How to make money on Instagram (even if you don’t have a bajillion followers)

instagram profile

Elementary kids in the 1990s didn’t hold up glittered poster-board signs on career day that said “professional Instagrammer.” But as social media platforms grow, so do the number of people actually using them to make a living. In 2018, “professional Instagrammer” is a legitimate career.

Instagram influencers have one thing in common: reach. With enough reach, brands will pay influencers to post about a product in order to reach those followers. Influencers also tend to focus on one specific topic, posting on fashion, travel, food, or technology, just to name a few. That specific focus attracts brands because they can reach a specific audience.

But how do you go from posting a few photos to actually earning cash from Instagram? And do you really need to wait until you have 100,000 followers before earning money on Instagram? Here are five different options that take the guesswork out of learning how to make money on Instagram — and what you’ll need to do to help your profile make the cut.

What kind of profiles make money on Instagram?

Regardless of how you earn money on Instagram, influencer profiles tend to have a few things in common, both for attracting followers and brands alike. Influencers typically have a narrowed focus, a specific style, interesting visuals, and a “healthy” profile.

Focus: Brands aren’t looking to reach everyone — they have a specific audience in mind of the people most likely to buy their products. A high-end clothing brand will reach out to an influencer because he or she frequently posts about fashion, for example. Start by focusing on a niche area so brands and followers know what to expect when they come to your page — look at what you already have on your profile for inspiration or pinpoint what you’re most passionate about. A focus should be narrow enough to create a specific audience, but not so narrow that you can’t build a large follower count.

Style: No, this doesn’t just apply to fashion influencers. Most influencers have a specific style that gives their profile a cohesive look. Maybe it’s the type of photos, the colors and mood from the editing and composition, or even what’s said in the captions. Whatever it is, find what makes your photos yours and play that up.

Visuals: Instagram is a photo-based social network — there’s no getting around that. If you don’t have a great eye for photos, you’ll have a rough time. While you should have good photos on your profile, you don’t necessarily need fancy equipment or tons of experience. Instagrammer Monaris, for example, started with an iPhone and didn’t pick up a dedicated camera until after her followers had already noticed her style.

A “healthy” profile: Instagram is a good social media platform for becoming an influencer because the platform has a comparatively high level of engagement. But irk your followers, and you’ll lose their attention. Don’t start posting sponsored posts and only sponsored posts. That’s like going to a movie theatre just to watch two hours of commercials — no one is actually going to go to that theatre, or in this case, click that follow button. Be sure to balance with the photos that gained you those followers in the first place. Influencers also don’t disappear for days at a time — they tend to post to Instagram regularly.

How to make money on Instagram

While professional Instagrammers (or those that earn a little cash on the side) tend to have a few characteristics in common, there’s more than one way to make money on Instagram. You can choose the option that’s best suited for what you post, or mix in multiple options to generate a steadier source of income.

Join an Instagram influencer community.

With enough Instagram followers, brands may even reach out to you — but until then, Instagram influencer communities make it easier to find brands willing to pay for your reach, photo skills, and unique voice. Instagram influencer communities create a database of influencers for brands to work with. Brands win, because they can easily find influencers to work with. Instagrammers win, because they can find sponsored posts without a bajillion followers. And the influencer community wins because, well, they do take a cut of what you earn.

There are dozens of different types of influencer communities, and they all have different requirements, perks and persona. Here are just a few to consider:

Heartbeat: A platform focusing on female influencers, Heartbeat’s new app pairs potential influencers with brands looking for a similar audience. Besides the female focus, Heartbeat is different because the software matches Instagrammers to brands based on a series of questions about what you like and what you post. There’s no minimum follower count, but the pay isn’t always monetary — some brands trade for free products instead.

Shoutcart: Like an Amazon for Instagram influencers, influencers in this community build a profile and name a price. Brands can then search through the listings and find the right influencer for a campaign. Once a brand chooses you, the campaign is added to your “cart,” but you can opt out if the campaign might not sit well with your followers.

