5 tactics I used to get 15K Instagram followers in two months

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No, my Instagram doesn’t contain cute babies, adorable puppies, memes, or videos that ‘restore your faith in humanity’.

A few months ago I started a side project to build a baking-related app. Initially, I created the Instagram account to gather followers while I was building the app. I ended up canning the app idea but the Instagram has received really positive feedback from day one. I ran ads to get more traffic, but running ads alone won’t get you the same results if your content sucks.

I’m about to ‘kill’ my Instagram (or to be exact, just let it dormant and die slowly) but I want to document and share my learning so other people can benefit from it.

Here are the five tactics I employed to grow my Instagram followers from zero to 15K in two months.

  1. Create your unique selling point
  2. Turn your followers into your advocates
  3. Advertise in cheaper regions first
  4. Build relationships with fellow bloggers/influencers
  5. Run a giveaway

The least obvious one is #3 so you can jump straight there if you’ve heard the rest. I will also let you know the one tactic that I tried but didn’t bring a good result; instead, it might even get you suspended by Instagram.

Let’s dive right in.

Create your unique selling point

This has been said too often, but it really is the most important thing. Sadly, we live in a time where human attention is the most valuable commodity, and you’re fighting to get a fraction of it. In 2020, you can’t get a ton of Instagram followers just by posting glossy pictures of yourself/your food/your home. You need something that sets you apart.

As there are so many bloggers sharing baking recipes, I focused on sharing baking tips in infographic format.

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An example of my baking tip infographic

Whatever field you’re in: food, travel, wedding, interior, vegan, nutrition, etc, you can always find a niche within that field.

Here are the steps you can follow to find your niche:

  1. Check out the Instagram account and blog of the most popular accounts in your field.
  2. Look at what they share. Look at the comment section, and see what kind of questions their followers ask. Even better, look at the unanswered questions. They are probably the questions people are most curious about, but these popular accounts can’t be bothered to answer.
  3. Create an Instagram account that focuses on those gaps.

Don’t try to compete directly with the most popular accounts, as you’re likely to lose anyway. See where their gaps are and fill them.

After you define your unique selling point, goes the second step:

Make sure that you make it clear through your bio.

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Can you tell the difference between these two statements?

A. Baking science made simple

B. Your #1 place to learn baking. High-quality resources to help you bake better.

Statement A, which was my bio for a while, focused on what I do.

Statement B focused on the value I bring to my audience.

But remember that it’s not just about the statement on your bio, it’s about your every single piece of content. This is the hardest part.

Each post must consistently bring the value you promise.

Here’s an annoying fact about Instagram (it’s not Instagram’s fault though, I do it on my personal account too) — every time you post something, your post will get served to your followers. There will always be a small fraction of your followers who see that post, realize that they don’t give a damn about what you post, and decide to unfollow you.

If your post is not valuable enough, you’ll get a negative follower growth each day.

Another way to ensure growth is by turning your followers into your advocates, which brings us to the next point.

Turn your followers into your advocates

In the Instagram world, advocation can take several shapes:

  • People tagging their friends on your posts
  • People sharing your posts on their Stories
  • People sharing your Stories through Direct Messages.

In the business world, customer advocation or referral is the ultimate goal. Customer advocation is so powerful for many reasons:

  1. People believe their friends more than ads. This is quite obvious. When your friend recommends something, unless they’re a really bad friend, you tend to believe them!
  2. Customer referral is cheaper than other marketing costs. Uber or Airbnb can afford to give you a $10–20 reward to recommend your friends because their other marketing tactics cost more.
  3. Advocation or referral is the highest level of engagement. When you have somebody referring your product/service (especially when it’s a genuine endorsement), it means that they’re very happy with what you provide, and they’re likely to stick around.

Why do you want that? Because it’s free marketing for you.

When your followers start telling their friends about you, you know you’re onto something.

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The power of referral — you get new customers for free.

If you want to get to customer advocation, at the very least you have to have good content. Good content brings people to think, “Oh, that’s cool.”

