When I started using Instagram for my food blog, Workweek Lunch, I had no idea what I was doing.
Like most people in the beginning of their Instagram journeys, I just uploaded mediocre photos with random popular hashtags and unengaging captions.
Monday meal prep! This only took 1.5 hours and cost around $20. I tried to mix it up this week for more variety 💯 This super simple meal prep includes: lemon garlic salmon, bbq chicken, brown rice, whole wheat pesto pasta (leftover from yesterday), sautéed kale and green beans. Snacks: green peppers, unsalted mixed nuts, plums and bananas. 👌#mealpreponfleek #foodblogfeed
After five months of doing that with no real growth, I got frustrated.
I couldn’t get 100+ likes on a photo.
No one was commenting on them.
I was too shy to use Instagram stories.
My account was stuck at 800 followers.
It wasn’t doing anything to impact my business.
I knew I had to do something different to make all of the hours spent arranging my food to create visually appealing photos count.
I wanted to build a real audience and community.
So, I talked to my friend and Instagram Expert Anna McNaught at The Liked Photo to get some of her best Instagram tips.
She did an audit of my profile, told me exactly what to do, and I got to work. This was in late December of 2016.
Fast forward seven months. My account breezed past the 15,000 mark over 2,000 people watch my Instagram stories every day.
My account breezed past the 15,000 mark over 2,000 people watch my Instagram stories every day.
I want to share with you five crucial things I learned while organically growing my account to the 10k mark.
If you’re trying to grow your following for free WITHOUT using any shady “follow for follow” services or anything, these tips below will make a huge difference.
1. Hashtags matter more than you think
Anna’s tips helped me get to 5,000 followers, but to push through to the 10k mark, I knew I had to revamp my strategy again.
After doing research on how hashtags work, I realized that I was way off.
The whole point of using hashtags is to be discovered, and I think most people know that. But what most people don’t get is that your posts have to make it in the Top 9 of any given hashtag you use to be discoverable.
I go into that more (and how hashtags and SEO are related) in my online Instagram Growth For Business Workshop. Learn more here.
Instead of just guessing hashtags, I actually looked at each one to see if they were a good fit for my content so I had a better chance of making the Top 9.
The verdict? Most of the hashtags I was using were complete garbage. There was no way my food prep photos would be visible in a hashtag dedicated to flexing muscles and showing off abs of steel.
When I started using hashtags that made more sense, I my following grew rapidly.
Lesson learned: never assume what works and what doesn’t. Doing the legwork pays off.
2. Stick to your point of view like glue
This is really a lesson in branding and can be applied to any platform.
Everything I post has to tie back to food, healthy living and meal prep in some way.
While it sounds limiting, it’s fun to get creative within those limits. It also takes the pressure off being “interesting.” As long as I add value to my followers, they’re happy.
Sticking to my point of view (my health philosophy) in posts, stories, in captions and everything else is what makes me stand out in the crowded food niche on Instagram.
Everyone else in my space is jumping on weird trends like sun potion, obsessive macro counting, adaptogens and collagen peptides (ugh) while I’m continuing to focus on the stuff I know: balanced, intuitive eating.
My account started getting more attention when I added text to my photos. Sure, this was inspired by other people already doing it, but I put my own spin on it.
I'll never get tired of burrito bowls! 😋They're versatile, super cheap and easy to make and way healthier (and more balanced) than anything you'd buy at Chipotle. 🌶 In this post I'm highlighting the different elements that you should aim for in every meal you cook. 🤓 A meal with healthy fats, proteins, grains (or complex carbs) and veggies will keep you satisfied and the flavors you use will keep you from getting bored. 💯🙏🏼 When you think about meals this way, the possibilities are endless. And this is why I don't count macros: I don't need to! 💪🏼 My formula (protein + carbs + veggies + fat) keeps everything in check for me. 👇🏼👇🏼 I linked my burrito bowl recipe in my story today if you want to try! Have any questions? Drop 'em below. . . . . #mealprepper #mealpreponfleek #mealprepsociety #mealprepsunday #mealprepsundays #mealprepmonday #mealprepdaily #mealprepandchill #mealprepideas #mealpreponpoint #foodprep #healthymealprep #howtomealprep #thefoodpreplife #healthylunch #healthydinner #healthydinnerideas #tupplife #burritobowl #favoritefood #avocado #vegetarian #vegetarianmealprep #vegetarianfood #mealprepcrew #spoonuniversity #iamwellandgood #greatist
Pay attention to the trends and make them your own instead of being a copycat.
Lesson learned: Don’t be a “me too” brand. Own your voice.
3. Authenticity stems from vulnerability
If you want to build a brand that people care about, you can’t do it without a healthy dose of authenticity.
There are many different points of view on authenticity and what it means for businesses, but here’s a take I like from James T Noble’s post about it on Kissmetrics:
Simply put, being authentic means staying true to who you are, what you do and who you serve. In an environment in which more human elements matter it creates value and benefits for your followers as well as improving your business.
Instagram actually makes it easy to be authentic — so many people share nitty gritty details so saying something that might be TMI on another platform is normal.
