I will not claim to have cracked the Instagram code. My following isn't big, and a lot of that is because I'm very inconsistant, and it took me a long time to figure out how even to take those basic pictures. I'll do another post showing my setup though, if it helps anyone. This one is already going to be a novel. I have been using Instagram as a tool for my own purposes and seeing some benefit from that, but I'll be ramping up my own efforts in the next little bit as well.
If you want some solid information on how to grow an instagram following, you want to go to the account @potteryforall.
This account is actually not run by a potter, although he has aquired an appreciation and a good eye for some of the current artists online. He is a social media marketer, and he wanted to crack the formula on how to grow an account rapidly from zero. He managed it with this account and a few others in various niche markets. He shares how to do this freely, because he makes his money elsewhere. He did this to prove his ability to large dollar accounts, so he shares the benefits with the rest of us for helping him by providing the material and community to work with. There are lots of articles you can reach through his bio that go more deeply into all the points.
He recently did a webinar on how to grow your account, and I'll try and go over the points he gave here. BIG CAVEATS: this is just how to get potentially useful followers: it DOES NOT guarantee sales from them. It is the start of a sales funnel, however, and if you can use this funnel to get folks over into your mailing list, I think that might be a useful strategy. It is time consuming and hard to get all of these things perfect, but this is one of those places where progress is better than perfection. If you can even just improve on what you were doing before, it helps build your audience. You are not likely to become one of the best accounts out there overnight, but you can definitely get better than you were.
You need a few things in order can get and keep followers: good pictures, a nice looking feed, you need to actually use and engage on the platform, and you need to be consistent. Think Neil Gaiman's advice: Show up on time, do good work, and be nice to people. These principles have been true for the whole history of instagram, and have worked in one form or another through all the changes on the platform, so this isn't some kind of how to on gaming the system. It requires time and effort, and it's often hard.
Good Photos and Other Strategies:
Instagram is, first and foremost, about pretty pictures, so you have to be appealing. Neil E. is right about not using gallery photos on IG. That gradiated grey background that everyone wants for shows? Don't do it unless grey is part of your overall aesthetic. The best feeds tell even a simple story, and don't just have a single pot on a blank wall for the most part (again, there are exceptions to this like Mea Rhee or Sarah Pike). Some general rules are to use diffused natural light. Tape a piece of tissue paper or waxed paper over the window you shoot in front of if time dictates you need to take photos on a bright sunny day rather than a cloudy one. Indirect light is better than direct light. If you get slightly underexposed photos, it's easy to brighten them up in a free phone editing app like Snapseed. Details will emerge, rather than being blown out with too much light. Others like the VSCO app, but I find Snapseed a lot more intuitive to learn and play around with. It helps that Snapseed will preserve the original photo unless you deliberately overwrite it with your edits, and it gives you an obvious warning before you can do that. I find it's a very powerful tool, and it's available on everyone's device now. Styled photos that hint at a story, even one as simple as "tea and a book" are preferable to bland, so play around with things in your kitchen. That board Neil mentioned in my own pictures? Literally my kitchen cutting board. I usually have to clean breakfast crumbs off it before I can do a photo shoot. My original plan was to use those photos on the blank wall just for online store shots (a blank scene IS preferable for this), but they wind up in my feed because of lack of other material. I try and write something intelligent on those shots, but some days that plan falls apart. Right now online courses on how to do everything while in isolation abound, so take advantage of them. Try some things out. Don't take my photo advice over someone who's obviously better at it.
Curating your Feed, Timing and Useful Tools:
You also have to curate how your feed looks. When someone who has never seen your account before comes to look at your profile, they'll judge wether or not they want to follow you based on the first nine photos on your feed. If you can present a cohesive, curated look "above the fold" like this, it increases your chances that people will want to stick around for more, because you've shown what you can do. Eduardo Morales from @potteryforall has some very doable tips on how to do this in his articles, and I do encourage you to take a look at what he writes. A good way to curate your feed and save yourself a metric crapton of time is to sit down once a week and build all your posts in one of the many free planners out there. I like Later, but they all work. Some other good ones are Plann, Planoly and Hootsuite. You can arrange your photos so you can see what they'll look like together in advance, and move them around so they look nice. You can do all your writing at once, while you're in the right headspace for it. It helps with being able to post consistenly, because the work is all done at once, rather than having to come up with something every day. Best of all, you can work on a desktop instead of thumb typing! You can put it all together without hand cramps! Yay! I do find that the automated posting on on some of the apps can be patchy, so I tend to just push the post manually at the scheduled time from my phone. There is a lot written on when the best times to post are. These days, it varies based on a number of things like time zone and who your audience is. A good general rule is either in the morning before 10, or after dinner, so you can catch the most people who are taking a few to surf social media. Anything fancier than this will require gathering your own metrics, and is only worth drilling into more if you're aiming for influencer status, so don't panic about this one to start.
It's also a good idea to provide some concise, specific information in your bio. I will personally smack the next one of you between the eyes with a rolled up newspaper who calls yourself a local artist. Local to where?!? Do not get cute with emojis. Your bio is no place to play up any kind of artistic mystique: You have 3 sentences to tell people what you do, what you're about and how to get ahold of you. Use it wisely.
You HAVE to be consistent. Disclaimer: This is where I fall apart, and often. I can go through fits and starts on Instagram because I often don't follow all of these best practices, even though I have researched them a lot and can talk about them for days. I have shyness issues sometimes. Yeah, yeah. Typing here is different in my head for some reason. But that's my baggage. I can say though that when I use these best practices they work. When I stop, my account growth does too. When I start back up again, growth begins again. So all is not lost if you've neglected your feed for awhile. It is possible to overhaul your feed in about a week if you want to.
