Like many photographers, I've been scratching my head at how to win the Instagram game. Over the last six months, I decided to up my game and upload daily content and be more active on the platform. The results are out, I still totally suck at it. My reach, engagement, and even numbers of followers have gone down. So rather than blame the platform or the evil algorithm, I did some detective work to find out why I was really bad at it, and chances are you will recognize yourself in some of those points.
1. I Wasn't Sticking to One Genre
This is probably the cardinal Instagram sin. If you look at successful Instagram profiles. They often do one thing really well and stick with it. Now that’s a problem with me because I don’t like to restrict my photography to one thing. I love drone photography but also landscape, cityscape, street, and videos so when new people would reach my profile they would see a mish mash of very different images and decide not to follow me. I’ve since attempted to unify my profile around my drone photography work recently, but I’m not sure if I like it. However, a lot of people have done very well from sticking to one niche.
Someone who doesn't suck at Instagram is Jack Morris of @doyoutravel with a cool 2.6 million followers. When you visit his feed, you are first struck by how beautiful the images are but then by how well put together it all is. It's almost a work of art in itself. Like a giant always-evolving portfolio, perfectly handpicked. The pictures are always a variation of him (and his girlfriend) in beautiful places, expertly composed. After browsing his images, you just can't help but want to follow him and be part of his adventure.
Pictures used with the permission of Jack Morris.
Compare that with how my feed used to look like a few months ago. It hurts.
2. I Don't Stick to One Color Palette
I like to post different pictures because I like to edit pictures differently. Doing the same type of images and edits over and over again doesn’t excite me. I’m not doing that muted look that's so popular on Instagram right now. It’s a desaturated, moody look. I did wonder if I should adapt my images to make them more like that. But it’s just not my style; I love vibrant colors. Do you alter your images in the hope of making them popular or stay true to yourself and stay unfound?
Photographer Jack Harding has created a very successful Instagram account thanks in parts to his striking desaturated and moody look.
Pictures used with the permission of Jack Harding.
Harding's old harry rocks versus mine. 16,639 likes versus 559. Time to find the saturation slider.
3. I'm Not Paying for Features
The best way to force your way into a quick growth is to pay for shoutouts, essentially popular accounts who will post your picture with a link back to your profile. I did it once, but the experience of paying some smug teenager a couple of hundreds of pounds hurt my soul (it now can be thousands for the most popular accounts). I should swallow my pride here and see it as an investment in my personal brand, but it seems my pride is more stubborn. As the creative bar is raised more every day, starting a new account without promotional help will result in having to spend ages trying to build a community from scratch.
4. I Did Automation
I confess, I have used automation in the past. My account was getting no traction whatsoever. My background is social media strategy, why could I not crack this Instagram thing when everyone else seemed to be racking thousands of likes and new followers? That’s when I entered the dark arts of automation. Although I see no point in buying followers, I did give the follow/unfollow a try for a while. It worked well, but it still felt dishonest, and when I analyzed the type of people who have followed me back I realized they were mainly inactive type of people. So I probably screwed my account’s engagement right there. On top of that, I hear Instagram flags accounts that use automation and restrict them even further (I have no proof of this, just a rumor). Since the shadow ban episode, I realized that for half of the hashtags I was using, my pictures are not being displayed anymore.
5. I'm Not Taking People on a Journey
It only occurred to me recently that Instagram is about the people behind the pictures, not just the pictures. What that means is that it doesn't matter if your photos are technically more elaborate than the other guy. If she manages to captivate her audience with her stories, building an emotional connection with them, she will win any day against me. I used to bitch that my pictures were much better than some of the most popular accounts, but I was missing the point. 500px is a place to show off your editing skills. Instagram is the place to tell the stories of your life through beautiful images. Big difference. What makes you special, why should they care about you? I’m also not leveraging Instagram Stories to create that emotional connection. I’m a private person and always think that what happens in my life isn’t that interesting most of the time. But if you don’t do it, no one will care about you and want to follow you. The most popular Instagram accounts all use Stories to build an intimate connection with their followers, to show them the behind the scenes, who the person behind the camera is.
Look at Misshattan's profile. Polished and moody New York pictures are on her feed.
Pictures used with the permission of MISSHATTAN.
But fun (slightly crazy, but in a good way!) videos of her life on Stories.
And it works well together to create an emotional connection much more than only her pictures could. I mainly upload a few snaps of where I travel to, once in a while, hardly enough to build a following of converted fans.
6. I'm Not Making New Friends
As I started spending more time on the platform, I realized that most popular accounts commented on each other’s profiles. I found it strange at first, but then I realized that all these guys have probably met on the platform and have become Insta-friends. Which probably led to some I-scratch-your-back, you-scratch-mine type of promotion. I’m not the kind of person that easily starts conversations with people, on and off Instagram, but I tried talking to a couple of photographers I really liked. We’ve since become good Instagram friends, following each other’s work, commenting, and private messaging jokes and insights. It has also made the use of the platform better, as it doesn't feel like just a broadcasting platform anymore. But I’m still a long way to having a large group of Instagram friends like some of the accounts I follow.
