1. Use the right hashtags
Your goal on Instagram is to engage your current audience on a regular basis while also growing your number of real followers. Posting new, interesting, and engaging photos will satisfy the first requirement, but to begin growing you’ll find hashtagging your photos extremely important. Hashtagging makes it easy for people searching for specific terms to find your photos.
So which hashtags should you use? Just like with Twitter and other social sites, users on Instagram choose certain hashtags over others. If you use popular Instagram hashtags within your photos, you’re much more likely to reach new users and be discovered.
At the time of writing, these were the top 20 hashtags on Instagram:
If you looked at this list and said, “But none of those apply to my products or brand,” you’re likely correct.
Using hashtags is one thing, using the right tags is completely different.
Popular tags like the ones listed above will likely net you additional engagement and likes. However, they won’t lead to increased long-term engagement, new interested followers, or, most importantly, sales.
If you want to tag your photos properly, you’ll need to find and use the most relevant hashtags. This means doing the appropriate research to make sure you’re using hashtags that not only describe your brand but are also being searched for on Instagram.
To find relevant hashtags, you’ll want to use a free online tool like IconoSquare or Webstagram to start.
Below, I used Webstagram to find relevant, related, and popular hashtags for my men’s accessory business by searching for key hashtags closely related to my brand.
As an example, searching the hashtag #MensFashion, I was able to pull the following list of additional keyword hashtags along with the number of times they have been used (i.e., their popularity).
You can also find more related hashtags and their popularity if you search for any of your target keywords directly in the Instagram app.
You’ll want to go through this exercise trying different keywords that describe your brand and products, building out your hashtag keyword list as you go.
Keep in mind that Instagram allows for a maximum of 30 hashtags per post. Additionally, the popular words will change over time, so make sure you revisit your hashtag keywords every few months so you're using the best possible terms.
You can also steal hashtag ideas from competitors or similar accounts that have the kind of following you aspire to, but ultimately you want to create your own groups of hashtags that relate to your specific account.
Pro tip #1: Here’s a trick I use for my ecommerce businesses. For every product and product category in my stores, I’ve researched the most popular related Instagram hashtags. I came up with 15–20 popular hashtags for each category of products I sell, as well as a base of 5-10 popular tags that describe my brand and product offering. Finally, I also created a list of popular local specific hashtags that relate to my brand.
Brand keyword hashtags
#mybrandname #mensfashion #mensaccessories #mensgoods #fashion #mensstyle #instafashion #menswear
Product category keyword hashtags
#bugatchisocks #happysocks #corgisocks #socks #sockswag #socksoftheday #sockgame #sockswagg #socksofinstagram #happysockday #sockwars #funsocks #happysockday
Location-specific keyword hashtags
#Toronto #TorontoFashion #TorontoFashionBloggers
All of these groups of keyword hashtags are stored in a page on Evernote. This makes it easy and efficient when I’m on the go to post a new Instagram image optimized for the most relevant keywords.
I can easily open my Evernote and copy my standard brand-, product-, and location-specific hashtags to post with each photo. Some Instagram scheduling tools also let you save caption templates for storing your hashtag groups.
Doing the work of researching, organizing, and saving the most applicable and popular hashtags upfront will save you a ton of time down the road, increase your engagement, and help garner new followers.
Pro tip #2: If you’ve been posting to Instagram for a while and feel you’ve missed out on all these opportunities to build your audience using keyword hashtags, fret not. You can still go back and post a comment with your new hashtag keyword lists and watch the likes and followers roll in.
Using hashtags in Instagram stories
Hashtagging on Instagram posts is a given, but you should also be using hashtags in your Stories for the chance to be seen by users who follow that specific hashtag.
You can use hashtag stickers (which can be found in the Instagram Stickers menu when creating a Story) or just hashtag directly in your captions for a chance to be featured in a hashtag story.
Now that users can follow hashtags, your Stories on Instagram have a chance to be seen by both people who are following that hashtag and anyone who’s just checking it out.
