Instagram can be a highly-targeted, visual marketing channel for your brand and an opportunity to build a loyal audience that grows with your business.
In fact, over 500 million Instagram and IGTV users browse the app every day, making it home to some of the most engaged audiences around.
But like any social network out there, there are the right ways to use your Instagram profile, wrong ways to use it, and clever ways to use it.
In this post, we will show you how to most effectively use Instagram to increase engagement and grow a massive following over time—one that's full of real fans, not inactive fake accounts.
How to get more followers on Instagram
Let's dive deeper into how to implement each tactic to get more Instagram followers.
1. Use the right Instagram 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 to be extremely important. Hashtagging your photos makes it easy for people to find your photos that are searching for those specific terms.
So which hashtags should you use? Just like with Twitter and other social sites, users on Instagram use 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.
Here are the current top 20 hashtags on Instagram:
- #love (1,271,692,015)
- #instagood (742,795,562)
- #photooftheday (507,358,504)
- #fashion (487,010,088)
- #beautiful (463,668,566)
- #happy (427,528,663)
- #cute (418,686,470)
- #like4like (417,887,839)
- #tbt (413,049,020)
- #followme (392,011,012)
- #picoftheday (380,504,677)
- #follow (371,102,705)
- #me (348,193,980)
- #art (343,874,151)
- #selfie (337,204,715)
- #summer (324,498,110)
- #instadaily (323,307,593)
- #repost (309,603,537)
- #friends (307,567,075)
- #nature (303,040,276)
If you looked at the list above 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 a completely different thing.
Popular tags like the ones listed above will likely net you additional engagement and likes, however they will not lead to increased long-term engagement, new interested followers, and 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 Websta to start.
Below, I used Websta to find relevant, related and popular hashtags for my men’s accessory brand by searching for key hashtags that are 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 (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 to make sure 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 have, but you ultimately want to create your own groups of hashtags to use that relate to your specific account.
Protip #1: Here’s a trick that I use for my ecommerce businesses. For every product and product category for my stores, I have done the research to see which are the most popular Instagram hashtags around those product categories. 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 overall. 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 that you can use to store your hashtag groups.
Doing the work upfront of researching, organizing and saving the most applicable and popular hashtags will save you a ton of time down the road, increase your engagement and help garner new followers.
Protip #2: If you’ve been posting to Instagram for a while and feel like you’ve missed out on all these opportunities to build your audience by 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 are 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 on Instagram
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 10 current 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 to review the performance of your own account to understand what is and is not currently working for you.
3. Post on Instagram at the right times
Beyond adding the appropriate hashtags and using the best filters, you should also be considering the timing of your posts.
A targeted approach is to analyze 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 shows 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 from Instagram Analytics for Business accounts for free, under the Followers section.
You may want to consider using a social media scheduling tool to schedule and automatically publish your posts for when your audience is the most engaged.
4. Steal your competitor's followers on Instagram
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 audience. These people have already shown some level of interest in the products you carry simply by following your competitors' account.
So how do you effectively steal your competitors' followers? You can steal your closest 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
I ran an informal test with my business account to see how my competitors' followers responded to my 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 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 the are many variables and the test was far from scientific, the results were clear. The more you put in and engage with people, 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 make an impact, you need to take advantage of influencer marketing on Instagram, exposing your brand to a wider audience.
So how do you do that? First, unlike the tactics above to grow your account this one usually isn’t free. However, if done correctly, it’s 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, but it also shows you the top Instagram accounts that feature those keywords.
There are a few 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 they're open to sponsored posts or a shoutout in a sponsored Story.
You’ll want to email them and ask them their sponsored post pricing. In general, I have found the average rate to be around $20-$50 per post, depending on the size of their following.
However, if you're selling a unique and original product, you may also want to consider sending them your product to review and post. The more natural and less advertisement-like the image, the greater the engagement and response usually.
You don't necessarily need influencers with a massive following, but rather ones with a high engagement rate (likes and comments relative to follower size), which many influencer marketplaces can provide.
Here's an example:
6. Use geotags on Instagram for local discoverability
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 just like hashtags that you can contribute to when you use the 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 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:
- Create trailers that tease what your account is about
- Organize your Stories into themes (like countries you’ve visited to for travel accounts)
- Explain your products through pictures and videos
- Promote 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. Sometimes you just need to remind the users of a platform that they can subscribe to get more in the comments of a post.