Consistency does not necessarially mean posting three times a day every day. That particular practice is overkill for our purposes. If all you can manage is once a week, do that, but stick to it, and do it at the same time. When everything is going smoothly and I have new work and photos, I find posting three times a week is an achieveable goal to start with. Three posts is enough of a job that it's worth tackling, but unless something else is going on, it's not such a big job I find it overwhelming. The standard advice for account growth is to start from a point, and gradually increase the number of posts until your engagement starts dropping off, and then back it off to that sweet spot and keep up at that rate. But if you know that posting every day will result in burnout, don't do it! If it doesn't sound like fun, don't do it! People can tell when you're treating your feed like a job, and whether or not you enjoy that particular job. Keep it manageable, or consistency stops. I speak from experience here.
Consistency also includes engaging: If you stop posting, you will still get people coming to your account if you continue to comment and like other people's posts, particularly with people who don't already follow you. Which leads us to..
So once you have something nice to look at to offer people, you now have to get it in front of those people. You can do that with metadata (photo tags, hashtags), or you can do it by engagement. Engagement is far more effective. They've changed the way hashtags work over time, and now it's worth putting a few in, but the advice at the moment if you're focused on growth is to have only a handful of truly applicable ones and put them in the first comment. Don't waste too much time searching them out though. The larger ones are not always worth using, because there's too many posts and you'll get lost in there. They can be helpful to get you in front of the right people or to help you find them (eg, people interested in pottery), but not for a lot of growth. This is a bit of a relief frankly, because finding and vetting 30 hashtags that work and switching them up every month is very labour intensive, and not the best return on your time. Find five good ones, and rearrange them every time you use them. As always though, you should check the hashtags you use to make sure they're actually helpful. If you take a nifty process shot in your studio and use the likely-sounding #studioscenes, it won't do you any good because it turns out most of the people using that one are musicians cutting tracks for albums. (#foundthatoutthehardway.) I have also been witness to some unfortunate links involving a hashtag combined with some of the fruit and vegetable emojis, or the water spraying ones. You have been warned.
According to Eduardo at @potteryforall, if you want to get in front of new people, it's best to focus more on posting to your feed rather than Stories. Stories is a fun and easy part of the app, and very forgiving because your post is gone in 24 hours, but it's only shown to your existing followers. It can be a good way to keep and nurture them, but not to get them to you in the first place. Posting to your feed is strongly related to having that curated feed mentioned above, and being consistent. Reposting your feed post to your Stories is a good way of getting engagement on the post so it does better and gets shown to more people though. According to me, it's worth spending time on your captions. Captions keep people on your post, which is also something Instagram will track to see if you're worth showing to more people. If you're using this platform to engage with your community, this is where you do it. Some people who do captioning well are @floriangadsby and @shprixielandstudios. They tell stories more verbally, and again, we're here for stories.
One of the tips I have been encountering for several years is to engage with accounts who are your ideal customer. There are all kinds of convoluted exercises you can do to figure out who that person is and how to get in front of them. Ideal Customer Avatar (ICA) exercises make my head hurt. I came across a genius, cheap and dirty way of doing this recently, and I'll describe it here. When I describe it, it sounds judgy, but understand this: you are not judging the person on their value as a human being: you're judging their photos of their pots and how they are currently presented online, and their ability at Instagramming. Nothing else.
So. Find a pottery account that is doing something similar to what you're doing, but who is not doing it as well as you are. Maybe your photos are better lit, maybe your work is stronger, maybe your feed is tidier and better curated than theirs. Maybe they have lovely everything, but haven't posted since last May. Go through their followers list, and do some like and comment, or even just like 3 posts in the feeds of those followers. You're going after these viewers because if they're already following this account, they've indicated they're interested in pottery. These followers may or may not be other potters, so if you're going to comment, make it something that's germaine to one of their posts. If you comment on their vacation shot, say something like "that's an amazing sunset" rather than just "Beautiful!" The first is a direct observation of what they posted, rather than a generic comment that could be construed as bot activity. Skip over the private accounts and don't worry about them. Most people are familiar with their own followers, or at least the folks who engage with them the most. When a new person shows up and likes a few of their posts and makes a comment, the first thing most people will do is go over and investigate this newcomer. If they like what they see, they'll tap the follow button, because yours is a prettier feed because you've done all the work previously. If you do this to about 20 people a day (you're scrolling in the evening anyways, might as well make it productive), you'll get at least a few new people follow you every day. If, conservatively, you can get 2 new people to follow you a day, that's 60 new people a month, which is not bad for a small account seeking free organic reach. If your feed is well done, you can get more than 2 a day.
You can also do things like participating in contests and giveaways, and they're a great way of getting a lot of new eyes on your feed in a relatively short period of time. Because they usually result in you giving something away, they should be approached as part of a paid advertising campaign: do it strategically, and set a limit on the amount you want to do it. If you train people to say around for freebies, they're never going to buy from you. They work best if you are in the giveaway with people with compatible followers rather than 6 wildly unrelated accounts, and if they have as few steps as possible for people to follow to enter. Stick to the "like this post and follow this short list of accounts" style, or if you're tapping just your own growing audience, you can use "like and tag a friend." You will loose some of the large influx of people that you get initially once the contest ends, but many people will be interested and stay. Efforts like these ones can be good to"do a bit ahead of a shop update. ("If you really wanted that giveaway, here's a way of getting it for sure!)
Thank you for reading my Ted Talk.