Instagram strategy: getting started and getting big

Instagram is the hottest social network right now. Get in the boat while you can!

I’ve been experimenting with Instagram lately and here is what I learnt.

Before all this, I had a personal Instagram account where I usually posted pictures from my everyday life. I always try to give an instagramness appeal to my pictures, because I really enjoy photography and was definitely influenced by big accounts that keep a constant “theme” going on (+info on themes further ahead). My followers are 80% part of my friend circles who enjoy checking out where I am and what I am doing and less about good pics, so this made me reflect about the way I was posting there.

After about one year of posting on Instagram, I started adding #hashtags at the end of every picture, which brought an extra 5–10 likes by complete strangers, which was always odd for me. Random people from around the world were being given access to my whereabouts and to a lot of personal information which I wasn’t really comfortable disclosing to someone with whom I didn’t have a remote connection. These are the things I learned during this period:

  • Public/private profiles: the criteria I use for my personal account is “would I be comfortable with my boss/friend’s friends seeing this picture and information?”. If yes, then feel free to keep the profile public. If not, then the best thing you can do to protect yourself is to define your profile private.

I decided I wanted to start a “professional” account, where I would post my best pictures and engage with people in the instagram community. I didn’t feel comfortable doing this on my personal account or keep posting pictures with a million hastags, so this would be my best option.

Setting up my professional account

When I was setting up my profile, I collected diverse information about this type of accounts which was very helpful:

Public/private profiles

For business/professional accounts, you have to set your profile to public, otherwise no one is going to care enough to follow you without knowing if what you post is adding value to them.

Naming your account

Keep the name simple and unique. If you can, use words that describe what you are doing (eg.: “YogaGirl” or “PhotoBob”), which helps people recognise what you are offering when they decide to follow you.

There are also other accounts who go for something very desirable and short (eg.: “1st” or “A”), which is something you can profit from by selling to others lately (this is not allowed by Instagram, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen). There is a big business around buying and selling accounts (there are even account brokers, imagine that!).

Profile descriptions

There were several articles that pointed me in the direction of keeping it short (2 or 3 sentences), professional (no emojis) and with a contact. Given that my account had a “youngster” vibe to it, I decided to break the emoji rule as I believe they are key (major key!) to convey the message I want. You should decide this as you look at your account and see what fits into your “brand” and what doesn’t.

Setting a theme for your account

Most successful accounts have a theme. It consists on having a constant look and feel on the pictures (eg.: faded picture or pictures with a white dominance or a strong colored background). This is a best practice on professional accounts that makes your followers know what to expect from you and recognise your work easier.

Using hashtags in your pictures

This is a very hot topic. Hashtags are “sold” as the bread and butter of Instagram (I have mixed feelings about it). Most accounts use the most popular hashtags (think #likes4likes, #follow4follow and #beautiful). The thing with these hashtags is that they have hundreds of millions of posts and people use them very frequently, which means when you post the picture, you’ll likely get some likes, but your picture will soon be pushed down by the quick inflow of new submissions.

I recommend mixing these hashtags with other, less popular ones, meaning whenever someone looks for a topic/subject/theme, your picture will be featured on the top page (popular section) or it won’t be pushed down much.

How to select the best hashtags for your pictures:

  1. My advice when selecting these hashtags is searching for an obvious hashtag (eg.: #nature), and browsing the top part of the screen for related hashtags (eg.: #naturelovers): continue browsing for “deeper” hashtags and use them in your pictures.
  2. As you post different pictures, check how well they perform (like and follow wise) and see what are the most and least effective hashtags. Remember there is a limit of 30 hashtags per post, after which all hashtags in that post are disabled and won’t work.
  3. Another tip is to add your hashtags to the first comment. If you don’t want to “pollute” the description line with a block of hashtags, copy them in notes and quickly comment on your picture after you post it.
  4. Remember that the order in which your picture appears in the hashtag screen is sorted by the timestamp in the picture, so it doesn’t work to delete and keep posting other hashtags long after you posted the picture.

Tagging your pictures

When you post pictures on a personal account, you tag the people in the picture, but in professional accounts, the story is a bit different. Think about the positioning of your brand and you’ll see that tagging someone in a professional account is taken as an endorsement of that person.

In this field there are a few strategies you can pursue:

  1. Tagging big accounts that are bigger than yours can grab their attention and you can potentially find a “business partner” with whom you can exchange influence. If they like your pictures and the theme of your account, they might feature one of your pictures and/or do a shout out on their page which promotes their follower base to go follow you (some accounts monetize this so they won't do it for free. Try to partner with accounts with similar size as yours, because you’ll be able to do mutual shout outs and both grow the follower base) (this bullet point doesn’t apply to brands, as you don’t want to endorse random people on Instagram to increase your follower count).
  2. Tagging famous people can give you visibility as there are several people online who cyber stalk celebrities and will check your picture (this particular strategy is not very effective and especially not worth the effort).
  3. There is also a post strategy where you interact directly with your followers and exchange your post visibility for their best photos. If you don’t have many pictures (or if your main focus is to repost other people’s photos with permission), then you can say on your profile description that if people tag you in their pictures (gives you free publicity on their profiles) and/or use a certain hashtag (eg.: #iloveyogagirl), you’ll select the best and post it on your profile. There is a big demand for this on Instagram, as individuals want their accounts promoted and will freely allow you to post their pictures (with credit) on your profile.

Growing your account

As you post more and more pictures, you have got to be aware of what your growth strategy is, stick to it and evaluate it in specific times. Growing your account is basically letting people know you exist: you can do this inside Instagram or outside the platform (I will only be listing free alternatives).

