My name’s Puno, and I’m the Founder of ilovecreatives and PeopleMap. I also teach people how to get really good at Instagram. Which is especially crazy for me, because even when Instagram was blowing up, I knew barely anything about it. Seriously. When it came out, I was like, "What's this Instagram? Is this another social network…bleh blah blah…Meh, I don't need this."
But then I tried to start my own business and I didn’t have a lot of money to promote it. Social media started looking at lot less “meh” and a lot more, "YASSS”. To figure it all out, I started Googling away... that was pretty underwhelming. There really wasn’t that much out there.
OK, there was some stuff; a few shady sounding shortcuts. And who doesn’t like shortcuts? I tested a couple of bots and follow back strategies, but they never really worked. Sure, I would get new followers and rack up some numbers, but I wasn’t attracting the right people. I wasn’t getting the people who would use my product. My followers weren’t converting to customers. And I was starting a business, not a hobby. Those followers needed to count.
I decided to try developing my own strategy; a strategy designed to attract my people. A strategy to grow real followers. And I came up with something that was really working for Madewithmap. It got me to 10,000 followers. But at that point, I started to question it. It seemed like what we were doing was way too manual. I was like, “I live in the future, can’t I automate this with robots?” I needed to check my work. So I called an expert.
There’s a service called Clarity.fm, it's like a hotline for business advice. I booked a call with Ligaya Tichy, who built communities at Yelp and Airbnb. I got on the phone with her and told her everything we had been doing to grow Madewithmap. I was expecting her to be like, “Well that’s cute, but here’s how it’s really done.” Then I was hoping she’d drop the secret automation sauce on me.
Instead, she told me that what I was doing was basically how they did it at Yelp and Airbnb; that it takes a lot of manual effort to build an online community. That call was completely validating for me. If that’s how these awesome online communities were built, I’m not crazy for doing it this way!
Fast forward to now, and here I am teaching regularly at General Assembly, writing this book, and creating an online video course! I've taught everyone from people who haven't even created a username, to people who already do social media marketing for a living, managing accounts for big brands.
There are lots of other strategies out there for growing your Instagram. This book is about how I did it. Look at it like a really transparent, step by step case study of how I grew from 0 to 80,000 followers in a year. So if you're thinking, "Gah! I don't even know where to start. Just tell me what you would do!", then you are going to love this book.
One last thing. Some people don’t learn as quickly from reading a book as they do in a hands-on course. I get it, I’m like that too! So if you’re more of a show me person than a tell me person, take my online video course instead.
Otherwise, read on, my friend, and let’s explore the magical world of Instagram together...
Before we get into the nitty gritty, let’s get some basic stuff out of the way. These are the things I learned at the very beginning, when I first started using Instagram.
Getting over your hang-ups
When I was just getting started on Instagram, I had all these weird emotional things that were holding me back. I wish that someone just told me, “This is what you need to stop thinking, and this is what you need to start doing”. Well, that’s what I’m about to do for you.
When I first signed on to Instagram, I thought, “Should my account be public right away? What if I'm not ready yet?”
Go public from the start. When you’re private, you’re invisible and you can’t learn anything. If you mess up, you can always hit reset by deleting all your photos and starting from scratch. We did that exact thing on Map. We had 1,023 followers when we started over. That seemed like a lot of people to risk losing at the time. Now it seems so silly that we even worried about it.
Here’s another pointless hang-up: I used to think it was weird to follow people that I didn't know. Duh, that’s the whole point of social media. You have to follow strangers. It’s not creepy. It’s what everyone does.
Before I got over my stranger-follow-phobia, I only followed my friends. I thought that would make things easier. But it only made things harder and more frustrating. My friends were not my potential customers.
Your friends will not help you grow your business. This was a big lesson for me. You can have inside jokes and drink margaritas on the weekend, but that doesn't mean they are going to buy your product or use your service. Plus, it's nice to keep those things separate. They are your friends; cherish and respect that. They don’t need to be your customers too.
