Instagram from Zero to Hero (10K)

Jul 10, 2020
Instagram Basics
How to grow to 10,000 followers on Instagram

Hey, it’s David. In this blog, I’d like to teach you what I’ve learned so far on my Instagram journey, while creating a total of ~2,000 posts, and growing accounts (mine, and others’) to a total of ~200,000 followers.

How I got hooked

My journey started in 2013, when I got my first iPhone, a used iPhone 4. Of course, Instagram was among the recommended apps on the App Store, so I downloaded it. For the first year or so, I was just posting stuff about myself to my family & friends to see.

As I was an Apple geek, and wanted to make some cash on the side (I was a high school student at the time), I realized that if I could create a page (brand) about iPhone cases, I may be able to sell them at an extra price, keep the profits and grow it to be a business.

Therefore, I ordered hundreds of cases from AliExpress and eBay, and created a Hungarian page called “Almahéj”, (yes, I’m from Hungary) which translates roughly as “Apple shell or peel.”

I got the cases under $1 each, some of them as low as $0.10, took some cool photos, and started posting them on IG. I priced them at $10 each, orders were placed via DM, fulfilled by hand to a local market (in person, or shipped via domestic post). In a few months, I reached 2,500 followers, and made $500 in revenue. As I wanted to go to medical school, I got scared, and closed the business before even establishing it.

But this experience got stuck in me. I knew I could sell things on InstaGrizzle.

The outside world told me to become a doctor (which I’m still chasing), but secretly, on the inside, I knew there was another world out there.

Didn’t know much about my entrepreneurial nature and mindset back then. Gosh, I was so wrong.

In 2018, I fell in love with human space exploration (again), and as a heavy content consumer, I couldn’t find a good page about travelling to Mars, so I created my own.

I’m telling you this, because I noticed a pattern. Whatever I succeeded in on Instagram, the only important thing was that I had to love it. I was passionate about both Apple products and space exploration, which leads me to my first point in growing your Instagram following:

Creating content about something you love.

Step 1: What is it that you LOVE?

The niche doesn’t matter. Will talk about niching in a second, just stay with me here.

I had some pages about things I didn’t like but saw money in it, and it didn’t work out. Instagram is all about consistency. And you can only create content consistently about something you really like doing, regardless of likes or follower numbers.

Once you find your passion, getting to 10K is “pretty easy”. Based on this study, 85.7% of the Instagram accounts are below 10,000 followers. In this article, I’d like to help you to be in the other ~14%.

Not necessarily an influencer, or a brand followed by millions. But someone with a loyal following. Someone, who seeks to serve an audience they care about. But who will that audience be?

Step 2: Find/create your niche and stick to it!

Easier said than done. There are many guides on finding your business niche, positioning, and niching down to find a sweet spot, so I’d prefer not to get into that.

I want to tell you why it is important regarding Instagram, so you can learn the mindset and apply it to whatever it is that you want to share.

Whenever you post something, the clock starts ticking. Some secret computers, algorithms, A.I. and things like that are already judging. Not you, but your content. Is it a good one or a bad one? Shall I show it to others?

Currently, these algorithms are unable to identify content quality based on the typeface you use, the image sharpness, colors, music, etc.

How do they know, then? They have tons of data. What they are looking for is to find content that keeps people on the platform for longer. The more time people spend on Instagram, the more money Instagram makes.

Instagram, being a free platform, makes a living of selling the user’s attention to advertisers. So, they will reward you for keeping your audience’s attention for longer. The reward: they show it to new users, to keep them on the platform as well.

And you can only keep your current audience engaged, if they are within a specific niche. If you can serve their interest well.

You probably wear many hats, which is really cool, but when it comes to content in your Instagram feed, think of it as a portfolio or a collection of things you have achieved, things you are proud of or things that interest you.

Only this way can you attract people of similar interest. People who care enough about what you do that they decide to want to see you in their feed on a daily basis.

