying and sometimes even painful, but ultimately those people are doing you a favor.
It’s perfectly natural for followers to no longer feel connected to your content or simply lose interest in it as your account develops, just as you may feel the same about theirs.
The sooner you can accept the unfollow epidemic as par for the course, the closer you’ll be on that path to 10k.
Lastly, I’d suggest adopting the mindset that growing on Instagram (or any other social platform for that matter) takes time and dedication. It’s a slow-burn process, but if you stick with it, it can ultimately provide highly-targeted traffic for your blog and brand.
Don’t expect overnight results and you can save yourself a lot of headaches and unnecessary stress.
Once you’ve adopted the right mindset and attitude, it’s time to focus on what I like to call the “3 C’s” of Instagram:
When you’re starting out, these are the first three concepts to grasp.
As promised, I’ll delve into more of my personal discoveries throughout the discussion of these terms, but these are the foundational elements you’ll need to build upon.
Let’s start with content. On Instagram, content typically refers to your photos, but I’m including captions and Stories under the content umbrella as well.
It’s no secret that your photo content has to be solid for you to succeed on Instagram. As much as there are other components to success, I’d still rank the quality of your content as number one.
Remember, Instagram is a visual platform. Your pictures are the first thing people will see when they discover your account.
Great content is what makes people stop scrolling. It’s what makes them delve further to check out your captions, and eventually your Stories. It’s probably the number one trigger for hitting that follow button.
Without great content, it’s going to be nearly impossible to gain any traction on Instagram; I don’t care who says otherwise.
When I first started out, I focused most of my effort on engagement, as I thought this would be the best way to grow.
Now don’t get me wrong, engagement is massively important – we’ll discuss it later – but you need to start with great content.
One of the most valuable lessons I learned on this wild journey is that you need to invest in your content.
Investing is often financial, but it’s also about investing time.
Personally, these are the best investments I made throughout my content creation journey:
Another investment I made was in three different loop giveaways after hitting 2k.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the concept, a loop giveaway is when a bunch of Instagrammers buy into a prize that’s awarded to one or more winners.
In my case, these were travel giveaways that included hotel stays and some cash prizes as well.
Notice I didn’t group these giveaways under my “best investments.” Looking back, I don’t think they were worth it.
Not only did I lose about half (or more) of the followers once the giveaways were over, but my engagement suffered for a few months following them as well. The people who did stick around were essentially ghost followers who didn’t really engage much with my content outside of watching my Stories.
To be honest, the whole experience really scared me off to doing these big giveaways in the future.
That said, I think doing highly personalized giveaways on a much smaller scale can be beneficial, such as ones where 2-3 people will work together to give away something valuable and meaningful to their audience.
In these cases, participants won’t be required to follow 30-40 people to enter and there isn’t the issue of a mass unfollowing once it’s over.
This is all my two cents from experience. I think everyone should make this personal decision for themselves.
Outside of this learning experience and investing in creating great photo content, I’ll say that captions matter a great deal as well.
Beyond an eye-catching picture, you want your caption to inspire, educate, and/or entertain your audience.
Tell your story. Have a viewpoint. Provide value outside of a beautiful picture.
I’ve dedicated an entire blog post to writing captions and have even included a free downloadable offer of nine writing prompts to help you break through your writer’s block.
And finally, my favorite part of Instagram, Stories. This is where you can really let your personality shine and give your followers a raw, unfiltered look at the BTS of your life.
It’s my breath of fresh air after staring at perfectly curated feeds all day.
To learn more about creating engaging Stories, check out this post I wrote. When you’re done, you can download my free offer of seven apps that will help you up your game on Stories.
I didn’t make this important discovery until I was well into my Instagram journey with over 9,000 followers, but it suddenly dawned on me that I needed to venture outside of my comfort zone if I wanted to get to that next level of growth.
