I love Instagram. It’s my preferred social media platform to keep up with friends, family, and coworkers as well as see what my favorite brands and celebrities are up to.
I’ve always been fascinated to see how some accounts can have millions of followers, while other, similar accounts only have hundreds.
I’ve also had a front-row seat to seeing how VMG Studios’ Instagram account has grown since we brought on a new social media manager.
While we support enterprise-level corporations, we, ourselves, are a small creative marketing and branding agency and that has made it difficult for us to grow a significant following on Instagram.
However, since we brought on Bridget Raftery to head our social media team, our Instagram has grown by more than hundreds of followers. Not bad for a small, marketing agency. So, I decided to sit down with her to see how she’s grown our following and the tips and tricks she’s picked up along the way in understanding the somewhat complicated Instagram algorithm.
This article will dive into the algorithm, the importance of engagement and relationship-building, and uncover the mystery of hashtags so that you can learn how to grow your business account organically on Instagram.
Why You Should Have an Instagram for Your Business
With Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, and TikTok, it’s easy to argue that your business doesn’t need to be on every social media platform. In fact, creating and managing unique content for each platform, and engaging on each one is a full-time job of at least one person.
However, we do argue that most businesses should put forth effort and invest resources in Instagram.
Instagram is one of the most used social media networks in the world with 1 billion monthly active users. It’s also the second most downloaded free app in the Apple app store, just behind YouTube.
While Instagram is a popular social media platform for personal use, it’s also beneficial for businesses to build brand awareness, highlight company culture which can help humanize a brand, and sell products or services. And users are connecting with brands on the platform.
Research found that 200 million Instagram users visit at least one business profile a day, one-third of the most viewed “stories” are from businesses, and 60% of people say they discover new products on Instagram.
Understanding the Instagram Algorithm
Once you’ve created an Instagram account for your business, you just need to start posting content and you’ll immediately attract followers, right?
If only it were that simple.
Instagram, just like the other social media platforms, relies on an algorithm to populate what users see in their home feed.
In the early days of Instagram, it relied mostly on a chronological algorithm: showing the most recent posts at the top of the scrolling feed. That has since changed, and it’s important to note that the algorithm itself changes frequently.
With that in mind, Instagram has identified three main factors that impact what you see on your feed:
The types of posts you’ve previously engaged with. If a user watches a lot of videos on Instagram, they’ll likely see more video posts at the top of their feed.
When you post and how frequently. While Instagram has moved away from the chronological algorithm, the current algorithm does still try to push newer content to the top of a user’s feed.
A user is more likely to see posts from people they interact with on the platform through likes, comments, tags, and direct messages (DMs). This is really where the term “engagement” comes into play.
Why Engagement is Crucial on Instagram
Whether you’re a social media manager, marketing manager, or simply an active user on Instagram, you’ve likely heard the term “engagement” thrown around when talking about building a following.
Engagement is a bit of a social media buzzword.
And that’s because engagement is crucial in building a recognizable brand on Instagram.
In early 2020, Instagram went on record to talk about the algorithm and discussed the kind of engagement that impacts where a post ranks on a user’s feed. As you could probably guess, comments, likes, shares, and views all play a role.
This is pretty straight forward, right?
Well, it is, and it isn’t. Instagram doesn’t only look at people commenting and liking your posts, it also looks at whether you are interacting on those people’s posts, as well. Simply put, engagement is a two-way street.
VMG Studios’ social media manager, Bridget Raftery, summed it up as such: “Engagement comes down to relationship marketing.”
Relationship marketing focuses on building meaningful relationships with customers to ensure their long-term support of your businesses.
The Importance of Relationship-Building on Instagram
In the technological landscape we live in, it’s easy to forget that real people are behind brand and business social media accounts. Sure, they may use scheduling tools to post content, but any likes, comments, or DMs are often coming from real-life people.
When Instagram sees what appears to be genuine relationships on its platform – people who constantly comment and like each other’s posts – it’s going to flag that relationship and positively increase your ranking on that person’s feed.
As Raftery says, “Social media rewards human behavior. When in doubt, be human.”
She added that when it comes to VMG Studios’ Instagram account, “some of the most successful followers that we’ve gotten who have actually engaged on each (of our) posts have been people who I’ve genuinely spent time with. I reply to their stories, I comment on their stuff. So, it’s an organic thing.”
Just like in real life, the beauty of building relationships on Instagram is you’re unlocking the potential of another person’s following – their network. There’s a reason it’s called a social media network.
