Instagram Growth Hacking Tips: A Comprehensive Guide From the Ground Up

By June 15, 2016 No Comments

Recognizing The Importance of Instagram

Regardless of your feelings on their recent logo change, Instagram is one of the widest-used social media platforms out there. With 300 million active daily users posting 70 million photos each day, it’s really hard to ignore an outlet this big. Especially when brand engagement ranks the highest out of any social media platform at 4.21%. The mobile photo-sharing app is also considered the most important social network by more American teens (at 32 percent) than any other network, which presents an especially large opportunity for schools and universities.
So it’s clear that there is value to be found in Instagram, but how do you rise the ranks in this massive, established community to reach students? Let’s go over some Instagram growth hacking tips to help you get a new instagram account growing from the bottom up.

All Hail the King

King Content that is…
In case you haven’t heard, Instagram has recently updated their newsfeed algorithm to focus on quality content. Before the March update, newsfeeds were strictly chronological and organic. Taking into account these changes means creating engaging content is of utmost importance, and it’s the first step in successfully growing your Instagram. Steer away from promotional posts and get creative. Your content (and a good history of it) is what followers will stick around for.
You might be thinking: How can I create the best possible content without the best equipment? The most important part about your content is that you really don’t need that $2,000, 50-megapixel camera you’ve been dreaming of. Sure, it might help, but our smart phones nowadays can rival 10-year-old SLR’s if you know how to use them. I’m not going to dive into advanced photography principles, but a basic understanding is definitely useful. If you don’t know what the rule of thirds means, then a little light reading might be of help.
To make your photos “pop” (as they say), I highly recommend using a free photo-editing app called Snapseed. It’s extremely powerful, fun to use, and designed by Google, so what’s not to love? Sometimes I’ll even prefer editing photos on mobile in Snapseed instead of using Adobe Photoshop. Again, I’m not going to dive into the deep end of the photo editing pool, but if you are looking to dip a toe in, this is a great resource.
If you really want to stand out and give yourself a unique Instagram brand, consider establishing an identifiable persona or theme. Some basic examples might include a graphic design account that uses all cool colors (blues and greens) or a university account that only posts pictures of people at the school called “people of [insert university].” Another way to uniquely identify your account is through using a certain filter in every post.
Build a content library and plan for future posts so your account will look alive and healthy. It’s critical to create and keep a library of ORIGINAL content that you can post. Originality will not only help build your brand, but it will also help your chances to appear on the suggested users list, or the wall of fame as I like to call it.
Another key to engaging content? Video. Instagram reports that video views have recently increased by 40%. We’ve also seen their parent company, Facebook, give preference to video content within their own algorithm, which could be taken as an indicator for the future of Instagram itself. The only thing – quality video content is a little more difficult to create and takes more time and better equipment. If you have the resources, definitely move forward with a video strategy.

Posting Consistency

Consistency is extremely important on Instagram.
A lot of people post every day or even multiple times a day and claim that it’s a great way to grow an account. With the recent changes, it’s also a great way to get lost in the algorithm. If your strategy is to post multiple times a day, often your content isn’t going to be of identical quality due to the constant pressure of maintaining consistency. Lower quality posts will then receive less engagement and tell the Instagram algorithm that your content isn’t popular and therefore not worth being featured on the newsfeed.
There really isn’t a cookie cutter standard for posting frequency, and it seems like everyone has historically had different experiences and suggestions. However, when starting a new account, I’ve always found it beneficial to post infrequently, especially when you’re just learning how to create good content. This doesn’t mean I post inconsistently, though. I’d recommend a structure of every 2-3 days for new accounts. If you’re just starting out with photography and editing, followers especially won’t be interested in an account that floods them with subpar content (no offense). All in all, initial infrequent posting is a great way to RETAIN followers when they only see your posts occasionally.

Growing Your Fanbase

I need to start off explaining follower growth with a simple PSA: NEVER PAY FOR FOLLOWERS.
Purchasing followers doesn’t increase engagement and is an unrewarding way to “grow” your Instagram account. Paid followers are very easy to spot on the followers tab on your page, and it makes accounts look low quality. An account with a lot of followers and little engagement is quite suspicious in the eyes of prospective followers and (probably) Instagram.