This realization came about at a wonky transitional period for me. It was mid-December and I was chomping at the bit, eagerly awaiting my upcoming trip to Europe in January. To keep posting consistently, I was shooting content in my home state of Connecticut. At this point, I was highly aggravated with the platform and feeling really discouraged about my engagement and how slow my growth was.
But above all, I was bored with my content. I had lost that “spark” of creativity. Posting to Instagram was more about going through the motions. There was no passion in it.
It wasn’t until I arrived in Paris that it all started to click for me. I took one look at the city and suddenly remembered what it was like to actually enjoy the content creation process.
I was actually excited to go out and shoot. It stopped feeling like a chore. I was inspired by every bird, tree, and doorway I came across.
Inspiration will obviously look different for everyone depending on what your niche is, but being a travel blogger, I realized that all I needed to get out of my creative rut was actually travel. Who knew?
I mean, I obviously knew this on an intellectual level, but actually going on another big international trip was just what I needed to get those creative juices flowing again.
As much as I’m all for weekend getaways and local adventures in between the big trips, I realized that they’ll never hold a candle to flying overseas.
I can’t tell you what pushing yourself out of your comfort zone will look like in practice, because it’s different for everyone.
For me, it was a combination of traveling to new countries (most recently Belgium) and experimenting with creating content in totally new ways.
Here are three leaps I made outside of my comfort zone that created the biggest impact:
Night photography was always something I envied other influencers for. “I’ll never be able to do that,” I thought, and in part, I was right.
But the reason for that wasn’t ability so much as it was my old camera. After investing in the full frame, this was suddenly something new I could experiment with.
Typically, my husband will shoot my pictures and I will edit them. If I’m solo, I’ll use a tripod, but for the most part, he’s behind the lens.
I was super nervous to edit my night photos (since this takes a lot more effort than editing daytime photos), but let me just say, it was completely worth the learning curve and effort.
In fact, my night photos are some of my best performing shots on Instagram to date. I never would’ve known my audience would like them so much if I never tried.
It took almost a year for me to develop my editing style, which many have described as “pastel and romantic.” After awhile, I started to feel like a slave to that style and I felt like my creativity was suffering.
It wasn’t until shooting in Paris that I finally worked up the courage to morph into the style I had been fantasizing about.
After posting about nine pictures with the new style, I polled my audience to see what they thought of the change. By the time the poll was over, over 90% of people voted that they preferred this new direction.
Some even sent private messages telling me how much they loved the new style!
I was absolutely ecstatic. Not only was I moving in a direction that felt right to me, but my audience was almost completely along for the ride as well.
Bottom line: If something doesn’t feel right to you, change it. At the end of the day, you should be happy with what you’re creating.
If some people don’t like it, so be it. There will be plenty who do.
I spent a good chunk of 2018 with my back turned to the camera, holding my hat with one hand and my dress in the other. After awhile, this started to feel really stale.
In the past few months, I’ve experimented more with movement and facing the camera, and it’s made a tremendous difference in terms of my engagement.
If you’re someone that always stands the same way in every picture, I challenge you to shake things up. You may be surprised by what you can create.
Let’s talk the second “C” of Instagram: consistency.
When I use the term “consistency” I’m referring to the following:
- Posting consistently
- Editing consistently
- Sticking to your niche
Consistency is important because it helps you manage the expectations of your followers.
If you consistently post a specific style of content at the same relative frequency, your followers will know what to expect from you.
Try sticking to a consistent posting scheduling as much as possible. I personally recommend posting daily (or near daily) when you’re starting out, as this increases your chances of being found by new accounts (and of overriding the unfollows).
That said, as someone who has consistently posted every day for over a month, I also know the importance of taking a break for your mental health.
In fact, I just took a day off the other day and it was nothing short of magical.
Just realize that the more breaks you take, the longer it will take to grow (at least in the beginning).
The bigger you get, I think the more you can “afford” to take time off (in terms of continuing to see steady growth results).
As for editing consistently, it’s no secret that accounts with a set color scheme and style tend to do better and grow faster than those without. This was something I learned about at length in the Instagram Bootcamp.
