Quick Note: This post focuses around entrepreneurs and business with
fewer than 5,000 followers on Instagram
who are looking to grow their income
by creating meaningful relationships with real people
What NOT to expect: I DON’T endorse strategies that “buy” followers or implement “follow for follow” techniques.
The plans I develop for my clients- and our businesses at The Milton Schoolhouse- focus on organic growth. The purpose of a successful SMM plan is to put your business in the hands of the people who enthusiastically support it.
If you are looking for quick-fix influencer techniques, there aren’t any in this post.
These are real social media tactics for solid, sustainable growth.
The 10,000 Person Myth and The Problem with Growth for Growth's Sake
The biggest problem entrepreneurs face on social media is losing site of the big picture. Clients say, “I want to grow my Instagram following to 10,000” and my first question is always, ‘Why?”
Focusing on growth for growth’s sake is superficial. Having more followers doesn’t automatically equate to a boost in revenue. A great social media marketing plan is a tool for business success- which typically means:
Finding new fans
Creating and Deepening Relationships
Different industries, different applications- the goal of every social media strategy is ultimately the same: to create income by creating relationships.
Maeva’s Coffee is a local, community coffee shop. We have one location and no ecommerce. When I set the goal of hitting 1,500 followers on Instagram in January, it seemed laughably small. Instagram is a powerful social media platform, and I’ve coached other start ups into curating five figure fan bases in months!
What made my goal different was that I limited myself to finding followers who lived close enough to become patrons. If I had a million followers but none of them could visit the shop, my ego may be pretty happy but it wouldn’t have actually helped Maeva’s grow financially.
@MaevasCoffee on Instagram remained at a steady 1,350-1,400 followers for six months. I wanted to grow that number. Adapting the strategies I use to manage larger accounts, I was able to organically hit our 1,500 goal in seven weeks. Four months out, our following has continued to grow and is set to hit 1,700 this week.
The True Value Of Organic Growth
1700 seems small but consider the impact.
How would an extra 200 customers affect your business?
An extra 200 people visiting Maeva’s Coffee once per month is a $24,000 increase in revenue annually. If they frequent more often, as most people do, it becomes enough to provide full time employment for another member of our community. Small gains on social media have big impact!
Instagram’s Social Media Power
Thousands of entrepreneurs and artists use Instagram as their only business outlet and succeed. For niche businesses, or businesses focusing on a market of less than 25yrs, Instagram is a natural choice.
Instagram is perfect for businesses and entrepreneurs who aren’t tied to a geographical location. If you’re an artist, freelancer, or e-commerce entrepreneur who can sell and deliver worldwide, this is an excellent platform for growing a world-wide following in your niche. 75% of Instagram’s users reside outside of the United States; an incredible opportunity to connect with true fans around the globe.
For a brick and mortar like Maeva’s, and for larger e-commerce based businesses, I recommend choosing 2-3 social media platforms to reach your market, concentrate your focus on those platforms, and ignore the rest.
With Facebook’s recent integration with Instagram, using both platforms in tandem is an easy way to broaden your reach.
A word of caution: Don’t think of Instagram as an abbreviated Facebook. Reposting from one platform to the other without considering their separate audience is a big mistake. Look for more on making the most out of using both platforms in an upcoming post. In the meantime, dive into Facebook’s strengths here.
Is Instagram Right for You?
Don’t think you must use every social media platform to have a solid social media outreach. When I work with a client and establish new social media accounts for them, I focus on Facebook and one other platform relevant to their brand model.
How do you know if Instagram is a good platform to choose for your business?
Instagram, works well for brand platforms that have one (or more) of these characteristics:
Highly Visual (Think: Photography, Visual Art, Theatre, Dance)
Personality Based Brands (Think: Cosplay, Gamers and Geeks, Life Coaches, Fitness Experts)
Social and Shareable (Think: Meme Congregators, Political Commentary, Social Activists, Personal Wellness)
Entertaining or Inspiring (Think: Comedy, Travel Hackers, Musicians & DJs)
Niche (Think: Female Cigar Lovers, Northern Native American Tribal Beadwork, Geographically Restricted Brands, Specific Historical Interests)
Instagram isn’t for you if you don’t have relevant and interesting visual information to post 5-7x weekly.
The good news- you can take advantage of Instagram’s adverts to reach clients. Through Facebook’s advertising for business, you can now redirect clients to your Facebook page or website. This is GREAT if you have a special event or a niche product to promote but don’t want the upkeep of an ongoing account.
