Since its release, Instagram has grown like crazy — in fact, it’s the fastest-growing mobile app, racking up more users in just a few years than Twitter or Facebook. With over 150 million users, Instagram has not only made photo sharing a popular method of communication, it’s also helped make photography itself seem more accessible.
“Instagram has democratized photography; photography was expensive. It was prohibitive,” photographer, educator, and traveler Pei Ketron, who was an early Instagram adopter and now has over 800,000 followers.
That democratization is something of a double-edged sword; it’s good, because it gives all kinds of individuals, from professionals to weekend warriors, the ability to share their work (and a look at their lives), and bad, because all of those incredible users can make it really hard to stand out.
But standing out and building your follower list isn’t actually that difficult, says Pei, as long as you understand what makes people want to follow someone and stick with them. In her Photo Week class, How to Grow Your Instagram Following, Pei explained how anyone can get more Instagram followers, just by being themselves. More followers can turn into awesome results for your business, and cool perks like getting to drive BMW’s $135,000 Supercar for free.
Make use of the app’s features — but not too much. “Maximize Instagram’s features,” recommends Pei. “Instagram is a network that gives you tools for discovery. So I highly recommend geo-tagging your images.” This is a great way to not only find new users that you might want to follow, but also for people to find you. Tag the cities you travel to, the restaurants you visit, and the organizations that you like.
Other features, like @-tagging other users, is another good way to draw attention to yourself. However, there is one discovery feature that’s a little contentious, says Pei: Hashtags.
“The problem that I see with hashtagging is that it’s completely abused. People think that if I say ‘well, if I just slap on 50 hashtags, that’ll help my photos get seen.’ In reality, people looking it at your photos will think that’s just annoying.” The solution is to keep your hashtags minimal and specific (don’t tag the ones that everyone is using, and don’t tag unless you’ve searched the tag some, yourself), and get other users to find you in other ways.
“I would say don’t go beyond five. Think about why you’re hashtagging an image, and think about whether or not there’s any real value.”
Share quality content. It may seem obvious, but this is a tip that surprisingly few Instagram users seem to take into account. “If you aren’t posting photos that other people want to see, they’re not going to want to follow you,” says Pei frankly.
Ensure that your photos are not only high quality (by using third party apps, which can make them more visually engaging, and hardware, like lights and even selfie-sticks), but also interesting, inspirational, educational, or entertaining. Are you trying to be a tastemaker? Share cool new places you’ve gone or music you’re listening to. Are you a wedding photographer? Share some behind-the-scenes photos that help others see a little bit about how the sausage gets made. And if you’re not sure if your content is what people want, just ask yourself: “Would you want to follow you?”
Engage with your audience. You know those celebrities with millions of users who never engage with their followers? Don’t follow their advice. Instead, interact with the people who follow you — and the people you follow.
“Share stories. Answer questions. Ask questions,” says Pei. That also includes being a part of the Instagram community, by encouraging the growth of others.
“Mention other users whose work you like. It’s like karma — if you put good out, good will come back to you.”
Be yourself. A lot of people feel like they have to be someone they’re not,” says Pei, but that’s just not a sustainable way to share and interact. “Just be who you are. Be relatable. Be authentic. Be helpful,” she says. Share images both of your work and of your life. Offer a balance of personal and professional. Allow people to see your life as it really is, and they’ll stick with it because they like your story.
“Bring them in with your photos, but keep them there with your personality.”