From the upstanding to the deeply dubious
In mid-2016 Instagram changed the post feed from chronological to algorithm-based. The algorithm gives more weight to posts with high engagement, where engagement is measured by likes and comments. The post will get bumped up on followers’ feeds and may even get onto the Explore Page. As a result, all the ways people currently use to grow their following focus on one or both of two things:
- getting more followers - an obvious metric of success but easily gamed by buying followers
- getting more engagement per post - for two reasons
- It gets the post more exposure via the Instagram algorithm
- The more savvy brands measure engagement percentages (your likes and comments per post over a number of posts, divided by your follower numbers)
Instagram fights back against the various ways of gaming numbers, and they don’t share their strategies. The Instagram Rapture of late 2014 is now part of social media lore. “More than 29 percent of Instagram’s followers, or 18.9 million users, disappeared from Wednesday to Thursday… Celebrities also saw millions of followers vanish.” This year a host of automating services, of which the most famous was Instagress, were shut down. Then came the confusion over apparent shadow-banning, followed by the discovery that certain hashtags are being restricted.
Nevertheless there is a great deal of money to be made by accessing Instagram’s 700 million+ active monthly users, so the gaming of followers and engagement continues.
21 ways to grow your Instagram engagement
1. Great content + your best bio
Post great images, post consistently, write engaging captions, have some kind of theme running through your posts so followers know what to expect. Make sure your bio and photo show who you are, and make you sound like an interesting account to follow. [Read our post on How to Get Started On Instagram.]
You can experiment with your name: “pick a keyword or keywords that people will be searching for. That’s why my name on my account is Travel Lifestyle Entrepreneur, which is easy to change and test while my username @tomaslaurinavicius stays the same.”
2. Take full advantage of hashtags
- Use the full allowance of 30, a few with your caption, the rest in a comment below.
- Research! Find the hashtags used by adventure accounts, and used by outdoor brands.
- Target hashtags with use numbers in the high thousands or low millions.
- Look out for hashtag competitions.
- “Hashtags are the fuel behind every effective bot, and as a result, they’re the biggest beneficiary of bot activity. Even if you aren’t using bots, hashtagging your work will get you more passive engagement as bots around the world target your content.”
- Some hashtags are banned or restricted, using them will mean followers don’t see your post. The only one that might feature in adventure is #dogsofinstagram.
- Create your own hashtag and encourage others to use it.
3. Use the location feature
Find the people who are interested in the place you are at.
4. Use the tagging feature
Anytime you post an image with another person or featuring the equipment of a brand, tag them in the photo and add their handle into the caption. “Having large accounts interact with your Instagram post is crucial to having it spread from hundreds of people to thousands. If a large Instagram account, like Urban Outfitters, likes or comments on your post, then it can show up on the Explore page for all of the people who engage with Urban Outfitters (we’re talking millions!).”
5. Ask for engagement
Use your caption to explicitly ask for engagement (often referred to as call-to-actions - CTAs). Tell people to like your photo. Tell them to tag a friend who might like the post. Tell them to use your branded hashtag. Ask a question and tell followers to answer in the comments. Your ask must be in the first 3-4 lines of the caption, otherwise it gets hidden behind a more… tag.
Use emojis to highlight the call-to-action “👉” or “👀”
6. Post videos
Video can be up to 60 seconds. In the first quarter of 2017 “video engagement on Instagram (16%) far surpassed both Facebook (1.5%) and YouTube (0.3%).”
7. Use Instagram Stories
This is a feature that lets you to put together videos (up to 15 seconds) and/or photos into an album that stays up for 24 hours. You can post as many per day as you want, and add stickers, text and hashtags onto the images. “Influencers are seeing an average of 6-10% of their followers open their Instagram Stories on a daily basis, which is an incredibly high engagement rate.” This feature is accessed via the You icon at the left on your home screen.
8. Experiment with peak times for engagement
This only works if you already have a large follower base and it’s not clear how much it actually matters.
Tell people about your Instagram account - in your email signature, your email newsletter, in the bios of your other social media accounts and in posts of those platforms. On the author page of your book, on the opening and closing slides of your presentations, on your business cards. Etc.
10. Team up with another accounts for a give-away
For example you can ask that people enter the give-away by following both the accounts and tag two friends in the comments. (Be aware that give-aways and competitions run into all sorts of rules and regulations by territory and country.)
11. Get social
Take the time to like and comment on the posts of other people. This covers a vast range from interacting with your friends, to hitting up people you admire or who you want to notice you, to liking and commenting on random strangers in the hope they will check out your profile and then follow you.
- Engage with the followers of accounts similar to yours. “One of our favorite tactics in growing Instagram followings with the correct audience is going into a competitors follower list, and showing love to their audience.”
- Play the like for like / follow for follow game. This is often indicated via hashtags - #l4l, #likeforlike, #like4like #f4f, #follow4follow.
12. Try and get featured on collective accounts
These are themed accounts that repost pictures of other people. To get their attention you generally need to use their hashtags, tag them in your picture, and (for the best chance) also follow them. Some people will message big collective accounts asking for a repost. And apparently some will come back to you asking for payment to be featured.
