There’s no magic formula for achieving crazy Instagram popularity. But if you want to gain a larger following, there are steps you can take to build a loyal audience and establish your place in the photo-sharing community. Now, it probably would’ve helped you to begin your quest for more followers when the app was smaller, but it’s not too late.
You might want to gain followers just for personal satisfaction, or because you’re trying to build a brand. No matter why you want more followers, it’s tempting to tap into the flourishing spambot follower cottage industry – just throw down some money and watch your follower count blossom. But using artificial methods to pump up your numbers won’t help you attract real followers, and it may damage your credibility in the long run. Just like on Twitter, it isn’t just your follower count alone that matters, but how much people are engaging with your account. And you can’t meaningfully engage with bots (no matter how much we all love @Horse_ebooks).
So, here’s what you should do if you want to win friends and fans on Instagram.
To hashtag or not to hashtag? (You have to hashtag)
There’s no better way to make everyone want to kick you on Instagram than putting a million hashtags on every photo, so don’t unleash your hashtagging beast with wild abandon. Be thoughtful and choose relevant hashtags. And make sure to take advantage of popular hashtags, as long as they make sense alongside your photo. While Instagram doesn’t tell you what the most popular hashtags are, third parties like Webstagram provide helpful breakdowns of the trendiest hashtags. Some of these are incredibly general, like #instagood (the second most popular hashtag, behind #love) and #photooftheday (#5). Pick one of those and add it – just don’t pick all of them.
And pay attention to more unusual tags that are gaining traction. While there are too many photos labeled #throwbackthursday and #tbt each week to go through, if you find slightly less popular but still buzz-worthy hashtags, you can zero in on a certain group of followers. For instance, #babies_with_swagg is actually a fairly robustly-used hashtag, with more than 28,000 photos tagged. So if you see any stylish wee people, you can tap into that little community. Mashable found some bizarrely popular hashtags, and adding them to photos (again, when appropriate) may garner you favor with their quirky communities.
Speaking of communities, you should look local for other good hashtags. You’re taking pictures of the world around you, and unless you’re a jetsetter, many of your photos are probably going to be taken in the same place. And that place probably has some thriving Instagram usage going on. Maybe your local coffee shop has an Instagram hashtag (they probably do). So when you take that artfully framed photo of your latte, make sure you let everyone know where you got it – other regulars may start following you. You could become the famed coffee Instagrammer of your hood. Local sports team you’re into? Hashtag enough and they might start paying attention and featuring your Instagrams (it happened to our own Trail Blazers-obsessed Molly McHugh – check it out at right).
Dan Zarrella, a self-described social media scientist, looks at which hashtags will get you more popularity. He compiled a list of the most successful hashtags and least successful hashtags based on how many likes they receive, analyzing over a million Instagram photos (he also took a look at what filters are most popular – but don’t let that pigeon-hole you!). Looking at his work can give you a handle on which tags you should include — and tags that encourage reciprocity or a you-follow-me-I-follow-you attitude are great for growing your base.
Think quality, not quantity
OK, I lied when I said excessive hashtags are the most annoying thing you can do on Instagram. The actual most annoying thing you can do on Instagram is inundate your followers’ feeds with a ton of photos in a row. You can and should post multiple times a day if you want to get more followers, but you need to spread these photos out over the course of the day, and you really shouldn’t post more than five times. Applying limits to your posts will help you reach for higher quality photos, and it will help you build anticipation for your next post.
Take advantage of Instagram’s blog to learn about how some of the brightest stars stand out from the crowd. One of the most recent profiles, for instance, looks at concert photographer Danny Clinch’s tips for getting incredible in-the-moment photos. He recommends paying attention to angles and looking beyond just the lead singer. The Instagram blog looks at all sorts of photographers, so whether you’re trying to get followers through energetic shots of Bonnaroo or meticulously framed nature photos, you’ll be able to see how the pros do it (and none of them do it by posting 20 photos in a row).
Find your niche
Your niche doesn’t have to be super-narrow, like only posting pictures of your feet. But if you have something you specifically want to photograph on Instagram – urban landscapes from around New York, or your Shiba Inu puppy – you can attract more followers with similar interests by staying on topic. As I mentioned before, there are certain extremely specific hashtags that are weirdly popular. If you can differentiate yourself by sticking with one quirky theme, you may gain more followers than you would just taking photos of whatever. Of course, you have to actually want to devote your Instagram profile to pictures of pitbulls wearing sunglasses, so this tactic isn’t for everyone. But users that do speciality photos well tend to have good results. Take @babyslothsdaily – the account has over 18,000 followers. And it’s all baby sloths, all the time. If you have a passion, be it nail art or Korean fusion, you might want to zero in on becoming the best Instagram account that represents that pocket of culture instead of going the general route.
Engage with fans – and be one
No matter what sort of photos you take with Instagram, you shouldn’t treat it as a one-way communication tool. Even if you take amazing nature photography, you might not be able to gain as involved and excited a fan base as someone who takes less spectacular photos but is an active presence in the Instagram community. And oh, does Instagram have a community. Unlike services like Vine, which really require other social networks to gain attention for posts, Instagram’s native userbase thrives through the original platform. People make friends on Instagram that become real-life cohorts. Sure, you might be able to grow a good-sized audience on Instagram without actually liking the app, but it will be much easier if you enjoy yourself – if you actually look through Instagram photos for pleasure and engage with other users on a genuine, friendly level, you’ll have an easier time connecting with an audience and finding your Instagram tribe.
As I mentioned before, taking advantage of hashtags that connect you to your local community is wise, and people actually organize Instagram meetups for people who use the service and live near each other. So tagging your photos with #instameet and participating in these meet-ups can substantially help you boost your local-Instagram-celebrity status.
And there’s nothing better than getting in with Instagram itself. As Instagramers founder Philippe Gonzalez told me, “Most of the people who have over a hundred thousand on Instagram reached this level because they were featured and highlighted in some way by the Instagram team. If [you don’t get featured] you have to be a star or a very sexy girl.”
Take advantage of third-party tools to promote your account
But even though working it within Instagram itself is crucial, there are also plenty of legitimate ways to boost your profile without resorting to nefarious spambots. For instance, linking your Instagram to your Twitter account, or to your Google+ (it can be done!), can help you show your photos to people you’re connected to on other platforms. In addition to promoting your Instagram with other social networks, you can also sign up for third-party services, like Nitrogram, associated with Instagram to further gain exposure. Put some of your favorite photos on InstaStock, for example – you might even make money off of them in addition to growing your base.
And if you’re still wondering what it will take to take over Instagram, check out Miss Netiquette’s guide to the photo-sharing network, since it may answer more specific questions.