“How do I grow my Instagram?”

…a question I get probably too much. I’m going to be upfront here – I’m writing this article for my own selfish benefit.

It’s a piece that, rather than spend the time repetitively composing a response (and oh boy, it’d be up to many hours by now), I can just link to for tomorrow when the next person asks me how they can grow their Instagram.

And look, I’m not going to judge you, or scold you, or tell you that perhaps you’re pursuing things for the wrong reasons, or that numbers don’t matter, none of that stuff.

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re a grown-ass adult, and you can make your own grown-ass decisions. It’s your life, after all.

But if this is a decision you want to make, let’s just get this out of the way first and foremost:

It’s never been more difficult to grow on Instagram in 2020.

Well, you could actually repeat that sentence every year for at least the past few years now, and I’m sure most of my friends would agree with me.

Sorry.

It’s tough. It’s a hell of a long road. It’s a butt-ton of work. But it can be done. Even as a pure photographer.

Even in 2020, not much has changed

But lucky for you, not much has changed over the last 5 years. There are still core concepts that reign supreme even after all this time.

Here’s some things to consider:

  • Instagram, like many other social media platforms, is (now more than ever) an eventual engagement race to zero for most people.
  • Instagram, like many other social media platforms, is a marketing tool designed to sell people ads, so you should treat it like one.
  • Instagram, like many other social media platforms, is a place where follower count does not equal skill, especially in the world of photography.

Now, if you don’t believe in any one of those three things, then you’re probably either a romantic when it comes to the intersection of art and commerce, or you probably don’t really care about growth, and that’s okay too. More power to you. This article isn’t for you.

For everyone else though, here are the core principles for how to grow your Instagram.

  • 1) Content is still king

    Always has been and always will be.

    If you want to grow your Instagram, it’s more important than ever to figure out exactly what niche you’re in and how best to serve it.

    If you’re a pure photographer, you’d better make sure you’re the best god damn photographer in your niche, or at least aspiring to be. Get out there and learn every skill you can and know what exceptional work looks like. Be real with yourself and learn to understand the delta between where you are now and where you need to be (and realise that seeing through delusion and properly evaluating yourself and others is a skill in itself you need to learn). Otherwise, why else would someone want to follow you over the next decent photographer? There’s so many of them out there.

    The same concept is true in any related industry. If you just want to be an “influencer” or “content creator” and don’t care about pure photography, go ahead and post those photos of yourself driving a sick car, or kick flipping a grenade with smoke coming out of your ass, or showing off your well adorned feet dangling out of a helicopter at 6000ft. Hell, bonus points if you do all those things at the same time.

    Digital art? Fool us all. Videographer? Entrance us. Musician? Make us move.

    Whatever it is, just stay true to yourself and figure out how to deliver value to your audience in the form of content in a way that’s high quality, thoughtful and unique.

    (And no, you don’t have to have a feed of 100% rehashing tired clichès, doing “Instagram photography”, or stealing peoples ideas to “make it”. Barf. Sure, some of that stuff is “ok” every now and then – sans stealing peoples ideas – but hey, you’re a grown-ass adult. You’re conscious of what you’re doing)

  • 2) Branding matters

    There’s just too many above average people out there making above average content for it not to matter.

    If so many people are above average in skill, what separates them aside from the content and the value they’re providing?

    The answer is branding.

    If you’ve got your content down, if you’re as skilful as they come, if you’re providing value, next, focus on your branding.

    Put simply, your branding is the promise you make to your audience.

    This can manifest itself in a myriad of ways: a consistent looking visual aesthetic on your feed, thoughtful captions that show who you really are, detailed IG stories that are just better than everyone else’s – you’re only limited by your creativity.

    What you’re looking to achieve is making a promise to your audience and sticking to it. For when they see a piece of content made by you they think, “ah yeah, this is what I’m expecting from so and so. This is why I followed this person”.

    What’s your story? What’s the overarching message you’re trying to tell? What’s the promise you’re making to your audience in exchange for their attention?

    Look for people who are already telling their story well for inspiration. Once you find these people who have this X-factor, you’ll notice often times they’ll have brands that span past Instagram, with Instagram being just a slice of their overall strategy to their business success. These people are exciting.

  • 3) Frequent high quality

    Post every day. Hell, post twice a day. Make sure it’s thoughtful. Considered. But most of all, make sure it’s great stuff, frequently.

    I can’t stress this enough: The more you post (high quality content) the more you grow.

    It’s actually that simple.

