Instagram is likely important to your business. Period. The platform is clearly one of the forerunners in the world of content and ad consumption. But if you, like many others, find it hard to understand without the numbers, let’s take a look:

  • Instagram has 1 billion active users each and every month
  • More than 500 million accounts are active EVERY SINGLE DAY
  • 80% of accounts on Instagram follow a business account
  • Over 500 million accounts watch Instagram stories each day
  • Over 80% of Instagram users are between the ages 25 and 44

(Graph from Sprout Social)

So, the fact is: most startups have customers on Instagram. And yet, many have made little to no progress when it comes to building an engaged and active following there. You likely do not know what hashtags to use, when to post, how often, or what posts will actually make your customer care to even look at your products. Instagram’s massive user base doesn’t help: its high usage means it is extremely difficult for anyone who doesn’t know what they’re doing to actually stand out on the platform. Actually, it’s difficult even if you DO know what you’re doing.

It is not impossible, though.

What Will It Take?

Your business can break out and establish a strong and dedicated community on Instagram in 2019. Most won’t do the work though, or will start and then stop a week or a month later. This is exactly why these strategies work: most people aren’t willing to do them.

To break out on Instagram in 2019 requires hard work and long hours. You will spend hours a week (preferably, every day) on the platform, consistently applying the strategies over and over, for months and months, with little to no results at first.

If you’re still reading, I assume you are serious, so let’s talk about the payoff:

In return for doing what most brands won’t, you may develop what most brands can’t: some of the most loyal and engaged customers.

You may develop business and personal relationships that will last for months, years, or even a lifetime.

Who Has Tested These Strategies?

These strategies come from two sources primarily: the advice of Social Media Strategist, Arctic15 speaker (with 5.9 million Instagram followers) Mr. Gary Vaynerchuk, and real personal brands and businesses I have observed.

The Preliminary Work

To successfully build your engaged following on Instagram, it is important to think and do a couple of things first:

Determine Your Audience

Engagement comes from focus. Start by figuring out who you want to follow yous. Most likely it is the customer your business is serving, or people who influence your customer’s purchase decision. Don’t feel bad if you haven’t quite figured out who you want to serve with your product, though. Numerous businesses ace the same situation, and posting on Instagram can actually help you find your best audience. At this stage, make your best guess. Once you do, start putting out content, test different strategies and look at how actual people respond.

Put Out Valuable Content

You need to consistently put out valuable content. And let’s be clear on what “valuable” means:

“Valuable Instagram content is any photo or video released on the platform which educated, inspires or entertains your audience.”

You MUST fulfill one of those benefits – inform, inspire, or entertain – better two or even all three of them, whenever possible, with almost every single post. Sometimes random posts about what your CEO ate for breakfast will do well as they are in line with how people use Instagram. Still, no one will pay attention if you are not giving them some kind of value most of the time.

Ask yourself: what does my company have to offer? Are we specialists in our craft and able to teach people how to do what we do? Does our CTO have a lot of life experience relevant to the industry that she is willing to share? 

Just remember: ONLY put out things that you can offer AND that are valuable to your audience.

A stay-at-home mother of five, for example, may care that you know seven ways to build a computer from scratch. Someone does care, though. It is your job to find the audience for your valuable content, tailor your content to their needs AND put it out. FOR FREE.

That’s right. For free. If you are a marketing agency and want to attract businesses, put out your best knowledge and show your expertise without ever seeing a single Euro for what you post. Don’t hold back. Don’t be scared. Just like this article, the vast majority of people won’t execute against the information you share anyways; the ones who do will likely follow and support you out of gratitude and interest; the ones who don’t will simply enjoy to show off what they learned at the dinner table.

Remember I said Instagram can help you figure out your customer? It actually can. When you put out your best content, people who are naturally interested in your posts (and probably your product) come to you.

They are the ones who you can sell because they are naturally inclined to derive value from your knowledge and expertise.

Consequently, if you are attracting the wrong type of attention that may be an indicator to change the kind of value you are giving. That stay-at-home mom, for example, might be interested in a post series “How to Keep Kids Entertained When You’re Tired” and not so much in “How to Build A Business That Sells to Stay-At-Home Mothers”.

I want to make sure I say this before we move to the next step: MAKE THE CONTENT NATIVE TO INSTAGRAM. That means you should put that blog post in the copy beneath the picture as much as you are able to instead of “We have a new blog post! Go to our bio link to read it!”.

This may require you rewrite your blog post to fit the mood of your customer on Instagram, shorten it to be below the maximum caption size (2200 characters) and add relevat hashtags. Little moves like this go a long way. Don’t get me wrong, the profile link IS a great tool but that’s something to discuss later. For now, focus on giving free value to your customer on Instagram:

Post Consistently

100 million photos are posted on Instagram each day. So while there is a lot of attention on the platform, it also requires consistent posting if you want to be remembered and cared about. How many times should you post a day? That depends on the amount of value you have to give, what your ambitions are, and how you go about posting.

There are definitely accounts with engaged follower base who post once a week or once a month. Nevertheless, if you can post valuable content three to six times a day consistently, that’s three to six times you have a chance to benefit your client and build your business. To quote Gary Vaynerchuk, it is all about figuring out how much “you have in you” and consistently executing against that. And know that you may have more in you than you think.

You may actually just be overthinking the content and it’s undermining the amount you are releasing.

“Document Don’t Create”: the strategy coined by Mr. Vaynerchuk to help businesses and brands put out more content on social media. The concept is to stop thinking you have to create perfectly polished posts every single time. You don’t. It will be far easier for you to post what is going on in your day to day, and documenting the valuable things that are happening every couple of hours. This strategy is an opportunity for you tech startups, for example, to record a meeting deciding on which feature suggestions to implement, the crashing of your system and how your CTO fixed the problem, a note from a happy (or not happy) customer and how your support team responded.

