Almost every guide to growing an Instagram following contains the same generic advice. Share user generated content. They tell you to ask people to tag their friends directly—put a call-to-action in there! They tell you to host contests and give freebies away.
These techniques only really work if you already have a ton of followers.
Growing a new Instagram account is kind of like getting seed funding for your startup.
With 0 dollars in the bank (or 0 followers), there’s not much you can do. You don’t have a real audience. You don’t know if your product is solving any real problems. But with a little cash infusion, you can start testing out different hypotheses, talking to your users, and learning about what you should be doing.
Your first 1,000 followers are like that first bit of capital you use to get started, and they’re the most critical followers you will ever get. But they’re hard to get—really hard. Here’s how to do it.
Can’t knock the hustle
Organic user acquisition on a network like Instagram is simple in theory—people see your content, find your profile, and hit “Follow.” There are basically only a few ways this can happen:
They can see someone they follow share your content, then tap through to your profile
They can see your content while browsing various hashtags and then tap through to your profile
They can see that you followed or liked them—and then tap through to your profile
The first is ideal—when people share your content, you end up in the feed of everyone that follows them. That’s a potent shot of social proof for your brand.
But if you have 0 followers, no one is going to re-post your content. So we’ll focus on using the second and third strategies: posting to specific hashtags and following and liking other users.
You have to prime the pump
Hashtags are very democratic in a sense. If I post a picture of a cat to #caturdays right now, and you immediately go browse through the #caturdays hashtag, you would see my photo. If you thought it was a particularly great cat, you might like it. If you thought you might want to see more of this type of content, you might even tap through to my profile and follow me.
But if I only had 1 follower and a handful of random cat pictures, you might decide not to. You might decide to go look for a #cat-themed Instagram account with 2 million followers and high production standards. Because you’re worth it.
While Instagram is “democratic,” it’s also a free market, a clout-based economy where your value and desirability (in other words, your ability to get more followers) is tracked, at least in part, by how many followers you have. You need to post great content, get it out on the right channels, and put in some elbow grease to put it in front of people. It’s like kickstarting an engine—sometimes you have to prime the motor a bit before it’ll go.
It’s a three step process.
Get it out through the right channels.
Prime the pump.
Rinse and repeat.
1. Sow your seeds
Before you can start earnestly working on user acquisition you need to get some content on your profile and start working on a pipeline of future content.
The key here is to think of a niche or type of content that you will be able to continue producing at a good clip—you should be posting at least one picture per day minimum in the early stages.
If you’re into or your business deals with fields like food, fashion, modeling, astronomy, architecture, art, design, or racing fast cars, then you should have no problem generating visual content. Instagram is practically tailor-made for showing off the cool-looking stuff that people are doing.
That doesn’t mean that you’re out-of-luck if you’ve got a more “boring” business. From putting a spotlight on your users to posting “behind-the-scenes” pics, there are tons of ways to bring out your company’s personality on Instagram. Here, for instance, is a member of the AdRoll team playing with an adorable monkey:
There are a few crucial Instagram best practices to keep in mind when you’re posting content:
Make the images high-quality: Both iPhones and Android phones have very high-resolution screens these days. Post crappy, downscaled images and you’re not going to get follows—Instagram is primarily a visual medium, so no one wants to stare at images that are even slightly blurry or pixelated.
Inspire, motivate, awe, and make ’em laugh: The content that gets likes, shares, and comments usually does one of these things. According to Noah Kagan’s study, only 1% of shared content made people feel “sad.” So go with positive vibes.
Cultivate a style: The quality of your individual pictures is important, but so is the overall aesthetic that you present on your feed. Check out the example from Instagram user @canarygrey below:
When people tap “Follow,” they’re doing it from your feed, so you need to make sure your feed itself represents your brand or business. Canarygrey does this by taking spare, minimalist shots, including lots of whitespace and grays. Building a cohesive aesthetic doesn’t mean you need to be a designer though.
