Psst: bathroom selfies might not cut it.
So you want more Instagram followers? Everyone does. It’s nothing to be ashamed of; an online popularity competition isn’t necessarily a BAD thing. But it can be a hard thing.
I do not have a million followers. What I have is a process built on hard work, trial, error, study and a willingness to adapt and learn at a rapid rate. I started my Instagram account as an extension of my book blog. To begin with, it was pretty freaking rudimentary. I wasn’t concerned about lighting or getting the perfect shot. I just wanted to connect with people, chat about books and have a place to upload photos from my literary trip around the US.
But, as we all know, social media can be addictive. Pretty soon, I was following amazing accounts within my niche and realising that I seriously needed to up my game if I wanted those kinds of people to follow my account.
So how do you stand out when Instagram is saturated with beautiful images? Over the last two months, I’ve started paying closer attention to my Instagram account than ever. At the time of writing this, I’ve increased my following by exactly 100 per cent. Here’s how I did it:
1. Make a great first impression
When you look at an Instagram account on your phone, you can see – what? The first six photos? Maybe nine if the person’s bio is super small? What do you think your nine most recent photos say?
We’re not getting spiritual here; the first six (or nine) images visible on your account are saying, “Hello. This is what you can expect from me.” To put it plainly, if your most recent photos are crap, no one is going to want to scroll further and see if you’ve got some hidden gems in there.
Your top photos should ALWAYS be a representation of your account as a whole. I’m not suggesting you can NEVER post something outside your niche. Just try to stagger the content that doesn’t accurately represent your account. This goes for your feed as well; followers can be fickle and if they start seeing random photos when they’re ONLY following people who post about a particular subject, chances are they’ll unfollow you.
If you’re running a personal Instagram, you can be a bit more lenient. Post selfies by all means! But unless you’re a Kardashian or you’re really, really ridiculously good-looking, get some variety in there. And make sure the ones that you DO post aren’t embarrassingly grainy.
Things work differently again if you have broader interests. If, for example, you run an account for a prestige lifestyle magazine that deals in food, beauty, fashion, lifestyle and travel (hi, Style colleagues!) then it’s a different kettle of fish again.
You don’t need to represent each and every category within the first photos; you just need to have enough of a variety for people to see at a glance that you are, in fact, dedicated to covering the spectrum of topics that your brand is supposed to deliver.
2. Create an interesting bio
If you’re super new to Instagram, your bio is the little section above your photos which gives you the opportunity to talk about yourself. But not too much. Your photos should be doing the talking.
“But Sarah,” I hear you saying, “how will they know who I am and what I do if I can’t WRITE ABOUT IT?!” Chill, guys. I’m not saying that you CAN’T write about yourself. I’m saying that you need to distil it to the core values. There’s a limit of 150 characters, so try using bullet point format and/or emojis to bring some colour into an otherwise dull area of your profile.
The way Instagram formats things is troublesome so if you want any kind of paragraphing, you need to do it in the notes on your phone, or in a text message to yourself. Then you copy the text over to Instagram. BOOM. DONE.
3. Think about how you’re setting up photos
You don’t have to have a fancy camera or a studio full of lighting equipment or Photoshop. All those things definitely help but you can make magic without them.
You need clear images. Sorry, but grainy photos just don’t cut it when you want more Instagram followers. If you’re on your iPhone, try to avoid zooming in on something as the digital zoom feature is basically just cropping and magnifying part of the image. If you can’t get a clear shot, change the distance or alter the height from which you’re taking the photo.
Use the rule of thirds. Basically, don’t centre the subject in every single image; that gets boring. Have you ever noticed when cropping a picture in Instagram that a grid with nine little squares grid pops up? It’s there for a reason.
Let’s take a look at this picture, for example:
This image is focused on the bowl of cherries. It’s off in the top left third of the grid, chilling out and looking awesome. This allows for white, bright space and offers the viewer something cool and different. This rule works for every part of the grid – top, bottom, left, right, corners – just steer away from the exact centre and you’ll be right.
You COULD leave the rule of thirds up to the Instagram grid, but it’s a good idea to set up each photo with the intention of using the rule of thirds, lining up props in key places so you don’t just end up with dead, boring space.
4. Choose the best lighting
Opt for natural light wherever possible. Research shows that pictures which are generally lighter will usually receive 24 per cent more likes than photos with darker content. Maybe it’s for some special scientific reason, or maybe it’s because people can actually see what you’re posting.
Taking a photo when the sun is directly overhead is just going to result in annoying shadows and definite frustration. Indirect lighting is key, so try taking your photos near a window where a nice amount of light is coming in.
And know your space. Figure out where you like to take your photos and then take note of the hours with the best lighting. The room where I take my photos has the best light between 10am and 1-2pm depending on the cloud cover. By 2pm, I have to shut the curtains to avoid casting too many shadows.
If you’re going to lots of night-time events where lighting is poor, you can always use the brightening tool in the Instagram app (or an app of your choice) to improve the image.
I’m not saying your dark photos WON’T get likes. There are plenty of accounts with beautiful pictures and interesting mood lighting. But, from my personal experience and in keeping with the research, people respond more to something with a high light content.