Talking to strangers feels especially awkward in the beginning because you have almost zero followers. I started talking to strangers when I had 13 followers. I didn’t feel like I was big enough.
But I’ve found Instagram to be the friendliest social network out there. Compared to YouTube and Twitter, it’s a really positive community. Put positivity out there, and you'll get positivity back. If you're going to be talking to strangers, Instagram is the place to do it.
Being the face of your brand
Should I be the face of my brand? Will it make my Instagram and my business feel more authentic? This was the number one thing that was keeping me up at night when I started. Because, you know, I have an outgoing personality. I can look rad in a photo. Why shouldn’t I take advantage of that?
I was experimenting a lot early on, so I set up two accounts. I tried being the face of Map for a few months, and then I tried letting Map have it’s own face. Hands down, Map’s face won. It turned out that my personality did not express the brand I wanted for Map. I thought we were the same in the beginning, but then I got to know my business, and I realized that we were different people.
When you’re starting a business, you need the freedom to change your brand based on feedback you’re getting from your market and all the little things you learn in the process. It’s really hard to do this when you are the brand. You can’t just change your personality overnight.
Make a separate account for your business and craft a new identity for it. This will also make it much easier to try new strategies when you hire people to work on your account. Your team won’t feel like they’re dissing you by suggesting tweaks to the brand.
You can make an exception to this rule if you provide a professional service. For example, if you’re an illustrator, a copywriter, or a photographer, then you are the brand. If you are being hired to personally provide a service, it totally makes sense for your professional brand and your personal brand to be the same.
You have to live what you do. If your brand needs to change for you to get different clients, then that really means thatyou need to change. The other advantage to having a single account is that it makes networking so much more effective, because your Instagram becomes a portfolio and business card in one.
One last thing. If you need an account for keeping in touch with family or old friends and you don’t want to worry about how it looks, you can make a separate account for that. Maybe your parents want to see a thousand pictures of their grandkids.
Or you might have some obscure hobby that you’re really into but you want to keep it separate from your professional side. Hey, maybe you just want an account for the original reason Instagram exists, you know, to make friends and be social. By all means, get another account for the real you.
Commit to being consistent
Before we get started, you’re gonna have to make a commitment. If you’re serious about growing your Instagram, you’ll need to post once a day for 6 months. Posting and engaging consistently is everything when you’re getting started on Instagram.
It’s good for you personally because it keeps you focused and learning, with your goals top of mind every day. It prevents you from being distracted by the worry and doubts that always sabotage you when you start something new. It stops you from overthinking.
Consistency also creates momentum in your community, because people will be talking about your brand. You can roll on that momentum, multiplying your efforts so you’re getting more out than what you put in.
Remember, just because your social media account is free, that doesn’t mean social media is free marketing. I thought that too. I thought I wouldn’t have to earn my followers, that there were shortcuts. I thought it for a whole year. And it didn’t work.
Then I stopped looking at social media as a quick win, and started looking at it as a key part of my marketing strategy. I focused on Instagram as my only social media channel and I committed myself to getting good at it. I learned a lot, and I’m going to tell you everything I learned.
I think you’re ready. Deep breath. Let’s do this!
Find your followers by making your Brand Book
When you’re starting out on Instagram, the first thing you have to do is find your followers. They don’t just show up on their own. You’ll need to go out there and get them. That means you need to know what they look like. You want to be able to look at any Instagram profile and tell from the profile pic and the first 6 photos if this is one of your followers.
Be deliberate about this. Your followers aren’t just people who you think have cool profiles, or people you admire, or people who have lots of followers. You’re making an Instagram account to sell a product, or get people to try a service, or convince people to collaborate with you.
You want to find your people. When you mention a product in your photo, they check it out. When you say you’re going to an event, they want to be there. When you talk about the latest creative project you’re working on, they want to work with you.
If you’re feeling a little lost about how to do this, that’s OK. This is where the Brand Book comes in. Making your Brand Book is a great way to figure out who your followers are and where to find them.
