When it debuted in 2010, Instagram was presented as a hipper, more exclusive and overall more aesthetically minded social network than contemporaries like Facebook and MySpace.

Having a few hundred Instagram followers was a big achievement in those early days.

Today, the bar for success is much higher, as brands and influencers need thousands of fans if they want to realize ROI on their social campaigns.

Instagram itself has evolved from a walled garden photosharing community into a pivotal platform for advertising and content marketing, making sustainable follower growth there a priority.

Why your number of Instagram followers matters

While Instagram is a hub for gorgeous shots of sunsets, flowers and – of course – food, it’s also so much more:

The quintessential influencer marketing platform

A 2019 MediaKix survey found that 89% of influencers – who promote products and services in subtler ways than overt advertising – deemed Instagram important to their efforts, more than any other platform.

Influencers use Instagram posts to build awareness and increase engagement, often with assets on other channels, such as podcasts or books.

This post from author Candice Kumai is a typical example:

A place to watch live broadcasts and other video content

Every day, more than 500 million accounts use Instagram Stories, the platform’s service for live broadcasts and for video snippets and photos that are available for 24 hours after being posted.

That level of engagement puts Stories well ahead of comparable features on networks like Snapchat. IGTV’s belated support for landscape video should also prove helpful in getting more influencers and creators to cross-post their YouTube content.

An e-commerce frontend

For years, Instagram served as a de facto storefront for many businesses, which would showcase products on their Instagram profiles and then use messaging apps such as WhatsApp to transact with interested buyers.

Now, Shopping on Instagram enables direct selling in some regions, complete with a display of an item’s price and a link to the seller’s website.

In this context, having a substantial Instagram audience provides material benefits.

A large followership can lead to more:

  • Advertising dollars: More followers means more user engagement with your account, which translates into possible earnings from ads. Once you have a large audience, it probably makes sense to upgrade to a business account to enable such monetization. Business accounts also have access to special features such as analytics.
  • Subscribers and customers: As a high-follower account, you’re well-positioned to become an influencer who can get subscriptions to newsletters, signups for webinars, preorders of new products and more.
  • Website traffic: Including a link in your bio is always prudent, as it helps turn Instagram engagement into website visits that can increase conversions and build domain authority. Instructing viewers to swipe up on a Story is another effective, Instagram-specific tactic for sending viewers to a particular link.

Organic vs. paid follower growth on Instagram: Growing your audience the right way

Ideally, you will earn most or all of your Instagram followers organically.

Buying followers via third-party Instagram automation can seem like a shortcut to greatness, but it’s almost always a waste of money.

Popular social media management platform HootSuite ran an experiment in which it paid $9.95 for 1,000 Instagram followers. Sounds simple enough, right?

One month after that purchase, though, HootSuite hadn’t seen a single like or comment from any of the new followers.

It goes to show that when you pay for followers, you don’t know exactly what you’re buying into and will often end up with lots of bots or other accounts uninterested in your profile.

That’s why organic growth is so valuable.

It’s more difficult than purchasing followers, but it pays much greater dividends in the form of higher engagement, more likes and comments, increased monetization and heightened website activity. In short, organic growth produces higher-quality follows.

Let’s look at a few of the many proven techniques for boosting organic growth.

Post more user-generated content

User generated content is the opposite of branded content; it’s produced by regular accounts instead of marketing teams following specific brand guidelines.

On Instagram, user-generated content is especially effective, with the 2017 Internet Trends report finding it produced almost 7 times more likes and comments than branded assets.

Many companies have run successful social campaigns featuring user-generated content that surfaces in the lucrative Explore page and attracts more followers. UGC content works in large part because it encourages audience participation.

For example, a campaign by clothing company Aerie organized around the hashtag #AerieReal asked users to submit their unretouched photos, each of which would spur a $1 donation to the National Eating Disorders Association.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

Hats off to this #AerieREAL girl! Post your unretouched swim photos with #AerieREAL & we’ll donate $1 (up to $15K) to @NEDA.

A post shared by aerie (@aerie) on

Some user-generated content campaigns even have prizes, which provide additional incentives for engagement.

Clearly Kombucha organized one such contest that required participants to like a specific post, follow one of its corporate accounts and tag a friend – a perfect recipe for gaining more followers without seeming overbearing or resorting to paid placement.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

✨ GIVEAWAY TIME!! ✨⠀ ⠀ Enter this giveaway for the chance to boost your health with goodies from @livwell_nutrition and @yoga_democracy. Prize includes 2 bags of cold-crafted LivWell plant protein, 6 flavors of Clearly Kombucha, and $150 to Yoga Democracy’s online store for your choice of yoga apparel! 🙌⠀ .⠀ Entering is easy! Just:⠀ ⠀ 👉 Like this pic.⠀ 👉 Follow @yoga_democracy, @livwell_nutrition and @clearlykombucha.⠀ 👉 Tag 1 friend in the comments. Each comment will count as one entry .⠀ ⠀ U.S only, please. Winner will be DM’d and announced on Friday, September 28th. Good luck! #clearlykombucha #eatsleepboochrepeat #boochdontkillmyvibe #giveaway

A post shared by Clearly Kombucha (@clearlykombucha) on

Finally, user-generated content builds trust.

Followers who see a high-quality photo or video from someone like them or get tagged in a post by a friend often put a lot of weight into that interaction. In fact, consumers trust peer-created content seven times more than branded advertising!

Create and follow a consistent posting schedule

If followers really like your Instagram profile, they’ll likely return to it regularly to see what you’re posting. They expect consistency, so you should avoid posting only infrequently or on an ad hoc basis.

By setting a consistent posting schedule, you give followers a reason to return each day.