I recently became Instagram friends with @johnedwardjames who has a great feed and is a super nice guy. We share a similar passion for drones and landscape photography. But unlike me, he is truly smashing it on the platform. His engagement rate is a 20 percent. Yep that’s engagement, not reach. I barely reach 10 percent of my followers, he gets 20 percent of his followers to like and comment on his posts. And as I was writing this article, he was one of the first photographers that popped in my mind to use as an example. So I guess it works.
James' posts will often flirt with the 10,000 likes bar with only 34,400 followers. It's no small feat.
7. I'm Stuck In Landscape
And I mean in both format and genre. On Instagram, what seems to be doing very well are landscape images but with humans in it and in vertical/square format. Basically the exact opposite of what I’m doing. I do generally think accounts with people in them do better. I have no proof, only my observation. But as I said, I feel Instagram is about the connection with the person behind the camera, not just looking at pretty pictures.
Another super Instagrammer, @helloemilie does that very well, including herself in her images in a very poetic way, which creates stunning and emotional images that empty landscapes could not probably not. You don't get to 1 million followers by accident.
If you follow the top Instagrammers, you will be hard-pressed to find any pictures still in landscape format. Most have moved to portrait formats as they get more visibility on mobile phones and consequently more engagement.
My stuff tends to be mostly large landscapes, which are not best suited for viewing on a small phone.
8. I'm Lazy With Hashtags
If you only use simple hashtags like #portrait, #sunset, #wedding, and #landscapephotography, you are basically wasting your time. There are millions of pictures with similar hashtags, your picture will just be a tiny dot in an ocean of mediocrity and no one will find your account from looking up these hashtags. Using #sunset or #travel is not going to drive any traffic to your account.
I’ve used the same list of 10 basic done hashtags plus a few travel ones like #beautifuldestinations or #moodygrams for the last 6 months. And nothing basically. Barely a share. But that’s because I’m lazy. What I should be doing is finding better hashtags and travel accounts that are smaller but where I have more chance of being featured. Finding accounts that fit my style better than using #agameoftones when my images clearly don’t fit their style, just because maybe they’ll like it. They haven’t and they won’t. Finding destination accounts where I have more chances of being featured. It’s pretty hard to be featured on the @london account and their 2 million followers, but I can probably get a feature from @wondruouslondon and its 48,000 followers. Let’s remember that the goal of using hashtags is for people to find your images and hopefully get featured in popular accounts. And a lot of hashtags have just turned into a massive pile of garbage. I don’t have a hashtag strategy but I know I should try new ones, see what works.
Mental note, must nail this: "Your Official Instagram Hashtag Guide for Photographers: A List Of The Best Hashtags."
9. I Don't Tag Other Accounts
Hashtags are limited to 30, but you can also tag other accounts in your image. I should probably mix hashtags that are more descriptive and using tags to target accounts that might feature my work. But I haven’t got myself to making that list just yet.
My friend Antoine Buchet was able to build his account from 0 to 11,000 followers in a few months with an aggressive hashtag and tagging strategy by focusing on London accounts (and some very nice pictures of course).
Images used with the permission of Antoine Buchet.
10. I Don't Write Engaging Copy
As I’ve tried to increase the frequency of posting to once a day in the last few weeks, I’ve found it really hard to come up with a good copy and chose the lazy path once again of naming the destination and maybe some banal anecdote about the place. Some people write witty copy. Once again I failed to leverage the caption to create that intimate connection and let people in my world engage and entertain them.
I tried the joyful tone, but it doesn’t suit me. I need to hire a copywriter (Joke. Hum. Kind of.).
God I suck at this. And Instagram will give more visibility to posts that have a high engagement rate. Asking questions to your audience is a good way to do this. But I'm always scared no one is going to answer and you'll look like Johnny No-Mates.
11. I Don't Promote My Work
I know using hashtags and mentioning other accounts in the faint hope that they will feature work is not enough. I should actively promote my work, send links out there, but I’m too shy and don’t like spamming people. OK fine, I’m an idiot. But how do you expect people to find your work? I also haven't got myself to join an Instagram pod. Doesn't sound like my cup of tea and too time-consuming for me, but I hear it works for some people.
12. I Don't Consistently Invest Time on the Platform
It’s only my point of view here, but to be truly successful on the platform, you need to invest a minimum of one hour per day finding new hashtags, commenting, liking stuff, checking what people are doing, etc. That’s on top of the fact you have to post a picture every day to be consistent. And that takes probably another 30 minutes, writing copy, etc. Plus now you have to do some Stories to keep your audience engaged. So we are talking a minimum of 10 hours per week. By my own assumptions, I think a lot of people will spend an average of two to three hours per day on the platform. Turns out I also have other things to do with my life and probably another reason why I suck at it. Every time I have taken a pause of a few days, my reach took a big hit.
I've come to realize that I suck at Instagram because I don't take it seriously. I don't invest the time and creativity it requires. I don't plan ahead. I don't engage with the community enough. Because winning at Instagram is almost a full-time job in itself. Taking the pictures is almost the easy bit. You've got to learn to tell your story through your images and take people on your journey. Think ahead when posting so it all looks coherent. Create fun and engaging stories. And promote the hell out of it.
The creative bar has been raised pretty high and to find your own space on Instagram will require commitment, dedication, creativity, and time — loads of it. The question I keep asking myself is whether I am willing to commit 20 hours a week to make it on Instagram when you could do other things that could also contribute to your building your brand or business?