For this exercise, try out PeopleMap (14 day Free Trial). You can easily drag and drop photos to your desktop or make Post Lists.
Let’s get started.
Study your competitors
Figure out who 3 of your competitors are, then find their Instagram accounts. Don't pick competitors who aren't on Instagram; those won’t be useful for this exercise. Add the username and profile pic for each competitor to your Brand Book.
Your competitors are brands that you are usually a little bit jealous of. That’s good. It means they’re successful, you respect them, and it’s smart to emulate them.
If you have multiple services or products, your competitors don’t have to offer the exact same things, just similar things. For example, let’s say you’re a design agency that offers web design and social media. One of your competitors might be a social media agency, another might be a freelance web designer.
Save the profile pic for each competitor in your Brand Book, then try to answer the questions below. Take notes as you work.
Analyze the type of content your competitor is posting. Are their photos mostly product shots or lifestyle shots? Product shots are sometimes used to drive sales of a product directly; a straight up, “Buy this now” post. Look at the comments on these posts closely. Are people @mentioning friends in the comments? Are people posting after they’ve ordered the product? This can give you an idea of how well they’re converting their followers to customers.
Do they regram photos from fans or is it all original content? Find the original profile where the photo was regrammed from and read the caption. Did the fan get the product as a gift? Did the brand engage with the fan in the comments? Look for regrams from Instagrammers with 10k or more followers; they might be paying influencers. See if they’re letting other Instagrammers take over their account.
Now figure out which content gets them the highest engagement; the photos that get the most likes and comments. Look them up on PeopleMap to check their average likes per post. Then see which posts have higher likes than that average. Is there a common element to these popular photos?
Read the captions on the photos. What’s the tone; friendly, fun, inspiring? Read the comments to see how their followers interact. Read the brand’s replies to see who they reply to and how they talk to their followers. Check out the profiles of the frequent commenters. Really get a feel for the types of conversations that the brand is creating.
One technique for creating conversations is hashtagging. Does your competitor use generic hashtags or have they created their own? Do they have a single hashtag they’re using a lot? Maybe it’s in their profile description. Check the popularity of a hashtag they created. Are people posting lots of photos to it regularly?
Pick your future partners
Your partners are people or brands you plan on working with in the future. Pick 3 and find their Instagram accounts. These partners should be different from the 3 competitors you just picked. Add the username for each partner to your Brand Book. Also add one photo from their profile that captures why you want to work with this partner.
One way to find your partners is to ask yourself, if you could take anyone’s followers, whose followers would you take? Not because they have lots of followers, but because their followers are exactly the types of people you think will love your brand.
Another way to find your partners is to think about your ideal followers, and then look at what other products or services they might buy. Pick products that are complementary to what you’re offering, but not competitive. For example, Map is a travel photography focused brand, so our audience uses Airbnb and buys Langly camera bags.
You can also reverse this technique. Find some Instagrammers who you think are your ideal followers and check out which brands they are following. Those brands might be your partners.
Reality check each partner you’ve picked by analyzing their profile style. Do their photos look like your photos? Are you posting pictures of the same types of things? Do you have a similar aesthetic?
There has to be significant stylistic alignment for you to partner with them. Ask yourself, would they put you in their Brand Book as a partner? Look through their followers and commenters and see if these look like your ideal followers.
See if you can find posts where your partners have publicly worked with other brands on their account. If you can’t find any examples, that might limit the ways you can work with them. Maybe they won’t be up for regramming your photos, for example.
Try to think about what these partners need and whether you can offer it. People love having their problems solved for them. By thinking about what a potential partner needs, you’re putting yourself in the right mindset. Do they need more followers, sales, mailing list subscribers? Are they promoting a new product or event? One of the easiest ways to help a potential partner is to promote their event.
The goal is to eventually partner with each of these brands. Not immediately, but at some point. So make sure they really match your brand aesthetic. This is how they’ll be assessing you when you ask them to partner. If you change your aesthetic later, you’ll want to do this exercise over.