Check out National Geographic‘s more subtle method of creating visual interest in their feed. They can’t have a single style dominate because they’re wide-ranging and extremely diverse pretty much by definition. They’re all over the world, taking pictures of landscapes, animals, and people everywhere. So rather than go for a single color scheme or design, they embrace their diversity, mixing all different kinds of photos together to keep the content feeling fresh and unique.
Landscape with person. Close-up of animal. Close-up of person. Group photo. Safari. Close-up of animal. Rhinoceros. If the @canarygrey style of one artistic vision doesn’t make sense for your brand, then think about yourself as a nature documentarian in the style of Nat Geo. No one wants to look at landscape after landscape after landscape. Switch it up to keep people engaged.
Unsplash: free (“do whatever you want”) high-resolution stock photography
Pexels: more free stock photos
Death to Stock Photos: paid stock photo site, examples of their work available on their Instagram
Pablo: from Buffer, a nifty tool for laying text on top of photos and creating images for social media
Canva: the classic web-based design tool, easy to use and capable of some pretty nice-looking designs
2. Target your hashtags
You need to be posting your content to Instagram hashtags if you want to start getting organic traffic. It’s insane how many accounts don’t, considering anyone can pop up in a widely-trafficked feed just by using that hashtag. You don’t even need to put it in the original description of your post—you can add it afterwards as a comment. Even old content can be “refreshed” in this way.
Always check a hashtag’s feed before you start posting using that hashtag though. You want to see:
Whether or not the content in that hashtag is actually relevant for the kind of content that you post
How you can stand out in the feed
How popular the feed is—if you post something, will it stay above the fold for a few hours or a few milliseconds?
Dehaze is a very simple web-based tool that you can use to generate a list of relevant keywords given your niche and geographical location. Searching “drone” and “San Francisco” gave me this list:
#roamtheplanet #peoplescreatives #earthawesome #dronepic #dehazeco #fromwhereidrone #droneheroes #aerialphotography #dronestagram #dronegear #visualoflife #artofvisuals #openmyworld #exklusive_shot #agameoftones #folkgood #openmyworld #beautifuldestinations#california #igerssf #streetsofsf #wildbayare #visitcalifornia #onlyinsf #howsfseessf
That’s 25 hashtags. Instagram allows 30 hashtags on any given post, and there have been studies to suggest that the more hashtags the better. Check out this graphic from Buffer: according to one study, posts with hashtags got relatively more engagement the more hashtags they used. But posts with 11+ hashtags got the most engagement by far.
But when you start to add a ton of hashtags to each post you run a risk. It’s not the risk of appearing self-promotional (although that does exist), it’s the risk that you’re simply wasting your time by targeting keywords that aren’t going to help you grow.
Keep your hashtag strategy focused
Targeting a highly popular hashtag is a good way to get a piece of content in front of a lot of people, but if it doesn’t make sense with the rest of your content, you’re going to get an influx of bad followers (if any).
Your follower count will rise, you’ll feel happy about this, and you’ll even start targeting more of your content to hit that popular hashtag. Then, on a weekend night, around 1 or 2 in the morning, all those followers’ auto-unliking bots will unfollow you to bump their own follower/followed ratios up. And by then your whole content strategy will have been sidetracked because you were tempted into a larger niche by some temporary success.
More hashtags means more engagement, but keep your scope narrow at the beginning and pay close attention to how different hashtags affect the reception of your content. Don’t just stick thirty hashtags in every single post. Start with a few, change them around, and see what hashtags work best for bringing in users who stick around.
3. Start networking
Central to growing an Instagram account from scratch is doing cold outreach. You need to engage with people in your community if you want them to even know who you are, and you’ll have to engage with a lot of people to start getting traction. It’s like running for office—you’re going to be kissing babies and shaking hands.
