How to Build Your Instagram Following


My first post on @downtownannapolis in February of 2015. 

I get asked for social media tips on the regular. Everyone wants to know how it's done, and what the special formula is.

I started @downtownannapolis over two years ago, and now have about 18.5K followers. Not bad for a small town/young lady working out of her bedroom- with no tax dollars or financial resources.

There are many blog posts and marketing books devoted to this subject, but I thought I'd share some advice and a bit more about my story.

Without further ado...this post is very long as is! 

Work with human nature- NOT against it.

I'm very intuitive so this comes effortlessly to me. It doesn't even seem like it needs to be said.

Some things just WON'T work because they go against nature. 

For example, humans are pretty narcissistic. Yes, we think of others but we're also thinking about ourselves. If you want a following, you can't exactly be The Truman Show (unless you're a Kardashian/Jenner.)

You need to create content that your audience wants. Otherwise, no one will care and no one will follow.

This can be anything- vulnerable posts that help someone feel less alone, reviews of products, industry-specific advice, beautiful photographs that take your breath away, healthy recipes using seasonal vegetables... etc. Come up with some basic framework for your brand.

Your personality (and nothing else) is a hard sell. It's helpful to be somewhat relatable and accessible, but it can't only be about you.

I sometimes create content that may be more for me than for my audience. It keeps me going and inspired. But then I post something that I feel is more "on-brand." I never abandon my brand, even as it evolves.

Know your strengths.

We all have something that makes us unique. Yes- all of us. Even if you think you're just completely normal, your normalcy has a story or charm to it. That's the entire premise of The Simpsons. Or The Lego Movie. 

Work on strengthening your strengths. Don't focus on strengthening your weaknesses.

This runs counter to SO MUCH advice in pop culture- which is often about strengthening your weak points.

For example, if you're terrible at public speaking, join a Toastmasters group!

I think there's something wonderful about conquering your fears, but at the same time, what if you're a skilled artist and you're ignoring your talents to strengthen something that doesn't come naturally to you?

If you're great at baseball and love it (let's say an 8/10) and terrible at lacrosse and hate it (let's say a 5/10), are you going to devote your entire life to becoming a 7/10 in lacrosse instead of becoming a 9.5/10 in baseball? 

No- that would be the dumbest thing ever. It doesn't make SENSE.

I'm pretty practically natured and find that common sense is in low supply these days. Start with what you're good at. Work on what you're bad at here and there (unless it's a huge problem that's really affecting your happiness and relationships.) It's okay to be bad at things! And your weaknesses start to fall away as your confidence builds.

My strengths are:

1) The ability to find common ground with almost anyone. I was always a bit of a floater and felt lonely at times when I was younger. It felt like I had no real "group"- even if I always had close friends. 

I could get along with nerds, and jocks, and shallow people, and deep people, and rich people, and poor people, and conservative people, and liberal people. Identity politics are the most confusing thing ever for me, because it's not a framework I've ever really used.

I look for humor and a basic goodness, and that's that.

This helps me act as a bridge. My platforms help me connect with all sorts of people. 

2) A basic orientation towards the visual and aesthetic. Again, this is pretty natural. My eye was trained after years of fashion in NYC, but I didn't start off at zero. I've always been artistic, and was painting and designing dream gardens and clothing ever since I was a little girl.

Instagram is pretty visual, so you do need to consider that. But you can create interesting captions if you're more of a writer than a photographer.

3) Intuition. I can sense when something is shifting and connect the dots quickly. I can see the big picture almost immediately. I think about the future when I'm making daily decisions, and how one choice may affect my life a year from now.

I'm very in tune with this because it feels like a superpower. I think a lot of people have this trait but don't listen to their own gut.

4) Humor. When in doubt, make people laugh. 

5) Vulnerability. I have a lot of heart. I'm pretty sensitive and feel things deeply. I don't mean I'm emotionally reactive (I've worked on this a lot over the years), just... I notice things. 

If a siren is going off nearby, I can't concentrate. If a tag is itchy, I feel it all day. I love textures, and colors, and fabrics. I'm very tactile and have a sensual nature.

I'm inspired a lot. I want people to connect with me. I go down rabbit holes. I look for the truth, no matter how painful. I'm curious. I'm extremely loyal.

