Instagram is my favorite social media channel, ever. I think it’s the only social media left that’s not infested with controversial and political discussions, at least not within the Instagram communities that I follow, and definitely not in my own feed.
Aside from the fact that I have control over which accounts and hashtags I follow, I love the way Instagram highlights visual imagery—which means, even though there are political rants and negativity here and there, they’re all hidden under pretty little squared photos. :)
Don’t get me wrong. I’m fully aware that Instagram does not fully represent what real life is. Real life is unfiltered and messy and goes beyond the four corners of a perfectly styled vignette. But for me Instagram serves a special purpose of highlighting the beauty and the intricate details of everyday.
It’s a good place to find inspiration, to meet kindred spirits and, for creative entrepreneurs like us, to market and grow our businesses.
Which is why we all can benefit from growing our Instagram following.
Gaining over 20,000 Instagram followers for me, I can say, is equal parts an intentional strategy and a happy accident.
I’m not a celebrity or a high profile personality. I wasn’t a social media influencer or an experienced photographer. I’m just a work at home mom who likes taking pictures and sharing them with the world.
I started out in 2015 like everybody else—zero followers.
But I’m also a Content Marketing Strategist by profession, doing Branding and Web Design work on the side. In that sense, I do know some of the best practices in digital marketing because that’s just part of the work I do.
I therefore started my Instagram account applying some of the principles that I know are proven to work, without straying away from what feels normal to me.
Making it to the Instagram Suggested Users List
The big jump in my Instagram followers happened in mid-2015 when Instagram placed me in the elite Suggested Users List.
I read about this Suggested Users List before but I have to admit, I’ve always thought of it as just a myth—a unicorn Instagrammers talked about—until I received a direct message from Instagram informing me of the news.
What happened after that just blew me away. I gained over a thousand followers every day, for two weeks. Instagram users flocked to my feed without me doing anything, it was insane.
After that crazy ride, my Instagram follower count settled down at 27,000 mark.
While 27K followers is more than this introvert could ever have expected in her life, there were downsides to being in the Suggested Users List.
First, I got a lot of spam, dozens and dozens of them. My followers included new and inactive accounts that didn’t have existing posts and followers. Automated bots were tagging me for likes and follows.
At first I obsessively blocked these spammy looking accounts. Eventually I learned to just live with it since most of them are not that harmful anyway. Besides, Instagram purges these inactive accounts periodically.
Second, as much followers as I have, my engagement rate is quite low. These users are literally from everywhere in the world and didn’t really connect with me on a personal level (and vice versa). And since we’re talking about a huge variety of personas, there was no way my content would be relatable to everyone.
Third, after that huge jump, I eventually started losing followers by the hundreds. Although I don’t necessarily see this as a downside. This only means that Instagram is constantly weeding out spammy and inactive accounts, which is a good thing. Also, real users who unfollow me only means they’re not my target audience, so that’s a good thing too.
Fastforward to today
After gaining 27K followers, it went down to 19K, and then slowly went back up to 22K. I took a bit of a break last year not only from blogging but from posting on Instagram too. Just the same, my follower count still kept increasing from week to week, albeit at a much slower rate.
To be honest, I’m not sure if Instagram still do the Suggested Users List, apart from the Suggested Users that you see whenever you follow a new account.
Still, I have every reason to believe that the factors that made Instagram single me out from a billion other users around the world then are principles that can still be applied today.
So if you want to intentionally grow your Instagram following, here are some things I did when Instagram included me in the SUL, some of which I still do until now.
1. I spent time curating my feed
Look, there’s a reason why you’ve been hearing “curate your feed” a lot when it comes to Instagram.
Follow me on Instagram: @rhizaoyos
A thoughtfully curated Instagram feed doesn’t only look pleasing to the eye, it also attracts the right audience. It really does spell a difference in making your Instagram follow-worthy and looking like a pro.
Here are several ways you can do this:
- Have an overarching theme and style
- Apply similar filter or post processing to each of your photos to have a unified look across your feed
- Be intentional in using your brand colors (if you have one)
- Apply photography basics like rule of thirds and negative space (my fave!)
- Avoid too many close up shots; instead, make sure to add as much context as you can, whenever possible
Action: Always remember that the best Instagrammers are creative and visual people, some are professional photographers even. Naturally, you have to make your feed look visually appealing if you want to stand out. No, users don’t read captions from the get go, it’s the look and feel of someone’s feed that makes them decide if they want to follow, read, and get to know you more.
2. I learned to take good photos
I had to train myself to lessen the selfies, filter out low quality and dark photos, and only post the best one from about a dozen outtakes. Yep, the outtakes had to go. If I like them so much I’d post them in a Facebook album instead.
This also means I trained myself to take photos with good lighting and apply a bit of styling too. I also use a lot of negative space to keep my feed from looking too chaotic.
Action: When taking photographs, master your weapon! Whether you’re using an iPhone or an Android Phone, a point and shoot, a mirrorless camera or a DSLR, it pays to know the ins and outs of your device.
3. I actively joined Instagram’s Weekend Hashtag Challenges
This is a little known fact, and I don’t usually see this being recommended by Instagram rockstars. But one thing I actively did at a time when I didn’t have a lot of followers was joined photo challenges, and what better way to get Instagram’s attention than to join their very own WHP Challenge.