5. Edit your photos
There are heaps of third-party apps available to edit your photos such as VSCO, InstaSize and Mix. Many people choose to create a single, customisable filter to overlay on all their photos. But if you’re not taking photos in the same place every time then this can make things a bit awkward when the filter doesn’t quite suit.
Opt for an overarching theme and recurring elements: alternate between a few distinct options for your flat lays; take beautiful top-down food shots. But when it comes down to it, if you have broad interests, your photos don’t have to be consistent in every aspect. They just have to be consistently beautiful.
The day of the regular Instagram filters seems to have come and gone in favour of adjusting individual elements in the tools section of the Instagram app. Here you can change the positioning of a photo and alter the brightness, saturation, sharpness and shadows of the image bit by bit.
6. Write great captions
Say it with me: CAPTIONS ARE IMPORTANT. This is your chance to give people an insight into what’s happening behind the scenes of the photo. Since Instagram is primarily visual, it’s up to you to invoke the other senses. If you’re posting a picture of an awesome meal you had, writing the name of the dish isn’t going to cut it. I can SEE that it’s a plate with chicken marinated in the juices of 17 ducks and 12 pineapples but how does it TASTE? Are you going to be dreaming about this meal later? Does it evoke a childhood memory? Is it fresh and exciting?
And tell me a little about your day. I see your life in snapshots and that’s not how people live. Tell me what you did at the beach, tell me about the book you’re reading and why you love those characters, tell me that this beauty product makes you feel like a freaking goddess who could smite anyone in her path.
Don’t be that weird person who overshares; just make it a conversation. Ask a question of your followers to get some interaction going (more about that later).
7. Hashtag #likeaboss
There are two different areas where you can (and should) use your hashtags. The caption of your image should contain your call to action hashtags. This is where you put the official hashtag for an event, location, product or challenge. Keep hashtagging in this area to a minimum.
Try and work the hashtag into a sentence, like “I’m reading the new edition of @StyleMagazines today! Have I told you how much I #LoveStyle?” If you can’t swing that, then put a space between your caption and group the hashtags down the bottom.
Now you have the specifics, you need more popular hashtags to help to categorise your photo within the sea of Instagram posts. I’m talking about tags such as #fashion #clothing #bag #coat and any other general terms that will help get your image noticed by other people in your niche.
These hashtags go in the comments. Just dump ’em in there. Within three comments, your initial comment/block of hashtags will disappear from view when people are scrolling past. If you don’t have a bunch of comments on your photos, there is a way to hide the hashtags in a little ellipsis.
This requires some formatting, so go into the notes section of your phone or type a text message. Put six full stops in a column and then start your hashtags on the seventh row. Paste that into a comment on Instagram and it should appear like this “[…]”. All your hashtags are there, all of them are still searchable and you’ve got a much cleaner look.
Just remember Instagram has a limit on the amount of hashtags you can use per post. It’s 30 total – that includes everything in the caption and everything in the comments.
8. Don’t underestimate the value of tagging
Instagram doesn’t store notifications forever so if you’ve tagged someone in a comment it might get lost. If you want brands to notice that you’re showing off their product, tag them in the image itself.
Tagging brands in relevant photos is a great way to get featured on various accounts. Check to see if the brand features customer shots on its Instagram. Do they go for a specific type of shot? If it fits within your overarching theme and you’re keen to be featured, go for it! If your photo DOES get featured, it can result in new followers and more exposure for you.
9. Give credit where credit is due
If you’re reposting an image from someone else’s account, you should be tagging the creator in both the caption and the image itself, as well as making it absolutely clear that it’s not your image; you don’t want copyright issues cropping up at a later date.
In the Instagram community, failing to give credit can really irritate the artist/photographer if their photo starts being circulated with no acknowledgement of their work. And if that artist/photographer has a significant following, they can encourage their followers to fill your account with abusive comments or they can report your account for posting images that aren’t your own. Your ENTIRE ACCOUNT could be deleted as a result of this.
You also may gain followers after reposting someone else’s photo. If you do this on a regular basis, it will eventually become clear that you are just “reblogging” content and don’t have anything original. Then you’ll start to lose followers.
You can’t just post photos and assume that people will come flocking. If someone comments on your photo, thank them or at the very least just tag them with a heart emoji to let them know that their comment has been seen and appreciated. If someone asks where you got a product, answer them. Even if you’ve tagged it in the image and in the caption. Everyone joins Instagram at different times so don’t assume that they know to tap on an image and see who you’ve tagged.
Like other people’s photos. Comment on other people’s photos. Even if they don’t reply to you, someone else might see your comment and have a look at your page because they like what you wrote.
11. Sort out a posting schedule
Experiment with posting times. Should you be posting twice a day? Three times a day? More or less? Eventually, you’ll find a sweet spot that gets you more followers and gets more interaction on each of your posts. The time of day is also important. Consider your audience. Most of my followers are from the US or Europe rather than Australia, which means I need to take into account their differing time zones.
If you have a large crossover between the people who follow you and the people you follow (which, ideally, you should), check out when they’re posting. If you can post in the most active periods, you’re more likely to have people online and interacting while they’re waiting for interaction on their own post. Welcome to an instant boost in your stats!