Raftery says, “Everyone you connect with and build a network with, you then get tapped into their network and you keep building these little cities of networks. So, the friends you make along the way are going to bring in more friends.”
Here’s a pro tip: even if you use a scheduling tool such as Hootsuite to post your content, Raftery suggests setting an alarm 30 minutes before your post is set to publish so that you can engage on the platform, such as liking and comments on other posts in your feed. This will help show the Instagram algorithm the human-side of your account since a lot of people spend time scrolling through their feed before posting something of their own.
She also suggests staying on 30 minutes after you post so that you’re ready to reply to people and share it, upping the posts engagement metrics.
Besides engaging with people who like and comment on your content, you’re probably wondering how to find other accounts to engage with to try to bring them into your network. Well, this is where the time-consuming, hard work comes into play.
How to Use Hashtags to Build Your Organic Instagram Following
Hashtags. You’ve likely heard of them, you may use them, but do you understand how they truly work?
I’ll be honest, I didn’t at first. I figured you could just slap on some hashtags at the end of a post and, poof, people magically would find my content!
Well, as you might have guessed, it’s a bit more complicated than that. But it doesn’t have to be overwhelming if you’re new to hashtags.
Best practices for hashtag use on Instagram can be broken down into the two “Rs:”
This is a good place to start when considering which hashtags to add to a post. First, is it relevant? And second, have you researched the hashtag to make sure it’s not banned (more on that shortly) and that it’s the right “size” for your company?
Let’s dive into this a bit more.
Avoid Using “Banned” Hashtags
While hashtags can increase your ranking and expand your post’s reach, using the wrong hashtag can actually hurt your status. Instagram may shadowban your post (essentially hiding it), or worst-case scenario, your account could be banned.
There are some hashtags that are “banned” on Instagram. I put “banned” in quotation marks because the hashtags still exist and populate, however, Instagram may dock your feed ranking or shadowban your post if you use them.
Here are two examples of “banned” hashtags: alone and elevator.
As you can see, the hashtags do exist and there are posts associated with each one, but you’ll also notice the message at the top that reads “Recent posts from #alone are currently hidden because the community has reported some content that may not meet Instagram’s community guidelines.”
This could mean people are posting inappropriate photos or videos or pictures a user doesn’t have a right to share using the hashtag.
Because of these bans, it’s important to research every hashtag before you use it.
Researching Hashtags on Instagram
Besides making sure that the hashtags you’re hoping to use on a post aren’t “banned,” it’s also important to make sure the hashtags have a following and a following that makes sense for your account.
What does that mean?
Well, if your account only has about 100 followers, it may not make the most sense to use a hashtag that has 6+ million posts. Why? Since your account is smaller, it’s highly unlikely that your post will show up as a “top post” on the discover page for that hashtag or in the feed of someone who follows that hashtag.
On the flip side, if you use a hashtag that has a few thousand posts, the likelihood of a higher ranking is much better.
Raftery also suggests avoiding hashtags that a lot of spam accounts use. This can include accounts that claim they can give you thousands of followers just by following their account (spoiler alert, that’s a scam).
When you find hashtags that do work for your account, keep track of them. Here at VMG Studios, we’ve created spreadsheets that outline what we consider approved hashtags. If you do this, it’s important to do an audit of those hashtags every once and a while to make sure they haven’t landed on the “banned” list.
Other Hashtag Best Practices on Instagram
The relevancy and research of hashtags are of most importance, but there are other things to consider when using them effectively on a post.
There is a legitimate rule on the number of hashtags you can use on an individual post. That magic number is 30. Do you have to use 30? Of course not. Should you use 30? Well, it depends on the post and the relevancy and research behind each one.
Raftery says VMG Studios’ hashtag sweet spot is generally around 10 to 14 hashtags.
Another good practice for hashtags is engaging with posts that use that particular hashtag. Raftery calls this “hashtag fishing.”
Here’s how she “fishes.”
• Choose a relevant hashtag on your most recent post and pull it up on the search page of Instagram.
• Click “recent” to see posts in chronological order.
• Click on the first photo that sparks your interest.
• Click on the username and go to that person’s profile.
• Once there, evaluate their profile to see if they could be a potential follower.
• Watch their stories, like the post that brought you to their page, and comment appropriately.
• Scan through at least 18 posts and engage on 1 to 5 additional posts.
• Return to the hashtag feed by swiping left out of their profile.
• Scroll down to the next post and repeat the process.
