These days, it seems like if you want to be an established brand, influencer, or professional, you need a large social media presence, especially on Instagram. Some of most successful Instagram stars have spun multi-million dollar businesses based on their social clout. With 800 million active monthly Instagram users, how can a brand or entrepreneur become popular and develop a strong community of followers? As I wrote more books and produced The Influencers podcast, I was faced with this exact dilemma.

In my search for answers, I tested various Instagram bots. (It was a complete failure.) Then, I interviewed several social media experts including the team at Trill Media, to better understand the essential steps to success. Here's what I discovered:

1. Do your research.

If you want to establish expertise and credibility, the first question you need to ask is: What is my niche?

Pick the one thing you can do better than everyone else and explore all the accounts that are in the same space. Take careful note of the content, hashtags, and trends from the accounts that are coming up the fastest and have the highest performance.

Note: Don't confuse celebrity for popular Instagram accounts. Celebrities can post anything and their fans will like it. They didn't have to grow an audience on Instagram, because they already had one.

2. Produce content that provides value and solves problems.

If it's useless, people won't engage, so Rachel Bell from Trill suggests asking these two questions:

  1. Is this helpful? Buzzfeed Tasty solves the problem of deciding what to cook with 60-second recipe videos. Meanwhile, Clean Body Guide inspires us with real people instead of idealized perfection.

  2. Does this create an emotion? Travel content catalyzes a desire to explore new places and cultures.

People are trying to live vicariously through the accounts they follow on Instagram, so your posts should capture a lifestyle, not a product. For example, if you are a business that sells outdoor gear, capture candid shots of people hiking, biking or going on adventures. 

3. Network

To build your community, you need to connect with other rising influencers and brands. Reach out and ask, "Hey, would you like to exchange likes and comments." More often than not, people will say yes. If they say no, move on.

Reach out to accounts that have a similar audience size. They are more likely to connect with you than someone with a million or more followers.

The key is to provide value. Engage with other's content, before you ask them to return the favor. Also, look for indirect competitors, people with accounts that are in the same space as you. A cosmetic brand may partner with a skin care company or hair care brand.

4. Leverage trends and virality.

You must always be in-tune with the latest trends and leverage the attention they are getting.  You can see what hashtags are trending on Instagram search, both in your industry and overall. See what posts are getting the most engagement and sparking controversy, and leverage that for your content.

5. Consistency

Unless you are a celebrity with an existing fan base, you need consistency to succeed. The common wisdom is to post at least once a day. If that sounds like a lot, set aside one day a week for content planning. You can't schedule posts ahead on Instagram, but you can use Buffer or Hootsuite to set reminders.

6. Test and iterate.

Test a wide variety of content. Watch the spikes in engagement and take note of why that content performed well. Make sure to track engagement (Comments Likes, and Followers) and sharing (Reposts and Saves).

When it comes to popularity, you can't expect to throw up a few photos on Instagram and grow a following overnight. If you want to build a large, active Instagram account, become an Instagram influencer, or strengthen your social media presence, it takes as much work as growing a business. You have to do your research, provide consistent valuable content and test different tactics to see what sticks.