The idea is simple. Instagram gives a prompt (or a theme) every weekend, a corresponding hashtag (usually #WHP[theme]), and a set of instructions. The challenge runs for a full weekend, after which the Instagram team chooses the best submissions. These winning photos are then featured on the official Instagram account and the Instagram blog.
My entries never really got featured but joining the #WHP challenges, I believe, placed me within Instagram’s radar, and I think that helped my visibility in a huge way. It also connected me to the bigger Instagram community—the hardcore Instagrammers, photographers, and storytellers.
Action: Consider contributing to Instagram challenges, whether you get featured or not. For sure, just by using the #WHP hashtags, hardcore Instagram users around the world will already see you.
4. I actively joined daily photo challenges
Aside from joining WHP, I also joined other photo challenges. I specifically enjoyed #FMSphotoaday and #7Vignettes. Although I don’t do this as much now, I did this heavily when I was still actively growing my Instagram following.
Apart from getting myself visible in these communities, it gave me an excuse to post on Instagram daily. It also challenged me to up my Instagram game.
Action: Posting daily on Instagram is not a walk in the park, it takes a lot of effort to come up with new ideas. Daily photo challenges are not only a great way to get infinite ideas, it connects you to other Instagrammers in an intentional way too.
5. I went offline to build relationships
Now this is where the real fun begins. At the height of my Instagram growth, something special was happening in my life offline.
I launched a community called Pursuit Manila in 2015 along with other local Christian creative entrepreneurs. This community attracted over 200+ women over the course of two years. The beautiful thing about this community is, we weren’t only connected online, we also had monthly gatherings that allowed us to build relationships offline.
I can’t ephasize enough how important it is to strike a balance between your online and offline life, whether for the purpose of your personal growth or for your business.
In my case, the real relationships I was able to build with these women in real life—women who are very creative and *ehem* obsessed with Instagram and flatlays—naturally resulted to an authentic online following and engagement on Instagram.
Action: Every now and then get out of our way to attend gatherings and workshops to meet new people. More often than not, this translates to more authentic Instagram connections.
6. I started a few hashtags that became viral
It’s one thing to use an existing hashtag, it’s another thing to start one that goes viral.
In connection with Pursuit Manila, we started several hashtags that everyone in the community used heavily on a regular basis. Specifically, #pursuitmanila, #pursuitsisters, #pursuitmanilastories, among others.
As I mentioned, these are just some of the things that were happening when Instagram “found me” and placed me on the Suggested Users list.
Although I couldn’t say this with certainty, I do know that an algorithm (whether Instagram or Google or Pinterest) operates on a set of triggers. And for Instagram, a hashtag is an indication of activity and engagement.
Action: More than just strategically using active hashtags and joining Instagram communities, challenge yourself to start your own hashtag and initiate building a community around it. You don’t know where that would take you. ;)
7. I created a tangible product that people talked about
Again, in connection with integrating online and offline strategies, I also launched the Passion Cards. The Passion Cards are 3×4” cards that had inspiring messages, bible verses and quotes, and came with a minimalist design. I gave them away during Pursuit Manila gatherings and sold some of them online.
What made these Passion Cards really special is how easy it is to incorporate them to Instagram photos. The pocket-size dimension of these cards are perfect for flatlays, styled vignettes and creative shots. And because of these, people who bought these Passion Cards tagged me on their photos and used another one of the hashtags I initiated, #passioncards.
8. I connected with Instagrammers around the world
I didn’t just follow Instagram accounts or double-tapped on their photos, I connected with them in a personal way.
I already have dozens of friends from the local Pursuit Manila community, but connecting with US, UK, and Australia-based creative entrepreneurs expanded my reach globally.
This is totally unlike my Facebook network (which is mostly composed of family, classmates, colleagues and friends). I love that with Instagram, I can really connect with kindred spirits from around the world.
Everything I did to grow my Instagram was organic.
Sure, I wouldn’t have a huge boost without being in the Suggested Users List. So yes, the Instagram team did give me a big push to the right direction.
However, what I mean by growing Instagram organically is that, I didn’t spend money on ads, and didn’t do anything beyond an ordinary, non-celebrity person could do.
Learning to take good photographs, meeting new people, starting a community, creating a highly Instagrammable product—all of these happened organically for me. Not to mention, I did these not just to grow my Instagram following but for a deeper purpose and a genuine passion for the craft.
That said, I challenge you to focus on creating, building relationships, and continuously honing your creativity. Growing your Instagram following is just the cherry on top of the icing on your cake.
Instagram is an amazing tool to grow and to connect, use it well.
Instagram is an amazing tool to grow your business, gain new skills, connect with people and be a part of communities. It’s also one of the best (if not the best) social media channels to market your product and services, especially if you’re a creative.
I say, use it well. Take advantage of it. I think it’s going to be around for a while. ;)
Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.
I’d close with this because no one says it better than Picasso.
Instagram has an algorithm, which means there are rules, best practices, and strategies that will make your Instagram posts more visible and follow-worthy. But as soon as you’ve mastered these rules, you can play by ear. Get creative, experiment, but most of all, have fun!
Download these Instagram quotes!
A.k.a. Digital Passion Cards ;)
This set of downloadable inspirational quotes will quickly fill up your Instagram content calendar, at least for the next couple of weeks or so! Includes 20 assorted, unwatermarked, publish-ready quotes to use on your Instagram (1200px x 1200px) that I hope will inspire YOU and your IG community. Have fun using them!