In case you missed it, here's a link to my previous viral post, "The 1 Painfully Obvious Reason Nobody Follows You on Social Media." 

OK, brands. Influencers. Small-business owners. Thought leaders...

Want to win on Instagram? 

Let me tell you exactly how.

I first started playing with Instagram in 2013, right as it was really starting to pop (similar to what's going on with Snapchat right now). For two years, all I did was focus on finding as many ways to organically grow my account as possible--and as a result, I went from 0 followers to almost 20,000 followers on zero budget.

That's right. The only thing I did was invest time, and figure out through experience what really works and what doesn't.

I have since helped many brands, influencers, personal trainers, professional athletes, fashionistas, gamers, foodies, photographers, musicians, and more, grow their own Instagram followings well into the thousands and tens of thousands.

I am the social-media director of a specialized digital agency in Chicago called Idea Booth.

So, how do you create the perfect Instagram page?

Let's start at the very beginning. (We're going to get really, really in the weeds here, so I suggest bookmarking this for future reference.)

INTRODUCTION TO INSTAGRAM

Here's the first thing you need to know--and I don't care if you are a big brand or a kid in the city just trying to catch a look:

Instagram is an easel. It is, bar none, the most artistic social-media platform out there.

Why do you need to know this first? Because you need to realize that you are competing against world-renowned photographers, brilliant stylists, stunning architecture, dramatic portraits, hot models in bikinis, mouth-watering burgers, jaw-dropping sunsets, gorgeous oceans, incredible cityscapes, and behind-the-scenes photos of Taylor Swift.

The people that win on Instagram are, by every definition, artists. It doesn't matter what your business is or what you are selling. The truth is, when someone goes to your page, the very first thing they ask themselves is, "Do I want this page in my feed every day?"

The first six to nine boxes that appear when someone views your profile are judged by viewers like they would a painting. The way the photos blend together. The colors. The perspectives. The textures. It is art, plain and simple. The Instagram pages that tend to acquire the most followers and attention? They know this, and they capitalize on it. 

If you are a flower boutique, or a window company, or a real estate firm, or something that doesn't typically fall within the realm of "art," you need to first ask yourself how you can make whatever it is you are selling, art. Plain and simple.

Want to know an industry that took this concept and ran with it?

Fitness.

The fitness industry in the past five years, especially on Instagram, has adopted elements otherwise found in fashion and entertainment. Workout videos now have the production quality of music videos. Shirtless photos are taken with the precision of a high-end fashion photographer. Fitness on Instagram is no longer just about health and workouts. It has forged a space of its own and now resembles an entirely new "lavish lifestyle."

If you want to succeed on Instagram, this is the first step. In every post, every photo, everything you do, ask yourself if you are creating art. 

Unless, of course, you are one of those teenagers born with a perfectly symmetrical face. Then just post selfies all day and you'll be fine.

OPTIMIZING YOUR PROFILE

When you first set up your Instagram account, it is important to make your bio extremely "to the point." When people come to your page, you want them to know three things:

For example, your bio may look like this:"Gluten-free Foodie. Personal Chef. Featured in Inc. Magazine. Follow for daily recipes you can cook at home!"

Add in a few well-placed emojis and that's a great bio. Why? Because immediately I know what the person does, what their niche is, am reassured with some sort of credibility (Inc. Magazine), and I know what to expect if I follow them.

Below your bio you should have a link to your website, a landing page, etc. One thing people don't do enough on Instagram is make use of this link space. It can easily be changed out, and in certain posts you can refer people to the link currently in your bio. Use this as your Call to Action, directing users from your social platform to wherever you would like them to go next.

UNDERSTANDING YOUR NICHE

Here's the thing: At the end of the day, success on Instagram all depends on your niche and your desired audience. Those are the variables that end up setting the expectations.

For example: If you are a professional landscape photographer and you are trying to build a following on Instagram, you are competing in the "professional landscape photographers" space. This means when people come across your profile, they are going to ask themselves, "Hmmm...there are a lot of really great landscape photographers out there. Should I follow this one? Or another one?"

On the flipside, you have other niches where the expectation is not based on the quality of the photo but the funny response it elicits--@thefatjewish being a prime example. He's not on Instagram to showcase his ability to take beautiful photos. He's there to make people laugh, which means the expectation for him is to post funnier content than the other users in his same space.

This is why it is crucial that you do your research. Follow all sorts of different accounts within and surrounding your area of interest. Keep up with what people are doing, who is succeeding, what types of posts prompt a lot of engagement, what kinds of posts don't perform well, how people are promoting themselves and/or their brands, and finally, what the expectation is for "great content."

Understanding the expectation from your desired audience members is what will help guide your own content creation.

CRAFTING THE PERFECT POST

Let's start with the imagery.