There are numerous tools out there, including eClincher, Buffer and HootSuite, that let you schedule content far in advance so that you never miss a day.

As you draw up your schedule, pay close attention to when you’re posting, as not all times are equally good. Sprout Social and Later have both examined how Instagram engagement fluctuates over the course of a typical week; the two charts below may be helpful in your planning.

Via Later.

As an added bonus, consistent posting can help you break into the Explore page on Instagram, which rewards popular content that sees significant engagement.

It’s a virtuous cycle: A steady flow of high-quality posts will build your audience, whose engagement then boosts your presence and visibility in the Instagram app, making it easier to gain even more followers.

Include the right #hashtags

Speaking of Explore, there’s an entire science to getting your posts to appear there. Its algorithm seems to like videos (which autoplay in Explore) and original posts (as opposed to reshares or controversial uncredited content) in particular, plus it rewards judicious use of hashtags and geotags.

Posts with at least one hashtag see 12.6% higher engagement than ones with none.

Most of these hashtags – 70% of them to be exact – are branded, showing the high level of brand interest across the platform and the opportunity to reach numerous users who might not go looking for your Instagram profile in particular but are seeing what’s tagged with a specific hashtag and may follow accounts that are targeting it.

At the same time, overdoing it with the branded hashtags can come off as sales-y and off-putting.

Balance those hashtags with ones that are location-based (like #chitown for Chicago, or #hotlanta for Atlanta) or trending.

Also, include a geotag to provide more context; geotagged posts get almost 80% more engagement.

Enormously popular hashtags like #love and #nofilter might be worth including since they can’t really hurt your post, but remember that they’re difficult to rank for.

Practice your caption writing

If hashtags and geotags are like chocolate, then captions are like peanut butter – the other half of what should be an irresistible combo.

While Instagram is obviously a highly visual platform, all of this text matters, too, since it provides important context and helps guide your would-be followers on how to interpret each post and give them a sense of if it’s worth their time to follow you in the first place.

Here’s what to keep in mind as you craft your captions:

1. You have a lot of characters to work with…

This isn’t Twitter.

Instagram allows more than 2,000 characters per post, meaning there’s plenty of room to describe what’s in a photo or video, ask questions, include calls-to-action and load up on relevant hashtags.

Even extended ruminations, broken up nicely into paragraphs (write in a notes app first, then copy/paste), can be included, like in the example below.

2. …but it’s usually good to keep things short

Sometimes a long caption like this will work, for instance if you’re looking back on a major achievement or telling a story that requires a lot of background.

Most of the time, though, you will want to get to the point by including important information right at the outset, describing what’s being shown in the image, explaining the contest or campaign you’re running or otherwise quickly summarizing what your audience should take away from the post.

This Intel post works well by leading with hashtags and the simple statement that the depicted robot needs a name.

3. Emojis are 100

Don’t like the prospect of bombarding your audience with big blocks of text? That’s basically the problem emojis were meant to solve.

You can say a lot with a very little using the right icons, whether that’s a pumpkin and some ghosts for a Halloween update or hearts and a rainbow flag for LGBT Pride Month.

Even something simple like using an arrow emoji in a call-to-action, like in this Dunkin’ post, can be super effective.

Dive into video formats like Instagram Live

Instagram built its initial audience with photos. However, it’s become one of the biggest video platforms, too: Video accounted for two-thirds of its total ad impressions in 2018.

Accordingly, growing your audience organically will require a sensible video strategy, one that can take advantage of the short-form Instagram Stories format and livestreaming via Instagram Live, in addition to videos that appear on the main feed.

Between the three of them, you might want to try ideas such as:

  • Question-and-answer sessions.
  • Guided tours.
  • Walkthroughs, explainers and how-to’s.

Instagram Live in particular is excellent for directly engaging with your audience and cultivating followers, like in this real-time Q&A on makeup:

Via Preview.

Tap into Instagram Insights

How do you know if your posts are connecting with your audience and netting you new followers? The built-in analytics tool Instagram Insights is the place to start.

From within Instagram Insights, you can see details such as how many followers you gained on a specific day, the number of impressions that came from the home, Explore and profile pages, and the percentage of accounts that you reached that didn’t follow you.

Knowing this granular information can help optimize a strategy that’s already working, or recalibrate one that isn’t.

You can quickly pull up analytics if you have a business account, which also allows for promotion/advertising of a post as shown below.

Via Later.

Become verified

The ol’ blue checkmark: It’s an unmistakable signifier of authority across social media as well as a great way to gain organic followers.

You can request verification from within the settings menu in the Instagram app.

You will need to complete a few forms and provide relevant proof of identity such as government ID (if an individual) or company documentation (if a business).

Verified accounts are more trusted and usually have an easier time getting their posts in front of large audiences. Verification shouldn’t be the centerpiece of an organic growth strategy, but it is a useful measure.

It’s about follower quality, not quantity

Huge Instagram followerships, like the ones in the image above, are undoubtedly impressive. But what matters more than the numbers themselves is the quality of the interactions that come from those followers.

Are they commenting on your posts? Following the link in your bio? Converting into sales and subscriptions?

As you pursue organic growth of your Instagram followers, focus on these quality metrics above all. If quantity were all that mattered, spending a few dollars to get thousands of bots to follow you would be the only advice we’d need to give.

Don’t buy followers and instead devote your Instagram strategy to crafting posts that resonate with your audience and take advantage of all that Instagram has to offer.

Alex Cox is a senior writer at Brafton. Originally from Kentucky, he now lives in Chicago with his husband Marvin and an orange cat named Athena. When he's not writing for Brafton or creative projects, he enjoys painting, going for walks, and collecting vintage Nintendo games and controllers.