People will only remember you for one thing. Make it easy for them to know what that one thing is.

If you’re a graphic designer who specializes in logos, that’s great. Make logos, and post them. Post your process of making logos. Post tips about making logos. Post logos that insipire you. You will reach new people who will follow you because they want to see logos as inspiration, or learn more about them. They will know that you are amazing at designing logos. They aren’t interested in your new bench press max.

If you want to share personal stuff, that’s cool too, but don’t share it as a post in your feed. Use stories instead. It’s a great way to form a deeper connection with those top followers who watch your stories daily.

If you want to help people grow their business, post about how they can do it. Build your audience around one thing you want to be known for. Don’t mix it up, unless they’re closely related.

I want to be known for educating people about travelling to Mars, that’s why my page is strictly about that.

UPDATE: After writing this article, I’ve got a lot of requests to teach people about Instagram, which now became my business’ main revenue source. This is the link to my Instagram account where I teach how to make good content, how to grow an audience on Instagram and how to make money. Notice how I made a separate account for a separate niche, instead of mixing it with my Mars content.

Step 3: Buy shoutouts, get featured

This is probably the most important step in getting to 10K fast. And you will be surprised by how cheap this is! In some niches, there are +100K pages selling shoutouts at prices of $10–20 per post. If they have a decent 30–50% reach (the bigger the account, the smaller this percentage is), then you can get in front of tens of thousands of people at $1–2 CPM, or even lower.

That’s ridiculously cheap.

Here’s how you do it:

  1. Convert your profile from Personal to Business or Creator (if you haven’t already), to unlock the Quick Replies feature.
  2. Make a quick reply (shortcut: ad1) with something like this: “Hey, I’d like to buy a shoutout feed post from you, that contains no product/service advertising, the main goal is to give exposure to my content, and hopefully get new followers.”
  3. Then make another one (shortcut: ad2) like: “I don’t need link in bio, and would like to get my account name in the first line with a text similar to this: Great post from @[YourIGHandle], follow them for more useful content about [NICHE HERE].”
  4. Then a third one (shortcut: ad3): “What would be your price for a shoutout like this one?”
  5. Make sure your niche is clear to any new visitor, and you make a good first impression: Good profile picture, clear and compelling bio, at least 10 good looking, valuable, and recent posts.

Once that’s done you’re ready to buy shoutouts:

  1. DM all the big pages you can find in your niche. These can be fanpages, meme pages, businesses, influencers, tutorial pages, anything. There are dozens.
  2. Send the ad1, ad2, ad3 text in this order. For a seller, this feels more like a genuine person, rather than a premade text or bot, thus you can get higher response rates. Expect 5–10% response rates.
  3. You can do the step above in around 20 seconds, add the time it takes to find the next page, and you can send 15 requests in 5–10 minutes. Above a certain amount messages, Instagram blocks you from sending more new DMs, but don’t worry, that only lasts for an hour, and I’ve met that limit hundreds of times with no flags or bans. Do this at your own risk though, it may be safer to just send 10 DMs / hour. (Pro-tip: Get an intern or VA to do this, but not the next step.)
  4. Once you get a response, negotiate the price down. Remember, most of these pages make a living from selling ads. They are better off promoting you than not promoting. They need the money. Emphasize, you’re not advertising anything, you’re not selling anything, and this post will be valuable for their audience too, probably bring them followers as well.
  5. If you’re confident, you can negotiate on a bulk price, especially if you know that the page has a high quality audience.
  6. If you say “education”, they might want to go for doing it for free, but I’ve experienced that it’s much better to send them money so you can keep them accountable, rather than them doing you a favor with no deadline, etc.
  7. Once they give you their PayPal, send them the requested money immediately, and ask for confirmation that they got it.
  8. Pay as Goods/Services, but if they insist on Friends/Family, pay that way. You may get scammed both ways, but it’s rare, never happened to me, and I’ve purchased a lot of shoutouts. You may open a dispute if you pay as G/S, but it’s not worth the hassle in my opinion if we’re talking about a few bucks.
  9. Send your post to them inside DM, with the full caption (having that first line in it) and hashtags (read below). Write the recommendation so it resonates with their audience.
  10. Only buy a maximum of one shoutout per day, and monitor results in a Google Sheet, so you know which page brings the best results for your money.