For success inspiration, here’s a list of incredible people who use Instagram as their primary social media platform- ranging from historians to artists to brick & mortar businesses:
PreciousCreature (Pet Preservation & Taxidermy) 14.1k followers
DrLindseyfitzharris (Medical Historian & Author) 105k followers
Strangelovely1 (A Beautiful Brick & Mortar Vintage Shop in Chicago) 3k followers
PhilJarvis (STL based Sign & Muralist) 95.K followers
PetitesLuxures (French Artist- Line Drawings/Negative Space Art of Sex and Sexuality) 736K Followers
Strange Donuts (STL based funky donut business) 37.2K followers
QueenofLuna (SFX Artist Cosplay) 368k Followers
Skoll_and_hati_custom_armory (Traditionally Made Viking Axes & Weaponry) 34.9K
The Shadow Ban
If you currently have an Instagram account but aren’t making the most of it, using the guides in this article will cause an increase of activity for your account.
This will make your account vulnerable to the Shadow Ban.
A Shadow Ban is the act of blocking or limiting a user’s reach from their audience without notifying them. It’s different than having your account reported (and blocked) for posting material that violates a community’s content regulations. When you’ve been blocked, you are sent a message with the repercussions and actions you can take to restore your account. Shadow Bans aren’t as cut and dried.
Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram justify shadow banning as a way to cut down on spam in their community’s content, However, there is question that the real motivation is financial. By building a quality social media account that is thoughtfully curated, creative, and strategically tagged- you’ll be getting exposure to the community for free. Shadow banning is increasing on Instagram as paid exposure has become available through Facebook Adverts. Those who have been victims to a shadow ban believe it is the platform’s way of forcing users to pay for reach.
By connecting with your following through your content, your account’s activity will increase. If you then experience a sudden drop in traffic, likes, or comments, your account may have been Shadow Banned. You account will no longer searchable to users who aren’t already following you- and you won't receive exposure from hashtag or username searches.
To learn more about the Shadow Ban on Instagram, how to avoid it, and how to check if your account has been placed on Shadow Ban, check out this article by Benjamin Chacon.
Content: Perfect Vs. Responsive
In the first post of this series, we looked at the cornerstones to crafting content across any SSM platform that makes you human.
With Instagram, just as in any social media platform, there is no such thing as perfect content.
You may envy accounts where every photo is pristinely staged or cleverly captioned- but your perfect content is responsive content. If you are getting an engagement rate of over 6%, your content is on target.
Instagram is a tool for communicating your brand. Whatever language or visual perimeters it takes to connect with your fans is the content you want to create.
What makes for responsive content on Instagram? Here are four qualities your content MUST have on Instagram if you want to make the most out of this platform:
- Be Honest
Your audience is following your brand because they want to know what it is and who you are. Your content MUST be original and authentic. Don’t send mixed signals by jumping on trends or changing your style thoughtlessly. Commit to your brand and create content that communicates your message.
Strong brands work. Read why having a strong brand creates small business success here.
- Dialogue Oriented/ Process Oriented
By showing work-in-progress or involving your audience in the creation of upcoming events, you’re inviting them to interact with your brand.@happydartist talks here about overcoming the fear of showing incomplete works on Instagram- and how her community fell in love with her work through her work-in-progress posts.
Even more than Facebook or Pinterest, Instagram requires consistency for organic growth and revenue creation. If you are using this platform, commit to releasing content 5-7x per week.
Beware, though, of smothering your fans’ feed. Posting multiple days per day increases the risk of post cannibalization. Simply put: multiple posts will split response (one post will ‘cannibalize’ the attention of the other) and reduce the impact of your work
Timing- the BIGGEST secret ingredient for creating successful, responsive content.
Instagram currently presents content in the order it was posted. Unlike Facebook, which ‘weights’ your business’ content according to the platform’s metrics and determines your follower’s potential level of interest, for now, Instagram still shows your entire follower base all of your posts.
To get the best place in your follower’s feed, post when they’re most likely to be browsing. Discover when this is by using an analytics tool and doing a little experimentation with your content.
Well-timed mediocre posts outperform poorly timed awesome content. Marrying timing and great content together will create the perfect environment for Instagram success.
Posting To Be Seen.
If you just started your Instagram account- or if your social media management style has been lackadaisical- finding your best time to post is essential to creating momentum on your account.
Step One: Sign up for a free analytics service.
I use Iconosquare. I find their paid service wonderful for managing account, but they have a great free two-week trial to get you started.
Now put on your social media lab coat and start collecting some data!
Step Two: Create a hypothesis.
Write down some guesses on when you imagine your followers are most likely to be browsing on Instagram.
Think about your market. For a 25-35/yr old market, Instagram is most browsed at the office (think 10am-3pm). For a younger market, weekdays between 10pm-1am might be your best shot.
