How I Gained 5,000 Instagram Followers in 3 Months Organically
If you’re ready to throw in the towel when it comes to growing your Instagram following or generating traffic from Instagram, know I’ve been there. Not long ago, I had a conversation with my girlfriend where I told her I was going to give up on Instagram for my business. “I don’t want to post half-naked photos, rent expensive cars to take pictures with, or spam thousands of people to get followers,” I told her. I knew the eyeballs were on the platform, but I couldn’t figure out how to get in front of them.
Every article I read on growing an audience on Instagram repeated the same information, none of which seemed to work. Well, at least not the tactics that didn’t include following and unfollowing people, liking random photos, and quite simply, spamming people. And the more I researched how to get Instagram followers, the more frustrating it became because I could see people using these spammy tactics to grow their audience.
A quick side note for context: I’ve been blogging and writing in the fitness and wellness space since 2014. In April of 2017, I left my full-time job to grow my blog and business. So, while I’ve been working full-time towards growing an audience since the middle of 2017, I technically had an existing (tiny) audience.
Fast forward a few months, and I’m happy to say I’ve figured out a spam-free strategy that’s worked for me. This strategy may not work for everyone or every niche, though I feel it can be applied everywhere. My hope is that this article shares an idea or two that’s different than all the articles I found when trying to get things right with Instagram. Before we get into what worked for me, let’s look at the numbers followed by the things I didn’t do to grow my Instagram audience.
Since Instagram analytics are lacking, I’ve tracked follower growth independently via Google Sheets. In the image above, you’ll see I stumbled across a screenshot of my account during the summer. When I started this experiment, I purged around 100-150 old posts that were off-brand and unfollowed 250-300 people from high school and college that I never interacted with. That brought the 959 number down to the 700s. Proving that people don’t like to be unfollowed, but we’ll get to that. I share these stats only for transparency and insight — I won’t pat myself on the back until I have at least 10k. Maybe.
What I Didn’t Do to Get More Instagram Followers
- Post Non-Relevant Comments
- Like 1,000s of Photos
- Pay for Engagement or Followers
I’m convinced the people leaving random emoji comments and clearly following to unfollow are going to lose in the game of life. Maybe that’s me being a hater, but I’m just passionately against growing an audience that way. I understand it’s a way for new people to discover you and potentially become a fan of your work. Still, it doesn’t sit well with me. I like to approach growing an audience in the Kevin Kelly “1,000 True Fans” frame of mind.
Okay, not to beat a dead horse there. Haters gon’ hate, right?
What I would like to seriously touch on before getting to what worked is monetization. This experiment or growth period started in September of 2017. What’s interesting is that in late July 2017, I began building a membership section of my website. I wanted to offer exclusive training programs, recipes, performance information, a support system via Facebook group, and direct access to me. This is a model that’s working well for a lot of people in my niche and in early September, I launched.
Things went even better than I’d expected and in the first month, I had around 30 members. This is where things get interesting. If you remember from the intro, September was also the period where my Instagram growth started to take off. While creating the membership site’s content, I doubled down on content quality. Everything from the recipe and food photography to my exercise video tutorial database got a major overhaul. And as I shared the improved content on Instagram, the engagement was totally different than it had ever been. It appeared that better content created better engagement and increased growth. Duh, right?
The Truth About My Content
Seriously, I thought my content was great before that point. (I still do.) But the market disagreed, as evidenced by their lack of engagement. When I started creating and sharing better content that delivered serious value, the market decided my content was worth following and engaging with.
Creating recipe infographics and sharing fast food eating guides that would have been exclusive content were liked, saved, shared, and engaged with like crazy.
Going back to the membership site, things were going great with 30 members in the first month, and I shut it down days before people were billed for their second month and refunded every dime from month 1. Call me crazy, but I wanted to give that exclusive content away for free in exchange for future leverage in the form of a larger audience. I may regret it down the road but for now, it’s certainly worked in creating audience and traffic growth.
The biggest takeaway from what I didn’t do is monetizing too soon. Going all in on providing value will set you apart in a major way and hopefully create leverage for future monetization on a much larger scale. If you follow Gary Vee, I probably sound like I’m a clone at this point.