Each thriving niche on the platform has stemmed from people sharing fears, hopes, and frustrations.
The posts that have the highest engagement rates on my account are the ones where I share something about myself and my health journey.
Case in point, this is currently my most liked photo to date:
There's an important story behind this photo. ✨ Instagram makes healthy living look SO easy, like it just happens magically. ✨ I wasn't always good at cooking interesting healthy and simple meals. I used to bring food to work and buy lunch anyway, abandoning my soggy salad in the office fridge. ✨ It took me two years to develop a diet and system that works for me. Despite what we see on social media, there's no ONE hack or recipe or product that will get the results we're working hard for. ✨ Real progress is a long game, and it looks different for everyone. ✨ I want you to appreciate your journey. Look at how far YOU have come. Give yourself credit for putting in work, even if you don't have the results you want yet. ✨ You'll get there. As for this photo of my vegan meals? It might look perfect, but I still have a ways to go too. . . . . #mealprepper #mealpreponfleek #mealprepsociety #mealprepsunday #mealprepsundays #mealprepmonday #mealprepdaily #mealprepandchill #mealprepideas #mealpreponpoint #foodprep #healthymealprep #workmealprep #worklunch #desklunch #healthylunch #healthydinner #healthydinnerideas #tupplife #whatieatinaday #veganmeals #veganmealprep #veganfoodshare #veganmealplan #plantbaseddiet #plantbasedliving
If you want to engage with your followers on a deeper level, you have to get vulnerable.
It’s one of the best ways to make yourself stand out because there’s only one of YOU. It doesn’t matter that there are thousands of other people on the platform posting about the same topic as you.
Lesson learned: If your caption feels too mushy or raw to post, it’s probably perfect.
4. Better photography = shareable content
Just like on any other platform, be it Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest, if your content isn’t good, no one is going to share it.
Think about that next time you snap a photo for Instagram. Is it good enough that someone else might like it enough to share it?
My account grew more when my photos improved. I started using Snapseed to edit photos. I found better lighting. Recently, I started using my real camera instead of my phone camera.
My account really took off when my photos were good enough to be shared on other accounts — accounts with 10x the following I have.
One endorsement from a bigger account landed me 600 followers in one day, just like that.
Don’t know the real difference between visually good and bad Instagram posts? Scope out your competition and take note of what they’re doing and why it’s working. Chances are, they’re not better than you… they just take better photos. It’s not magic!
Lesson learned: As always, content is king.
5. Make friends with influencers in your space
I’ve talked a lot about connecting with people who are busier than me and how to leverage influencers on my blog before.
The same approach applies to Instagram.
There are Instagrammers that are way more influential than you, but that doesn’t mean they’re not reachable.
Many dedicate time to answering DM’s and comments from everyone, no matter how “big” their account is.
How this worked for me: I made friends with a meal prepper in my space — @Marekfitness. He has nearly 80k followers now (he had 30k when we met) and doesn’t use Instagram for business at all. But if he wanted to, he would crush it.
Here is a little way back Wednesday when meat was still on my menu 🍗 Last week's prep: 1. Eggs and egg whites for omelets 2. Oatmeal with PB2, chia seeds and raisins 3. Grilled lemon/lime chicken thighs with baked peppers, brown rice and grilled pinneaplle 4. Steak, baked sweet potatoes, baked zucchini and carrots 5. Turkey chilli with mozzarella and parsley on top 6. Avocados, bananas, mixed fruits and nuts 7. Greek yogurt with peaches, strawberries and Chia seeds 8. Watermelon 9. More strawberries . . #mealprepsunday #foodporn #mealplan #mealprep #macros #fitspo #nutrition #diet #mealprepideas #notwhole30 #fitspiration #eatright #wholefoods #healthy #iifym #fitnessmeals #dieta #fitfood #cleaneating #cleaneats #mealprepmonday #mealprepping #mealplanning #foodprep #weightloss #healthyfood #mealprepdaily #mealprepmondays
We started messaging back and forth and eventually, he became my unofficial Instagram mentor. He introduced me to other key influencers in my space and offered guidance when bigger brands started contacting me for sponsored posts.
Now, I have a support group of other influential accounts in my space, and that has helped me grow my account too because we all promote each other.
DMing on Instagram is so much easier than emailing people, so I suggest you give it a shot. You have nothing to lose!
Lesson learned: The “relationships are key” rule applies to Instagram too.
There’s definitely a lot more where this came from, and I’m learning more every week as my following continues to grow.
You might be sitting there, asking yourself, why does growing an Instagram following even matter??
Here’s why. In the past few months, I’ve been able to…
- Start collaborating with brands now that I’ve reached micro influencer status
- Add a live link to my Instagram stories, making it easier to get traffic to my site directly from the platform
- Double my email list in less than 7 days
- Get to know my followers (my market) on a deeper level because more of them are reaching out to me
- Start building a real community around my brand
- Build brand equity
Having an engaged Instagram following is a huge asset for my business, and if can be a huge asset for yours too.
If you want to get my best tips and practices for consistent growth, download my free cheat sheet here.
What’s the most puzzling thing about Instagram to you right now? Comment below and I’d be happy to help.