2. Use the right filters
Keyword hashtags aren’t the only thing you should pay attention to. The Instagram community responds to certain photo filters more favorably than others. Using these preferred filters can have an impact on your engagement.
Here are the current 10 most popular filters on Instagram, according to Iconosquare:
- Normal (No Filter)
- X-Pro II
TrackMaven ran a study on Instagram accounts to see how filters affected engagement and found that Mayfair, Hefe, and Ludwig drove the most interaction.
But more important than the general Instagram community’s favorite filters are your particular audience's favorite filters. Consider this custom graph, which correlates filter usage to engagement from my own Instagram account:
You can use IconoSquare for reviewing the performance of your own account to understand what is and isn’t currently working for you.
3. Post at the right times
Beyond adding the appropriate hashtags and using the best filters to get more Instagram followers, you should also consider the timing of your posts.
A targeted approach involves analyzing what has and has not worked for you in the past. By visiting IconoSquare’s optimization section, you can get a detailed analysis of your posting history vs. engagement. This report will also highlight the best times of the day and days of the week to post.
The dark circles indicate when you usually post media. The light gray circles show when your community has been interacting. The biggest light gray circles represent the best times for you to post.
You can also get a lot of great insight for free from Instagram analytics for business accounts, found under the Followers section.
You may want to consider using a social media scheduling tool to automatically publish your posts when your audience is the most engaged.
4. Steal your competitors’ followers
One of the best ways to find and attract a new following is by seeking out your closest competitors’ Instagram accounts and engaging with their audiences. These people have already shown some level of interest in the products you carry simply by following your competitors.
So how do you effectively steal your competitors’ followers? By engaging with them. There are several ways to engage with Instagram users, and the more work you put in, the more followers and repeat engagement you’ll get out of it.
The three types of engagement on Instagram are:
- Follow a user
- Like a photo
- Comment on a photo
Don’t be afraid to use an emoji or two to add some personality to your text.
I ran an informal test with my business account to see how my competitors’ followers responded to my Instagram marketing advances. I targeted the followers of a close, local competitor. Since I know many of his followers would be local, I added my city to my profile to create a greater sense of familiarity between my brand and the people I am targeting.
I began by simply following 100 of my competitors’ followers. Later, I followed another 100, but I also took the time to like one of their Instagram photos. Finally, I followed a third group of 100 and liked as well as commented on one photo from each account.
Here were the results:
- Follow: 14% followback
- Follow + Like: 22% followback
- Follow + Like + Comment: 34% followback
Although there are many variables, and the test was far from scientific, the results were clear. The more you put in and engage with people from your Instagram page, the more you’ll get out of it.
Note: While it’s against Instagram's terms of service, some entrepreneurs use automation to follow the same process above. House of Hannie discusses this tactic and the pros and cons of it on the episode of Shopify Masters below.
5. Pay for sponsored posts and product reviews
All this optimized posting to your account is great, but if you really want to increase Instagram followers, you need to take advantage of influencer marketing and expose your brand to a wider audience.
So how do you do that? First, unlike the tactics to grow Instagram followers mentioned above, this one usually isn’t free. However, if done correctly, it’s of good value.
To get started, you’ll need to make a list of large accounts in your niche. For example, if you sell beauty products, you’ll want to find large accounts from beauty bloggers.
You may already be following these accounts, but if not, you’ll need to find them. One of the best ways is to use Webstagram (mentioned earlier) and search for some of the closest hashtag keywords you uncovered in the beginning of this post. When you do a search for your keywords, not only will it show you the related keywords, it will also show you the top Instagram accounts that feature those keywords.
There are a couple of things to look for in the profiles results:
- A large following—usually 20k to 200k
- An email address in the profile
If there is an email address in the profile, it usually means the account is open to sponsored posts or a shoutout in a sponsored Story.
You’ll want to email and ask their sponsored post pricing. In general, I have found the average rate to be around $20–$50 per post, depending on the size of the following.