As I mentioned above, you first have to know what sort of niche you're playing in. But let's walk through a few of the broad categories and the types of photos.

1. Selfies

If you are an influencer, a personality, a fashionista, a personal trainer, a chef, a model, a PERSON, then it is absolutely crucial that your photos include YOU. Nothing kills me more than for an individual to ask for help growing their social-media following and then say they don't want to be in any of the photos. You can do it, but you're making it a lot harder on yourself.

Say what you will about selfies, about the "narcissism of social media," etc., but the truth is, we as consumers want to see the people we follow and look up to. If you are an influencer, you yourself are a huge part of the value. You have to show who you are, period.

2. Square Shots

Great for food photos, scenery and architecture, and interior design, square shots tend to perform very well on Instagram. This means that your shot is perfectly square, either head-on or top-down. Reason being, it is geometric and pleasing to the eye.

3. Staged Shots

This is most popular in fashion, modeling, fitness, as well as with brands--say if you are a pizza company or a candy company, something where you turn the object into the "persona" of the shot. Staged shots are where elements are strategically placed to create a certain effect. Classic example I see all the time: fitness model standing shirtless in designer jeans, holding the leash of his new baby pitbull, standing next to a bright red Ferrari. OK, so what do we have here? We have a shirtless model, we have a cute dog, and we have an expensive car. Recipe for success, nine times out of 10.

4. Perspective Shots

These are the shots where someone takes a photo from an angle where it looks like their friend is holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Perspective shots are cool because they force users to do a double-take--which is your whole goal as a content creator. You want people to take a second to really look at your photo, because the longer they look, the higher likelihood they will engage, or at least remember you.

5. Over-Edited

There is a tasteful way to do this, and then there is a not-so-tasteful way. 

Using certain apps (which we'll get to in a second) can turn a regular ol' photo into a work of art. The way you edit your shot can end up creating a whole brand aesthetic in itself. If you can create an aesthetic where no matter who sees your photo, they know it's yours, you win.

POSTING: BEST PRACTICES

Once you have your photo shot (and edited) the way you want, it's time to craft the caption.

For the longest time--and still, to this day--there seems to be a consensus that short posts are the way to go on Instagram. I wholeheartedly disagree.  The photo is the starting point, and the caption is the story that takes it to another level.

When I first started on Instagram, I treated it like a microblog. I would post really lengthy captions about my workout routines, my nutrition, my mindset in the gym, etc. I made it more of a journal than anything else--and whenever I would post a photo or video with a single-line caption, people would comment asking me to get back to writing more.

I now see a lot of influencers doing this, and the comments are always filled with the same things: "I really needed to read this today! Thank you for keeping it real!"  Etc. 

In each and every caption, ask yourself what additional value you can provide. Maybe you can tell the story of how you captured the beautiful shot that you did. Maybe you can explain, in detail, how to perform the exercise you're showing, or how to cook the meal you've photographed. The key is to provide more value. More value. Always more value.

In addition, you want to direct people to the next action: They looked at your photo, they read your caption, they "liked" or commented, now what?

This is where you can direct them to the link in your bio. Maybe your caption is the first paragraph of a longer blog post on your website--direct them to go read the rest. Maybe you have a more in-depth video on YouTube. Maybe you have an email course they can sign up for. The whole purpose of building an audience on social media is to eventually provide them even more value elsewhere. Start putting those puzzle pieces in place and directing them to where that other content is hosted.

And finally, your signature. Sometimes it's nice when people have a signature at the bottom of their Instagram posts that cleanly displays a few hashtags, maybe a branded Call to Action, etc. For example, mine is simply || nicolascole.com. 

GROWTH HACKING

Ah yes, the real game within social media.

For those that don't know, when I was 17 years old I was one of the highest ranked World of Warcraft players in North America. I am a gamer at heart. My brain is wired to see how things operate, and then strategically find ways around the "limits of the game." 

Social media is no different than a video game. There are rules to each platform, and the whole goal is to figure out how you can use those limits to your advantage. The people who struggle (in video games and with growing their social-media platforms) are the ones who stop asking the question Why? That's the secret. You have to ask Why, over and over and over again, until you discover the tiny tweak that moves the needle.

Here are a few growth hacks I discovered that will help you grow your Instagram audience.

1. Hashtags

Let's start with the obvious one. Hashtags are like buckets. Whenever you put a hashtag in your post, your photo is then archived under that hashtag--meaning when someone searches #beaches, since you used #beaches on a post, you now appear within that bucket.

What people don't realize is that hashtags are also like keywords. Some hashtags are really, really popular, and the bucket is so saturated that nobody will ever find your post. Other hashtags are only used a handful of times, and never pick up in popularity.

