If you’ve been waiting to give Instagram a try for your business, now is the perfect opportunity to act. On it’s own, the platform boasts over 600 million users and the highest engagement rates among all social networks. If Facebook wasn’t their parent company, it would be fair to say that they should watch out!

As with any social platform, growing a large following can be time and energy consuming. As a result, it’s easy to understand how individuals and businesses are tempted to buy followers to boost vanity metrics. But buying followers ultimately results in a loss of money and credibility if you’re found out.

Creating an account that attracts authentic followers is a much better strategy, since they’ll be more qualified as potential customers. After all, fake followers will never be your customers. It’s better to have a small engaged following rather than a large number of people following you that don’t really care about your brand.

OK, so if you’re not supposed to buy followers, and organic Instagram growth takes a fair amount of time to be effective, what is it that you can do that won’t be frowned upon, and better yet, will actually work?

Start small, get things right, then push out your profile to the world. The following pieces can help you to speed up Instagram growth—without buying followers.

Activate Your Business Profile or Use an Analytics Tool

Instagram introduced Business accounts in May 2016, and they’ve been a huge help to the 5 million businesses already on Instagram. An Instagram Business account is decidedly different than a regular Instagram account in that it allows a business to:

  • Access analytics data, including insights for how posts are performing, and what followers like
  • Add an address, phone number, and website
  • Create Instagram ads
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A potential caveat: an Instagram Business profile can only be activated if you have a Facebook page. If that’s the one thing getting in your way of using it, it might be useful to create a Facebook page for your business, even if you don’t plan to update it (though at the bare minimum, you could push over a copy of your Instagram content using a scheduling tool like Sprout Social).

Another major caveat centers around the concept of a business versus an individual account. On Facebook, the reach of a page compared to the reach of a friend is completely different, with the business getting the short end of the stick. Since Facebook owns Instagram, and they share many of the same features, it’s fair to assume that switching to a business profile on Instagram could restrict reach, and have other implications as far as how Instagram users respond to the posts of a business versus an individual.

As of this writing, there haven’t been any far-reaching experiments or data that shows the potential negative implications of switching to an Instagram Business account. You’ll have to decide for yourself and your company if it’s worth taking the risk.

Of course, focusing on the more positive benefits of switching, an Instagram business profile can provide detailed analytics data. This includes a snapshot of what your followers like and dislike in your posts, best times to post and how many have seen your post. It also offers data on your followers, including demographics like age, gender and location. With all this information at your fingertips, there should be no reason for posts to perform poorly over the long run.

If you’re still on the fence about switching, consider instead using Sprout’s social media analytics tools to glean information from your Instagram interactions. For reference, here’s a comparison of what Sprout Social’s analytics can offer, what Instagram’s Business profile analytics can offer, and some of the features they share:

instagram growth

Post Consistently on Instagram

Ready for something a little less involved than deciding whether or not to make a permanent profile change?

Regardless of the social platform you’re trying to grow (social media, blogging, etc.), the number one rule for building an audience is demonstrating a level of consistency. For Instagram specifically, this means posting at least once per day. Unlike Facebook or LinkedIn, Instagram welcomes a larger quantity of posts.

To get more specific, according to CoSchedule, 1-2 posts per day are okay, with the best times to post being at 8-9am and 2am in your local time zone. That said, there is no global average found for the optimum number of posts per day because every brand (and audience!) is different. For best results, run your own experiments and interpret results to refine your strategy.

Brandishing their ties to Facebook, Instagram now operates off an algorithm to display posts instead of the chronological news feed of the past. Consistency is a factor in ranking on that algorithm, and getting in front of your followers. So make sure that if you take any Instagram growth advice from this article, you focus on consistency.

To make it easier to post consistently, you can schedule some Instagram posts ahead of time with Sprout. That way, you always have a steady stream of content to share.

instagram scheduling publishing calendar view

Post Beautiful Instagram Photos

Like Pinterest, Instagram is a very visual platform and the brands that realize and embrace this fact are among the top performers.

Since “post good photos” isn’t really an actionable strategy, try these tips on for size:

  • Create a consistent (there’s that word, again!) theme or mood so that your whole feed has a cohesive look or feel
  • If you can’t commit to just one theme or mood, at least make sure that your posts make use of similar filters. This will help your feed retain a cohesive look, even if you’re posting about different things.
  • Prepare your content ahead of when you need it. Knowing what’s queued up for posting will help you to keep with the desired look and feel of your feed. Use Sprout’s Instagram scheduling tool to plan out your content in advance.
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Instagram foodie @bestfoodalex understands the importance of sticking to a theme, which is how he was able to organically grow an engaged group of followers to over 21k.

Create Lifestyle Content on Instagram

Creating a level of consistency with regards to your posting and visual assets is a great first step for Instagram growth. Once you’ve got that straightened out, you’ll want to take your content to the next level. After all, your target audience isn’t going to care about consistency and your visual assets if they can’t relate to them.

One common trend for brands is to create lifestyle posts, especially if you’re selling a product. A lifestyle post is one that depicts the lifestyle behind a brand, and sells the lifestyle to your audience. A focus on lifestyle content is the perfect strategy for Instagram growth, as it encompasses the essence of content and participation on the platform. If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “Doin’ it for the ‘gram”, then you know exactly what this means.

The nature of Instagram, and social media in general, is that you’re creating a dialog with your customers, and building the relationship—not going directly for a hard sell like a door-to-door salesman. Influencer marketing agency Mattr collected data on Nike and Adidas’ social efforts. Nike devoted 60% of their posts to lifestyle content, while Adidas had a more conservative 32%. As a result, Nike had 8x more social interaction than Adidas.

