I have over 88,000 followers on Instagram and it took me just over a year to get there.
I’m not a famous person.
I’m not a big brand (yet).
I’ve never been on TV (yet).
I haven’t written any books (yet).
I’m not dating a celebrity. (And I never will!)
So how the hell can someone like me grow a highly engaged Instagram following (for free) and actually make sales on the platform?
Like most people, you’re secretly hoping for a magic bullet… but you know such a thing doesn’t exist for building a quality audience.
If you don’t care about quality, leave my site and go drop a couple hundred bucks on fake followers. It’s that simple.
And if you know anything about Instagram, you know it’s getting more saturated with businesses and wannabe influencers every day.
But if someone like me can grow an account from 1k to 85k in 12 months organically without spending a dime within a year, anyone* can.
At least, anyone who is willing to show up every day.
*Not all businesses or influencers belong on Instagram.
- If you’re trying to reach men and women above the age of 50? Instagram is not the place.
- If you don’t know who you’re trying to reach, think about that for awhile and expect slower growth on the platform until you lock it down.
- If you’re a B2B business, Instagram is probably not the ideal platform either. (Some B2B businesses can be successful, most can’t)
- If you’re just trying to become an influencer to get free products and sweet travel opportunities, Instagram is going to be tough. Brands can spot an inauthentic influencer from miles away, and they’re not interested in working with them.
- If you want to be an influencer and have nothing to say… well, you may want to go back a few steps and define your message before getting on any platform.
And lastly, if you or your team can’t show up every day on Instagram… then don’t make it your mission to grow there.
Of course, it’s okay to “phone it in” and post when you can, but don’t expect explosive growth.
I’m fortunate to be able to show up on the platform every day. And I do have a lot to say about my main topic on Instagram: intuitive eating and meal prep — even as a nobody with absolutely no formal training in nutrition or health.
If you’re wondering, yes, my audience is fully aware that I’m not a professional anything.
Like I said before, there’s no magic bullet here.
But I can break down the main factors that led to my growth and making money on the platform.
Here are the five biggest factors that helped me grow my @Workweeklunch account fast:
By the way, my job is helping businesses crack the code to Instagram. If you’re interested in my services, click here to read about how I can help you use Instagram as a stronger marketing channel – just like I did.
1. Creating quality content
This is obvious, yet so many businesses and users who want to grow their accounts don’t recognize this.
Instagram is a platform for sharing beautiful content. I don’t mean to sound shallow here, but there’s an Instagram beauty standard when it comes to photos and your account has to meet it.
When I switched from using my iPhone to take food photos to a Canon Powershot, which isn’t even as good as a DSLR, my account started growing.
Here’s a before and after:
When I started paying more attention to the lighting and composition of my photos, I gained more followers almost immediately.
And it’s not just the photos you have to improve — it’s your captions too.
I just shake my head when I come across a business or influencer profile that only uses a couple of words (or no words) in their captions.
That’s a MISSED OPPORTUNITY to educate and connect with your audience. Duh!
I advise my clients to treat their captions as mini blog posts or mini email campaigns. There should always be a call to action, and it should sound like an actual human being wrote it.
Yes, some people do read long captions. Some don’t, and that’s okay. A longer caption also increases time spent on the post, which is one factor that Instagram’s algorithm favors.
My captions are notoriously long (can you tell I like to talk?) but even just 3-5 sentences will do more for you than three words and a couple emojis.
The way my audience saw me changed when I stopped just describing the food and talking more about my process and philosophy behind my eating habits and what I teach my audience.
By doing that, I upgraded myself from regular user with a food blog to up and coming thought leader in the food space.
2. Diving into analytics
I cringe when I find out that some businesses on Instagram aren’t using a business profile.
Either they didn’t know it existed OR they turned it off because they heard somewhere it’s harder for business profiles to get exposure on Instagram. Sigh.
The analytics that Instagram gives are GOLD. Having access to that information gives you the edge you need to get more exposure.
Your analytics will tell you what content works (attracts new followers, gets engagement, drives action) and what doesn’t.
Even before Instagram totally upgraded its analytics (the new dashboard is AMAZING), I started paying attention to the content that worked for me. I knew I had to keep going in a certain direction with my visual content. And it worked.
What my analytics told me that helped me grow: My followers didn’t give a shit about food on plates, they only wanted to see food in containers. So I switched to strictly meal prep posts with foods in containers. Worked like a charm.
Here’s what I mean:
This helps make your account more focused and consistent.
It’s super important to have a consistent feed because potential followers need to “get” what your account is about in .2 seconds, or else they’ll leave.
3. Asking questions, and listening to my audience
In my eyes, Instagram is very similar to email marketing. You can run surveys, ask questions and get data points that help you understand your followers more… so they can eventually become customers.
Instagram is the perfect place for a conversation. How else will you learn about what your followers care about, or if their desires even align with the content you’re posting?
After I started asking what my audience wanted, I was able to easily come up with content ideas.
There was no guesswork anymore.
And that wasn’t the best part. When you show your audience you’re listening to them, you can actually build trust with them. The more they trust you, the more likely they’ll buy from you.
Side note: It’s crazy what total strangers will share with you when they trust you.
4. Showing up every day
There’s a difference between uploading a post every day and actually showing up.
Showing up means interacting, talking to and posting content that adds value. Every day.
Many businesses and influencers aren’t devoting the right amount of time on Instagram to grow an engaged audience.
I’m not talking about the time-consuming tactics most consultants and agencies do to grow Instagram accounts, like the “follow unfollow” method or using bots to engage with accounts for you.
If you’re doing that, please stop now.
I’m talking about taking the time to respond to all comments on your posts, respond to direct messages from followers and use the other features like stories.
As a consultant, I spend up to three hours a day on Instagram, which includes running my own account and doing research for my clients’ accounts.
However, most of the time spent on my account is talking to people via direct message, comments or in stories.
There’s no hack to this: growing a following of real people takes time and it’s totally worth it — especially when the time comes to sell your products.
5. Taking advantage of all Instagram features
This probably isn’t what you want to hear, but if you want to grow, only posting photos isn’t enough anymore.
You have to jump on the Instagram ads, Instagram Story and Instagram Live bandwagon.
This helps you play nice with the platform’s algorithm, AND these features provide even more opportunities to educate, connect with and sell to your audience.
I was really nervous the first few times I used Instagram Stories and Live. Now? It’s just part of my day.
Currently, an average of 10 percent of my followers watches my stories daily. 8,000 people is not a small number!
In the beginning, maybe five percent watched. But as I kept getting better and kept going, more and more users tuned in. I think I get more engagement from my stories than my regular posts at this point.
These features are a place to flaunt your knowledge and add more value to your followers. You’re doing your audience a disservice by not using them plus you’re missing out on lots of exposure for your account.
I’m still a nobody… but having a following is a huge asset.
When you grow any social media platform properly, you have a standing chance to monetize it.
I’m passionate about helping other businesses grow on the platform because of my own experience connecting with and helping people from all over the world through Instagram.
They say relationships are everything, right?
How YOU can apply these lessons:
I always tell my clients to start with content.
How can you make your content more valuable? More entertaining, educational, beautiful and shareable?
After you nail your content down, then you can move onto the more advanced growth strategies like hashtags, connecting with influencers, using stories and more.
Feel free to reach out and ask any further questions about my growth, services or whatever’s on your mind! firstname.lastname@example.org.