WHY WOULD ANYONEwant more Instagram followers?” sighed a friend two summers ago. “Mine just plague me with emojis in the comments.” With 8,000 fans, she could get 300 likes just by aiming her phone down and haphazardly photographing her feet. I’d attracted a mere 950 followers; none was blindly interested in photos of my limbs. This seemed problematic. As the editor of a newspaper’s lifestyle section when Instagram was increasingly defining lifestyle trends, I considered it a professional duty to conquer the platform and acquire enough followers to be plagued at least a little. Besides, I was feeling competitive.
Mastering the science of growing my account became my summer project. To prepare, I watched dozens of YouTube videos in which platform pros talked very fast, outlining “tricks” and “secrets.” Here are the 10 strategies I considered or tested, driving my follower count up 20% in three months—along with updated commentary from two of those loquacious experts:
1. Strictly define your niche.
The pros loudly concurred: To really grow your fan base, pick a single subject so your posts will reliably satisfy would-be followers with similar interests. Dogs. Saggy old houses. Exhaustingly elaborate desserts. “You need to offer one consistent value proposition,” said Ben Leavitt, a social-media guru in Guelph, Ontario, who’s created 53 YouTube videos drilling such principles into hopeful Instagrammers. But I just couldn’t do it. I resisted reducing myself to one dimension and didn’t have time to produce a steady stream of wearying tartlets. So I stuck with what Vancouver-based Instagram expert Vanessa Lau pityingly calls a “panoply” of topics. The only thing my posts have in common, she said after perusing my feed recently, is “really charming captions. Sell that in your Instagram profile bio.” That seems like an embarrassing “niche,” but Ms. Lau stars in 70 odd videos on Instagram success, one with 5.8 million views.
2. Convert to a professional account.
This I did promptly. (Anyone can do so for free. Make the switch in “Edit Profile.”) “Professional” status lets you access “Insights,” metrics that track how many impressions your hashtags generated, how many shares or follows each post got. You can determine what’s working and try to do more of that. I quickly learned, beyond its paltry 37 likes, why my photo of a forgotten 1970s supermodel was a dud. It got no shares, even if her curly hair had (as I put it) “a matted, Little Orphan Annie intensity.” Said Ms. Lau diplomatically: Insights “let you optimize your strategy based on your findings.”
3. Post every day at a consistent time.
“If you tell Instagram ‘I’m active on this account,’” said Ms. Lau, “it rewards you.” And potentially exposes your content to non-followers susceptible to your wiles. I obediently posted at 1 p.m., when my followers were most active, according to my Insights. Producing good photos daily nearly killed me, given that I spent my hours in a cubicle, not picturesque Fiji or a photogenic alternative circus. At one low point, I desperately snapped a giant iPhone projected on a giant screen in my slightly sci-fi newsroom. One charitable new follower proved susceptible.
4. Write long, thoughtful captions ending on call-to-action questions.
I spewed thoughtfulness as suggested. But if you follow my lead, Ms. Lau recommends introducing line breaks to create smaller, digestible chunks of text, “so you don’t hurt people’s brains.” (She personally varies caption length.) As for calls-to-action, I strongly suggested people tell me their “most indelible pizza memory,” demanded to know if they’d sleep in a windowless hotel room “if it saved them $55,” casually inquired whether they had any idea “pigeon eyes were so individualistic.” As painful as it was to add “tell me in the comments,” it worked. “If you’re in a conversation and you never ask for any input, you won’t get any,” explained Mr. Leavitt. And more engagement equals more exposure to would-be followers.
5. Respond to every comment.
This took forever, but, as Mr. Leavitt said, “people love to feel acknowledged.” And it spurs more comments, thus more engagement. After I posted about a Bedlington terrier named Pippin—a rare name, I assumed—dog lovers shared their pets’ names: SheShe, Basil, Huckleberry, Texas andthree other Pippins. “Enough Pippins to back up Gladys Knight,” I tapped out, reaching a bit. If followers only comment with emojis, respond with a neutral one, said Mr. Leavitt, like the praying hands. “You’d want to avoid the poo emoji, obviously.”
