Everyone wants to know how to make sales on Instagram, but few are prepared to focus on the essential steps that are necessary long before that can happen—namely, growing an engaged following. Key word there is engaged.
Simply having a lot of followers is meaningless if they’re not interested in what you have to say. Plus, the Instagram algorithm prioritizes posts in a user’s feed based on which accounts users interact with frequently.
So before you promote your product, you’ve got to build a fanbase that loves you. Below, I’m going to outline Instagram growth hacks that build an engaged following that will eventually become your loyal customer base.
Table of Contents
How Does the Instagram Algorithm Work, Anyway?
For all of the Instagram growth hacks below, the key is to understand how the Instagram algorithm works. There’s a lot of speculation about it, but the social media platform revealed the “secret” back in a March 2016 statement: “The order of photos and videos in your feed will be based on the likelihood you’ll be interested in the content, your relationship with the person posting and the timeliness of the post.”
In 2018, Instagram shared more detail about these criteria with a group of reporters:
- Interest – Instagram tries to serve you content that’s based on your past behavior in relation to similar content.
- Relationship – The algorithm prioritizes posts from accounts you interact with regularly, such as through likes and comments.
- Timeliness – Recent posts are prioritized over old ones.
Instagram Growth Hacks to Build Your Follower Count and Increase Engagement
Make the Most of Instagram Stories
More than 500 million users watch Instagram Stories on a daily basis—that’s half of Instagram’s user base! These 24-hour snippets can provide an intimate, behind-the-scenes look at your business through photos and videos.
Here are some creative ways to leverage stories in order to grow an engaged following:
Ask for opinions with the “questions” sticker. Take advantage of the numerous interactive stickers Instagram gives you.
A great one for boosting engagement is the questions sticker.
Ask your followers to submit their opinions on your latest product, questions they have about your business, or something else to get them to interact with your brand and to allow you to gain valuable user feedback.
Be sure to share some of these submissions in your stories too! This shows your followers that you’re listening to what they have to say. Instagram will also notify those followers whose answers you share. And everybody loves a little recognition.
Therapist @heytiffanyroe often answers mental health questions from her followers via Instagram Stories, by sharing the question they submitted and recording a video of her answer.
Share posts from your feed in your stories. With more and more users opting for stories over feed posts, to expand your reach, be sure to share your feed posts to your stories too to encourage interaction.
Share other people’s posts. Additionally, you can share other accounts’ Instagram posts to your stories. This is a great way to give shoutouts to users who publish content about your business.
Here’s an example of how @chappywrap does it:
Use location tags and hashtags. Location tags and hashtags help users who don’t follow you find out about your brand. If you create awesome content and use the right tags, you might even get featured in that tag’s story, which would place you in the coveted Explore tab. This can expand your reach and help you gain new followers.
Because Instagram’s algorithm cares about each user’s relationship to another user, every touchpoint with a follower (when they like your photo, submit an answer through the questions sticker, etc.) could help increase your reach.
Start an IGTV Channel
It’s no secret that Instagram is prioritizing video content. When you open the Explore tab, the biggest, most prominent content featured on the right is always an IGTV video. When someone you follow goes live, you get a notification.
Take advantage of this emphasis by prioritizing video content creation. By creating an IGTV channel, you have a better chance of getting featured prominently in Explore, thereby reaching more potential followers.
Instead of being limited to 15 seconds like on stories or one minute like in your feed, IGTV videos can be up to one hour long. To “subscribe” to your channel, interested viewers must follow your account to be notified of upcoming content—what a great way to grow your following! And unlike stories, IGTV videos remain on your channel for as long as you want them there.
Here’s how to start an IGTV channel:
Step 1: Tap the IGTV icon in the upper right.
Step 2: Tap the “+” icon.
Step 3: Select a video that’s between one and 15 minutes long. If you upload on desktop, the IGTV video can be up to 60 minutes long.
Step 4: Pick a cover image and add a title and description.
Step 5: Hit “Post.” Tada! You’ve just created your IGTV channel. When new users discover your channel, they can keep up with your latest videos by following your account.
Work With Influencers
We talk a lot about working with influencers here at Foundr, and that’s because it really works! Though Foundr no longer collaborates with influencers, we did so in the early days to help grow our brand.
Step 1: Find micro-influencers. Focus on micro-influencers (up to 50,000 followers or so) because they’ll usually be more willing to do product-for-post collaborations instead of requiring cash payments. Big-name influencers are going to charge in the thousands of dollars, and if you’re in the beginning stages of growing your account, that won’t be feasible. Plus, it’s often the micro-influencers who have the most devoted fans because they haven’t worn out their followings with sponsored posts.