When you write your own content, you often have a blind spot, so the way you can tell whether your last post is good enough is by listening to your followers. Did they thank you for sharing that post? Did they give you praise?

The numbers don’t matter in the beginning, even one or two followers, DMs, or comments is enough. If nobody gives you a meaningful comment on your post, that’s a bad sign.

Your followers won’t bother telling you if your content is bad. Their silence says it.

Another sign that your content is good is when people bookmark your posts. I rarely cared about the number of likes I got, but I always checked the number of bookmarks.

If you’ve got lots of bookmarks, meaningful comments, and DMs full of thanks, praises, and more questions, that’s good. You’re on the right track. Now you need to upgrade your content to be damn good.

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Create those “OMG” moments

After you’ve written your damn good content, you can also encourage people to share it by saying things like:

  • “Tag your friends who need to see this.”
  • “If you’re enjoying this post, please share this with your friends!”

Advertise in the cheaper region first

This is a cheeky tactic that I discovered myself, and it’s not in any of the marketing books or articles.

People have a tendency to conform. A long queue in a coffee shop makes you think, “Oh, the coffee must be good.” A Netflix recommendation with “#3 in the US today” label makes you more likely to watch it. As Daniel Kahneman said in his Nobel-prize-winning book, the human brain is lazy — so when other people have deemed something as worth their time/money, you tend to follow (until proven otherwise).

If you come across two Instagram accounts sharing nutrition tips with 300 followers and 9,000 followers, all things being equal, you will assume the second one is more credible.

With that realization in mind, I decided that I would start advertising in the cheaper region first. After running some experiments with Facebook ads, I figured out that the cost per click (CPC) in Asia is 10x cheaper than in the US or the UK. With only a $10 daily budget, I gained more than 1,000 followers/day.

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My campaign result

My tactic was to advertise in Asia until I reach 10K followers, and then switch the target audience to the UK/US.

One thing to note here is running ads is completely different from buying followers. Some people who pride themselves on growing their accounts organically tend to bundle the two together.

Buying followers is against Instagram policy. The followers mainly consist of fake/bot accounts that can get slashed overnight when the Instagram Spam team fires their algorithm out. As they’re fake accounts, they also won’t interact or engage with your content at all.

Running ads is simply putting your content in front of the eyes of your target audience, but they haven’t heard about you.

When you run ads to gain followers, the people who see your ads will have to do two conscious actions: 1. To click on your ads and 2. To hit that ‘Follow’ button. I’d argue that the quality of the followers you get from ads is higher than the ones you get from running a giveaway.

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If your content is damn good, why do you need to run ads?

Well, because Instagram is not a great platform to get discovered. People can search on Google “how to make chewy cookies”, and if your article/recipe is high quality and favored by the search engine, you can get discovered that way.

People can’t search on Instagram.

You might be producing the highest quality of content and use all the hashtags, yet you still won’t get discovered.

I personally value the time I spend to produce content too much to not run ads. If I spend 1–2 hours writing content every day, and let’s say my hourly wage is $50, won’t I spend $10 promoting it?

If you’re thinking to run ads to gain Instagram followers, make sure you don’t do the same mistake I did. Don’t run it from Instagram — use Facebook Ads Manager but put Instagram as the placement. I know Facebook Ads Manager interface can be confusing so I put the step-by-step with screenshots here.

Build relationships with fellow bloggers/influencers

They are called influencers for a reason. If you can get them to endorse you for free, it’s a huge win for you. I sometimes suddenly got a flood of followers — and that only happened when somebody with a large number of followers recommended me on their Stories.

Influencers usually get paid to endorse a product, so why would they want to endorse you for free?

They’d do it if they like you.

Yeah, the most basic social interaction principle applies here. If people like you, they’ll want to do things for you. This is a long-term effort, not something you can whip up with one or two messages.