13. Buy ads
To run ads on Instagram you’ll first need a Facebook Page, but that does mean you have access to Facebook’s very detailed data. Instagram tends to cost slightly more than Facebook. “With highly targeted ads, you could be paying over $5 a CPM (cost per thousand impressions) on Instagram.”
14. Be young, white, ATTRACTIVE, female - WITH LESS clothING
If you can't manage it yourself, pair up with someone else.
From the New York Times article on the #vanlife movement: “Nearly all of the most popular accounts belong to young, attractive, white, heterosexual couples.” Talking to the couple who run @wheresmyofficenow and started the #vanlife hashtag: “the account’s most successful post… has more than eight thousand likes. In the image, the back seat of the van is folded down into a bed; [Emily]King faces away from the camera, holding a sheet to her chest, her hair cascading down her naked back.” Her partner, Corey Smith, is quoted as saying “It’s a naked female... If I’m in that picture, it gets three thousand likes."
That being said, there is a young, white, handsome, ruggedly outdoorsman adventure look stereotype for the men as well.
15. Chase the Explore page
You find the Explore page by tapping the magnifying glass icon at the bottom of the app. There is no single Explore page - what each person sees is based on who they follow and what posts they like.
Instagram does not reveal the details of its algorithm but power users believe that to feature on the Explore page you need high engagement (likes and comments) within the first 30 – 45 minutes of uploading an image. And the best engagement is that of ‘big’ accounts.
@localwanderer wrote “We usually get between 1600-2000 likes on a photo, but this photo got over 7000 likes and nearly 500 comments, all because of the network effect of Instagram’s Explore page.”
Two ways to generate high engagement just after you post:
16. Join an Instapod
An Instapod is a group of people - generally 5 to 20 - who agree to like for like and comment for comment to a group deadline. When one person posts, a message is sent round (on Instagram messages or WhatsApp) and the rest of the group is expected to do their bit. Comments are required to be ‘of value’ - five words or more, not just an emoji or single word. You can find pods looking for members in Facebook groups and Reddit. It is apparently a lot of work, and best done with people who post in your niche, who are in the same time zone, and (ideally) whose posts you actually value.
17. Comment ‘lb’ on Kylie Jenner’s account
Seriously. She has 96 million followers, any post will get 400,000+ comments and the vast majority of those are some version of lb (like back), cb (comment back), fb (first photo back), row (1st 3 photos in the grid). The teens will respond very quickly, giving a rapid boost to the photo, reported Taylor Loren, writing in Later.
All of the ideas above are legal, if sometimes not true to the spirit of Instagram. The next three are in contravention of Instagram’s Terms of Service.
18. Automate the work of liking, commenting and follow/unfollowing
The idea is to automate the work of your account liking, commenting and following other accounts, in the hope of getting real engagement and followers coming back to you. Those odd generic comments from a stranger that don’t quite fit the content of your post - those are done by an auto-service (which is why Instapods demand ‘high value’ comments - 5 words or more). Apart from the tell-tale of low-value comments, you can spot automation by looking at the activity of the people you follow. The feed shows people liking photos in sets of 8. If their account name stays in your activity feed hour after hour, round the clock, they are likely using some kind of automation. Instagram recently shut down a set of services that did auto-like and comments - Instagress, PeerBoost, InstaPlus, Mass Planner, Fan Harvest. But other services are still active.
19. Go fully fake and buy followers
You can buy followers from many providers. There are apparently vending machines in Moscow that will sell you 100 likes for under a dollar. The different prices tend to reflect how reliable the service is. Buying followers gets you ghost accounts, which reduces your engagement rate, which gets you less traction in the Instagram algorithm. However, you an also buy engagement. Bought likes can be spotted via high like numbers with no comments. Bought comments are usually vague single words. [Read our How Fake Are Those Followers post, to learn more ways to spot fakes.]
Recently Mediakix built up two fully-fake Instagram accounts, one fashion, one travel, to the point where they were able to earn money as ‘influencer’ accounts. “we were able to buy up to 15,000 followers at a time …The pricing for followers ranged from $3-8 per 1,000 followers, depending on the reliability of the service. …we were able to accumulate over 30,000 followers for the travel account and over 50,000 followers for the fashion account with minimal investment over the course of just two months….Once we had accumulated a few thousand followers for each account, we started buying likes and comments. We paid around 12 cents per comment, and between $4-9 per 1,000 likes. On the lower end of that price range, it took around 24 hours for the likes to appear, whereas, on the higher end of that price range, likes were delivered instantly. For each photo, we purchased 500 to 2,500 likes and 10 to 50 comments.”
20. Buy an already active account
You can buy an already active account with high follower numbers. These examples were found on socialtradia.com.
21. Get out into the real world and raise your profile
Spend less time trying to game Instagram and more time getting your name and activities known in the real world, and reported on by traditional media. Share your Instagram handle while you are out there and new followers will come and find you.