What I Did to Get 5,000 Instagram Followers in 3 Months
- Posted 2-3 times per day, every single day
- Shifted 90% of my social media focus to Instagram
- Made compelling content and analyzed what my audience liked best
- Followed people interested in my niche with the intention of consuming/connecting, not unfollowing later
- Made genuine connections with similar professionals in my niche
- Collaborated on posts or topics of discussions with those connections
- Did my best to support those connections via commenting, liking, sharing (only if I believe in the message and my audience would benefit from seeing the content)
- Asked for engagement from followers (more on this in a second)
- Tweaked my bio
My Approach to Content
I’m sure you’ve heard someone suggest listening to your audience or writing for an avatar. It’s great advice, but I never really listened or knew exactly what that meant. When it clicked for me, it was unintentional. I honestly just published content of all kinds and inevitably found out what stuck. I’ve seen a lot of advice to simply ask your audience, but I’m not sure they know exactly what they want to see from you either. Not to mention, what do you do if you don’t have an audience? I think the best piece of advice I can give on this topic is to just create, execute, and do stuff. The market will tell you which direction to go.
It seems oversimplified but make enough to see what people like best and then go all in on making more of what they like best.
Okay, on to more practical advice. Like I mentioned in the intro, I’ve been blogging and writing in the fitness space for a few years. Most of the topics covered on my blogs are on the technical side of health and fitness and don’t transfer very well to a platform like Instagram. At least that’s what I used to think. This year, infographics have exploded in popularity and while they will likely fizzle out and people will tire of seeing them, I don’t see them in any other niche outside of fitness very often and think it’s a huge opportunity for bloggers/creators in personal finance, real estate, life coaching, or any niche.
Outside of their popularity on social, I’ve learned a ton in the process about simplifying my ideas into one page and improving blog posts with more graphic illustration. Whether you make infographics or not, the key takeaway is to provide value in some way. The infographic below illustrates how to perform a cost analysis on protein powder. The message could be delivered with a photo of you holding protein or even a 60-second video showing how to do it in real-time. They all get the message across and deliver value. Go with the method you’re best at.
I have a video and article on how I make infographics using Canva, a free tool. You can check that tutorial out here if you’re interested. Canva also has some nifty infographic templates you may find useful. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t pay homage to two guys who’ve crushed the Instagram fitness game in Jordan Syatt and Carter Good.
In addition to infographics, I’ve upped the quality of my photos using a free iPhone app, Snapseed. Having high-quality images on Instagram matters. That being said, my photography still has a long way to go, especially when compared to other food bloggers. It’s important to not let these types of things slow you down, though. I found putting several meh images into a collage-style image with text overlays (via Canva) serves as a workaround to stunning photography.
One thing I didn’t include in the things I didn’t do section is sharing off-brand or personal content. What I mean by this would be pictures of yourself, family, or everyday life. It may sound harsh, but nobody cares about you — yet. We’re operating in a “What’s in it for me?” society. That being said, as you grow and make connections with your audience, they will care about those things. A more practical piece of advice is to share the personal and everyday stuff on your Instagram Story instead of actual posts.
I was a bit nervous to share the photo below around Thanksgiving, as it was the first personal photo I’ve shared in months. It performed better than anything around it, though I think Thanksgiving and the holiday spirit had something to do with this. The point is, save the personal for Facebook until your audience grows and gets to know you a bit more.
Lure them in with value and keep them coming back for more with puppies.
My Approach to Frequency
In the process of tracking follower growth, I’ve also loosely tracked post frequency or the types of posts that seemed to bump growth more than others. While I can’t say one style of content is definitively better, I can say that posting 3 times per day works best for me. The caveat is that’s a ton of content to create and share. This is where things get honest and maybe slightly depressing — growing an audience takes time and a ton of work.
Since September, I’ve published nearly 70 recipes on my blog, roughly 100 infographics, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 180-270 posts on Instagram. Here’s a screenshot of the infographics I’ve put together over the past few months. As you can guess, there’s a lot of time invested there.
I won’t lie and say growing a following without showing some skin or following and unfollowing is easy, but it’s more than possible. And not to go off on a tangent, but the audience is higher quality and more supportive of your work when acquired through these methods.
As a final note on frequency, I’ll add that having a backlog or library of content has helped a ton. I’ve used the increased frequency as a way to revisit old content and not only create/add infographics to the article, but reshare and repurpose when I’m low on inspiration or creativity. One of my older articles about eating healthy on a budget, for instance, was perfect for linking 10+ pieces of newer articles and recipes. If I hadn’t been looking for content to repurpose, I might have let the article continue collecting dust.
My Approach to Connecting and Networking on Instagram
Okay, this is a big one. There are a TON of people on Instagram looking for the same people you are. I’ll save you the scarcity and abundance mindset pep talk and just say that a rising tide raises all ships. Let’s go step by step on building a solid network on Instagram.
