How Do I Grow My Instagram? And Other Marketing Advice
I've been working in marketing for almost 15 years, 4 of which I've been working exclusively freelance and on my own small business. I've been lucky enough to build a pretty successful online business but I've also worked REALLY hard. It is a constant hustle to figure out what's working and what's not working and to refine my marketing tactics once something isn't working anymore.
Since I've had some success with my online store, I get asked all the time for advice on marketing an online small business or growing a social media following. Between my multiple business pursuits and being a work-from-home mom of two, I barely have time to eat or sleep - let alone answer the weekly requests I get soliciting advice. As much as I would LOVE to help everyone who asks, it really just comes down to me not having time to actually answer the emails! So, instead of you taking me to coffee to pick my brain, here is some of my best advice...
- If there’s one thing you’re going to invest in, I would recommend spending money on photography and creative direction if that is not your strong suit. For me, that has made all the difference. When someone lands on your website or sees your social media accounts and finds high quality imagery, it immediately tells them you are a legit business and not just some mom operating out of our kitchen (joke's on them because that's exactly what I am!)
- One to two times a year I do a “big” shoot where I pay a professional model and photographer and get a good amount of images I can use on my site and for most of my collateral - this includes thank you cards for packages, order confirmation emails, social media header banner, etc. Throughout the year I do a handful of other small shoots where I will try to work with bloggers or other influencers for some sort of trade so that the shoot is mutually beneficial. Ideally you would want to offer products for trade. Unless someone is really looking to grow their portfolio, most people don't want to work in trade for exposure.
- If you're interested, I work with my photographer friend, Taryn Kent, to create content for brands. You can find out more about our content creation here.
- The basics: Lingo
- "Collab" - this is kind of a pet peeve word of mine. I think it's annoying but everyone uses it so I'll explain it here so you'll understand what it means when someone asks if you "want to collab" aka collaborate. If you're a brand and someone asks you this question, they want you to send them product and they'll create content/post about you. If you're a blogger, it means the brand wants to send you product to post about. I work on both sides of this equation so I understand the value on both sides. I wrote more about working with bloggers below so my main advice is to just be clear up front about what you want to receive from this trade in exchange for whatever you're providing.
- Algorithm - Earlier this year, Instagram officially announced they would do away with the chronological feed in exchange for something based on an algorithm that decides to show you what it thinks you want to see. Everyone hates it and it has killed almost everyone's engagement. There's nothing we can do about it because Instagram is a business and how do they make money? Getting us to advertise. How do they get us to advertise? They kill our engagement so that we have to boost our posts in order for more people to see them. There are definitely some things you can do to boost your engagement organically (click that link at the beginning of this bullet for some tips) but at the end of the day, just know that this is their platform and they're not in it to help you build your business, they're in it to line their own pockets.
- "Instagram pods/engagement groups" — rally a few of your friends who are in a similar, complementary industry and form a pod. Read more about it at the beginning of the bullet. Typically the rule is that everyone in the group interacts via direct message and lets everyone in the group know when they've posted so that everyone in the group can go engage with the post through likes and comments. Some people have had success with this as far as beating the algorithm. I just think it helps make your posts look a little more loved with there are a handful of comments there ;)
- Hashtags - the jury is out on this increasing your engagement. Sometimes people say it'll kill your engagement because of the Instagram algorithm. Sometimes they seem to work. Who knows. But they can be a great way to discover bloggers or brands with a similar aesthetic. Click the link at the beginning of this bullet for a great comprehensive guide to hashtags.
- The basics: setting up your Instagram
- This is a really good high level article about the basics of using Instagram for marketing your business
- I think the most important thing to remember is that Instagram is a visual medium. Keep the look and feel of your feed consistent so people get a real visual feel for your brand through your feed - here's a great article about that
- Analytics - there are some good analytics available within the actual Instagram app if you switch to a business account. These will help you analyze how posts are performing and you can adjust your marketing tactics based on what seems to be working and what isn't. I think the coolest bit of data in the Instagram-provided analytics is the number of people who have saved or bookmarked your post. It's pretty interesting to see if people like the post for inspiration or are maybe saving a product to remember to buy it later. Read more about must-have analytics at the beginning of this bullet.
- Find people who are doing something similar as you and see what's working for them. Basic but it works! Just don't follow them and comment on all of their stuff like a creep. It's annoying.
- My experience:
- I was really fortunate to have a handful of close friends with large social followings who helped me launch my business. Back then, Instagram was still in its early-ish days and it was SO much easier to grow your following organically. Through the connections I made on Instagram, I was also able to get featured on a handful of large blogs. Nowadays, the game has totally changed when it comes to Instagram. For the past year to almost two years, growth and engagement has been plummeting on Instagram and it's quite the fickle beast.
- You'll notice I've included a lot of links to articles in this post. I subscribe to the Later.com email list and find their blog to be one of the best out there to help navigate the ever-changing landscape of Instagram and social media overall. It's also a great service to help you plan and schedule your feed.
Influencers + Bloggers
- Working with bloggers is a great way to spread awareness for your brand. That being said, be wary about who you pay or even gift your products to. There are a lot of people out there who buy followers and fake "likes" so if you pay them or provide them with product, you won't be getting anything in exchange since their following is all fake.
- Bloggers can be great for SEO if they have an actual blog outside of Instagram so that's something to keep in mind.
- If you find someone whose style and photos you like (regardless of the size of their following) - send them some product and see if they'll create some content for you!
- Check a blogger's comments and overall engagement so see if people seem to be really engaged with them. You may find that someone who has 2,000 followers could be more influential than someone who has 20k.
- If you’re going to reach out to bloggers, be very specific with your expectations. I know so many people, including myself, who have been burned by bloggers who haven’t followed through on their end of the bargain. They accept product and don’t feature it, their photos aren’t very good, they don’t tag you in the caption of their post, etc. It’s best to outline upfront what you’d like to receive in exchange for free product.
- Facebook advertising can work wonders if you know how to utilize their targeting. My brand is a little bit tricky to refine targeting for so it's not something I've invested a lot of time or money in and am definitely not an expert. A brand I know sells ugly Christmas sweaters with heavy metal band logos on them. They can target people who follow that band or similar bands and easily find customers. As I said, I am not an expert in Facebook advertising but I'm sure there are lots of good resources out there!
- Retargeting is a great way to get people back to your site after they've checked you out and left. My store runs on Shopify and I use the Shoelace app for retargeting and it's pretty easy and seems to be somewhat successful.
- Around San Diego there are lots of “makers markets” and gift markets and are a great way to build a local following. There are similar events/markets in other so look into what's happening in your area and meet your customers face to face.
- West Coast Craft and Unique LA get good media coverage too so there’s a chance you could get picked up for coverage at those. Unique LA also functions as a mini tradeshow. A lot of buyers walk that show and could pick up your brand.
The bottom line is this: there is no easy way to grow a following on Instagram and there's no quick fix to have a bustling business overnight. It takes so much work and hustle and you can never really stop because everything changes constantly in the social media/marketing world. You have to read the trade blogs and analyze your analytics to see what's working for you. I know tons of people with ZERO prior marketing experience - artists and stay at home moms, etc - who have built crazy successful businesses through social media by learning how to do all of this on their own. They read, they analyze, they bob and weave. Some of the savviest marketers I know are people who learned how to build a business just by figuring it out as they went. You can do it. I believe in you. I'm your biggest fan!
Intro photo by Taryn Kent