Building a large and engaged following on Instagram isn't easy, or everyone would do it.

I recently interviewed the founders of four big Instagram accounts to see how they built their large and engaged followings. The secrets they revealed clearly work pretty well.

Here they are:

Get Big Instagram Accounts to Share

Nathan Chan, the mastermind behind @foundrmagazine (830k+ followers), told me about the growth hack that allowed him to get to his first 500k in less than a year.

This Instagram fame helped Chan land interviews with Richard Branson and Arianna Huffington all while rapidly growing his brand.

"If you want to build a big Instagram following your number one focus needs to be getting as many big Instagram accounts to share your content, and tag your account in the caption of the image as possible," Chan says.

But how do you get big accounts to share?

Use the barter system. I have tested this method myself and realize that many Instagram users are hungry to setup share exchanges if you have something to offer back.

You can even setup cross platform exchanges. For example, let's say you have a big Facebook page like I do for Influencive but don't have a big Instagram yet. You can offer to promote them on Facebook in exchange for them promoting you on Instagram.

Infiltrate the Underground Instagram Networking Scene

There is an underground world of Instagram exchanges that has thousand of accounts hungry and willing to help each-other out by cross promoting posts.

Case Kenny, founder of @prsuit (100k+ followers) told me an excellent way to infiltrate this Instagram sharing, shout exchange, and networking scene.

"The easiest way is to look in the accounts bio. Accounts that provide contact info in their bio usually are part of those groups, and you can simply ask or create your own. Ask if they want to do a 'shout' group," says Kenny.

You can also find a sizable community of Instagram exchange groups on Kik and Whats App.

Create a Snowball Effect

I asked Sammy Kaufman and Daniel Greenberg, owners of the account @themostfamousmemes how they are building and maintaining engagement on such a large account at 6.3 million followers.

"Consistently post 3-4 times per day so that your audience is constantly sharing your content with their friends," says Kaufman.

Kaufman continues, "By doing this your page is constantly being exposed to a larger and larger network of users."

Here is Kaufman and Greenberg's advice in a nutshell:

  • Follow and like similar accounts
  • Develop a team and disperse the responsibilities so that one person doesn't have to be stuck to the screen all day (different times of the day, different roles)
  • Cross-promote: shoutout for shoutout with similar pages who also have large audiences
  • Stay away from spam: hurts organic growth and is unappealing to many users
  • Use content that someone can look at for 1-2 seconds and immediately want to engage with, complex captions and photos will be skipped over as users swipe through their photo streams

Engagement is Misunderstood on Instagram

Matt Gottesman, founder of @hdfmagazine (100k+ followers) noted that most people focus on likes, which are great, but a focus on comments is deeper and far superior for the long-term game.

"I want to know what my audience is feeling with my content. It's all about the interaction between me and them. The more they comment, the more of a relationship I develop and an understanding of their interests. Not to mention, the more they comment, the more Instagram's algorithm picks that up," says Gottesman.

A great example of getting your audience to feel your content is Ivan Beerkus, Travel Ticker brand evangelist. It is hard to even look at the picture of him free-climbing the side of the Eiffel Tower without getting sweaty palms. 

Gottesman went on to explain that in order to grow a sizable following in such a short period, you need to:

Have great content. Know what audience you're going after and provide content that resonates with them.

Have a clear bio. If you look at my bio, I state a few clear lines to give my audience an understanding of what I'm about. Here's the formula: 

  • Full Name of Brand
  • What Does Your Brand Do
  • What Value Are You Bringing the Audience
  • Where Can They Check You Out (Call To Action To Your Website)
  • Place call to actions in your captions. For example: @hdfmagazine <- Follow for {insert something here}

Ask your audience for feedback. Get to know them. Ask them questions either on your actual post or within the captions.

Answer your follower's comments so long as you feel they're positive and engaging for your brand.

Above all, Instagram takes time, drive and dedication. Follow these steps from these successful Instagram accounts to build your own massive following.

Published on: Jul 28, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.