New York City-based curve model Meara has leveraged her following to get free products, pay half of her bills every month, and even book national modeling campaigns. Instagram is the fastest growing social network, with more than one-seventh of the global population using it actively every month. That’s a lot of potential. Whether you have a business, a product, or you want to promote yourself creatively like I do, this app is one of the best and most efficient ways to grow a fan base. I’ve leveraged my following to get free products, pay half of my bills every month, and even book national modeling campaigns. I’m a huge fan of the app, and with a bit of discipline and dedication, I think you will be too.
You may not be aware of the dreaded algorithm, but if you’ve been on Instagram lately, you may have heard people complaining about it. While our feeds on this platform used to show content in chronological order, the much more complex 2019 algorithm is all about engagement. How well your post does (how many likes, comments, shares, and how much time is spent engaging with it) within the first hour determines how many of your followers will see it. The algorithm shows new posts to 10 percent of your followers. Assuming the post does well, then the remaining 90 percent of your followers will see it. The more your content is perceived to be good, the more it will come up in the Search & Explore tab of Instagram accounts that regularly interact with content like yours. That leads to more potential followers and therefore more potential growth.
Your level of user engagement is what determines how quickly and effectively you can grow. In order to inspire others to follow you and enjoy your material, you need to post great content, know when and how to post, and interact with your community.
1. Post the Best Content
It’s important to post clear, crisp images. According to a study of more than eight million Instagram posts by analytics platform Curalate, images that are predominantly blue, or cooler, tend to perform better than those that feature red, or are warmer. While there are many in-app filters and great third-party apps like VSCO and Snapseed that you can use to enhance your photos, most experts say the less filtered and more natural a photo looks, the better it does.
A Well-Executed Theme
Even though the above feed is a mix of black and white, color, and different lightings, the photos still go together. The biggest mistake Instagrammers make is to post low-lit, out-of-focus photos in a feed that has no theme. If you want to grow, avoid posting:
1. Overprocessed Photos: Avoid Snapchat filters, editing that appears unnatural, and photos with little light.
2. Selfies: A rare selfie is fine, but the more you have on your page, the less professional it appears.
3. Out of focus photos: Zoom in to make sure the subject of your photo is clear. You don’t need to understand much about photography to post crisp, in focus content.
As long as you’re creating well-lit, colorful photos that go together, you’re on the right track. Natural light is usually best for those of us without professional lighting kits. All you have to do is go outside or find a nearby window. If you’re looking into creating content that’s indoors or perhaps in a city like mine where light—and money, time, and . . . hope (Oh, New York)—is hard to come by, you’ll want to look into getting a ring light or soft box. This is important for everyone, whether your page focuses on aesthetics or not. You don’t need to be a professional or to have professional equipment to develop a nice feed with lovely photos.
2. When & How to Post
Before you post, you need to ensure that you have a good caption, you’re using 30 relevant hashtags, and that you’re tagging up to 20 relevant pages. Good captions follow this rule: they’re either short and clever or long and relatable.
Though Instagram is about visual content first, a caption can inspire users to share and engage with your post. Nothing is better than starting a discussion with multiple users on a post. The longer comments are, and the more of them there are, the better. Many sources say that Instagram counts comments as genuine when they’re five words or more.
When using hashtags, forget about using ones with millions of posts, such as #love (1.4 billion posts), #fashion (572 million posts), and #business (37.2 million posts). If you go onto the app right now and continually refresh the page every minute, you’ll see hundreds, if not thousands, of posts flow in. With that many posts constantly updating, any single photo or video is easily lost in a sea of thousands. If you’re just starting out, your best bet is to use a mix of smaller hashtags in your niche (10,000–100,000 posts), with a few medium-sized hashtags as well (100,000–500,000). For example, if you wanted to promote a personal training fitness page, you should use smaller hashtags like #ironaddiction and #biggerstrongerfaster (both have about 10,000 posts) versus huge hashtags like #workout (which has 121 million posts). When you’re in a smaller pond, it’s easier to be seen; although keep in mind that because fewer people look at and use these hashtags, it’s good to use a mix of small and medium hashtags within your market.