6. Overcome your distaste for hashtags.
Before I was enlightened, I’d only add one or two long, jokey, intentionally inept hashtags to my posts to telegraph I wasn’t thirsty. (For a candy dish I threw in pottery class: #callingallchocolatecoveredalmonds—a hashtag currently appended to exactly one post, mine.) But, as Mr. Leavitt said, “If you want followers, what’s embarrassing about free exposure to a targeted audience?” Adding, say, 25 strategic hashtags (the maximum is 30) gives you that, unless, said Ms. Lau, you choose ones used by too many Instagrammers (over 2 million) or too few (under 100,000). That summer, I exploited a hashtag generator app to corner every nuance of opportunity from #loveceramics to #ceramicslove.
7. Post selfies.
This advice came not from the experts but from friends, who reported their self-portraits got the most likes. Since I mostly hate seeing myself, and scorn excessive selfie posting, this commandment stressed me. In one selfie, I posed beside an out-of-control hydrangea bush that (strategically) steals the spotlight, nearly pushing me out of the frame. Success: 118 likes. Not so fast, said Ms. Lau. Selfies can get likes but not shares. To up the chances someone will forward your post to friends (potential follower alert), she suggests a carousel of images to broaden the appeal: say, a selfie on the eve of your backyard dinner party; your garden itself; the menu as a text image. Strangers want more than your face.
8. Seek out marginalized kindred spirits.
This one was time-consuming but easy. Search hashtags aligned with your content. Single out posts that: a) you sincerely like; b) have almost no likes or comments. Like the post. Add an observant, appreciative comment, hinting that your own feed offers similar splendors. Ignored by others, the grateful Instagrammer might reward you with a follow.
9. Focus on feed photos not Instagram Stories
Though I’ve since become a bit of a Stories nut, employing multiple apps to create zesty narrative sagas (see “NYC 1953”), that summer, I was still a novice, so didn’t balk at this advice and devoted my energies to basic feed photos. Smart move, said Ms. Lau: “It’s mostly the feed posts that are going to get you the reach you need” to attract new followers, though “stories is a really great way to nurture your existing followers and make sure they don’t unfollow you.” Stories, Mr. Leavitt added, are a fantastic release valve that let you “share your personality” if, say, you’re finding your “cat photos only” feed niche too limiting and want to interact with a squirrel or a skunk. A big caveat: These days, said Ms. Lau, Instagram’s algorithm is prioritizing its relatively new feature, Instagram Reels, where people post TikTok-like videos. “Reels is all the rage for attracting new followers,” she said.
10. Don’t attempt boosted posts.
Three months of applying these techniques every day wore me out. I’d acquired 200 more followers, but never had the nerve (or shamelessness) to explore the “Promote” button that appears beside each post of professional accounts. Paying Instagram to share your photo more widely ($30 for 6 days) seemed like cheating. This spring, I overcame my shame and “boosted” a post of Jodie Foster looking shockingly, bravely old in makeup for her film “The Mauritanian.” Curiously, Instagram exposed it only to people in Argentina, 40 of whom followed me. This was nice and a lot easier than all my other techniques combined, but it seemed inevitable that I’d soon disappoint my Argentine fan base. The only passably photogenic South American thing I own is a too-small belt.
Long story short: Turns out I’d adjusted a setting years ago that predisposed Instagram to send my Jodie post down Buenos Aires way. With that fixed, I boosted another post, this time targeting New Yorkers like me. It yielded not a single follow. “I would definitely not advise ‘Promote,’” said Mr. Leavitt, “unless you’re building a business and can write off the expense.” Ms. Lau added that boosting often yields followers who drop you quickly and it can get addictive: “$50 becomes $500 becomes $1,000.” It might be cheaper to move to picturesque Fiji.
Dale Hrabi is the editor of The Wall Street Journal’s Off Duty section.
Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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