Just make sure what you are sharing is valuable to your consumer. Not you. Read that again.

Absolutely, a pretty picture or a crisp video will incite them to tap on your post, but you’d be surprised how far bad lighting goes when the content is valuable.

One final consideration on this point is when to post. I cannot tell you for sure when the best time is for your audience. If I try to I will be making the same mistake many people do when they ask this question: they assume. They assume their consumer is on Instagram at lunchtime because ‘that’s when everyone is on it’ but that is not necessarily the case. Even if it is the case, A LOT of other brands and businesses are thinking the exact same thing which is going to make it more difficult for you to be seen, so I would suggest you don’t rely on ‘common sense’. Test things instead.

One week, post every day at 6:30 am or 4:00 pm, or midnight. The next week, try 7:45 am, 1:00 pm, or 3:30 pm: basically, make a commitment to test a bunch of times. Eventually, you will figure out when your customer is on Instagram the most. Once you figure that out, use those times to post whenever you can. I suggest gathering a list of times throughout the day that perform well because as a founder or business owner you may not be able to post at 1:00 pm every single day; that is not devastating though if you know you can post at 3:30 pm and get a similar level of engagement.

Gather A List of Hashtags that MIGHT Work

Hashtags are still valuable tools for being discovered on Instagram. They don’t work the way you might think, though. One day this week, sit down and free up around…two or three hours to check Instagram hashtags you think your consumer is looking at. Type in the tag and see how many posts use that hashtag. Gary Vaynerchuk says the ‘sweet spot’ number of posts is a total of around 20,000 to 500,000 posts in that hashtag. Use these hashtags in your posts.   

After you’ve found your first potentially effective tag, look to the “related” Hashtag section near the top of the search result screen; Gary notes that these tags can give you clues to other good hashtags to use.

Tags with more than a total of 500,000 posts may work, however unless you have around 500+ likes on a post, or more than 1,000 views on a video, or more than 70 comments, or some combination of these, you may not show up on the “Popular” section of the hashtag which is the first thing a consumer sees when they search for it. There is a chance to show up in the “Recent” section of the popular tags, but that requires more work for your consumer (tapping on “Recent”) which they probably won’t do. Also, showing up in a sea of 6 million posts still makes it difficult to be seen, so just be aware of what you’re walking into.

Once you have your list of tags, cycle through them in your posts to see which are effective. Put relevant tags with relevant posts. For example, if your sales team did a tech review of a new product, then using #techreview may be effective. When you’re using the hashtag though, don’t assume it’s working even if you are getting likes. You need to assess the likes you’re getting. Go to the profiles of the people engaging with your content and make sure they are the ones you want to engage with it. If they aren’t, or if a hashtag consistently brings the engagement of random bots instead of real people, you may have picked the wrong hashtag.

It will likely take weeks of consistent posting with a single tag, but eventually you will figure out which hashtags are hitting your target audience and which ones aren’t. Then you can just cycle through your effective hashtag list. Still, always be open to try a new hashtag, or even adding an “s” to the end of one of your tags.

I advise against buying bots to like and comment on your posts as well. It is dishonest, and Instagram will eventually delete these bots. If you rely on bots heavily, your follower count, likes and comments will plummet, and your reputation might be affected, too.

Use Calls to Action from TIme to Time

Yes, you may be discovered by a hashtag, however, as Instagram is a mature platform and as most people are following hundreds or thousands of accounts – many of which are posting multiple times a week – there is no shortage of content directly on their home screen. This means their motivation to look up tags in the first place goes down as they have all they can consume right on their screen. You will find a lot of value by asking people to tag their friends in a post.

Do not stop at saying “tag a friend!” at the end of your Instagram copy, though. Your request to share should directly relate to the content you put out. For example, if your team did a tech review about the newest iPhone, you could say “Tag an iPhone user!” at the end. This will get your content shared and possibly increase the size and engagement of your community. Do not assume it will work, though. First, your content needs to be consistently valuable for anyone to even bother sharing. Sharing puts a person’s reputation on the line: they want their friends to be grateful for the tag which raises their social capital, not ignore it which diminishes it.

Second, if your following is small, understand that many of them may not feel inclined to do more than a like. If you feel that piece of content is something which is important to share though, and you feel that because you want to bring value to your community and their loved ones (NOT your KPIs), ask for the share. Remember too that shares aren’t the only way to get your posts seen.

Read all your comments, respond to them and encourage people to comment. The number of comments improves your posts’ placement on people’s feed and in hashtag searches. This is one more reason to ask for relevant comments in addition to customer insights. Gary Vaynerchuk’s comment request below is a good example:

Let me just highlight that YES you can successfully use a tweet screenshot as Instagram content, but also note Gary’s request for a comment. He made a request for a comment instead of asking his community to tag someone in line with the content of the post. Gary makes it his business to use his communication and marketing skills to get people invested in living happy and practical lives, and sometimes his posts can discourage people. He makes an effort here to explain his intentions behind his “crass” messages, and then asks the very relevant question of ‘What are the people in my community working to achieve?’ with his call to action. Don’t feel pressured to add a call to action in every post. But if it feels natural and you can ask one that is relevant to your content, go for it.

There you have all of the preliminary work you will need to get your consumer’s attention on Instagram. I applaud if you made it to the end and still have the drive and ambition to do the work. In Part 2, I’ll share the next steps of building your Instagram account in 2019.