It’s OK if your brand doesn’t seem as big as theirs. What matters most is that your styles are aligned and that you’ll be attracting similar followers. But be reasonable. There’s Oprah and there’s you. We’d all love to work with the biggest brands right outta the gate. Few of us will get the chance. Luckily, Instagram is full of great up and coming brands! Start with the ones that are closer to your level.
Find your muses
Your muses represent your ideal followers. You’ll have lots of followers later, but if you could only pick 3, who would those followers be? Who would totally “get” your brand? Those are your muses. Choose 3 Instagrammers as your muses and add their profile pics to your Brand Book.
To figure out who your muses are, start by looking at your partners and competitors. Who do they follow and feature? Look at who they @mention and reply to in their comments. Muses don’t need to have 50K followers, they can have as little as 1K followers.
You want to really get to know your muses. Study their profiles the same way you studied your competitors and partners. Look at the brands they’re wearing; clothes, jewelry, makeup. Pay attention to the magazines in the photos. Take note of the events, coffee shops, and spaces they visit.
In particular, browse the entire list of people they follow. The best muses care about every detail of their profile, including who they’re following. They deliberately keep this list short; your muses should all have a higher number of followers than following. Look at the profiles in those following lists. This will give you a lot of insight into what your muses care about and who they want to surround themselves with.
The reason you’re studying your muses so thoroughly is because they will be your template for new followers. Their characteristics form a checklist. You’re going to hunt through Instagram to find thousands of people who look like your muses. You really need to understand what they look like.
Set some standards
As you grow your account, you’ll constantly be editing. Every day is a series of decisions about what your brand is and what your brand is not. It helps to have some visual aids to make these decisions as automatic as possible. You want to operate on instinct.
The easiest way to do this is to make two moodboards with 6 Instagram photos each. Put these in your Brand Book. One is your Do moodboard. Look through the profiles of your competitors, partners, and muses. Find 6 photos that encapsulate what your brand represents. This includes technical aspects of the photos; things like composition, use of filters, and saturation.
Then do the same exercise, but make a Don’t moodboard. This isn’t just a collection of really bad photos. These are photos that almost look like your brand. If you weren’t paying attention, you might accidentally put them in your Do board. But there’s one detail that puts them in the Don’t category. Maybe they used a subtle filter but you never use filters or you wouldn’t have used a filter in that case. Maybe they shot a lifestyle scene with the product centered and you never center products in your shots. These are subtle things that help set your brand apart; things that your audience may not even consciously notice.
Making your Do and Don’t moodboards really helps you commit to the style of your brand. It also comes in handy later if you hire freelancers to help you grow your account.
Brainstorm some Hashtags
Hashtags have become really personalized on Instagram. They are the new mission statement. This mission statement is not from the perspective of your brand, it’s from the perspective of your followers. What is the thing your followers are doing that defines them as your community, as your people?
Your hashtag should be aspirational in a way that’s specific to your audience. It should reinforce what the community is into. It doesn’t have to include your brand name.
Avoid using single common words (eg, love, travel) because you won’t be able to own them. You need to be able to dominate the use of the hashtag so you can own it. Try using your common word in a short sentence to make it unique.
It’s OK to use a hashtag that already exists, but not one that’s already popular. Look it up on Instagram. If there are 500 photos on an existing hashtag, you need to be confident that you can easily get your community to add 500 more.
For each hashtag you’re considering for your brand, ask yourself these questions: Could you add your hashtag after every sentence? Would your muse use your hashtag on a photo?
Think of 10 hashtags you might like to use on your profile. You’re not going to use all 10. You’ll probably only want to use 1. But start with 10 so that you can get those creative juices flowing. And remember, a hashtag on Instagram can include letters and numbers only. Spaces and special characters like $ and % are not allowed.
The Mine and Grind
The Mine and Grind is the thing you’ll be doing every day to grow your following. It’s how you find and attract new followers to your Instagram account. These aren’t just any followers, these are your ideal followers. These are your people. Finding and attracting your people is a 3 step process.
