Growing an Instagram isn’t about how “cool” or “social” you are, it’s about recognizing the most impactful activities on the platform and consistently executing them at a high level.
Anyone can do it, it just requires a bit of elbow grease…
Find it hard to believe? So did I, until I started my own enamel pin-related Instagram, @pinlord, back in the Summer of 2015 and grew it by implementing a few common behaviors I noticed some big accounts were practicing at the time. A year and a half later, I found myself at 90K followers, making a full time living from my Instagram.
I kept wondering if my success was plain old luck or something I could replicate? Then in June of 2016, my beautiful wife was asked to launch the Instagram for Screamers Pizzeria, an all-vegan pizza joint in Brooklyn. We had an opportunity to replicate the results by implementing the same behaviors. Guess what? They worked! In less than 9 months @screamerspizzeria has gained over 12K followers with an engagement rate of 6%+ (which is really good). After proving that these behaviors worked, I launched @potteryforall, @macramemakers, and a bunch of other accounts that garnered over 300K followers in less than two years.
Based on that experience, I now know that how fast your Instagram grows depends on two main variables: the number of accounts you Reach (the number of people who view your username on their screens and tap through to your account) and what percentage of them you Retain (the percentage of people who view your account and convert into a “Follow”) once they find your page.
The larger the number of accounts you Reach, and the larger percentage of them you Retain, the faster you grow — the key is knowing what to do to maximize both. Here’s what I’ve learned:
Maximizing your Reach depends on the following 5 activities:
Posts — Ideal posting rate:
This means figuring out the number of posts (photos, videos, stories, live sessions) you should do to maximize your new followers per week.
How do you figure it out? Start by posting once a day for a week and measure the new followers you gain that week. If the number of followers you gained that week is more than the previous week then post one additional time per day next (in this case, 2 times per day) and measure your new followers again. If the number of followers increases even more at 2 posts per day vs 1 post per day, then the following week try 3 posts per day and measure again.
Your ideal number of posts per day is the one in which you maximize the number of followers you grow per week. For most people, most of the time, 1 feed post per day is usually where growth is maximized.
Regarding tools that can help you here, I’ve used Instagram’s Business Account Insights for a while and it’s the easiest way to get a quick (and free) overview of your weekly follower growth stats (see below). To be as efficient as possible with posting, use Onlypult to schedule all your content ahead of time. I use it every day and it’s a lifesaver. I’ve also written an article to show you how to find your ideal time to post on Instagram.
Hashtags-Most effective hashtags:
To reach the largest number of relevant people who can turn into followers, always include a different number of 5–7 randomly ordered hashtags that have the largest number of posts and most accurately describe your content, in the first comment of your posts.
That being said, it’s important to remember that the effectiveness of hashtags has greatly declined since early 2019 (they roughly reach 1/10th of the people they used to from 2011–2018) so don’t worry about using them perfectly or not. The truth is that, if used correctly, they can provide a small extra growth of followers and engagement but ultimately, they wont ever be the reason your account is or isn’t growing!
Regarding tools, Onlypult is the only post automation tool that’ll allow you to include hashtags in the first comment.
Interactions-Maximize number of interactions:
The larger the number of interactions (likes, comments, DM’s, etc) you have with accounts that don’t know about you (but may find your content valuable), the more times your username will appear on other’s activity feeds and the larger the number of people who will discover you.
You can accomplish that by either manually liking and commenting on hundreds of posts per day, or by automating the process through an Instagram bot. Think quality over quantity here. Every like/comment/DM takes time and energy so make sure to maximize the likelihood of conversion for each by interacting only with people who are likely to find your content valuable. Who do you find people who are likely to find your content valuable? The most simple way is to find the hashtags and Instagram accounts that your target audience already engages with the most and then manually or program your Bot to “like” the posts of the people who follow those accounts as well as the people who use those hashtags.
For tools, Social Captain is the interaction automation service that’s easier to use, Instoo is the cheapest, and Social Sensei is the one that’s most likely to work for you if you don’t know what you’re doing because they provide a dedicated account manager to automate the interactions for you.
Tags-Maximize number of tags:
To reach as many people as possible through tagging, you want to receive as many tags, from as many accounts as possible — preferably, those who have highly engaged followings and sincerely like what you do.
The bigger the following and the higher the average Instagram engagement of the account who tags you, the more people will see the tag, discover your account, and follow you (if it’s relevant to them). Nothing beats sincere relationships, so don’t be afraid to DM to other accounts in your community to find ways to cross promote by tagging each other in posts. You can also find highly engaged influencers and gift/trade them so they can tag you in their photos, and/or do giveaways, content collaborations, design great packaging and anything else that will give people value for posting about you. The more creative you are, the better. The bottom line here is that you want to be photo and caption tagged by as many people as possible as often as possible. It’s free advertisement.
Ads-Run effective ads:
The last of the Reach activities is running Instagram story ads or “Sponsored Post” (home-feed) ads to be discovered by the largest number of people possible.
Unlike all other activities, this one mainly depends on your budget. The larger the amount of money you spend, the more people you will reach. Apart from your budget, there are two main variables that determine how effective your ads will be. First, your ability to create a compelling ad — the less “this is an advertisement” it feels, the more likely it is that people will click on it and the cheaper your cost per click will be (see video below for an example of the most effective one I’ve ever done). And second, your know-how of how to optimize your ads and effectively navigate your target audience selection in the Facebook Ads tool.