Some tips on building relationships:

  • Do something for them first
    Again, basic social interaction principle. When people are nice to you, you tend to be nice to them. Praise their content, ask questions, share their posts on your Stories, etc. Obviously don’t overdo it or you might come across as a creep.
  • Don’t compete directly with them
    You’ll get better luck in getting their endorsement if you’re not their direct competitor. The best influencers to befriend are the ones whose contents complement yours.
  • Be genuine and vulnerable
    I can’t overemphasize this. Nobody likes a brown-noser. Be your authentic self, and don’t be afraid to look vulnerable. You can say something like, “I’m new to blogging and I’d love to learn from you. Would you mind sharing how you xxxx?”

Building relationships is a long-term effort, so don’t just do it for a quick result.

Run a giveaway

This is one of the most popular tactics to grow your social media followers. When done right, it can be cheaper than running ads. Harry from MarketingExamples.com shared a case study of Molly-Mae whose £8K ($10,300) giveaway brought her 1 million new followers.

I tried running a giveaway twice, one is massively more successful than the other. The first one I did was when I had about 500 followers, so very few people entered and I didn’t get a good return on investment (ROI).

Don’t repeat my mistake — calculate your ROI before you run your giveaway.

Let’s say we have these assumptions:

5% of your followers will join the giveaway.

Half of them will bring 1 new follower.

If you have 5,000 followers, this giveaway will bring roughly 125 new followers. If you use a $100 gift, it means it’s $0.8/follower.

*For quick reference, when running ads in the UK/US my cost per follower was $0.1–0.2.

There’s another downside of running a giveaway: the genuineness of your followers.

When you run a giveaway, the followers you gain might unfollow you after a while, as they might not be your actual target audience.

They might be quiz-hunters or people who were just helping their friends to satisfy your giveaway conditions!

My second giveaway was when I had 15K followers, and I didn’t pay for the gifts. I was partnering with Masterclass, a bakeware brand, who provided three packages of bakewares worth around $100 each. I was quite surprised by how easily they agreed to partner with me.

This giveaway got me 600 followers and costed me nothing

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I’ve now realized that it’s much easier to ask for merchandise or products to brand, rather than for money e.g to do a sponsored post.

Three tips on running a successful giveaway:

  1. Don’t do it too early. Wait until you have enough followers to justify the cost.
  2. Don’t use #giveaway-related hashtags as you will only attract quiz-hunters who are not actually your target audience.
  3. Try to get sponsors for the gifts. Approach brands via Direct Messages — 3 out of 10 brands I messaged replied to me, which wasn’t too bad!

The one tactic that got me suspended by Instagram

I did it in my early days when I was still experimenting. I used apps that enable you to bulk-comment on people’s posts. There are a lot of apps that do this, some of them are automatically commenting on behalf of you, which is a complete violation of Instagram policy. I used Combin, which is not fully automated. You still choose the posts you want to comment on, and you still type the comments, but you can do it in bulk.

However, the repetitive multiple comments posted in a short period of time were caught by Instagram and my account was suspended from commenting and posting for a day or two. It happened 2–3 times, enough to scare me and stop it completely.

In fairness, commenting on people’s posts is quite an effective way to gain followers when your content is damn good. Most people followed me instantly and continuously engaged until today. But I still don’t see it as an efficient tactic, as doing it manually takes a lot of time.

If you want to do this tactic, I can give you some tips:

  • Ask a question so they’re more likely to engage with your comment. Don’t just comment with emojis 😍 or generic praises. For example, when commenting on uncut sourdough pictures I would ask “How are the crumbs?”
  • Pace it. I don’t know the exact threshold, but commenting 25 times in 2 hours definitely got me suspended the first time, and on the second time I got suspended only after 5–10 comments.
  • Do not ever use apps that automatically comment on your behalf. You won’t let a stranger drive your car, will you?

I didn’t plan this article to be this long so I’ll stop now.

I was also going to write about why I decided to stop using Instagram as my main platform — one of them was frustration over Instagram’s algorithm. But I’ll save it for another article!

Here’s the summary in case you want to bookmark it!

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