If you’re a brick-and-mortar based company, experiment first in your location’s time zone.
If you’re an ecommerce platform or an artist, do some searching through your sales history and look for location patterns. Do you ship more product to urban areas? Are they concentrated in a city in particular?
Step Three: Post, Post, Post.
For the next two weeks, post two Instagram updates per day.
Don’t worry about post cannibalization at this point - fan loss due to oversaturation. Your fan base will start growing when you have collected the right data and quickly correct for any collateral damage.
Post the first post within a cycled morning range, and the second within a cycled evening range.
This might look like:
Day One: 9am; 1pm
Day Two: 10am, 2pm
Day Three: 11am, 3pm
Day Four: Noon, 4pm
Too much to think about? No worries! Apps like Iconosquare allow you to schedule posts. In an hour, you can gather and create your content, schedule ALL of your posts for the week, and get back to running your business.
The more data you have, the more accurate your study will be. I recommend 10-14 days before looking at your data.
Step Four: Look at your App’s Analytics.
Iconosquare has a section simply titled “Best Time to Post”.
That’s it. If you have a few different times that seem to be getting good response, you may not have a large enough following to really determine the best time to post. Continue to post once per day, but mix up your scheduled content to fit the times you’ve discovered base on your experiment.
Look at your data at least once a month or every 1,000 followers to hone your timing as your reach grows.
A Hashtag Secret
Hashtags are how Instagram users search content. Using them well is the best way to introduce your brand to new fans.
There is no perfect way to use them. However, the way you format them, the quantity you use, and the tags you choose will affect the way your brand is accessed and accepted by browsers.
My favorite format for hashtagging is to use them separately below my post caption rather than inline. I feel inline hashtags disrupt the flow of valuable conversational real estate. Their standout color and extra character (“#”) is a visual distraction. But, this is purely subjective. Some freelance artists and entrepreneurs find it difficult to think of good tags to use at the end of their caption and, much like highlighting a textbook, enjoy the ease of tagging important words inline.
Here's an example of what my preferred spacing looks like:
More Isn’t Better.
The more hashtags used for an Instagram post, the more searchable that post is. By that philosophy, it would make sense that adding an enormous block of tags below each post would be an advantage to increasing your reach.
Not so. Using large amount of hashtags doesn’t lead to organic follower growth. In fact, using too many hashtags can backfire- leading to a greater number of spam or bot followers or priming your account for getting flagged as spam itself.
5-10 highly relevant hashtags will have a better impact than two dozen unfocused tags.
Save yourself the headache of hashtagging every Instagram post with every search term imaginable. Instead, tag smarter on Instagram by choosing hashtags tailored to the individual post and your brand.
When a user searches for a hashtag, most recent posts with that tag are shown first with older posts following. Increase your staying power- and your brand’s uniqueness- by using tags with a lesser popularity.
Instagram makes this easy by showing how many posts are currently associated with a hashtag as you type it. Hashtags with 80+ million posts associated are popular, but may not connect you with focused fans.
Finding solid fans is as simple as using specific hashtags- for example, look at this Maeva’s Coffee post. By choosing #coffeeshop, I'm more likely to reach followers who enjoy coffee at coffeeshops rather than choosing the more general hashtag of #coffee, which could include someone drinking instant stuff from a machine at home. Plus #coffeeshop has been used around 3mil x while #coffee has been used around 70mil x. This means a post with the hashtag #coffeeshop is more likely to stay within the first few finger scrolls of a search for the next couple of days.
Focus On Your Market
The second secret to growing your following on Instagram is knowing your brand focus- and consistently tailoring your tags towards that market.
For instance, Maeva’s is a community brick and mortar location, not a franchise or a shop with product accessible multinationally. For that reason, I often use region specific hashtags such as #altonillinois, #stl, or even #midwest.
Also, Maeva’s Coffee is a Latin/Central/South American inspired shop with ties to those cultures. Instagram is an incredible platform for accessing international and immigrant communities, with over 300 million users residing outside of the United States. Using relevant Spanish hashtags and Spanish captions has allowed us to reach out and welcome representatives of those cultures in our local community...as well as connect with coffee lovers in the most coffee centric regions of the world.
Crafting authentic content, a little data analysis, and a bit of hashtag strategy is 90% of what you need to see success on Instagram. The ease of access to an incredible community of users, the app’s aesthetic and authenticity, and the variety of free/inexpensive tools available to make it convenient makes Instagram my top choice for social media platform.
Interested in more social media tips? Watch for the upcoming post in this Social Smart series on combining multiple platforms to create an amazing social media strategy!