Raftery does stress to not over-engage a hashtag. She says if it’s a bigger hashtag, you might find yourself going down the rabbit hole of engaging on several posts, however, Instagram could see that as “spam-like” behavior and block you.
One benefit of fishing, Raftery says, is it’s an opportunity to conduct additional hashtag research. She says if you look at the “top” posts of a hashtag, you can take note of what other tags those accounts are using and see if there are any relevant hashtags you could use that you may not have thought of before.
As for when to “go fishing,” Raftery suggests doing so both before and after you post.
You may have also noticed how some people put the hashtags directly in their caption while others leave the hashtags in a comment on the post. I asked Raftery if there’s an argument for which method is better and she said, “It’s just a matter of preference. Some may argue it’s less effective in the first comment because the faster you can post tags the better to get it into the tag feed (so adding it to the caption is the fastest), but if you have it copied/pasted to comment within the first few seconds, it makes no difference to Instagram.”
Instagram Best Practices Checklist
Phew, that is a lot of information, isn’t it? If you’re overwhelmed by the legwork of gaining a following on Instagram, you’re not alone. However, you don’t need to be an expert on it right away.
Plus, as I mentioned earlier, the Instagram algorithm changes frequently, so it’s important to stay on top of new trends or new features to make sure you’re using Instagram to its full potential.
To help outline the process in a more succinct way, Raftery created an Instagram checklist that’s broken up daily, weekly, and monthly to stay organized.
• Engage on your feed: comment on 1 to 2 big accounts that you follow and 1 to 2 smaller accounts.
• Check direct messages and message requests.
• Fish medium and large hastags.
• Track new hashtags found in research document.
• Post 1 time a day.
• Use a maximum of 30 hashtags per post.
• Share the post to your story.
• Use a mixture of 10 small and medium hashtags in stories.
• Hide hashtags by dragging them off-screen or hiding them under the media.
• Prepare hashtags for the next day’s post using research document.
• Fish small hashtags.
• Fish geotags.
• Examples for VMG Studios includes #seattlebusiness or #bellevuebusiness.
• Review Insights (upper right tab on profile).
• Content insights
• How did your posts perform? Look at reach, impressions, follows, and website clicks per post.Were any of the hashtags you used effective? Did you miss an opportunity for a call-to-action (CTA)? This is an opportunity to reflect on if you’re on track with your key performance indicators (KPIs)
• Update any tracking documents.
• Activity insights
• This often correlates with when you post, however it also gives reflection on how you’re doing with engagement and discovery even when you aren’t posting.
• How many profile visits did you see this week? If this up or down from last week and why?
• Did you have website clicks outside of posting?
• If a person clicks directly from your post to your profile to your website, it’s counted as a website click from a post. If a person comes to your profile from another source (a like or comment), the click isn’t driven by a particular post.
• Audience insights
• Look at overall growth. Are you trending upward? Was there a particular day with a drop or spike in following and why might that be?
• Take note of who followed you over the last week. Are they in your target market or at least serve you in reaching your target market? Do you need to make any changes to who you are engaging with?
• Review insights for monthly recap
• Audience insights
• How many followers did you gain? Do you feel this is reflective of your efforts?
• How did your audience change over the last month?
• Scroll down to the bottom of audience insights and look at the graph of your follower activity.
Tracking successes and failures are extremely important in learning what works or doesn’t work for your account and making adjustments to ensure you’re providing valuable content to your network.
Growing Your Instagram Following Organically
Instagram is a fun way to engage your target audience, build relationships, and find new customers. However, it’s a tricky game, one that’s constantly evolving.
How people use Instagram changes from person to person. Some may be on there for strictly personal use, to see what their friends and family are up to. Some may be on there to see what their favorite celebrities are up to in real-life. Some may use it just to promote their business. And some may be a hybrid of all these options.
Regardless, Instagram is one of the most popular social media platforms and it offers plenty of opportunities for your business to grow a following and attract new customers or clients.
One of the biggest tricks of Instagram is working around its algorithm by proving you’re human. Yes, hashtags and engagement are important, but being human is just as essential. Humanizing your brand is also important to your followers. They likely don’t want to follow an account run by bots. They want to see genuine people and genuine messaging even if you’re trying to sell a particular product or service.
As Raftery says, “I think that’s the trick with social media. You can’t over target, you can’t oversell. You really have to show them that you’re genuine.”
Provide value to your followers, engage with them by building true relationships, find relevant hashtags to attract more people, and be consistent.
Click the image below to download a free daily, weekly, and monthly checklist to stay on top of your Instagram account