However, if you’re selling a unique and original product, you may also want to consider sending your product for the influencer to review and post. Usually, the more natural and less advertisement-like the image, the greater the engagement and response.
You don’t necessarily need influencers with a massive following to get more followers on Instagram but rather ones with a high engagement rate (likes and comments relative to follower count), which many influencer marketplaces can provide.
6. Use geotags to boost local discovery
Besides hashtags, you can also make your Instagram posts and Stories discoverable by tagging your location—either the city you’re in or the venue where the photo or video was taken.
Locations not only have their own Instagram feed but also their own Story, but also hashtags that you can contribute to when you use a location sticker in your own Stories.
Local businesses can get the most value out of location tags by posting regularly to these feeds and also engaging with posts from prospective customers who are physically in the vicinity.
7. Organize your Stories into Highlights
Whenever a potential follower lands on your business profile, you have a short span of time to convince them to follow you.
One way to do this is by using the Highlights feature on your profile to organize your Instagram Stories in a way that communicates what your account is about.
Since Stories have a 24-hour lifespan, Highlights can be used to give them a second life and entice others to follow you so they don’t miss out on more Stories in the future.
Use Story Highlights to grow Instagram followers by:
- Creating trailers that tease what your account is about
- Organizing your Stories into themes (like countries you’ve visited, for travel accounts)
- Explaining your products through pictures and videos
- Promoting your products using swipe-up links (you need at least 10K followers and a Instagram Business account to do this with your Stories)
8. Ask for more followers
It sounds obvious, but it deserves to be said: Don’t be afraid to occasionally ask your audience to follow you.
The same way YouTubers ask their viewers to follow them at the end of their videos, you can also ask viewers to follow you for more content.
Sometimes people might really enjoy what you put out on Instagram but need a nudge before they actually follow you.
You can also do this in your Instagram captions, work it into your content by pitching what your audience will get if they follow you or by hinting at content that’s coming up that they won’t want to miss.
9. Hop on trends
When the opportunity presents itself, aligning your content with trending topics or hashtags can improve discoverability and engagement.
For example, you can ride the wave of a trending topic or event, such as a holiday, in a relevant way to boost your engagement and brand awareness. Or you can participate in one of the many “hashtag holidays” that exist, such as #NationalCoffeeDay (falling on October 1 every year). Mark relevant events in your calendar so you can prepare quality content in advance.
Be sure to join the conversation in a meaningful way, and when in doubt, ask yourself if your target audience would actually pay attention to the trend.
10. Run a giveaway
One of the best kinds of comments you can get on any social media post, not just Instagram, is when one user tags a friend. Not only do these comments contribute to your post’s engagement, which in turn makes it favorable to the Instagram algorithm, but each tag brings you a new audience member who arrived through a recommendation and who you could potentially win over as a follower.
One way to encourage this behavior is by posting relatable content that begs for 1:1 sharing (e.g., a gym meme that asks you to tag a friend who skips leg day). But a more reliable way to get your audience to tag their friends is by running a giveaway that encourages your audience to tag a friend and follow your account.
For inspiration, here’s an example of a successful product giveaway from the5th that incentivizes people to follow its account and tag a friend for the chance to win two free products for the both of them.
Be sure to check out our post on running a giveaway for more, and follow Instagram’s promotion guidelines and any legal requirements for running an Instagram contest that applies in your country of operation.
11. Post user-generated content
User-generated content (UGC) is any type of content—such as videos, photos, reviews, audio, and more—that you curate from fans or followers. It’s an essential tool in your marketing arsenal for gaining followers on Instagram. UGC helps humanize your brand by featuring real people, with real stories, that shows your product in real life and builds a more trusting relationship with potential customers.
Not only does your audience love their 15 minutes of fame on your Instagram feed, it also helps drive more sales in your online store. According to research from Olapic, consumers today are 56% more likely to buy something after seeing a photo of the product shared by customers.
Take Fashion Nova, for example. The online retailers Instagram account relies heavily on user-generated content.