Similar to how SEO works on a website, it's important that you choose a few hashtags that are really popular, a few that are moderately popular, and then a few that have a small audience size.

Instagram's limit per post is 30 hashtags. Some people take the route of creating a stock list of 30 popular hashtags and then copying and pasting them into the end of each caption. The issue with this is it makes your page look very unprofessional--almost like it's "trying too hard." One way around this is to take that list of 30 hashtags and paste it in the comments of a photo you posted weeks and weeks ago. Reason being: Since it has already been posted, it won't appear in your audience's feed, however, the new hashtags will recirculate the photo into hashtag buckets where people can find it--and ultimately find your page. 

You can do this with 30 hashtags or a small handful. Either way, I find it to be better than just pasting your list at the end of each post on the day that you post it.

2. Tagging Influencers

When you post a photo, you have the option of tagging people (not in the caption, but in the photo itself). One growth hack I've seen is when people tag other influencers in their photos, because if one of those influencers "Likes" their photo, then that influencer's audience will see, and some will convert into followers. 

This is a great growth strategy, but should be used sparingly. Only tag influencers in posts where it makes sense, and do not "spam" the same people over and over again. I've had this done to me and it's terribly annoying.

3. Shout-Outs

Shout-Outs can work in a few different ways.

The best way to grow your Instagram page is to have a popular account feature you and your content. Some popular pages charge you for this exposure (from around $50 to $100 per post, depending on the size of the account). Other pages ask for what is called a "shout for shout." This means that they want access to your audience just like you want access to their audience. So you both post each other's content, "shout" each other out in the caption, and as a result, some followers from their page convert into followers of your own--and vice versa.

In order to do this, find popular pages within your niche and reach out to them, asking if they'd be interested in either featuring you or, if you have a decent-sized audience yourself, doing a "shout for shout."

4. Collaborations

A more refined version of the "shout for shout" method, in-person collaborations are the single best way to grow your Instagram account, period.

Whatever your niche is, find other influencers or brands within that niche and reach out to collaborate. If you are chefs, cook a crazy dish together. If you are models, do a shoot together. If you are photographers, go explore the city together. If you are bodybuilders, catch a lift together. Then, take a photo together, post it on each other's page, tag each other in the caption, tell a story of what it was like to collaborate, and then hit post.

Watch the followers come flooding in.

5. Like, Like, Like, Comment

If you are interested in the "nitty-gritty" growth hacks, you should read this article about Instagram.

The "Like" strategy is simple: Search hashtags relevant to your niche and "Like" hundreds of photos every single day. If you want to take this a step further, comment on lots and lots of photos.

Reason being, think of this as a manual ad.  When you "Like" or comment on someone's photo, it appears in their notifications. Chances are, they will be interested to see who you are and what you do, so they'll check out your page. The more people who check out your page, the more exposure you get to new users--and the hope is that a certain percentage of them will convert into followers.

Instagram has a few caps set in place with this, so you can't go and "Like" 8,000 photos in a row. But you can do a few hundred in a day. It's tedious, but it works.

6. Follow/Unfollow

Ah, the most beloved and yet hated tactic of them all: Follow/Unfollow.

The truth is, this is the best way to build your first 1,000 Followers. Gaining traction is hardest in the beginning, since nobody really wants to follow a page with 49 Followers. Whether we want to admit it or not, your Follower count is usually your first badge of "credibility."

Similar to the "Like" strategy, find people within your niche and follow them. Referencing the growth hacking article above, more people convert into followers if you both follow and "Like" a few of their photos. 

This is the exposure you need in the beginning to get your page started. Let the people you've followed sit for a few days, maybe a week, and then go back through the list and unfollow them--unless you genuinely want to continue following them. The reason this is important is because it looks bad if you have 1,000 Followers but are Following 6,000 people. You always want to keep your Followers to Following ratio as low as possible.

I've found that using this strategy, about 30 percent of users end up following you back and/or stay following you. Again, tedious, but it works.

7. Publication Features

If you have a killer Instagram page where you are providing real value to people, the next step is to reach out to publications and tell your story. Explain how you engage your audience, what you share with them, how you yourself provide value within your niche, and I promise there are publications that want to post about you--and in turn, promote your page.

Why?

Because you are then teaching others in your niche how to succeed as well--and there is tremendous value in that.

8. YouTube Shows, Podcast Features, etc. 

And finally, you should be laddering your success on Instagram to as many other opportunities as possible. Once you pass a certain threshold and become a thought leader, the doors will open and you will have access to so many more opportunities. Reach out to people--even in other industries--and ask to speak about your expertise on their podcasts, their YouTube shows, their blogs, etc. 

Congrats. You are now a thought leader in your industry.

EDITING APPS

As promised, here are a few great apps I would suggest to amplify your Instagram content:

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Published on: Jul 12, 2016
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