These aren't things I hide. I don't really believe in "faking it 'til you make it."

I get not wanting to LEAD with weaknesses (ugh, duh) but I don't think vulnerability makes you weak. 

Things I'm NOT great at:

1) Putting myself out there. 

2) Asking for money for my hard work.

3) Time management. Plus I'm a late-bloomer. I feel like I'm a bit behind in a lot of categories.

4) Writing and creating content in a prolific manner. I'd rather produce less but spend more time on it.

5) Charming large groups of people- I'm better one-on-one.

6) Drinking. After two drinks, I just feel sleepy. 

7) Anything spatial. I have to flip maps around to the proper direction to read them.

8) Anything auditory. I don't have special musical talents and I struggle with books on tape, podcasts, etc. I had to relearn every college lecture alone with my textbook because I couldn't learn by listening. I had to see the words written down. UNLESS someone is telling a really riveting or emotional story- then I'm all ears. 

And so on... the list is endless, really. =-)

My strengths help buffer out some of the weaknesses. Because people relate to what I say or post, I get a lot of people messaging me first, or pitching things first.

So, while I've worked on putting myself out there (because it's necessary), I don't fixate on it. I fixate on what I'm good at.

Be disciplined.

For the first year, I spent 45 minutes every single morning and every single night working on growing my account. 

Liking hashtags and geotags. Commenting on posts. Sending messages to people. Organizing giveaways. 

There are bots that do some of this for you, but I did it by hand. You can end up "liking" some off-color posts if you're only relying on hashtags!

There's no shortcut- you have to put the time in. Figure out a schedule that is realistic for you- something you can maintain over time.

Leverage and create synergy.

You want everything to start to gel. To use your time, effort, and finances to maximum effect. You want to create flow and have all your work feel connected. 

Plot out your strategy- you want all of your social media and website efforts to help build the entirety of your brand.

Right now I'm at a stage where I want to start selling products (prints of original art), taking on partnerships and writing jobs, and expanding into the DMV (while keeping my focus on Annapolis.) All of that will further build my following. 

Plus, it's so much more creative and interesting. 

I probably couldn't do any of this when I had only a few hundred followers. No one would pay attention. But I was working on building my platform to get to this point.

Maybe my next goal will be to connect with other coastal towns on the East Coast.

As soon as one goal is hit, you need another one. That's just how it is. Otherwise, you end up suffering from "peaked with an Olympics gold medal at 16" syndrome. 

Be polite.

Don't feed the trolls. - Plato

Maybe years of retail have made me very relaxed when it comes to people being annoying. Sometimes people will just be rude, and there's nothing you can do about it. 

If someone says something snarky, you don't need to escalate it. Unless that's your brand.

Just hear people out, say thank you, and respond to your comments and messages when you can. I avoid sarcasm for the most part. The tone doesn't work well on Instagram. I try to be as literal or gracious as possible.

I'm not perfect, obviously, but this is important for likability. And likability is important if you want to grow your brand. 

Try lots of things. Adjust as you go.

Not everything you do will work. You may get crickets when you post certain types of content.

That's okay, just note it and move on. Maybe try again if you feel like maybe your timing or execution was just a little off, but the core idea had potential.

I try not to get stuck on things like low engagement posts. 

I know that "sunset over water" is always a crowd pleaser. Doesn't mean that I want to post that 100% of the time! Plus, I also know intuitively that people would start to get bored if that's all I did. 

You need to keep yourself on your toes so that your audience stays engaged.

Be specific but universal.

Somewhat contradictory but important to understand.

Any time an account is too specific (very niche subject, for example), they will limit themselves from growth. The account will plateau no matter what.

When an account is too generic- it won't connect with anyone. 

You need to differentiate. I don't post about large corporations on the regular (my followers like it when I feature small businesses), but I do shop at them sometimes and don't hide that. It's not "on-brand" but it's honest and relatable.

For better or worse, a cute pair of shoes that you found at Target will relate to more people than an interesting find from a small local store without an online presence. 

So I try to create a balance- about a third of my followers live in Annapolis but the rest are in other cities. Thanks Instagram Insights!

I was worried about the @downtownannapolis handle for a while- what if I wanted to move? What if no one outside of Annapolis followed it? What if I started to feel like I wanted to expand into other areas and markets?