You can also do this in your Instagram captions or even work it into your content by pitching what your audience will get if they follow you or hinting at content that’s coming up that they won’t want to miss.
9. Hop on trends for more followers
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 reach. Or you can participate in one of the many hashtag holidays that exist, such as #NationalCoffeeDay (falling on October 1st in 2018). Mark relevant events in your calendar so you can prepare relevant 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.
For instance, here's Faballey catching up with 'what the week looks like' trend on Instagram Reels:
10. Run a giveaway to attract Instagram followers
One of the best kinds of comments you can get on any social media post, not just Instagram, is a comment where 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.
Be sure to check out our post on running a giveaway for more, as well follow Instagram's promotion guidelines and any legal requirements for running a contest that apply in your country of operation.
For inspiration, here’s an example of a successful product giveaway from the5th that incentivizes people to follow their account and tag a friend for the chance to win two free products for the both of them.
11. Be consistent with your Instagram posts
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 running through, where you publish at a consistent pace, 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 9 posts as your first impression on Instagram. Do they effectively communicate some degree of consistency through personality, filters, colors, or layout?
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.
You can use a tool like Later to easily plan out and schedule the look and layout of your feed in advance. Sonnet Insurance is just one example of how far some brands go with the aesthetic of their Instagram layout.
12. Closely monitor your Instagram following 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 your competitors), showing you 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 most engaging 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.
You can also use a Shopify analytics app like RevTap to see how your Instagram ad campaigns are performing.
13. 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 and insights into your account and followers.
- Webstagram: Find the best hashtags for your posts and people for your sponsored posts.
14. Use high-quality images
Instagram is a visually-driven platform. We're all there for discovering ideas and inspiration for what we want to wear, what decor we wish to have, our next project, travel destination and more. Now imagine if someone shared hazy pictures of things - how would you know you even want to do that?
So remember whenever you're posting something on Instagram, the image is of high-quality. It needs to capture the user's attention immediately.
15. Talk to your followers
Growing your Instagram takes more than just posting good content. If you want people to know you or engage with you, you need to engage with them as much. Now you can do this in a couple of ways.
For starts, start replying to the comments or questions you get on your posts. Even if it is just thanking someone for dropping a note.
Next, consider hosting a live chat to let your followers join in and ask you questions about your products and services. It's also a great way to win their trust by showing them the real face behind the brand.
For example, here's Suta engaging with their followers in the comments section, making them feel noticed and appreciated:
16. Make your Instagram stories more engaging
A lot of us post Stories to show what we're doing through the day by clicking pictures of products, or where we are. What if you made these Stories even more engaging?
You can do this in a number of ways. Add stickers to your stories that are trending on Instagram, supporting a cause that people are talking about or use text to share a story or talk about your products.
Here's an example from Shop Lune, for instance:
17. Share your values, vision and mission
18. Experiment with long captions
19. Host Instagram Takeovers
We know how skeptical you may be about letting someone else handle your Instagram. But did you know that getting an expert or an influencer to collaborate with you on your feed is a great way to show how 'involved' you are with your audience? It's also a form of user generated content that often goes untapped!
For example, if your store sells home decor products, invite Instagram influencers that active share home styling tips to host a live AMA or create authentic content for your feed on a given day around a specific theme. This is also a great hack to tap into the invited person's following and increase your own.
20. Create Story highlights on your profile
Often times we see something on an account that we want to go back to after a few days. But then we never find the same post even if we remember whose feed we saw it on or whose Story it was featured on. The reason is that there's just too much content being shared on the platform. Even your favourite brand is posting so regularly that you might miss out on a few updates!
But you can tackle this by creating Story highlights on your profile. With this feature, you'll be able to categorise your posts into topics that your audience likes to engage with the most.
Here's how Heads Up For Tails has done it:
21. Tag people and accounts in your images
22. Optimize your Instagram bio with hashtags
23. Ask questions in your posts and include call to actions
24. Cross-post your Instagram content on other social channels
25. Get your account verified
Grow an Instagram following that grows 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 and social.
If you focus on engagement, not just followers, Instagram can be a great home for your products and brand that can lead to a healthy stream of revenue for your ecommerce business.
Ready to use Instagram to grow your business? Here are some more resources to help you out:
- Why and how to use Instagram Reels to market your Shopify store
- Sell on Instagram: How to optimize your Instagram bio, hashtags and posts to increase sales
New to the eCommerce industry? Start your online store on Shopify with a free trial.
Illustration by Eugenia Mello