It’s also important to note that some hashtags can be banned or broken. This year, many users have complained about shadow banning, a term for when an account is blocked or limited, resulting in a drastic drop in engagement all of a sudden. The jury is out as to whether these complaints are based in reality, with so many users posting content that violates the Instagram user agreement (i.e., partial nudity), buying followers, and using third-party companies that use robots to like and comment on behalf of the user in an attempt to boost engagement. These behaviors (and any behavior that the algorithm perceives as robotic) can lead to stifled engagement and even accounts being shut down. Instagram has never admitted to the existence of shadow banning, although in February of 2018 their statement on the Instagram For Business platform claimed that “some users have experienced issues with our hashtag search.” Whether it’s an app issue or Instagram intentionally inhibiting users due to certain behaviors (or to encourage more ad sales), we don’t know. What we do know is that using banned hashtags can often mean that your post won’t show up in the feed of any of the hashtags you used on that post (even if 29 hashtags are fine and one is banned). Some unusual hashtags are banned, such as #curvy and #brain; and ThePreviewApp.com has a list of many to look out for.
Another way to ensure many users see your content is to tag larger influencers whose audience you’d like to reach. There are many pages that share other users’ content. For example, an online fashion magazine may consider sharing your post if you post gorgeous portraits in couture. One way for these pages to see you (other than hashtags) is for you to tag them in the post. If they like what you do, there’s a chance they could share you, and leveraging a larger account’s following is the quickest way to grow on Instagram.
Once you have your post captioned, hashtagged, and ready to post, it’s time to decide when to do so. If you have a business account, you can use an analytics feature called Insights to see the peak hours of when your followers are online. If you don’t have a business account yet, I don’t recommend switching to one until you hit 10K followers. Many users have noticed declined engagement post switching; likely because Instagram wants to increase its own sponsored content instead of helping you with your company’s marketing. I recommend starting a spreadsheet that tracks when you post and how well your posts do in a variety of scenarios. Apps like Hootsuite (free), Iconosquare (free), and Plann + Preview (free) can help you track your engagement, although Instagram itself warns users to never actually post to Instagram from a third-party app.
If you’re using Instagram Insights or an app to track the best time to post, start there. Otherwise, follow the workday of demographic you’re trying to reach. Post first thing in the morning as people are just getting to work (between 8–9 a.m.), or at the end of the work day (between 4–5 p.m.). Video is the only exception to this rule, as most users don’t have sound on their phones during the day and watch more videos at home after 9 p.m. We need to keep in mind who will be seeing our posts and in what time zone, as well. Because I have a good number of followers (and businesses that I work with) who live on the West Coast; many times; I need to post later in the day. If I post at 8:45 a.m. (when it’s 5:45 a.m. in California) only the most hardcore, first-thing-in-the-morning-wow-people-in-LA-are-so-healthy-morning-rush-to-6-AM-yoga users will see it (and it’s before business hours).
3. Community Interaction
Aside from what and how you post, mutual support is the third crucial step in growth, especially in the beginning. Growing to a thousand followers is your first hurdle, and I recommend slowing finding a thousand people to follow back and support as you go. Kevin Kelly (founder of Wired magazine) says that creators only need a thousand true fans in order to survive, no matter what you’re promoting, whether it’s a business or your art (a true fan is defined as someone who would drive a few hours to watch your band, buy all of your books, etc.). Because the Instagram world is much more diluted than real life, you’ll need many more followers to reach those who want to support what you do. Out of every 1,000 followers, one will be a true supporter. That said, you can start creating true fans by mutually supporting others in your field.
As you build, consider starting pod. A pod is a group who is dedicated to growing together. Whenever anyone in the pod posts, they let everyone in the pod know via a group message (I recommend Telegram; don’t use Instagram or Facebook Messenger), and then the other users go to their within the first hour to comment more than five words. If there are 15 members in the pod, every account will get at least 15 comments per post, which will help boost it in the algorithm. I recommend trying pods for 1–2 months, and then taking a break, as some say Instagram is starting to crack down on any types of manipulated engagement.
Instagram is like a game show wheel. You have to keep spinning (posting and interacting) in order to keep momentum going. If you stop, the wheel gradually slows down, and you cease growth. Likewise, if you spin the wheel regularly throughout the day, it will keep going on its own, even after your hand has left the handle. Like anything, growth on Instagram is about how much work, creativity, consistency, and time you’re willing to dedicate to it. It’s an amazing platform, full of opportunities for creatives and businesses alike.
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