When you go to someone’s Instagram profile, like a bunch of their pictures, leave some adoring comments, and follow them, the odds get pretty good that they will follow you back. It’s basic reciprocity—I’m more inclined to do something nice for you (like follow you, and therefore boost your follower count) if you have done something nice for me (like comment on my photos, validating me socially).
A word of warning
There are many automated services out there that will find other Instagram accounts, follow them, like a bunch of their pictures, and then unfollow them for you. And no, you should not use these.
Every service of that nature out there—and there are lots—runs off the same similar premise. You put in information about the hashtags you tend to target, or the account whose followers you want to target, and then give them your Instagram username and password. Their software hijacks your account and starts following and liking users at a rate that only a Kardashian could match—1,000-2,000 “likes” a day and 600 “follows,” for an idea of just how fast.
Even setting aside the inevitable “raptures” that Instagram performs on such accounts and the sheer likelihood of a ban given that you’re performing actions at superhuman speed from IP addresses around the world, automating the process of getting followers just doesn’t make sense.
These followers aren’t natural resources to be harvested. They’re people. To return to the startup analogy, the first “customers” (users) of your “product” (profile) shouldn’t just be a random group of people you found on the street. Startups that succeed build products that solve problems for a specific group of people.
If I’m posting pictures of cats one day, trucks the next, motivational entrepreneurship quotes whenever I feel like it and #fitspo pics when I hit the gym, I’m highly unlikely to find someone who is really into all of that. And no one wants to muddy their feed with someone who only posts something interesting 1 out of every 6 times. They might follow you purely out of reciprocity, but that’s not the kind of follow-back that will last.
To get good results from your following-liking-commenting outreach on Instagram, you need to both have a niche and target that niche.
Pick your targets
All you need for this process is 20 minutes a day. Go ahead, schedule it in your calendar. Here’s how it works:
Find a place where your potential followers hang out
Tap on the profile of someone who you think would follow you
If their feed confirms your feeling, engage with them with a like, comment, share or follow
Repeating this process over and over is virtually the only way to kickstart growth on an organic Instagram account you’re building from scratch. Don’t be skeezy—don’t comment the same thing on a million different pictures (they can tell) and don’t just carpet bomb people with likes. That may get you noticed, and it may even get you some pity follows, but it’s not going to get you engaged followers.
Here are some tips to keep in mind while you’re “networking”:
Go horizontal, not vertical: In real life, it’s always best to make friends with people who are on your level. Junior copywriters don’t go around trying to schmooze with CEOs at conferences—they find other copywriters. Do the same on Instagram. Don’t bother liking and commenting on the pictures of people who already have thousands of followers. Not only will they pay less attention to you, they have no real incentive to follow someone with a fraction of their follower count. Engage with people who have the same amount of clout as you—or less, which brings us to…
Find champions: These are people (generally with less followers than you) that comment, share, and like your content like mad. If found and nurtured, these 10x fans are an incredible asset to have as you grow. The only way to identify a reliable source of champions is to test your content and hashtag strategy carefully, monitoring where your fair-weather followers come from and where you have real friends.
Persistence is key: Don’t just like someone’s last three pictures, follow them, and then ignore them forever. It’s very transparent, and the Instagram unfollow tools out there today are sophisticated. Users can unfollow accounts that pull this kind of thing. If someone follows you back and likes, comments and shares your content on a regular basis, give it back to them occasional. Reciprocity is the basis of all good relationships.
Look around and you will definitely find products and services that promise you much faster growth than 1,000 followers in a month.
You will see, as you look around Instagram, popular accounts that have clearly been built by robots. Accounts with 500,000 followers but only 10 likes on each post.
Don’t get distracted by all the vanity out there around social media. Growing an Instagram account by hand and from scratch, developing a community of people who are actually engaged (not just commenting “nice :)” on every picture for exposure) and learning more about your niche is far more valuable, in the long-run, for your development as an entrepreneur or marketer or product-builder.
How about you? Have you had success building a following on Instagram, and what techniques have you tried? Let us know in the comments below.