I feel a bit strange writing that title. How I gained followers. Because, to me, Instagram is a community. It’s a place to share photographs, stories and inspiration. And I’ve never seen the people who follow me as just a number.
It’s a fun, creative, inspiring community. Without it, I would never have dared share my writing, gained new skills and confidence, or ‘met’ so many supportive people. For that I am incredibly grateful.
But I know many of you are intrigued. How did I convince so many people to click on the follow button? It has been a long journey. Just over a year, in fact, to get to this point. Instagram, like blogging, like so many social media engagement platforms, has no get-followers-quick recipe. Unless you buy followers and I really do NOT recommend you do that for so many reasons.
So, how did I do it? This is what worked for me:
Good quality photographs
This is imperative. You cannot have fuzzy, out-of-focus pictures on your feed. Or pictures taken in bad lighting. Each photograph has to be crisp and clear. And taken in natural light.
It’s difficult during the winter months, especially if you work during the day and you desperately want to take a picture of a stunning cake you made in the evening. Believe me, I’ve been there. But using your kitchen light does not make a good photograph. It makes the photo look yellow and unappealing.
I did this a lot in the beginning. Not just on Instagram but on my early blog posts. I remember taking a picture of a stew (why?!) and some anonymous person commented that it looked a mess. He was right. Rude, but right.
Nowadays if I’m busy during week days I’ll take photographs at the weekend to share during the week.
(Incidentally all of my IG pictures are taken with my iPhone 6s+. When I upgraded last year it was a game-changer.)
On the subject of the quality of the photographs there is no shame in using filters. It’s not cheating at all. In the days before digital photographs there would be tinkering in the darkroom by the photographers to get the effect they wanted. Using filters, altering the contrast, exposure, saturation and so on after you’ve taken the photograph is no different. It is part of the creative process.
I use VSCO on my iPhone to create a cohesive look to my photographs. It’s free but some filters are in-app purchases.
Look at your grid
You’ve taken a stunning photograph. It’s getting lots of likes and it’s all incredibly exciting. Yet these likes aren’t converting into followers. The reason? Well, take a look at your grid. Your top three lines of pictures. Is it attractive? Does it look cohesive? Or, does it look like a mish-mash of different subjects? Maybe some pictures are good and some out of focus. Or you have a nice grid with one odd one or two pictures of a lively night out in there with your friends.
The top left picture in my above grid of the lemon cake made it to the explore page and gained well over 2000 likes. That picture alone gained me 400 followers in 24 hours. Because when they clicked on my profile this was the grid that greeted them. (I don’t say this to brag, by the way. It’s just what worked!)
Who is your audience?
You have to think about what you want to use Instagram for. Is it for sharing personal pictures with your friends and family? Or, is it to grow a platform and gain an audience? If it’s the former you can post whatever you like. You don’t need this article. But if it’s the latter then you need to share only your best photographs. A grid of beautiful flowers with a picture of three friends stuck in the middle will look a bit odd. And will possibly stop a person from clicking that follow button.
What is your theme?
Now, I’m not saying you have to have a theme – this is simply something that worked for me.
What do you want your Instagram to say about you? I worked with Sara Tasker of Me & Orla on this a year ago. She helped me work out what my message was. Which was, and still is: slow living through baking, reading, writing, nature and chicken-keeping. All my photographs are consistent with this message. People follow me because they know what they’re getting.
Prior to working this out my pictures would verge towards the over-saturated. Bright whites with vivid colours. I decided if I was about slow-living the look of my pictures also needed to reflect that. So I calmed my photograph colours down, used different filters and gradually, almost on its own accord, a softer colour palette started to emerge.
Because I’m a writer I decided to start sharing my writing. This was in the form of recipes, of my notes and my short non-fiction stories. And that is when my Instagram started to take off.
I started to get creative with it. And my confidence grew. I shared a little chicken doodle with my writing and it captured people’s attention. Without getting all woowoo here, I think this was because I wasn’t just sharing my writing or a drawing, but I was opening up part of me. My vulnerability. I know lots of people are inspired because I don’t just say ‘this is the finished product’. But I’m sharing my process and how I’m striving to achieve my ambitions.
If you’re a writer or creative then sharing your work-in-progress is so fascinating for others. You still need to curate the picture (messy desks with crumbs and scrunched up paper are probably best for your Instagram Stories) which I do by straightening the notebooks (I like straight lines!). I also add my pot of pencils plus a coffee to many of my notebook shots.
This is very much related to the point above. But get creative. Experiment. Use other instagrammers for inspiration. Pinterest is also another place I find useful for inspiring me. (I’ve a board especially for that.)
If you want to grow your account then hashtags are very important. They’re a way of putting your work in front of an audience who don’t yet follow you. But don’t use hashtags to describe the object in the photograph. If I had a picture of a cake I wouldn’t, for example, use #cake or #delicious. I would use hashtags that evoke the mood. #forahappymoment #embracingaslowerlife are just two of the hashtags I used on one of my cake shots recently.
Hashtags are created by instagrammers. So, for example, Embracing a Slower Life, is one of mine. I wanted to see a gallery of photographs that celebrated the little things in life that give us joy. That make us slow down and reflect.
Have a look around and find out what hashtags other people are using. If you’re a small account don’t go for hashtags with over 100,000 pictures on them. Go for smaller ones where you will get seen. Yes, it’ll be to a smaller audience, but it’ll be your audience.
Oh, and a word of advice. Don’t put a hashtag on that is irrelevant to the picture. It spoils the galleries and people really don’t like that.
If you need hashtag inspiration then sign up to Sara’s hashtag email.
I could write an entire blog post about captions. In fact I probably will at some point in the future. I use captions to practice my creative non-fiction writing. To evoke a mood or place. Not every time but often. I find it a joy to write because I do it quickly without over-thinking it. The potential for captions, especially for the writers reading this, is huge. I’ve written a little more here.
There’s very little point in uploading a good quality photograph, putting on the relevant hashtags, writing a thoughtful comment or mini-story then sitting back and waiting for people to like the picture and follow you. You have to engage with other people. Instagram is about a community (have I said this already?) that benefits from each other. You cannot just go in there and see what you can get out of it. You have to contribute too. Like other people’s photos, scroll through hashtags or the explore page and like and follow accounts that attract you. Comment on their pictures. And if someone comments on your picture, reply and go over to their page. You don’t have to auto-follow but a like on their latest picture is always nice. (Unless it is a highly inappropriate image!)
Sometimes, however, you may get just a comment like ‘this is awesome’, a thumb up emoji or similar. This is possibly a bot. A computer bot that likes and comments on photos for instagrammers who have paid for this service in order to grow a following. Don’t feel you have to respond to these. Only those who genuinely engage.
Show up regularly and consistently
Finally (for now) what worked for me was showing up almost every day. I post in the morning around 7.15am during the week or 9am on a Sunday. That’s when my audience is there. That’s when they expect me. Even with the changes in the algorithm it still pays to turn up at the same time on a regular basis. And what I post is consistent. People know I’m not going to suddenly start posting beach shots, for example. Or pictures of bridges.
Are you on Instagram? Come and find me – I’m abookishbaker there, too.
Instagram can play a big part in building an audience for writers and creatives. If you want to learn more then sign up for my free e-guide.