You should send a post that performed well on your account, but this is not a guarantee that it will perform well on theirs too. Try to tailor your post so it fits their posting style, but keep your branding elements. Try to give as much value as possible, and have a call to action in the post. If you’re sending a carousel post, the CTA can be on the last slide.

Test different posts with many advertisers. Every niche is different, and you have to find what works for you and your business. This technique is so important and impactful in early growth that if you could only do one thing, this is what I would recommend.

When I started my space exploration adventure on Instagram, I skipped this first step by buying a page with 18K followers for $150 (ridiculous bargain). My brother recommended to buy an account, and this idea did not disappoint! There were many inactives and growth was slow, so I deleted around 6K followers with SpamGuard, rebranded the page (FTL-Science) and it has been growing 200–300 followers/day every since. It’s at 115K at the time of writing this article.

When FTL was at around 20–30K, I started a brand new, more niche account about travelling to Mars. I created Marstronauts, and uploaded a video to it, and shared it on my FTL-Science page. I got over 1,000 followers in the first day, and via self-promoting my other account, I transferred a total of around 4–5,000 to the new page. The best thing is that these are the most engaging people from that page, so they keep engaging with the Mars content as well.

This is basically a technique to lure the most engaging followers from a page to yours.

I’ve purchased other shoutouts and collaborated with other accounts in the outer space niche with similar results. You can expect 100s, maybe 1,000s of follows after a single post, if the post is good, and your page is worth following to the end user.

Step 4: Research your hashtags

This is a big one for sustained growth, and probably deserves it’s own article. If you’re under 10K, and you’re still figuring out your content, you should focus on finding good hashtags that work for you.

Hashtags are good for two things:

  1. Get into the top posts, so people discover you if they follow the tag or search for it.
  2. Get into the explore page, after you ranked for tags, as tags can increase your reach and net engagement, telling the IG algorithm that this post must be pretty good.

Here’s a short version of how I do hashtag research:

  1. I collect hashtags based on similar topics and number of posts they have been used on. (You can search them on Instagram or use a web app such as iqhashtags.com)
  2. I put them in a google spreadsheet, and organize them in descending order. One column for one topic.
  3. When I post, I pick hashtags from the adequate column. The smaller the audience size, the smaller the hashtags I use.
  4. For starters, I recommend to use 20 small hashtags (10K–300K posts), and 10 medium hashtags (300K–1M posts).

You will have to do some testing to find the tags that work for you, as your pages have different sizes. Just don’t sweat this, focus more on creating meaningful stuff for your audience. Go make a ruckus!

Once you find a set that’s working, just stick to it, put it on text replacement in your phone’s keyboard settings, and focus on improving your content.

For those of you, who want to dive deeper into hashtag research, I’m going to write a detailed guide in the future.

As a small account, you will find it difficult to get into the top 9 posts of high-traffic hashtags, but if you do, you hit paydirt. (You can’t see the top 9 posts from mobile, but you can from your computer.)

As a big account, low-traffic tags will not bring you more results, so you should use less of those.

As your page grows, you might want to experiment with using more high-traffic and less low-traffic tags.

I will expand on the philosophy and nuances about this in a separate article.

Step 5: Reply to everything

Can’t emphasize this enough! It’s called SOCIAL media for a reason. Just think about it. If you don’t reply to the comments and DMs, that’s pretty much like inviting your friends for Thanksgiving, serving the food, and then leaving the house, or going upstairs to watch TV or YouTube videos.