- Find a person in your niche who’s creating content. It doesn’t have to be identical to yours. (I’ll add that this is more effective if their audience is relatively close in size to your own.)
- Follow them.
- Immediately engage with them. Like, comment, DM, and communicate on other platforms if applicable.
- Provide value in any way possible. You could share their content to your page, tag them in your Instagram story, promote their business on Instagram or other platforms. If they have a product or service, be a customer. If you lack a sizeable audience, offer to do something for them. Whatever it takes to prove you’re not trying to leach off their audience, do it.
- Don’t ask for anything in return.
- Rinse and repeat.
I think you’ll find a lot of opportunities come your way and other will begin to share your work in return.
As a quick example, one of my favorite Instagram peers is Chris Pearson from Reform Strength & Conditioning. I didn’t know Chris from atom 6 months ago, and we’ve never met face to face or even talked on the phone. We connected on Instagram and engaged via comments. Shortly thereafter, he was one of my first members when I launched my membership site. A likely small investment for him at the time put him in my good graces for eternity. We’ve since collaborated on multiple posts and continue to support one another.
If you’re a branded page or a business, your network strategy may look a bit different. My first move, especially if I were running a product-based business, would be finding micro-influencers (lower follower count, high engagement) to give my product to and establish a relationship. For a service-based business, it probably looks like giving away your service for someone with influence. Your ROI on someone sending you business or followers will be leaps and bounds higher than paid ads, and the trust factor that comes from that audience share is SO underrated.
My Accidental Approach to Engagement
I don’t claim to be an expert on the algorithms that drive Instagram or other social networks, but I think we can definitively say that comments are a driving force. Especially comments that occur shortly after a post goes live. I’ve always tried to generate engagement through asking questions or suggesting someone tag a friend, but those are minimally effective at best with a small audience. Don’t abandon those tactics, as they do generate some engagement, but I used a different strategy early on that generated tons of comments. The photo below is from a video posted around the 2,000-follower mark.
I simply posted a food photo, infographic, or anything that generated some interest with instructions to comment if someone wanted the recipe or full article with the promise that I would send a link via DM. My initial thinking was nobody likes to click on your profile and then click a link to visit wherever you’re sending them. I know it’s hard to get me to go off the platform, and I’d much rather read or watch that content later. So, I thought I’d send it over and they could consume the content whenever it was convenient for them.
What I didn’t think about was the possibility of opening that DM chain. When someone commented and I sent them a link, that conversation rarely stopped there. Most often, it would open a line of communication where they could ask questions about the content I was sending. Not only does that build your brand, it provides even more value and likely influences the algorithm so they see more of your content. It’s a win-win-win.
I’ve since switched to Link in Profile which allows me to link to every single post. I think the strategy above can be a powerful tool, but you can only keep up with so many comments are responses as you grow. Unless you have a team, this is likely a capped and unscalable strategy but effective at getting an upstart account off the ground.
What to Put in Your Instagram Bio
I can’t speak a ton on this topic and could never find a definite answer anywhere, but I recently switched my “name” to a term that I’d like to appear in search results for. It’s important to distinguish I’m not talking about your username, though that’s an option. Your name is what appears at the top of your bio in bold. I had already linked to my Instagram username so many times, it would have been a pain to change usernames. All right, but does it matter?
Well, I don’t know anything other than your username and your name are the only things can be searchable on Instagram. If your username is your name, like me, and then your name is simply your name again, you’re not going to appear in a search for fashion tips unless you have a large following already. I’ve switched my name to Flexible Dieting Recipes in hopes of popping up for those search terms. Again, I don’t know if this makes a significant difference, but it’s worth thinking about.
What Did I Forget?
These are a few things that seem to be working for me. I don’t claim to be an expert on the topic, and I’m always open to learning more. If you have something that could help me out or you found something valuable here, let me know. Let’s connect on Instagram (I’ll follow you back if you made it through this article and publish good content in any niche) or any other platform you’re active on.
Thanks for reading and good luck growing your Instagram audience, my friend.
What Are You Going to Do With the Traffic?
As a final point, I’d like to bring up an interesting question. What will you do with your larger audience on Instagram? Do you want to drive traffic to your website? Convert more clients for your service-based business? Or just grow your potential audience until you figure it out? There’s no wrong answer here, but I’d encourage you to consider building an email list in some way. It’s a great way to ensure your followers are seeing your content. What if Instagram closes your account, you get hacked, or an algorithm change prevents your content from reaching your audience without paying? Instead of renting space on someone else’s platform, you own your email list.
If you’re interested in starting or growing a list, read my article on how I gained 687 email subscribers in one month here.