Growing your Following on Instagram is Easy…

Seriously, it is! Hear me out…

January of 2017 was the first month I was able to fully pay my rent and get-by (barely) just from the money I’m making directly from my Instagram, @pinlord. That’s pretty insane! Before starting my pin-endeavors, I had never considered myself someone who was “good” at social media. I used it because that’s what everyone else did…

Back in the summer of 2014, after meeting several people who were making money from their social channels, I made the decision to try and start a business with an Instagram account devoted to a topic I love — enamel pins. Yep, I’m really into pins. I had no idea of where to begin, but thought that a good place to start would be to study fast-growing Instagram accounts to learn the ropes and hopefully give myself a better chance at success. My hypothesis was that, like anything else humans can learn, there are a small number of essential activities anyone can practice to improve their growth-rate on Instagram. I wasn’t wrong…

A few weeks after starting @pinlord and implementing the strategies I had observed, it all started making sense. My following began growing, and growing fast. Eventually, that allowed me to start making money from my account by selling my own pins and promoting other pin-makers so they could sell pins as well. I couldn’t believe it — this was actually working and people valued what I did. After a year and a half of refinement and tweaking my habits, I’m now making a living from my Instagram. In the not so distant future, I believe many others will too…

Growing an audience on a social media channel isn’t about “luck” or any other type of supernatural ability (unless you’re really good looking, which I am not). It’s the result of understanding the topic (Instagram), knowledge of what works and consistently putting in the work required. Anyone can do it!

Now, being in this position, I feel passionate about sharing the knowledge I’ve gathered to help others become a bit more economically independent through their Instagram too. Why? I strongly believe that the more options out there for people to earn an income by doing the things they enjoy, the better-off we’ll all be. So, if you’re interested in learning a bit more about how to grow a business on Instagram, I hope this article helps you out…

Alright, so how the hell do you do it? In an effort to demystify the process, I’ve broken it down into these essential activities anyone can practice:

GROWTH = POST PER DAY (PPD) + EFFECTIVE HASHTAG USE (EHU) + PHOTO QUALITY (PQ) + GRID VISUALS (GV) + INTERACTIONS (I) + NEW CONTENT RATE (NCR) + TAGS & MENTIONS (T&M)

The better you get at each of these activities, the faster you’ll grow. Here’s how they work:

POSTS PER DAY (PPD): Refers to the number of posts per day that maximize your new followers per week. The more posts you do per day, the more opportunities there are for others to find, like, comment, and share your content = growth 📈. So, post as often as you can and measure the results! You’ll notice that the ideal number is usually much higher than you’d expect.

  • How to do it: Test! Measure the total new followers you gain each week based on the amount posts you do per day. To find your optimal post per day, increase the daily posts you do each week until you find the number at which you optimize your new follower rate.
  • Example: Let’s say you now average one post per day, every day. Start off by writing down the total number of new followers you gained this week and then begin posting 3 times a day every day next week — measure the total number of new followers again on day 7. If the number of new followers is higher than the previous week, increase your total daily post to 5 for the following week and measure again. Rinse and repeat. Continue increasing the amount of daily posts per week until you reach a point where your total new followers decreases from the previous week. When that happens, go back to the number of posts per day where you saw the greatest weekly increase — that’s the daily post rate you should be at to maximize growth.
  • Side-note: With Instagram’s ever-changing algorithm you will experience random fluctuations in your numbers over time, so it’s best to give yourself an extra week or two of testing to help filter out that noise. The process isn’t perfect but it’s easily executable and will, more often than not, give you the right answers…
  • Tools that can help: You can use Instagram Insights to measure your weekly new follower change. Onlypult.com is also a life-saver when it comes to helping you be efficient. You can schedule your posts straight from your web-browser and it’ll give you a wide range of stats that’ll help you improve. I use it every single day…

EFFECTIVE HASHTAG USE (EHU): Hashtags are the way people search for content on Instagram — make sure to use all 30 of them, always! When it comes to the effectiveness of each, it’ll depend on how good you are at identifying the hashtags with the largest number of posts in which you have a high likelihood of being featured as a Top Post. The more your content stands out in hashtags with large audiences, the more opportunities for others to find, like, comment, and share your content = growth 📈.