This brings us to the final foundational “C” of Instagram: community.
The Instagram community you build is gold and should be treated as such.
One of my biggest inspirations, Gary Vaynerchuk, talks about being religious about your audience.
It’s about responding to each and every comment you get and engaging with people in your community without the expectation of receiving engagement in return.
One of the biggest contributors to my success on the platform – and the way I’ve built my community – was by using hashtags strategically.
I’ve already written about hashtags at length, but I have some additional points to make.
After returning from Paris and posting content from there, I’ve really seen firsthand how hashtags work. In fact, I’ve become completely obsessed with studying hashtag analytics.
Each and every time I post, I will check in to see how I’m ranking for each of the hashtags I’m using. Typically, I’ll check this after the first hour of posting and then several hours later as well.
As I’ve grown, I’ve found that I’m ranking in top hashtags the majority of the time. This has been one of my most effective ways for gaining new followers.
By analyzing which hashtags I’m ranking in, I know which ones to continue using and which ones to avoid. It also gives me a clear sense of the size hashtags I should be using.
So how do you rank in top hashtags?
Timing is largely important. Although there are exceptions, typically the first hour after you post will largely determine how successful your post will be.
So the more engagement you accumulate in that first hour, the more likely you are to rank in top hashtags, get seen by new accounts, and gain new followers.
This is why a large majority of Instagrammers are in engagement pods.
Personally, I have mixed feelings on pods. I think they’re beneficial for people who are starting out and are desperately trying to gain traction and build a community. They can also be a means of connecting with fellow Instagrammers who are also struggling.
That said, I think pods can too often become a crutch, particularly when people use them in place of genuine engagement (or fool themselves into thinking they are synonymous with organic engagement).
At the end of the day, whether you choose to use pods or not, I believe your focus should ultimately be on organic engagement, as that will matter most in the long run.
In terms of how much to engage, I recommend spending at least one to two hours a day as you’re building to 10k, and more if you can afford.
I used to spend upwards of four hours a day – which was obviously taxing – but very helpful before I was ranking in top hashtags.
In terms of when to engage, you’ll obviously have to work in time around your personal schedule and lifestyle.
Personally, I like to spend a minimum of an hour engaging right after I post, as that helps boost my post into top hashtags.
There’s no way around it. Instagram is a numbers game.
So what does that mean, exactly?
Well, for one, it’s a platform that’s largely ruled by an algorithm (which is constantly changing).
The algorithm is one of the big beasts that you have no control over (other than to consistently create the best possible content you can).
It’s also about your individual account numbers, mainly your following and the corresponding engagement ratio. These are the big ones that brands are paying attention to (and the ones people tend to obsess most over).
Story numbers are beginning to become a lot more important as well, and I wouldn’t be surprised if IGTV stats will follow suit.
It’s also a numbers game in terms of growing.
I’ve now heard from several Instagram friends (each of whom have 20K+ followers) that growing an account from 0-10K followers is significantly harder than growing from 10k – 20k.
Now that I’ve hit 10k, I’m finding this to be true myself. Two weeks after hitting 10k, I’m already at 10.5k. It used to take me a week (and often longer) to gain just 100 new followers, and now I’ve more than doubled that growth rate.
My theory for this is that people want to follow established accounts. There’s strength in numbers. The higher your number, the less you have to “prove yourself” to the masses, so-to-speak.
Does this mean you should get lazy and let your content slack once you hit 10k? Absolutely not.
Just let that motivate you as you’re climbing up that mountain to 10k. If you keep doing great work, it will get easier eventually.
If you’re one of the people struggling to get that swipe up feature, please know, I was once in your shoes. And it was really, really tough. In fact, it was one of the toughest obstacles I’ve ever had to overcome.
But if you’re dedicated enough and you’re posting great content, I truly believe you will succeed on this platform, so keep your head high!
Did you find this post useful? Don’t forget to pin it to your boards!