To find micro-influencers in your niche:
- Look at the posts you’re tagged in. It always helps to work with what you’ve already got. Search through the posts you’re tagged in to see if any micro-influencers have already posted about your brand.
- Search popular hashtags in your niche. Scroll through the top content and see if any of the accounts are on-brand and might be good to work with.
- Use NinjaOutreach, BuzzSumo, or other apps. There are many apps out there that can help you find micro-influencers based on criteria such as follower count and industry.
- Look at recommended accounts. You probably already have a few influencers in mind who align well with your brand. When you visit their accounts, you should see a down arrow next to their username. Tap this arrow.
You’ll then get a list of recommended accounts that are similar. Check out these accounts as well to see if they might be a good fit for your business.
Step 2: Offer value to the micro-influencer. Contact them via Instagram direct message or email (you can often find their email address in their bio or on their website). Even if you can’t pay with cash, you can compensate influencers in other ways. It’s common for brands to send free product to micro-influencers in exchange for a post. You can also promote the influencer’s content on your account to help grow their brand too.
Step 3: Collaborate with the influencer on how they can promote your business. When the influencer posts about your business, make sure to ask them to tag you and include a call to action to follow your account. Additionally, focus on long-term relationships, as these tend to work out best for both the influencer and the brand. Instead of worrying about this being a one-off post, influencers often prefer to know they will have future work with your brand. As for your business, you won’t have to waste time searching for more influencers if you’ve got a steady pool of reliable ones you can work with again and again.
If you want to grow your following, you should take advantage of every opportunity to promote your Instagram account. Here are a few ways to do that:
Repurpose Instagram videos for YouTube (or vice versa). Try uploading your Instagram videos to YouTube and then linking to and promoting your Instagram account. IGTV now supports horizontal video too, so you can take content from your YouTube channel and easily add it to IGTV.
Work with complementary brands. One of the ways I gained followers for my Instagram account when it first launched was to take over @onewomanshop’s Instagram. That meant, for 24 hours, I got to post to their feed, sharing what a typical day was like in my life as an entrepreneur. In each caption, I was able to include my Instagram handle. This helped me to gain my first followers on the platform.
Highlight your Instagram account on all your channels. Lastly, you should point to your Instagram profile every chance you get. Consider adding prominent icons on your website to get visitors to click through to your Instagram account.
For example, notice how food blog Pinch of Yum features its social icons at the top of its homepage and at the bottom.
You can also tell your Facebook and Twitter audience to follow you on Instagram. When you do this, it’s important that your Instagram account has content that is different from your other platforms. Otherwise, why would people follow you only to see the same things they’d see on your Facebook page? Give them a reason to follow your Instagram account specifically.
Engage With Other Accounts
Again, a key component of the Instagram algorithm is relationships. Instagram looks at things like which posts you like and which stories you frequently watch. The more you show activity on others’ content, the more likely your own content will be shown in people’s feeds.
A word to the wise: Instagram has been cracking down on accounts that use third-party apps to like, comment, and follow. So to keep things authentic, do these actions manually.
To get engagement, you have to give engagement. Here’s how:
Respond to every comment. If a follower takes the time to comment on your posts, respond to them! Even if it’s only to say “thank you.” People are much more likely to keep interacting with your brand if they’re rewarded with recognition.
I love how @chappywrap not only responds to questions about their products but also responds to compliments to show their gratitude.
Leave genuine comments on other accounts’ posts. Manually comment on the posts of your followers, people you’d like to be your followers, or brands that are similar to yours. And be sure that these comments are genuine and add to the conversation. Instagram does not need more mindless comments like “so cute!” and “wow!” Make it clear that you’re not a bot by saying something specific to that post.
React to stories. Scroll through stories and react to them, either with the emojis you can access by swiping up or by sending a message.
Follow popular hashtags in your niche. When you follow hashtags, posts tagged with them will start showing up in your feed, just like when you follow an account. The advantage here is you can easily scroll through and like and comment on these posts.
Use Hashtags Wisely
Instagram has debunked the myth of “shadowbanning,” so feel free to use as many hashtags as you can (the maximum is 30).
There’s some debate about whether brands should hide hashtags at the bottom of their captions or hide hashtags in the comments section. I’ve always been a fan of hiding them in the first comment, but I’m changing my mind thanks to two sources—an experiment by AgoraPulse and a study by SocialInsider. Both found that posts with hashtags in the caption outperformed posts with hashtags in the comments. More specifically, according to SocialInsider, accounts with 100,000 followers or fewer have a higher reach rate when they put hashtags in the caption.
So unless you’ve got more than 100,000 followers, stick to putting hashtags in the caption.