  • How to do it: Maximize the Reach and Relevance for each of your 30 hashtags. Reach is the total number of posts within a hashtag and Relevance is the likelihood of your post being selected as a Top Post within that hashtag. Figuring out the Reach is easy — Instagram tells you the total number of posts per hashtag when you search for one (example below); the higher the number, the higher the reach. When it comes to Top Posts, they are selected based on how much a piece of content is engaged with within the first 10 minutes of it being posted. Do your research on the other accounts that are already being selected for Top Posts in the hashtags you wish to use and evaluate how you stack up next to them. The higher your engagement, the more frequently you’ll find yourself on the Top Post selection. If you’re just starting a new account, it’s very unlikely that you’ll stand out in any hashtag, so be patient here. Focus on finding the hashtags that best relate to your content and, over time, people within that community will find you.
  • Tools that can help: Again, Onlypult.com can be a great tool with their “Add a first comment” functionality. You can include all of your 30 hashtags in the first comment of each post, hiding them from view on the Home Feed. If you’re looking for that extra bit of guidance, try Top Hashtags and keyhole— they have some decent data that’ll help you get started on finding the tags that are right for you. Instagram’s own recommendations are usually spot-on as well, so definitely pay attention to those.
  • Extra tip: To avoid everyone seeing your hashtags when they scroll past your photo, include them in the first comment of your posts and IG will usually hide it from view. Here’s an article from Louise Myers with some more great insight around hashtags.
  • Extra extra tip: A sustainable way to test the effectiveness of your tags is to try a few different hashtag groupings on separate post and measuring if you see an increase in engagement from one to the other. Instead of typing them all out every single time, try using text replacement for 20–25 of the main ones, then personalize the remaining 5–10. Believe me, it’ll save you a bunch of time and thumb-energy…
  • But, hashtags look ‘spammy’? It’s important to note that some people worry that “too many” hashtags can look spammy and will negatively affect your growth. In my experience, I’ve never seen more hashtag discoverability have a negative impact, but if you want to play it safe, I’d recommend staying away from the most popular hashtags on IG like #nofilter, #like4like, #cute, etc, — no one is really paying attention to them and the engagement there usually just comes from other people wanting to trade likes, follows, etc. More likely than not, those accounts will not be genuinely interested in your content when they find you.

PHOTO QUALITY (PQ): What is considered a “good” photo or video depends on your taste and what your audience wants, but what is not up for debate is the quality in which it is displayed on your phone. For optimum results, always use the largest vertical format (4:5 or closest) and highest file size. Photo Quality as well as your Grid Visual Story (more on that soon) are the two most important aspects when it comes to increasing the percentage of Instagram accounts that see your profile and click Follow. Why? Done right, they are the strongest indicator that the person behind an account is serious about providing good content and that you will not be disappointed when you give out precious space in your home feed for a Follow. Having bad quality and disorganized content is similar to when you land on a crappy looking homepage and think, “the people behind this don’t have their shit together”. Do you ever sign-up for a service from a page like that? No, neither do I. Good Photo Quality and Format will help you avoid that. Instagram’s current maximum photo sizes are the following for each of the 3 different formats they offer: Square images can be up to 1080px in width by 1080px in height, vertical images can be 1080px in width by 1350px in height and horizontal images can be 1080px in width by 566px in height. Although square images are technically the largest, vertical photos will by-far look the best given the shape of your phone, so strive to upload every single one of your photos in vertical format. The difference is obvious: (See example below)

  • How to do it: Not much science to this one. Shoot or source your photos with a vertical format from the get-go. Once you have an efficient and sustainable system to get a good pool of images to pick from, doing a quick exposure and contrast edit on each image before you post it is all you’ll need. Don’t forget, with the ability to zoom-in on Instagram photos you should never compromise on photo resolution, so avoid grainy or pixelated pictures (that usually means no phone screenshots). Low-res and/or crappy looking photos are the quickest way to a Un-Follow.
  • Tools that can help: Use VSCOCAM to edit exposure and contrast on your photos. Depop also has a super simple but effective set of photo tips that’ll show you how to take a good photo of anything, anywhere.

GRID VISUALS (GV): It’s the overarching visual story people see when scrolling through your profile photo grid and it’s the result of planning ahead and sticking to a specific photo/video order and/or theme. It’s a subtle visual element but executing it properly over a long period of time will guarantee a much higher percentage of people that Follow your account after finding it. Check out Instagram accounts like @stefansagmeister, @tasteofstreep, @michel_e_b, @pinlord (that’s me :) ), or even @miserable_men to get a better idea of what a well executed Grid Visuals mean. It’s when you scroll down the feed of a new Instagram you come across and it looks like all of the photos make sense together. People will do the same with yours…

