"Lessons for building a community on Instagram"
"Mahalo" said the sweet flight attendant as I exited the plane. The air sat thick on the island of Oahu and after 11 straight hours flying from New York City I happily breathed in the humid heat. Like all millennials, I eagerly switched my phone off of airplane mode to see how much "fomo" the flight had cost me and to my great surprise there it was. The fabled 100K mark on my Instagram, a journey of two years of hustling to create content and hours spent tending a community like a tender garden; my personal benchmark of "influencer" status (a word which I have come to abhor, but that is a whole other post).
But I won't get into that today, no.
You are probably here to learn how to get to 100K, how to build a following on social media, or simply how to get more followers on Instagram. The lessons I have learned however will probably surprise you and for some of you might be a disappointment.
So for all the people that I have click baited into a blog post, let me just let you down easy and quickly: there is no magical or singular tip that will have you outsmarting algorithms and bring you loads of followers.
But the closest thing I've found is simply this: Care.
So lets start there, my first of my tips to build a following, my "how to" guide for building a brand on Instagram. This is how to be an influencer.
I have always been uncomfortable with anyone who refers to their followers like they are just numbers. It honestly felt slimy even writing this post using that language (but Dakota is trying to learn SEO and well... that's what people search for). But even the fact that "getting more followers" is such a popular search term denotes a serious lack of understanding of the digital ecosystem. (Ideally) Behind every new follower is a real human being. Someone with dreams, aspirations, goals and troubles just like you. They may come from a different place, they may speak a different language, they may be someone you will never meet in person, but it is my deepest belief that when it comes to online or offline, we must care about people enough to treat them with dignity.
If you want to grow a following, start treating everyone like a real human being.
Practically, this can look like a lot of different things, but for me the simplest way I follow this approach is in taking time to respond to comments and DM's. If someone has taken time out of their life to say something nice about my work or send me a message about what I am creating, the LEAST I can do is acknowledge and thank them for their kindness.
2. Find what makes you unique and do more of that
As someone who has struggled with finding a passion to own and constantly create content about on Instagram, I wish I would have heard this advice so much sooner.
We each have things we are passionate about or even just mildly curious. My friend Nadia phrases it this way, "what is it that makes your eyes sparkle?" And when it comes to Instagram the volume of content one person has to make is actually quite immense. So if what you are cooking up doesn't light your fire, it can get boring really quickly to be creating around that, day in and day out. Additionally, the audience can always tell when something feels inauthentic.
Take a look around, get inspired by what other creators are doing, but don't fall into the trap of trying to recreate someone else's success.
In life, you get to have your own voice and create things that make you and your community smile, cry, laugh, wonder... feel. Why would you ever waste time trying to be someone else?
In my own journey, my community began to noticeably join conversations, share, and grow the moment I stepped into my own and started to create in a way that I knew I uniquely could. I had to stop trying to be like every other creator I saw online, and get quiet enough to hear my own voice. Not everyone likes it (I get messages every once in a while asking why I changed my content, and there was a definite dip in the engagement at first), but if you are playing the long game (and you should always be playing the long game) isn't it better to build something around what an authentic version of yourself, over being a slave to the ever changing whims of an audience? Find what you uniquely can do, and do more (maybe even just) that.
3. Take yourself seriously, then publish your rough draft
When I tell people that I literally will take 1,2, or even 3 hours just to reply to all my comments and DM's, that I spend hours editing content that I give away for free, attend conferences, purchase training courses, or have spent over $12,000.00 just this past year alone on camera equipment they often respond with "well that's just too much work."
And they're right, it is.
But if I want other people to take me seriously as a professional, if I want brands, companies, or even just my audience to take me seriously as a professional in the online space; then I absolutely must take myself seriously.
This means treating the work, even if you are doing it for free right now, as a job.
Anyone can understand the process of creating a community, or honing a craft like photography, writing or video; it lacks the assumed complexity most people believe it to possess. And it also lacks the ease that many assume would follow the "secret" knowledge. It isn't complicated, but it takes work. So after you have done your best to put your professional foot forward in all your content, let it go.
Publish your rough draft.
It is estimated that Picasso created over 50,000 pieces of artwork in his lifetime, only to be famous for a fraction of a fraction of that work. My book has just over 100 poems in it, cut down from thousands of words I have written and posted over the walls of the internet. The point is this, a great concept, or idea means nothing without execution, great art means nothing unless it is shared, and perfectionism is really just another word for fear. It is only in creating and sharing a large volume of work that we gain a real sense of what performs well and what needs more tweaking.
I love a story I heard once about a pottery class where students were given the choice of creating one perfect piece for the semester on which their entire grade would ride, or to be judged on the number of pieces they successfully created. The students who chose to create their one perfect pot studied and theorized, watched, measured, and read everything they could to engineer the perfect piece. While the other group set to work on creating and recreating their pots over and over and over again. And at the end of the semester, guess who had the best looking pieces?
The students who had honed their craft over hundreds and thousands of attempts.
4. Depth over breadth
My favorite and recently passes philosopher once said in an interview, "If you aim for depth you with get breadth thrown in as a byproduct, but if you aim for only breadth you will get neither." I can think of a million applications to this statement, but in the context of social media and how to build a following on Instagram, it has never been more true.
As creators we absolutely must:
Stop trying to be all things to all people.
One exercise I use with my branding clients is to create an avatar of their ideal community member, give them a name, a backstory, hobbies, interests, fears, troubles, problems, attempted solutions, likes, dislikes and every nuanced shade of a life worth living. Create a picture of someone (real or imagined) that you can help in some way. And talk to/create for specifically that person. Generality is the enemy of art. So unless you're creating stock photos (and I would argue even then) go deep!
And secondly as community leaders (and even as human beings) we must:
Aim for deep connection over broad popularity.
We have come full circle to my original thought about deep authentic caring for other human beings. Give up the vanity metric of number of followers, as someone who has been on both sides of having no audience to having 100,000 strong, I can tell you the work remains the same. Treat every person with kindness, respect, and provide value. Learn names, listen to stories, treat your audience like a living breathing community and the breadth of your influence will take care of itself.
Of any knowledge I accumulated on my road to 100K the most important is a lesson my mother always modeled for me since the day one:
And to anyone reading this who has continued to show up for me online (or off), thank you. It is an honor to have your time and attention as I strive to share my heart through the content I create.