Tribe Group: Tribe Group is an Instagram influencer community based out of Australia. One of the platform’s biggest perks is that influencers set their own prices. Tribe Group also says they’re designed for creativity, not follower counts and celebrities.

Ifluenze: While this platform requires 5,000 followers, the network allows influencers to submit proposals to different brands. The platform then helps brands manage the accepted proposals and track them. This platform will also allow brands to choose just to buy the photo — and not the reach.

Popular Pays: Popular Pays is a gig-based platform — that means brands post their campaign and influencers create pitches on why they should be the influencer to work the campaign. The software also makes sure that a post is approved before going live and helps creators get paid for their work.

Sell fine art.

Turning your Instagram into a place for ads leave a sour taste in your mouth — or want to generate multiple sources of income? Instagram’s photo focus makes selling the photo itself a good option for cashing in, without posting ads. Apps like 8×10 allow photographers and other visual artists to sell fine art prints of their own work to followers. It’s like giving followers an Instagram post that can live on their walls.

8×10 takes care of all the printing, shipping, and payments. Artists use the app to generate a listing for a limited edition run of prints, which can also include a signature. The app allows users to choose the price. The app will even generate a mockup of the image hanging on a wall to share on Instagram. The app is free to use — 8×10 earns their living by taking a cut of each sale, so if you don’t sell anything, you don’t pay anything either.

Some artists use Instagram for reach, then use their own website to sell the prints. There’s potential to keep more of what you sell, but you still have to manage the printing and shipping or find a website platform or plugin that takes care of the shipping for you.

Sell stock photography.

While Instagram’s audience makes it ideal for artists selling their work, wall art isn’t the only way to do that. Selling stock is another chance to earn cash from photos you’re already taking anyways. You can sell Instagrams to stock photography companies using any company that doesn’t limit where you can post your own images in the terms. 

Some platforms may be better suited for Instagram-like photography than others. Twenty20 is a stock photography company designed for Instagram-like photos — the company calls itself “the largest authentic photography marketplace.” Other companies like Foap aim for a more Instagram-like style, but there’s nothing saying you can’t go with a giant traditional stock photo company like Shutterstock, StoryBlocks, or even Getty, if you have the clout. Just make sure to read over the licensing agreements to make sure you’re still allowed to post the same photo on Instagram — some licensing agreements may limit what you can do with the image.

Use affiliate links.

Affiliate links aren’t as popular on Instagram because, well, Instagram doesn’t actually let you add a link to your posts unless you have a business account. But that doesn’t mean affiliate marketing on Instagram is a bad idea, just a more challenging one to tackle.

Affiliate marketing is where you get paid every time someone buys a product because of a link that you shared. You get a unique URL and the affiliate program tracks how many people bought the product through that link and you get a cut of those sales. Affiliate marketing is used on websites and blogs (Digital Trends included), but it’s a possibility on Instagram, too.

The challenge with affiliate links on Instagram is that you can’t actually create clickable links within your posts. Most get around that limitation by posting the affiliate link in the bio section where you’re allowed one link. While it’s more difficult that way and you can only do one affiliate link at a time, you don’t have to reach out to brands to participate. Most affiliate programs are free and easy to sign up for — you’ll just need a significant reach if you want to see a significant amount of cash coming in.

Find your own sponsors.

While there are a number of platforms that help Instagrammers without quite so much of a hefty reach find brands to work with, influencers with larger follower counts can organically find sponsors without a middleman. Sometimes, these Instagrammers report having brands reach out to them first — which is why factors like using the right hashtags are so important. Other influencers reach out to the brands themselves — tagging a brand in a post, creating a Direct Message, or sending a pitch to the company’s marketing department.

Influencers that are able to find their own sponsors have a strong profile and a specific style that attracts those brands. Besides having a larger follower count, you’ll also have to set your own rates. The amount you can get from a post depends on the reach you have — but there are online calculators like this one that you can use as a starting point. Surveys suggest an average of a few hundred dollars per post.

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