  • How to do it: The only way to make this happen is through commitment and planning. You’ll have to either take photos in a particular color scheme or visual theme or post them in a particular order to follow a pattern over time. Don’t cut corners and don’t compromise or it won’t work. An easy way to achieve the result is by paying attention to the main color of the photos you’re posting and staying consistent to that theme. You can also post specific types of photos in a consistent pattern over time.
  • Example: The Greenpoint-based vegan pizza joint @screamerspizzeria always alternates between 1 pizza photo and one client/random photo, which gives them a sense of confidence and purpose in the story they’re telling through their Instagram. A$AP ROCKY also does his own take on Grid Visuals to pretty stellar results. Whatever story you want to tell is achievable with some planning and consistent execution.
  • Tools that can help: VSCO was great but no longer as effective for planning visual grids after they changed their layout. Try UNUM to plan your posts and see how they will look on your grid ahead of time.
  • AMOUNT OF INTERACTIONS (AOI): Every time you like, comment, tag or message another user on Instagram you’re creating an opportunity for them to find, like, comment, and share your content = growth 📈. The more interactions you have with others, the more you’ll grow, so unless you want to do this yourself and have your fingers fall off, automating interactions through a bot is the most efficient way to do this at scale. Your goal here is to customize your bot to interact with others if you had the time and energy to go through thousands of posts each day.
  • How to do it: A bot. Don’t worry, it won’t turn your Instagram into a spam account if you do your research and automate with empathy and attention to detail. In general, there are three types of interactions that can be automated: likes, comments and follows. Since it’s much harder to automate comments and follows organically, I’d recommend sticking to liking automation when you’re first getting started. In most software options, your bot will “like” content based on what hashtags and/or user’s followers you tell it to interact with. To make those interactions as organic as possible, do your research and find the hashtags and Instagram accounts people you consider are likely to Follow you are already interacting with. If your content is relevant to them, people who get a like from your bot will be glad they found your account.
  • Tools that can help: Archie and Instagress are two tools that I’ve tried and both work just fine. If you’re into the more intricate automation (and you have Windows), try MassPlanner — it’s not as user-friendly as other options out there but you can definitely do some very intricate automation with that one…

NEW CONTENT RATE (NCR): Create content in all new Instagram formats, as much as possible. Instagram wants you to use their new features (IG stories, IG live and whatever will come next) so they reward early adopters by surfacing their content more prominently within the community. The more people see your content = growth 📈.

  • How to do it: No trick here, just be consistent and a early adopter when Instagram releases a new feature or type of content. Through practice, you’ll figure out how the personality of your account will fit organically into each new format.
  • Tools that can help: None, that I know of so far. Recommendations?

TAGS & MENTIONS (T&M): It’s no surprise that having other people tag and mention your Instagram = growth 📈. What is surprising is how much this aspect of growth is so often overlooked when it can have a massive impact on not only increasing your audience, but shaping the way people see your brand (and remember, every username can be a brand). The three main variables that affect your tags & mentions growth are the rate of mentions you receive, how many people each mention reaches, and the engagement rate of each person who mentions you. The higher you can make each of these three variables, the higher your rate of growth will be. And the best thing is, you can have an active role in directly increasing all of them by providing the right incentives.

  • How to do it: Start off by doing some research to find the Instagram accounts that you consider best fit your profile. The higher their engagement rate is (engagement rate = average likes per photo/total followers), the higher percentage of people a post reaches will Follow your Instagram. Once you’ve identified the right accounts, put yourself in their shoes and realistically ask yourself, would it make sense for them to talk about me? Would it be organic for them? The answer should be yes to both of these questions or you’ll end up being really inefficient at this activity. Finally, give them a reason to talk about you by getting in touch and offering them something they would consider cool or valuable in exchange for a post. That can be a gift, a discount, a repost or anything else you think they’d find a worthwhile exchange. The better you get at executing this process at scale, the more effective a growth tool it’ll be. Also, never forget that the time, energy and social media content of the people you’re getting in touch with is valuable, so treat it as such. You should be trying to build long-term, mutually beneficial relationships and build a real community around what you do. You won’t see good results if you’re not being sincere here.
  • Tools that can help: I haven’t found any tools that effectively help you solve this problem yet. I’d still recommend doing this the old fashioned way — with a lot of Instagram research and a trusty spreadsheet…

THAT’S IT!

I promise that if you practice all of these activities mindfully, you will grow much faster.

And finally, the MOST important aspect of any of these activities is actually doing the work. Growing a sincere Instagram following and creating good content is a marathon, not a sprint. You’ll need to do this over and over and over, day in and day out, month to month, year to year to see any worthwhile results. Like any other skill you want to master, it takes patience and commitment.

Now, stop reading this and get to work!

PS — If you’re in NYC and into this topic, come out to our monthly Instagram Growth Hackers Meet-Up. We love nerding out about understanding how information spreads on IG.