    If you find yourself posting once or twice a day for months and you’re not growing, that’s a great signal that either your content isn’t good, or your content isn’t a good fit for your audience, in which case you probably don’t yet understand them properly (so you couldn’t possibly serve them properly either).

    This is a good thing though, because it means there’s personal growth to be had, and personal growth is the key to happiness. Yay.

    And just for a realistic timeframe, in the pure photography niche, it’s not uncommon to see people attempt to rise from 0 to 10k followers organically over the span of 2 or more years.

    Yeah, every day, for that long. It’s hard work.

    If you’re clocking a time any less than that organically, well, hats off to you my friend, you don’t need my help.

    In addition to organic growth, there are a great many things you do to generate non-organic growth too, such as:

    • Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate! Share audiences with people who have larger or different followings than you by offering them something of value. No one does anything for free.
    • Build an audience from another platform. YouTube is great for this. You’ll often see very average photographers do well on Instagram only because they have a good personality and subscriber count on YouTube. More power to them.
    • Create timely and relevant content. If you know something is going to be popular (like the next Netflix blockbuster series. Sigh, too bad I don’t watch Netflix), capitalise on the opportunity by creating content that’s relevant and timely (but still authentic to you). This is akin to beer companies showing beer ads at footy time. It just makes sense.
    • Buy ads. Hey, I’m not gonna judge you. You do you. You’re a grown-ass adult after all. Only you know your own reasons for going down this route. If you got the money, it works. Kinda. You’ll have to do a lot of work to keep the followers you advertised, but hey, it’s better than straight up buying followers (never do that. Ever.).
    • Over-engage. With as many people as possible, as often as possible. Actually you know what? This is pretty important so…
  • 4) Be too social

    It deserves its own point.

    You’ve gotta remember the “social” part of “social media”. It’s not just “media” – a one way blast from you to the world. It’s a two, three, four hundred-way dialogue.

    The thing about being social is that every interaction you have leaves a node on the web of your Instagram social graph.

    When you comment on someone’s photo, they see it. Other people see it. Some people like it. Some people see those likes. Some people come to you after they read your comment on someone else’s post. Some people get recommended content that you liked. Some people like your content and other people get recommended to you.

    In other words, the more interactions you have, the more your “web” (social graph) grows. The more nodes you have in your network. The more polkadots you have on your dress. I don’t know what better analogy to use here, sorry.

    Interact a lot. Too much. Spend several hours a day just commenting on random people’s shit. Seriously. Every day. Just replace “shit” with good content and you’re sweet.

It’s hard work, but it can be done.

Seriously though, this combination of posting frequent high quality content and leaving frequent high quality interactions is the recipe for how to grow on Instagram.

What you don’t see behind your favourite influencers’ account is the thousands of hours they pour into creating it. Growing your Instagram is hard, man.

But hey, you already knew that, right? If you’re reading this then I’m sure you already think that it’s worth it in the end, and maybe it is.

Good luck.

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11 comments Leave a comment

  • Phyllis Levine says:

    Very inciteful piece. What resonated the most for me was the importance of creating captions that give a follower a sense of who you are and presenting the “why” of your selected image. Like the color palette, for example. Another challenge I find is numerous people snatch images I have posted (sometimes as many as twenty) for their feed without giving the photographer their credit not to mention Giving me a shout out. It does take tons of time to find what I feel is post-worthy. I find that behavior irreverent as I always credit a photo unless none exists. I then post no 📷 id.

  • Vanessa says:

    Great article. Clearly I have much to work on to grow more on Instagram. Especially engagement, and being social on the “social platform”. But also as a “photographer”. Would be great if you could share some on improving skills, specifically on what to improve.

  • @kev.adriel says:

    Hey great article! How would you go about branding when you’re still trying to figure out your photography/editing style? I got into film photography earlier this year and so I’m hoping people come along for the ride 😅

    • Pat Kay says:

      Personally I’d say that branding and style are different things, even though one can inform the other.

      It’s a whole article on its own, but the best place to start would really be refining the overall message or story you’re trying to tell with your work, then wrapping everything around that.

  • Christopher Youn says:

    First and foremost, thanks for making this post! I’m sure this doesn’t only apply to photographers but why do you suppose it’s often the question of “how to grow my Instagram?” rather than “how to grow as a photographer?”, though I think the answer is more or less obvious.

    Love your work as usual, excited to see what the future brings, Pat!

    • Pat Kay says:

      That’s a great question with a multitude of obvious answers 😂, but it’s great you’re questioning the right things.

      Appreciate the support mate!

  • @robmulally says:

    Solid Tips!, I’m not hitting a lot of the core points and it shows.

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