You should also consider creating a branded hashtag. By making a hashtag that’s unique to your brand, two things will happen:
- You’ll increase brand awareness.
- It will be easier for you to find user-generated content to share, which we’ll talk about in the next section.
Here’s an example of how @vivobarefoot promotes its branded hashtag (#MyVivos) in its bio:
If you visit the hashtag #MyVivos, you can find more than 500 posts with the tag.
Encourage User-Generated Content
Related to branded hashtags mentioned above, find ways to encourage user-generated content. Having a branded hashtag will help you find posts from your community, but there are still more ways to foster UGC:
Build it into your product. If you have a physical product, consider adding a card with each shipment that encourages your customers to follow you on Instagram, share a photo of their order, and use your branded hashtag.
You can get creative in other ways too. I’ve always said that if I ever open a coffee shop, I would install “Instagrammable” tiles because the coffee + shoes + tile shot is always a huge hit on Instagram. Case in point: There’s a popular coffee shop in Toronto (@reunioncoffee) that I’ve been to, and right at the entrance, there’s this cute tile that spells out “coffee.” Walking in can be tricky because so many people want a photo of it for Instagram. If you go to the top photos for Reunion Coffee, you’ll find this:
One of the above photos is from an Instagrammer with more than 100,000 followers—great exposure for the coffee shop!
Host a giveaway. Another way to boost UGC is to host a giveaway where, to enter, participants must post to Instagram, tag you, and use your branded hashtag. Coconut Bowls hosted an Instagram giveaway that resulted in over 37,000 new followers across Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube and provided the brand with new user-generated content!
Create Standout Content
I’ve saved the best Instagram growth hack for last: Create content that stands out from the crowd. It may seem obvious, but you’d be amazed at how many businesses overlook this simple tip. No number of clever tricks will ever disguise the fact that an account is publishing mediocre or even subpar content.
To illustrate my point, I want to tell you about Jennelle Eliana. If you haven’t already heard of her, she’s a nearly overnight YouTube sensation and solo vanlifer who lives in a renovated GMC van with her pet snake. She’s interesting, right?
But what’s really interesting is that she was able to grow her YouTube account to more than 1.3 million subscribers within her first three weeks on the platform. Her Instagram account took off too and is currently at more than 351,000 followers.
Here’s what makes that so incredible: #Vanlife is huge right now; there’s no shortage of people living in vans, traveling to beautiful locations, and posting about it on Instagram and YouTube.
So how did Eliana take off so quickly in an already saturated market? While there have been plenty of naysayers and conspiracy theorists offering up explanations, I think the answer is pretty simple: Eliana is unique! Here’s why:
- Most vanlifers travel with pet dogs; Eliana has a pet snake.
- A lot of vanlifers are couples; Eliana travels alone.
- Many vanlifers have expensive builds and often hire companies to help them with it; Eliana’s build cost only $8,000, and she did it completely on her own.
While you don’t have to do something as unusual as live in a van with a snake, you do need to find what makes your business unique.
Conduct competitor research. To find out how you can approach Instagram content from a unique angle, research your competitors. What type of posts do they publish on Instagram? Which ones tend to get the most likes and comments? Do your competitors have IGTV channels? If so, what are their videos about? When analyzing your competitors’ Instagram accounts, brainstorm gaps you can fill or unique angles you can take.
Define your customer persona. Your customer persona is your ideal customer. This is the person for whom you create your products and Instagram content. Knowing what your customer persona watches on TV, which brands they love, how much income they make, etc., will make it much easier to create content for your Instagram. It gives you a sense of direction and ensures that everything you publish aligns with your brand.
Look at your own activity on Instagram. What is it that draws you to certain Instagram accounts? If you have a personal account, look through the posts you’ve saved. Which posts have you liked and commented on? Do some self-reflection and then see how you can apply those learnings to your business content to publish posts that your ideal customer would love too.
Brainstorm how you can stand out. Taking into account your competitors, your customer persona, and your own Instagram activity, how can you stand out on this crowded platform? Find a unique angle, a fresh perspective, that will give users a reason to follow you and engage with your posts.
Which One of These Instagram Growth Hacks Will You Try This Week?
As you can see, attracting faithful fans who engage with your content is way more important than merely increasing your follower count. To recap, here are Instagram growth hacks that can help you skyrocket your followers and engagement:
- Use Instagram Stories
- Create an IGTV channel
- Work with micro-influencers
- Engage with other accounts
- Use hashtags wisely
- Encourage user-generated content
- Create standout content.
Focus first on the hard work of growing a loyal fanbase. Then, you’ll be well on your way to making sales on Instagram.
Have you tried any of these Instagram growth hacks on your own account? Tell us how it went in the comments below!