Step 1: Find potential followers
First you need to find collections of people on Instagram who might want to follow you. A great place to start is with your Brand Book. Look up your muses and your competitors. Who are they following? Those people might want to follow you.
Another place to start is on blog.instagram.com. Scroll through the weekend hashtag projects and featured users. Look for people who remind you of your muses. Those people might want to follow you.
If you’ve just posted a photo, is there something contextual to that post that you can mine? If you mentioned someone, that’s easy. See who they are following. But you can also look at the contents of the photo. For example, is there a donut in your post? What are the hashtags that people use for donuts? Where do people buy donuts? These hashtags and locations might be used by people who want to follow you.
Step 2: Are these your people?
Now you want to assess all the people you’re finding in Step 1. Look at each potential follower to check if they are right for you. Not everyone you’ve found is a follower you want, or a follower who wants you.
For each person, look at the profile photo and check the first 6 profile photos. Reference your Brand Book and really ask yourself, “Would this person follow me?” It’s important for you to do this every day so that you get really good at recognizing your people. You’ll get immediate feedback on your skills by seeing whether people who you thought would follow you actually end up following you.
Step 3: Get noticed
The final step is to get your potential follower’s attention by commenting and liking. For each person you found in Step 2, you should like and comment on at least one of their photos.
Scan their feed quickly and pick a photo that stands out to you, one that you can say something fun or specific about. Then, like that photo and leave a comment. It’s that simple.
The more contextual your comment is, the more likely you are to get a response from them. It’s like being at a party, try to be the rad person in the comment thread. Try to stand out in a positive way.
You don’t have to agonize about writing the perfect comment. If you can’t think of anything clever to say quickly, just say something supportive and throw an emoji in there. Then move on to the next person in your list. It’s important to keep a quick pace.
Why does this work?
After you like and comment on someone’s profile, they’ll get notified by Instagram. They’ll check out your Instagram profile and look at your profile pic. Maybe they’ll scan your newest 6 photos. If they like you, they’ll follow you. It’s pretty simple. It’s exactly how you do it when you decide to follow someone.
When it doesn’t work, sometimes it’s because you didn’t leave an engaging enough comment. Sometimes it’s because your newest 6 photos didn’t inspire them; they didn’t connect with your content. Don’t beat yourself up about this. You’re not gonna be a rockstar right outta the gate.
If you’re not getting people to follow you, use this as a signal to up your game. Maybe you need to get better at writing engaging comments. Are your comments fun, do you use contextual emoji?
Maybe you need to make your profile content more cohesive. How do your photos compare to your competitors and your muses? Don’t just look at photos individually. Look at the top 6 as a group. Do they convey a cohesive style?
This is one of the reasons the Mine and Grind is so useful: it pushes you to improve every day. You get strong signals indicating that either your content needs work or you need to get better at identifying who wants your content. Without the signal, you’re stuck.
One last thing to remember: the best time to Mine and Grind is right after you post a photo to your account. That increases engagement on each photo you post.
Tracking Growth and Conversions
“This week I feel good. I’m getting a lot of traction!” ← Is this you?
How do you know you’re getting traction? Feelings can be motivating, for sure. If you’re stoked about your Instagram you’re more likely to be on top of your daily Mine and Grind instead of getting distracted by other stuff in your life.
But good vibes only last so long. If you hit an emotional speed bump, feelings can turn negative. You can start to feel fearful about your prospects for growth. You’re confused about what to do next. You feel overwhelmed about how much work this is.
Instead, you want to reinforce your good feelings with tracking and measurement. Tracking and measurement will give you the clarity that prevents those feelings of fear and confusion. The reassurance of numbers will keep you from feeling overwhelmed.
First, understand that Goals lead to Growth. Your goals will give you clarity. You’ll know what you’re working towards and you can stop worrying about not doing enough. Goals give you the time to experiment, because when you hit your goal for the week, you can stop working. When you’re done with work, you can play with other parts of your promotional strategy.