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BarkBox has invested a lot of their company’s time, energy, and promotional budget into creating fun lifestyle content for their website and social platforms. Their Dog Mom Rap is funny and cute, and has helped their content achieve viral status across numerous social platforms.

Hashtag Without Abandon

Hashtags, which were initially introduced on Twitter, have quickly gained popularity and traction as a way to reach past your existing Instagram followers. Hashtags are used to categorize content, make it discoverable and are also used to increase engagement.

There are essentially 2 different kinds of hashtags:

  • Branded hashtags, which are created specifically with your company in mind. Fun fact: 70% of hashtags are branded. You can use these to encourage (and find) user generated content, as well as analyze your efforts.
  • Community hashtags, which are general hashtags that are widely used, and include things like: #tbt, #instafood, #throwback and #ootd.

The ideal Instagram growth strategy includes a mix of both branded and community hashtags. In total, Instagram allows you to enter up to 30 per post. According to a study by TrackMaven, interactions are highest for content with 11 hashtags, but there’s little backlash in maxing out the total to the full 30 per post.

To be most effective with your Instagram growth plan, you’ll need to make sure that you’re using the most relevant hashtags to reach your target audience. This simple process can give you the perfect place to start:

  • Find relevant hashtags. When you search for one, Instagram autofills and gives suggestions.
  • Click on one of the community hashtags you intend to use to see other photos. Look through those photos to find similar hashtags you should be using.
  • Use a third party hashtag tool like Hashtagify, Websta or Focalmark to do additional research.
  • Look through your competitor’s posts. Sprout Social’s Instagram Competitors Report makes this easy.

Hashtag Do’s & Don’ts

Once you’ve found the perfect Instagram hashtags, you’re still not done. Here are some quick tips for what to do, and what not to do, as far as hashtag use on Instagram:

  • Do match your photo to the hashtag you plan on using
  • Do jump on trending topics, like National Days, when appropriate (don’t force it, though)
  • Do vary hashtag use on a regular basis
  • Do use hashtags with low competition. Popular hashtags like #ootd or #travel tend to have more posts, so the content you post might get buried in a pile of incoming photos. Low competition hashtags may be a more specific version of these common options. For example, something like #travelBC offers the perfect opportunity to post travel photos taken in Canada, and is more specific and useful than the general #travel hashtag.
  • Do put the bulk of your hashtags in the comments section, not directly in the post’s description
  • Don’t use hashtags that are too long
  • Don’t have more hashtags than text in a caption
  • #Don’t #hashtag #every #word
instagram growth

Chicago fashion blogger Allie Barke is a great example to look to as far as the ideal use of hashtags.

Encourage User-Generated Content

User-generated content (UGC) simply refers to content created by your followers. These posts might directly tag your account, or can be found using a branded hashtag.

The benefits of using UGC in your Instagram growth strategy are numerous, and include:

  • Increased engagement. ComScore found that engagement increased 28% when UGC was used in company product videos. When engagement increases, so do followers and sales.
  • More social sharing. Customers are twice as likely to share UGC that was posted on a business page.
  • Builds trust, and subsequently, a community. According to Nielsen, 92% of people trust UGC more than traditional advertising. And according to Adweek, 35% of millennials find UGC more memorable than traditional media.
  • Provides insights on what consumers are really like. After interacting with your audience, you get a feel for what they are like outside of the analytics Instagram can provide.
  • Less work for the content team. And a lifesaver if you’re in a pinch!

UGC has cross-platform implications, as well. For example, Kissmetrics found that of the top 20 brands in the world, 25% of their search results are linked to UGC.

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Kimpton Hotels make their guests the stars of their Instagram account. They’ve used their UGC to not only increase social followers, but hotel bookings as well!

Run Instagram Contests & Offer Exclusive Promotions

An easy way to get followers (and user-generated content) is to hold contests and promotions to offer prizes or discounts. Structured well, these contests can encourage followers to submit UGC that can then be used for other Instagram growth efforts. Check out our Instagram contests article to get some ideas. For best results, hold contests once a month or less. You don’t want to risk this special perk of following your brand getting too old, too soon.

Tap Into an Existing Audience

Once you’re happy with your Instagram efforts, don’t forget to cross promote your account on all of your other social media channels, website and email newsletter. This can be as simple as letting people know you have a new account. Though Instagram allows you to share posts on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Foursquare, don’t be tempted to take any shortcuts with your social media marketing efforts. Each platform has its own special formatting, photo sizes and unofficial rules for best results.

Besides taking advantage of your existing audiences on other platforms, consider also partnering with other brands. These brands may be companies that you’ve worked with before, or influencers who have a target audience similar to yours. Make sure to build up these relationships before you need them. Spend time showing love to your followers by interacting with them and commenting or liking their photos.

How to Speed Up Instagram Growth Without Buying Followers

Creating a winning Instagram growth strategy is no easy feat. With the amount of time and effort that goes into creating an awesome Instagram account, it’s easy to understand why some would rather take shortcuts, like buying followers. But don’t let yourself be tempted by the dark side, as those followers ultimately do nothing for your company’s bottom line.

Instead, focus on organic growth and even paid media strategies. You may be surprised by how quickly they result in a heavily-trafficked and followed Instagram profile.

What tips would you add to this list of Instagram growth strategies? We’d love to hear your thoughts! Tweet us @SproutSocial.