If your goal is to build an audience, then engaging with the audience you already have is just as important as finding new people.

Also, it’s a great feeling for people when you reply to them. Believe it or not, social media is a pretty lonely place. People browse Instagram mostly when they’re alone. That rush of dopamine they get when you like their comment and respond to it is what keeps them coming back for more. That’s how dopamine works, and that’s how Attention Engineers create an addictive platform that keeps us coming back for more and more. Although, I hate how addictive these platforms are, I try to use them to my advantage, without hurting my audience. In the end, it’s good if they keep coming back for more knowledge, experience and motivation.

As a result of always replying, you will have your first loyal follower pretty soon. Then you’ll have two. And then three. And five. And so on and so forth. People will engage in the comment section only if they know they have a chance to get your attention, and your reply.

And while being small, this is a competitive advantage against the big guys. They don’t have time to respond to hundreds and thousands of comments, every day. Here’s a post I made that got almost 1k comments. I tried to reply to as many comments as possbile but it would’ve taken hours to reply to all. Big pages can hardly even read through all the comments.

But you can. And this is a great opportunity to build a strong relationship with your community. Drip-by-drip, day-by-day, you are leaving your 2 cents in the comment section. I promise you, it is the best investment.

To encourage comments, make sure you ask something at the end of the post, so they have something to reply to. Ask something you’re genuinely interested in. Then listen.

After knowing how your audience thinks about a certain topic, you’ll be able to create posts that generate some controversy or answer their biggest questions. After reading and replying to thousands of comments about Mars, I know exactly what interests my audience, and what their concerns are.

This is immensely powerful when creating new content, whether it’s an article, a YouTube video, a podcast, or just an IG carousel.

Make sure you understand your tribe. Listening and replying is where you start.

Step 6: Post consistently

Once you have the train going, don’t stop. Make sure you show up every day for the people you seek to serve. As a one person team, this may be challenging, so make sure you use a scheduling app to keep at least a few days ahead with your content.

I use Buffer, but if you don’t like that, I can also recommend SproutSocial as a great option. Will write a comparison on these later on.

There have been rumors that automated posting (posting via the API from these platforms) may hurt reach, but I haven’t experienced anything about that, so I just use a posting style that’s convenient for me. As of now, I automatically post single image posts and videos via the API, but can’t post carousels, IGTV posts and stories, so I use reminders for those.

Those can only be scheduled and sent to your phone with a reminder, which triggers at the scheduled time. When you click a notification like that, the app downloads the content to your phone, and copies the caption to the clipboard. It then prompts you to open Instagram, and you can put in your images, paste the copy, and post.

As a general rule of thumb, I recommend to post at least twice a day. That’s good to start with. I have tested many posting frequencies, and found that even at 4 posts/day, I got a 4x increase in profile visits relative to 1 post/day. I will try posting even more and see what works. Test what works for you, monitor the built-in analytics (which you have access to if you converted to a Business or Creator profile), and find your sweet spot.

By posting more often, you will get less engagement per post, but more engagement per day. It’s up to you to choose which one is more important to your business, and how much content you can put out.

But don’t go under 1 post/day. Keep the community engaged, and your creator skills in use. Show up for the audience you seek to serve.

Use Stories in a low-budget way to document what you do, or engage with your community. If you put your finger behind the camera, you can quickly take a black picture and type your question to it with some stickers. There are many ways to engage with your community using Stories, and that is also beyond the scope of this article.

Ending thoughts

I feel like there is much more to this platform than what I could explain in one Medium article. I could’ve wrote one guide that takes hours to read contains everything and is completely overwhelming, but I feel like having links to dive deeper into topics later on is a better way to go.

Your task now is to implement my tips to get to 10K.

To sum up, here’s what you need to do: Find your niche, make an appealing profile, create valuable content, then buy shoutouts and engage with your audience, and you’ll hit 10K sooner than you think.

Also, it’s easier than it sounds. I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly.

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