If you’re feeling worried about spending money or if you just don’t have a budget, don’t worry…you can still execute the other 4 activities and get 99% of the growth results. It’s not necessary to spend money on Instagram ads to grow your account! Instagram ads are only necessary if you’re already doing everything else excellently and need an extra push.
That being said, if you want to know more about how to run effective Instagram ads, here’s an in-depth article about how to run effective Instagram Story Ads and here’s one about how to run effective Instagram Sponsored Posts.
The better you execute those 5 activities, the larger the number of people you’ll Reach.
A simple way to measure how well you’re executing your Reach activities is by taking note of your total profile visits every week. The higher your number of profile visits is, the more people you’re reaching.
Now that you know how to Reach people on Instagram, let’s talk about how to Retain them!
To increase the percentage of people who discover you (Reach) and convert into followers, focus on the following 3 activities:
Target Audience Knowledge:
To be able to convert the target audience you Reach into followers, it’s essential that you first understand what they consider “great” content.
Because we can’t go into someone’s mind to know if they think a post is “great”, our next best option when it comes to understanding what our audience finds valuable is measuring what content they engagement with (like/comment/dm). If someone sees a photo but doesn’t engage with it, it wasn’t impactful enough to consider it “great”, in this context. Specifically, evaluating our most highly engaged with posts to understand what type of content our audience finds the most valuable in our account as well as finding the posts and accounts that our audience already engages with the most on Instagram to understand what content they find the most valuable outside of our account.
To find your most highly-engaged with posts, go to your Instagram Insights dashboard → Tap on the Feed Posts ‘See All’ text within your Content tab → Tap on the text at the top and sort by All/Engagement/1 year → Apply.
The first 30 posts in this screen are your most highly-engaged posts within the past year. These are the posts that created the most value for your audience on your account. Find the common characteristics they share and take note of them.
To find the most highly engaged with posts and accounts that your audience is interacting with on Instagram, consistently check your Explorer Page (this is where Instagram surfaces the most highly-engaged content from around your close community as well as the Instagram community in general) as well as the “Top Posts” tap of the hashtags that are the most relevant to your account (we’ve already discussed this in the Hashtag section of the Reach activities).
These are the posts that create the most value for your audience outside of your account.
When you’ve clearly identified the type of content your target audience thinks is “great”, make a list and know it by heart. The better you know what type of content your target audience finds valuable, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to execute that level of content on your page (more on that next).
Post Quality-Well executed, differentiated and engaging:
Now that you know what content your audience finds valuable, how many of them you Retain depends on how well you’re able to execute that type of content. Do you have the skills necessary to execute that level of content quality?
A great way to measure if you’re being successful at this is by measuring your engagement rate every week. If your engagement rate is growing week to week, you’re getting better at executing content your audience loves, if it’s not, then you’re not improving.
Regardless of your content creation abilities, a good place to start off is by making sure you always post high-res (1080px in width by 1350px in height) vertical photos and videos, in portrait format. This will ensure that your content is displayed in the largest format possible, which makes it more visually appealing and increases the likelihood that someone will “like” it.
The process of upgrading your other content creation skills will be different for everyone so if you wondering where to start, check out this article on how to increase your Instagram engagement rate. It’ll show you a simple process that anyone can use to reliably improve over time.
Grid Visuals-Differentiated and visually appealing:
Last but not least, your grid visuals are a measure of how appealing your content appears in grid-view when people first find your Instagram and scroll through your feed. Most people take 3–5 seconds to scroll through in Instagram account when they first discover it (like the video below) and make up their mind on whether or not they want to follow it based on that first impression. Because of that, the better you’re able to visually communicate your value through your grid, the higher percentage of people will convert to “Follow” your page.
We’ve all done it. We discover a page, quickly scroll through their grid, and decide to follow them because they have a nice looking grid. Great grid visuals communicate a level of attention to detail and visual style that most accounts don’t focus on. It also greatly increases the likelihood of someone following the account on a first impression.
Check out Instagram accounts like @asaprocky, @stefansagmeister, @tasteofstreep, @michel_e_b, or @pinlord (that’s me) to get a better idea of what well-executed grid visuals mean. A simple way to achieve an attractive visual style is by paying attention to the main color of the photos you’re posting and staying consistent with a particular posting theme. You can also post specific types of photos in a consistent pattern over time. Test your ideas out with rough draft mock-ups and use UNUM or Planoly to see how your grid will look ahead of time.
And those are the three activities most important when it comes to Retaining an Instagram audience.
If you want to measure your efforts, you can get a rough idea of the percentage of reached accounts you’re retaining by dividing the total number of new followers you’ve gained in a week by the total number of profile visits you’ve received that week and multiply by 100.
The higher that percentage rate is, the larger the number of people that you’re reaching are finding your content relevant/useful/entertaining enough to follow you.
That’s it! If you focus on executing all of these activities at a high level, you will see a measurable increase in your Instagram growth.
Growing a sincere Instagram following and creating good content is a marathon, not a sprint, so don’t be discouraged if it takes a while to see traction and growth. Like any other skill, it requires time and patience to master, but as long as you’re practicing it, you will get there :)