Most of the advice out there about how to gain followers on Instagram is either too vague to be helpful or too case specific to apply to most accounts. And some of the advice out there is just plain bad (like suggestions that you should buy followers).

I've found the best way to learn what's actually working to gain followers on Instagram in 2019, is to ask someone who's successfully doing it. So I asked Brent Shavnore (@Shavnore), an artist who has gained more than 120,000 Instagram followers by creating pictures of stormy weather.

His success on Instagram has led to some real life wins too. A company who discovered his work on Instagram reached out to him about creating a puzzle. He struck a licensing deal and now has puzzles of his work sold in brick-and-mortar stores, like Walmart and Target.

His social media popularity has also landed him speaking engagements, invitations to art shows, podcast interviews, and paid positions managing social media accounts for several businesses.

Shavnore says he shies away from short-term hacks and gimmicks to land followers. Instead, he puts time and effort into growing his account every day and he's confident his strategies can work for other accounts too.

According to Shavnore, these five strategies can help you gain 1,120 followers every week, which adds up to 19,040 followers by the end of 2019 (if you start now):

1. Clean up your feed.

You've probably learned a lot since your early days of Instagram. Get rid of unnecessary pictures, delete poor images, videos, and anything that doesn't represent your brand.

You want continuity in your feed. Your images should be clear and all of your pictures should be in the same format.

Make sure your content is meaningful, provides value, and sticks out. Your goal should be to fascinate people so they keep coming back for more.

In addition:

  • Make sure your username is easy to follow--short and simple is best. Hard to spell or confusing nicknames make it difficult for people to find you. Share your username on your website, other social media profiles and when your networking in person.
  • Create a profile picture that stands out. You don't want to look generic. Make sure it is high quality, hire a photographer or cartoon artist to give it some pop. 
  • Write an organized and clearly presented bio. It should explain who you are and what you do. Delete any unnecessary information and link to your website.
  • Add story highlights so people can quickly learn more about you. Create beautiful highlight cover images that make your page stand out (you can hire someone on Fiverr or a silimar site to do it for you if you don't know how).

2. Stalk the competition.

Learn from people who are doing similar things as you. Find 10 accounts in the same vertical and see how they're engaging people.

Check out what hashtags they're using. Hashtags are like an address that will help people find your images.

Then, do your own hashtag research. It's important to use hashtags that are appropriate to the amount of followers you have.

Small accounts with popular hashtags get lost in the shuffle. But big accounts can use more generic hashtags and still rise to the top.

Be competitive based on your follower account. Use online tools (like Socialinfo.co) to do hashtag research for you.

3. Captivate your competition's audience.

Look at your competition's pictures and see who likes them. Click on the profile of those individuals. Interact, comment, and like their content.

Study them, learn who they are, where they are from and the things they like--this is your target audience.

Leave constructive comments on your competitors' sites and in their followers' feeds. Avoid saying things like, "Nice," or "Good picture."

Instead, provide meaningful comments that will grab people's attention. Remember, social media is about them, not you.

4. Pitch it to the hubs.

Every vertical has a hub that redistributes content.

Draft a proposal pitch that doesn't sound too generic and send it to them. Do it 20 times per day.

Show these hubs how you can provide value to them with your content.

Interact with them, comment on their photos and share their page--they will appreciate it and it might land your content on their page.

These hubs can have over a million followers, if they share your content you can see anywhere from 200-2000 followers in less than 24 hours.

5. Hold onto your audience.

Once people follow you, it's important to keep them engaged. When you connect with people, they'll be more likely to stick around.

Respond to every comment and direct message. Be humble and say thank you.

Follow people back and like their posts. This can help you build a personal connection. They're more likely to show your page to someone else because they actually talk to you.

Pay attention to your metrics. Notice what time of day your content does best. Look at who your audience is. Study what strategies are working best.

Meaningful content spreads faster and will help you reach more people. So make sure there's a purpose behind everything you post.

The Secret Formula

While there are ways to try and game the system, gaining true fans who will engage with your content takes time and effort. Here's the breakdown of how the above steps will increase your Instagram following:

  • Spend 6 seconds liking and leaving a meaningful comment on other accounts' content.
  • Do this for 2 hours per day.
  • Eighty percent of those accounts will follow you back (as long as your comments are actually relevant and thought provoking).
  • In one week, you can gain 1,120 followers.

If you do that consistently every day between now and the end of 2019, you can gain almost 20,000 followers this year.

Published on: Sep 3, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.