Fashion Nova’s user-generated content gives it access to thousands of pictures from people all over the world to share with its audience—pictures that both showcase the brand’s values and inspire followers to engage with its posts and buy the clothes real people are wearing.
When it comes to creating user-generated content for your online store, start by asking customers to share their favorite experiences and images with your products by:
- Creating a branded hashtag feed where customers can post images
- Adding a call-to-action in your Instagram bio
- Running a contest
- Reaching out to influencers
- Adding an “ask” for user-generated content in your packaging
Remember, the goal of UGC is to show an authentic view of your products. If some customers send you lower-quality photos that still highlight your products’ best features don’t be afraid to use them.
12. Use Instagram Live
Live video is the key to running a successful marketing strategy on any social media platform. With Instagram, you can use Instagram Live to stream videos to your followers and engage with them in real-time.
When your brand starts a live video stream, a ring encases your profile picture in Instagram Stories to tell followers they can check out the stream. Followers also receive a notification when you start a live video. Once you finish your livestream, you can upload it to your Story for 24 hours.
Remember that Instagram Live is interactive. Your followers will probably comment while you’re live, so try to acknowledge their comments and find ways to get them to participate.
Some ways to gain more followers when using Instagram Live include:
- Influencer takeovers
- Hosting an AMA (Ask Me Anything) or Q&A
- Teasing a product launch or update
- Hosting a talk show
- Going behind the scenes on your operations
- Sharing a current event
- Running product tutorials
13. Be consistent
Most of your followers won’t follow you for what you posted in the past but for the promise of what you’ll post in the future. Your audience wants to know what they’re going to get if they hit that Follow button.
Having a feed with a consistent theme and a consistent posting schedule can have just as much of an impact in growing a following as many of the other growth strategies we’ve covered above. Even a simple pattern can entice new followers, as long as it’s communicated at first glance to anyone who lands on your profile.
Consider your Instagram bio and your last nine posts as your first impression on Instagram. Do they effectively communicate some degree of consistency through personality, filters, colors, or layout? Does the clickable link send people to the same homepage every week? Or are you linking out to fun and exciting content too?
The layout of your grid is an often underestimated way to get creative with the aesthetic of your feed while adding a rhythm to your publishing strategy and consistency that’s worth following.
In fact, many accounts that adopt this approach are often able to spend less effort on creating content by focusing on converting visitors into followers, producing text graphics or other content with a faster turnaround, and streamlining the overall production of their Instagram content.
14. Monitor follower growth closely over time
It’s not enough to get more Instagram followers if you’re losing them just as fast. Keep an eye on the rate at which you’re growing as well as how engaged your following is overall.
Social Blade is a great free tool for analyzing the growth of your following (or that of your competitors), showing you the number of followers added and lost over time and on specific days.
With an Instagram Business account, you also get an Instagram Analytics dashboard, which offers valuable insight for free that you won’t get anywhere else. You can see how many people are checking out your profile, how many people your posts have reached, what your top posts are, and where most of your followers are from.
You can use this data to diagnose where you’re falling short and where you could do more.
Look for patterns in the posts that were the most engaging and try to replicate that in your future content.
15. Use the Instagram tools at your disposal
There are hundreds of Instagram tools out there that can help you and your Instagram strategy, but I mentioned three key ones to help you build your audience and engage with them over time:
- Later. Schedule and automatically publish your Instagram posts from your computer or mobile device.
- IconoSquare. Info, analytics tools, and insights into your account and followers.
- Webstagram. Find the best hashtags for your posts and people for your sponsored posts.
Building an Instagram growth strategy to drive your business
In this post we talked about the most effective ways to use Instagram to build a targeted following, but it's not always a numbers game. As with any social network, the most successful strategy overall is to be authentic, social, and know what to post on Instagram.
If you focus on engagement, not just followers, Instagram can be a great home for your products and brand and can lead to a healthy stream of revenue for your ecommerce business. For more tips on turning this social media platform into a profitable channel, check out our post how to make money on Instagram.