Inside the platform, there are several strategies to grow your account which can be mixed, matched and combined:

  1. You can grow your account organically, by posting pictures regularly, using effective hashtags, writing compelling descriptions and, of course, take awesome pictures.
  2. Be social: interact with your audience in the comment section, comment on other people’s photos with interesting and value adding words (eg.: some cool fact about the place of the photo). Your followers will love the fact that you reply to them and the other people’s followers might get interested in your account by reading what you write on other photo’s comments and/or by your account name (read above about the importance of your account handle, @ name). When commenting on other photos, find profiles that are big in your kind of profile and comment there: the chance that a person sees it is much higher, and they will likely be interested in your content as well.
  3. Frequently look up specific hashtags and like several photos there. If you pick hashtags that are related to the content you post, they might be interested in following, liking and/or commenting. This is probably the base of every growth strategy (who’s owner is not a celebrity).
  4. After you reach a certain size, you can also partner with similar size individuals and cross promote your accounts by posting each other’s photos and tagging them. This is very effective, especially if the other account has a similar theme/subject as yours, because there is a 100% match between audiences
  5. Ask your followers to tag friends in the comment section (eg.: Tag your friend who always does X). This is very effective because other people get to know your profile, but there is a certain friction on some people to tag friends: when you don’t have many followers, this won't be effective because there is no snowball effect (more about this here). A variant of this strategy is to ask for your followers to tag you in their photos so that you check them out (this is also effective on smaller accounts, not only on big ones).
  6. The last strategy is the Follow & Unfollow. It kinda is against Instagram’s policy, but it still is an effective strategy when you’re starting out. It consists on following several accounts in a row, waiting 1 or 2 days and then unfollowing them: if you do this with accounts that are similar to yours but bigger in size, about 20% of the people you follow will follow you back within a certain time period. There is a constraint here, which is the follow/unfollow limit (which is about 200 a day, each). If Instagram suspects you are doing this strategy, they will block you from doing that action for a certain time, which is a pain (it can be perpetual, so watch out!)

As you grow your account, it is important to occasionally stop and analyse what you have been doing and rethink some strategies. My recommendation is that you define a strategy (eg.: post 1 picture a day, allow guest posts, like & comment on relevant hashtags, at least 1x a day) and stick to it for a period of time (not less than a month, and also be careful with seasonal behaviour like the holidays or Christmas). After that time frame, look back and think about what worked and what was too much effort for little pay and cut the former (or think of how you can do it better). The only way you will be able to analyse correctly is if you have been doing things for a certain time, otherwise there will be too many variables in play.

Also, as your follower base becomes bigger and bigger, the effectiveness of your strategies can change (for instance, your follower base now likes more contests and not just quick reply captions). Be ready to change strategies and revisit ones that you left aside on earlier periods of time. Social media is dynamic and so should you be!

Keeping an eye on your stats

This is in line with what I wrote before. You need to check your account stats often, to see if your strategy is working or not. Specifically, keep an eye on your follow count (it will fluctuate somewhat because there are others who follow and unfollow profiles), but what matters is the growth in the medium/long run.

There are some nice apps for that. I use the following:

  • InsTrack: its nice o keep tabs on who’s following/unfollowing you. Don’t use the buttons to follow/unfollow because it jams with Instagram
  • Analytics for Instagram: simple app with graphs to show total followers, following, etc (this is the one I use the most)
  • Social Blade: keep tabs on other pages (including your own), engagement, page growth, etc. It’s really nice!

Monetizing your account

When you reach a certain follower size (>50k, at least), you will find easier to monetize your account. Companies who want to put their product in the eyes of potential customer will rush in to buy a share of attention of your followers. A big case study is Daniel Wellington, which is a brand born inside Instagram, now with over 1M followers.

If you run a thematic account (eg.: cars), you will find it easier to sell adverts on your account, as it is very specific (everyone who follows this account likes cars, therefore they will also like brand X). If your theme is a bit “wider” (eg.: lifestyle), you will benefit from a bigger variety of potential advertisers (not only beauty brands, but also travel agencies, hotels, …).

There are many things you can sell to a brand, which will be valued when thinking about the ammount you will get:

  • A picture taken by you, featuring the product
  • A picter provided by the brand, featuring the product
  • The picture’s description line, with a tag to the brand’s instagram account
  • A tag in the picture, redirecting users to the brand’s account
  • The URL on your instagram account, which can redirect to the brand’s website or landing page

A few notes:

  • All ads can be bought by time, so you can sell that ad for an online presence of 24h before deleting (or the URL for 1 week, etc). More time equals more money, and the time frame can go all the way to “forever”.
  • Be careful when putting ads on your profile. Many followers are suspicious about ads and hate when their favorite pages post branded pictures. The best way you can do this is by integrating the products in a seamless way to your usual content: this generates less friction and is also better for the brand, which won’t feel backlash for “buying you”.
  • There are many accounts which have standards for selling ads, and most wont feature a product they would buy in real life.
  • When users start monetizing the pages, they use Kik to chat with potential advertisers (this is the preferred medium because you don’t need to associate with a phone number and you can use the same user name as your instagram account). They post the username on the profile description field to get their users known.

Ending notes

This is not intended to be exhaustive, so there are many strategies which wont be featured on this guide. If you have any strategy you would like to be added, feel free to send me and I’ll add it!

I plan on revisiting this guide every once and a while, to make sure I change what doesn’t work and add other things I find out meanwhile.

If you want to get more content like this, please sign up for this newsletter. Don’t worry, I hate spam as much as you!

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.