How to Gain REAL Followers

Gaining fans (users who follow you that you don’t follow back) on Instagram really isn’t very difficult. It just takes a little time and dedication. To give you a picture of how much time, I probably spend around three hours each week on Instagram growth AND engagement, so it’s definitely not a full-time commitment. Incorporating these strategies into or on top of your existing day-to-day responsibilities is a breeze.
It’s important to note that you should not start growing your account until you’ve built it up into something you’re proud of so your followers will stick. Before you begin step 1, make sure you:

  • Choose a simple, yet relevant account handle
  • Create a unique name for your account.
  • Come up with a simple account bio
  • Include a relevant link to your site
  • Upload a high-quality profile photo
  • Establis a history of at least 9 posts so your account looks established above the mobile fold of your account page


Step 1 – Following Other Accounts: Look to the Competition

After your account is somewhat built out, the first step is following other accounts, and, specifically, accounts that follow your competitors.
You’ll need to find 4-5 competitor Instagram accounts and rotate through them, eventually following thousands of their followers, tens of thousands of them even. When choosing these competitors, you can search for accounts that have similar keywords in their handles as yours or you can even browse Internet resources and receive insight into the top accounts in your industry.
After you’ve found relevant competitor’s accounts, just click on their followers tab and follow as many as you can. Instagram limits your followings to 200/hour so you’ll have to do this manually and in hourly incremented time segments. It takes about 3 minutes to follow 200 people once you become a pro at tapping “follow” instead of their profile link…
It is extremely important to know that when looking at an account’s followers section, the followers at the top of the list are the newest followers of the account. This means they have recently been online, and you know they are active users. Selecting a specific time of day to follow these people on competitor’s accounts means you can control when your followers are active and post content based around that timeframe. This is also a great way to use the newsfeed algorithm to your advantage.
Don’t worry if the accounts seem irrelevant or if you feel like you’re following too many people. All of the followers of your competitors accounts have a reason they’re following them, and that reason could lead them to interest in your account. In this sense, instagram is a really great way to directly target your audience segments. You can also use third party apps to find these audiences, but I’ve found that the search feature in Instagram works just as great. Not to mention most of the aforementioned apps aren’t free…
The Instagram community is extremely supportive, and the follow-for-follow approach has really become some sort of unwritten code that most instagram users adhere to. You’ll get about 25% of those you followed following you back most of the time, which means at the beginning, you’ll be following more people than those that follow you. Don’t worry, that’s perfectly normal and expected. If you really want to grow an eventual following, you’ll need to spend a lot of time following accounts as well as unfollowing them. It becomes an intuitive process of follow, wait, rinse, and repeat.

Step 2 – Unfollowing Accounts

After you’ve followed a large number of accounts, around 3,000-5,000, you’ll start accumulating an attractive following. The second step is unfollowing those that you have followed.
Your “following” number is a large indicator of organic viability. Unfollowing accounts is almost as, if not, more important than following accounts. This is because it’s time consuming and a necessary part of optimizing the illustrious Instagram “Ratio” (cue chorus of angels). This infamous ratio of “following” to “followers” is by far the most popular metric discussed in the Instagram community. A better ratio can be a large sign of respect and authority, which can lead to more organic followers, better odds against the algorithm and a higher chance to end up on the wall of fame (suggested accounts).
There’s no way to unfollow accounts quickly in the Instagram app, unless you go one by one down your following list and unfollow them, which is possible but takes a LOT of time, and more importantly, it’s just really boring. My personal suggestion, and the biggest piece of advice I have would be to spend a little money, specifically a one-time fee of $2.99 (about the same price as a chalupa supreme). This enables full access to an app called “cleaner,” which allows you to unfollow up to 200 accounts/hour with the click of a button. It’s a complete lifesaver when it comes to cleaning up your account and well priced at that. Cleaner is free, but you can opt-in for the unlimited mass unfollowing option within the app.

Don’t be a Robot

After you’ve gained some followers, you need to let them know you’re a real person. As with every social media platform, engagement is the building block for impact and action.
Scroll through your follower feed and do the following:

  • Like their pictures
  • Comment on their posts
  • Respond to as many of their comments on your content as you can.

Sure, this takes some time, but people will really stick around as a follower if they get a positive experience from your account and feel like you are a human being.

