How to be successful on Instagram? This post explores Instagram as the ultimate visual platform. After gaining over 300 million users in around three years, Instagram has become the undisputable social network for visual people. It places photo sharing and video sharing at your fingertips, no matter where you are in the world. 

High visibility on Instagram is becoming a coveted commodity among artists who are already mastering the platform as a means to build a following for their work. However, many are just discovering this app. They are asking themselves a variety of questions: how do you get more Instagram followers? What is the secret behind accounts with thousands of followers? How do you find your niche as a visual provider in a network with more than 20 billion images and counting?

Be Successful on Instagram – Cross market using your other platforms: 

By using other platforms you can drive traffic to your Instagram account. It is important to remember too, that you can set your account so you will be able to save time and automatically share your content on Facebook, Twitter or any other social media outlets you may use. 

“We share many of our Instagram photos on other platforms, especially on Facebook — that’s a richer user experience, I think,” says social photo editor for @nytimes Kerri MacDonald.

“Sometimes I’ll post photos directly from our photographers’ feeds to Facebook and encourage people to follow them to see more from a story. There is so much that can be done, and I think it’s wise to experiment with cross-collaboration in as many ways as possible.”

“Only occasionally I get that sophisticated cross marketing with other platforms,” says National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson (@jimrichardsonng) of his own strategies. “I know I should but I don’t very much. I do use IFTTT to send my Instagram posts to Twitter and Flickr. It’s not ideal because the formatting is different. But better than nothing, I hope.” Though it may not be essential to post on all your social media channels, it can be a useful way to gain exposure with as many people as possible.

Be Successful on Instagram – Understand hashtags: 

white and blue heart print textile
Photo by Katie Harp

Explore the hashtags related to your type of account, interests or industry. However, remember not to overdo it. Like metadata embedded in our pictures, hashtags act as keywords. They help people connect with their communities or people they admire. 

“I learned that hashtags are extremely important for Instagram users who are not currently following you to find you,” advises National Geographic Creative photographer Mike Teiss. “Insert some of the strongest hashtags, much like they’re keywords. But remember: there is a fine line between that and overdoing it, putting too many hashtags so it looks “spammy” and not just putting the basics for people to find the photo.

Websta, a site that allows you to see statistics for your instagram account, provides a list of the top hashtags:

#love (894,241,625 posts)

#instagood (407,569,165 posts)

#me (366,957,537 posts)

#tbt (343,476,966 posts)

#cute (329,285,399 posts)

#follow (327,830,890 posts)

#followme (316,202,640 posts)

#photooftheday (309,918,269 posts)

“Jessica Anderson, a social strategy editor, does most of our thinking about hashtags,” says MacDonald. “We’re trying to use them sparingly. I think we are still working on the best practices, but at this point we have been using no more than five per post. We’re trying to use them in places where they’ll provide value for our followers. Hashtags with massive numbers don’t always do that. Neither do hashtags that bring you to a large collection of disparate images. We have a few of our own: #nytweekender and for our weekend projects; #nytassignment, for photographers who are posting work from assignments, for instance. We’re working on a few others.”

“I tag if there is an obvious location that I want people there to see, like #scotland if I think people in Scotland will be interested,” says Richardson. “I have a hashtag of #islandobsession for the series I do on Scottish islands. And I try to be transparent about whether the picture is from the archive or is new work on my iPhone. I resist hashtagging that I feel would be manipulation. Just dumping in popular hashtags strikes me as tacky.”

“At National Geographic Travel we have been successful in sharing and featuring user-generated images through the #natgeotravelpic hashtag (which currently has over 257K tags),” says associate photography producer for @natgeotravel Tyler Metcalfe. “This gives everyone a chance to provide their perspective on travel, which benefits everyone.”

Be Successful on Instagram – Interact with other users: 

woman standing while holding black phone
Photo by Angelo Moleele

Like on most social media, the more you engage, the more activity you receive on your account. This is based on the premise that you are engaging the right way and following the rules of the platform in question. Be kind to other people, and leave appreciative comments under their images, if you truly like them. Based on a survey conducted by Pew Research Center,

“Most notably, 53% of young adults ages 18-29 now use (Instagram), compared with 37% who did so. Besides young adults, women are particularly likely to be on Instagram, along with Hispanics and African-Americans, and those who live in urban or suburban environments.”

“Many photographers are getting known and developing careers from Instagram,” says Lens blog co-editor and senior staff photographer James Estrin. “Take Ruddy Roye for example. But he works at it almost full-time. A few photo editors have told me they find people through Instagram.”

“My job running @nytimes is still very new,” says MacDonald. “We launched two and a half months ago and this weekend we reached 358k followers. As the account grows, I’m trying to get a handle on how, and when, to interact with our followers. I’m still trying to sort out how to find the right balance of imagery for the account — I want to be sure to show difficult images, but many people don’t come to Instagram to see these kinds of things. It’s interesting to see how our followers react to some of the stories we cover.”

“Our followers hold our National Geographic brand to extremely high standards and expect to see the very best from our photographers,” says Metcalfe. “ It is great to be held to such high standards, no matter the platform we are publishing on.”

Be Successful on Instagram – Engage your followers. 