Once you have manageable goals, you’ll have a better understanding of where you are now and how long it’ll take to get where you want to be.
The growth spreadsheet
I keep track of my goals and progress in my growth spreadsheet. You can get a copy of this spreadsheet here. I'm going to warn you, this is a bit of math.
You'll need to put 2 numbers in the growth spreadsheet. The first number is how many followers you have now. The second number is the weekly growth rate you’re targeting. This is how much you expect to grow each week, as a percentage.
Once you put these numbers in the growth spreadsheet, it automatically shows you the number of new followers you need to get each week for the next 6 months. These become your weekly targets. Notice how the weekly target increases a little bit each week? There are two reasons for this.
One is that when you start out, it’s OK to set smaller goals. You’re not quite a pro yet, so you’ll have some kinks to work out. By starting with modest goals that you can achieve, you give yourself room to experiment and make mistakes while still meeting a weekly goal. Meeting your weekly goal will give you confidence that you can take into the next week.
The other reason the weekly targets increase is that as you grow your account, you’ll start to benefit more from word of mouth. People talking about your account and sharing it with others will start to get you followers without you doing extra work. It’s a tiny factor at first, but it gets more significant the longer you maintain a consistent Mine and Grind.
If the targets for each week seem too high or low, change the weekly growth rate to a lower or higher percentage. As a rule of thumb, if you have less than 1,000 followers, try to shoot for a 10-20% growth rate. If your account is between 1,000 and 100,000 followers, a 7-10% growth rate is more realistic. Once you pass 100,000 followers, you’re looking at a 5-7% growth rate.
After you get a growth rate that looks good to you, look at the last week in the spreadsheet. The number there tells you how many followers you’ll have after 6 months. That’s your destination. Now you know what numbers you need to hit each week to reach your destination.
It’s not just for measuring follower growth either. You can use it to track the growth of any metrics that are important for your business. Things like email list sign ups and website visits are perfect candidates. Anything that’s a number, put it in the growth spreadsheet!
Why track growth every week?
Why do we look at weekly growth instead of monthly growth? When you’re starting out, a big reason to track your growth is to use it as a signal for whether you’re doing things that work. If what you’re doing isn’t working, you need to switch it up. By tracking your growth weekly, instead of monthly, you get 4 times as many opportunities to switch it up.
Weekly tracking also keeps your goals more manageable; it breaks them up into smaller chunks that seem achievable. You’re more likely to try to make your goals when they don’t seem so daunting. Continuously taking these small steps keeps you from falling behind.
The last huge benefit about weekly goals is that when you meet your goal for the week, you can stop and work on something else. Without a weekly goal, you never know if you’re done. Not knowing when you’re done makes you worry that you’re not done. That leads to stress and feeling overwhelmed.
You’re doing your future self a favor by saying, “I will not miss my goals.” Pick a growth rate that makes you comfortable, stick to your numbers, and get going!
Hands on examples
There is a ton of awesome stuff I wanted to put in this book. For example, I have a bunch of great tips on how to edit photos on your phone using my favorite apps. This is a huge time saver and really improves the look of your Instagram profile. But it’s way too hard to describe photo editing in a book. You really just have to see someone do it. So I made a video walkthrough for this, showing exactly how I edit photos on my phone.
Another example is the Mine and Grind. Step 2 of the Mine and Grind seems simple on paper. But when I started teaching my class I noticed a lot of my students getting stuck. So I had everyone watch me do it on my computer. As soon as I did that, it just clicked for them. There’s something about watching someone do something that shortcuts right into the “aha” part of your brain. And when they see how fast I can Mine and Grind, they really understand how it brings in so many followers.
These are just two examples of video walkthroughs that make it really easy to understand the stuff in this book. If you’ve read the book and you’re trying stuff out but it’s not clicking, the videos might be just the thing you need. Or maybe you already know that you’re more of a show me person than a tell me person. I'm just stoked that you're taking the time learn! I've taught over 200 students and I love hearing their success stories. I hope to add you to this list as well!