Tap into Communities

Engage with accounts outside of your primary audience. Consider a topic lightly related to a recent post you published. Search a hashtag or location (maybe close to your business) and then navigate to recent posts. Again, we know the top people are active on their accounts and online right now. Their content also has little engagement on it, as it is very recent, and being one of the first to engage with a post can pull a lot of weight.

No, That Isn’t a Pound Sign

It’s a hashtag, and they are very important in Instagram. Hashtags will allow a lot of people to discover your content and your account. There are several tags that people use to find new accounts and draw engagement such as #follow4follow #Followback and #doubletap. Using these can potentially help gain followers and engagement, but they can also make you look desperate. I recommend targeting highly relatable keywords to your posts and using them as hashtags. You can also brand your own hashtags and include them in every one of your posts.
When starting out, use a minimum of 13 hashtags in every post and place them as a comment, rather than in the post copy. That way, when other comments come in on your post, your hashtags will be hidden in plain sight and posts will appear much cleaner. Instagram communities are very powerful; it’s important to take advantage of them, and the best way to do so is through hashtags. But you’ll need to get a little creative. For hashtag ideas, you can look for photos of similar content on instagram and grab hashtag ideas. However, I like to use a site called keyhole to find related hashtags under the “topics” section. Eventually dwindle this number down to around four or five. Too many hashtags can also make you look desperate for followers.

Share Where You Are

I’ve mentioned geotags a few times, so let’s talk about how to use them. Geotags work very similarly to hashtags. Sure, location sharing is a great way to stalk your ex, but more importantly, people tend to do a lot of research when visiting a new place, and Instagram has surpassed yelp in becoming the go-to resource for visual references, especially due to it’s user-centric focus. Because of this, it’s pretty important for your content to be in the location stream. Especially when posts with location tags drive 79% higher engagement rates.
Adding a geotag is fairly easy. Simply tap the “add location” option when posting your content and select the relevant location you want the post associated with. You can also create a new Instagram location via Facebook by following steps here.

Add Captions to Your Media

You should be including written copy on every post you publish on Instagram. Visual media will obviously be the first thing followers see in your post, but (hopefully) if it’s something they really like, they’ll take the time to read the caption. Now unless you are an Instagram thought leader or celebrity, few people are going to stick around to read a 300 word caption, so generally keep it short and sweet. The max character count is 1,200 characters, but captions cut off in users’ feeds after just 3 lines of text, which usually comes out to just under 120 characters. I’d recommend aiming your character count to somewhere around 100.

Notify Your Followers

One recent feature that Instagram rolled out was the “turn on post notifications” option. This is a great feature that was designed to send push notifications to your phone from your favorite Instagram accounts so you can be up to date on their content stream.
Encouraging your followers to turn on post notifications can be a great way to establish a network of dedicated followers to increase engagement, just be careful not to look desperate. Mention it every once in a while but too much and you could start annoying them. The image below will show you how to turn on notifications.
post notifications image

To Infinity and Beyond

A few years ago, Facebook bought out Instagram for $1 billion. Since then, Zuckerberg’s monster has made some drastic changes to their own algorithm including capitalizing on a strict pay-to-play approach, which has really sent the organic feed up the creek without a paddle, making a lot of people unhappy in the process. Facebook seems to be taking baby steps toward a similar approach with their Instagram strategy as well, and again, it’s not looking too good for the future of organic content. However, we’re at a breaking point right now where the recent algorithmic changes in Instagram present an opportunity of sorts that is ready to be taken advantage of. The important part is just knowing how to take advantage of it.
Some people are suggesting that Facebook’s organic preference toward video content may rollover into the new instagram changes and that videos may become more important in the coming years. Some people are also claiming that ‘sharing’ content will soon become a feature within Instagram, which would add a whole new medium for KPI’s.
At the end of the day, just ask yourself, are people going to like this image or video? The two pillars of Instagram growth are quality and simplicity. Don’t overthink it.
Happy Instagramming! If you have any questions, tips and tricks, or your own or success stories, feel free to share them below.
Jordan OpelJordan Opel is an accomplished, creative professional. He is responsible for managing and enhancing organic social media activities for our various clients. Additionally, as the leading graphic designer, he contributes to a significant portion of Circa Interactive’s creative endeavors through motion-media design, illustration, and content-creation experience.

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