Ask questions as part of your captions. Speak loudly about things you care about. Interact with your users. Make them feel like part of a community. Engagement is the secret to success in most social media platforms. Some brands like GoPro include user-generated content, giving the spotlight to their customers. People are curious by nature. By sharing information about the photographs you are posting, you are sharing dreams, thoughts, experiences, achievements and tiny pieces of your life. Many brands are now posting “behind the scenes” images of their work. Why shouldn’t you?

“But like any audience building exercise, you need to determine who your audience is and how to create engaging content for them,” says co-founder of PhotoShelter Allen Murabayashi. “The average consumer isn’t going to hire a professional photographer, so it’s a false premise to say “you must build a huge audience.” On the other hand, photographers with 100k+ followers have real revenue opportunities that aren’t available to photographers with smaller followings.”

“Many of the digital agencies are increasingly looking at engagement rather than raw followers nowadays. Engagement is a percentage of likes and comments,” adds Murabayashi. “And is a better indicator of how influential a photographer is with their audience. I think looking at a multi-contributor feed like @natgeo and seeing which photos get lots of engagement is pretty instructive.”

“To be successful on Instagram is very easy to use compared to Facebook and Twitter,” says co-author of The Art of Social Media and social media strategist Peg Fitzpatrick. “ 

It’s 100% mobile, which is where a huge percentage of online activity comes from these days. 90% of Instagrammers are under the age of 35 – it’s a great place to hit up a younger millennial audience. 58% of Instagrammers use Instagram daily compared with 23% of Pinterest users.

“Instagram reveals very quickly what kinds of pictures people really like,” Richardson says. “I’d already seen some of that because I have my own gallery and we offer hundreds of photographs in cards in our shop. You see very quickly what people really gravitate to and what doesn’t interest them. It’s not always what I would have suspected. Specifically, photojournalism (particularly gritty news images) is much less popular than many of us thought. Animals are golden, partly because they are culturally agnostic. Viewers gravitate to images that celebrate their own cultures, however much we like to think we are lovers of world cultures.”

Experiment and learn from your mistakes. 

broken blue ceramic plate
Photo by CHUTTERSNAP

Set realistic goals. Keep in mind the importance of measuring your results. There are some tools out there to get this job done. Success, like everything in life, is relative. Bringing more followers to your account can bring some personal satisfaction or even monetary rewards with time, but never lose perspective of things. Have fun.Teiss shared some of his lessons: 

“Be persistent but be patient, you will gain followers with time. Hold back your average material and only post your best. Post daily, but no more than once a day. Use hashtags to get new followers. Have fun doing it and respond to your followers answering their questions in comments. It is impossible to answer every single one but you can try.”

“I think that people assume that Instagram has to be polished,” says MacDonald. “Some of the most beautiful work I’ve seen there is more spontaneous — it’s work that really shows that the photographer is experimenting, and learning. That’s one of the most fun things about Instagram, I think. It’s something I want to show more on the @nytimes account, when possible.”

MacDonald adds, “I’ve been working with a few photographers who are new to Instagram and they’re all having a lot of fun with it. Generally, I think people often begin by posting a little too much. Instagram isn’t a place to publish 12 images at once. It’s a place to tell stories a little more slowly — despite its “instant” nature. I also see people going crazy with the hashtags. I think captions (and images, of course!) are definitely a personal choice, but I’m not a huge fan of accounts using too many hashtags and not enough personality. Finally, I think you really need to interact with your followers. We’re trying to do this as well.”

“Is it too late to become successful on Instagram?” I ask myself. “There was a bit of a gold rush in the early days because the discovery tools were very static,” admits Murabayashi. “But I think it’s still possible to grow an audience with compelling content and a few key press hits.”

“I don’t think it is too late to gain followers,” says Richardson. “Photographers are building followers all the time. What may be happening is that followers are getting more discriminated against. I think there was a time when you could get a lot of followers just because people were trying to figure out who to follow. But they weren’t necessarily followers who really stuck around or really cared. You can see that, I think, in some photographers who have vast followings but haven’t gained a lot of followers in the last year, and who don’t get likes in proportion to the number of followers. That tells me that they have a lot of inactive followers in the rolls. I think anyone seeking to engage an Instagram photographer for work, such as commercial jobs, should be paying a lot of attention to who those followers are and how engaged they are. To be blunt, are they real? To be successful on Instagram they should be.”

As you probably have figured out by now, brands are looking to spread their brands to broad audiences, but think wisely.

“While advertisers are coming forward to pay for the eyeballs photographers have collected in their followings, I think photographers must be extremely careful when they then share those followers for commercial purposes,” concludes Richardson. “To be successful on Instagram photographers must realize that using their followers for an advertiser or sponsors project may cannibalize their following. If so they must consider the consequences and either decline or accept the loss and charge the client accordingly.”

“We are seeing more and more clients who want to leverage the reach of any social media influencers,” adds marketing manager for @natgeocreative Ashley Thomas. “And of course, this includes photographers on Instagram with a strong feed of content and healthy followings.”

We live in a visual world. Instagram lets you be part of it. Instagram also helps you strengthen your relationships in a fun way. 

“I think the beauty of the platform is the way in which it encourages even professional photographers to see things a little bit differently, and creatively,” says MacDonald. “Instagram gives photographers so much power. To be successful on Instagram I really believe that the captions can be just as powerful as the images; everyone agrees with me on that point.”

“A lot of the images you see on people’s Instagram feeds are not going to change the world,” adds MacDonald.” They are just a more personal way of looking at it, and I love that.”

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