I got over it. I decided that the focus would mainly be on Annapolis, from the point of view of someone linked to the area.

Suddenly the world opened up. 

A good role model for me was @newyorkcity. Liz has over a million followers and now travels the world. She posts tons of content from other cities. But her roots are in NYC, and she still posts content from there.

Take risks with your Instagram Stories.

This is one of the only places in social media where huge influencers feel comfortable going completely off-brand. Everything disappears after 24 hours, so there's less pressure and you can have fun with it.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I've liked people a lot more after following their stories, or been completely put off by someone.

But since they are so easy to skip through, most people will grant you some grace if you post content that doesn't suit their liking.

It's a good place to really connect with your most loyal followers- like a secret club.

Growth can be slow and linear at first, and then exponential.

This goes back to discipline. You want to build your account bit by bit, and nothing may happen for a long time.

And then suddenly, everything happens all at once!

As they say- when it rains, it pours. Try not to get discouraged, and practice self-compassion if you feel like you're not where you want to be.

It took me two years to get my first pitch from a brand, and for trade- not money. You may be working for free for a long time, and then suddenly something will shift.

Build your newsletter and website.

Instagram isn't yours- it's Mark Zuckerberg's.

You are not in control, God is not in control- Mark is in control. Plus shareholders.

The algorithm has changed things for influencers and I have a hunch Instagram will become more and more "pay to play" like Facebook.

It can be hard to drive traffic to your website but start one anyway. It's your home base. And if you want to build relationships with brands, you'll need something that feels more permanent.

I have a newsletter but haven't sent any yet. Baby steps. When we had our shop, the email blast was the number one thing that got people in our door. So I know it's important. It builds loyalty and connection, and as long as you don't send them too often (I unsubscribe from anyone who sends out daily emails, ha!), it's a great way to stay in touch.

Take social media breaks to refresh.

Living your life online is NOT natural. Technology is simply a tool, and you must limit it. You'll short-circuit otherwise.

It also helps with clarity of vision for your brand. Know thyself.

I'm starting to take a couple of days off a week. Maybe on the weekend, maybe during the week if I have something I want to post about on Saturday and Sunday.

Otherwise, I feel awful and want to delete everything and move to a penguin sanctuary. Start over and be off the grid entirely. Watch the aurora australis in Antarctica and forage for berries in Patagonia during the winter.

I don't think this is a workable option so I'm just going to unplug for a couple of days each week.

If you've ever read The Art of War, it's about creating a stillness in your mind so you know how to strike.

I don't engage in social media comment battles at all. Never. I'm allergic to anything that reeks of Divide and Conquer- a classic strategy to weaken a population. You may think you are fighting the good fight but no, you're just exhausting yourself. No one ever wins and nothing ever changes. 

Focus! And be relaxed and still in-between.

Connect with industry gatekeepers and influencers at your level.

I consider someone with similar engagement to be "at your level"- despite their number of followers.

These are the connectors- they'll introduce you to new content, new products, PR reps, magazine and newspaper editors, and other creatives.

These partnerships can help you build your brand quickly but it's always best to look for someone in a similar place in their career so that it feels mutual.

Involve your audience.

I have mixed feelings about IG accounts that only post other people's photos. I try to have enough original content that @downtownannapolis could stand alone if needed. If a picture isn't credited, it's mine.

That being said, I can't be everywhere at all times. And I love seeing what other people post. 

Sharing other people's work has definitely helped grow my account. People usually want to be featured (with credit, obviously.)

The more that your base feels that you're paying attention to them, the more that they'll pay attention to you.

There's no "secret."

Everyone wants the formula- the strategy to enjoy guaranteed success.

If I were to honestly break it down, I know that some of it is simply my handle name. Some of it is timing. Some of it is my disciplined liking of geotags. Some of it is fate and luck. Some of it is posting content that people enjoy. And some of it is some x-factor that I'll never quite understand.

There's no formula that you can completely replicate- you have to forge your own path. 

I got my first job in fashion (at a small company called Vena Cava) by emailing my future boss about a shirt she designed. I wanted to buy it. 

She liked my polite email tone and that I had a business degree. I had no fashion experience but I understood design. I was their first employee.

I learned everything at that job. It was my REAL education and I was there for five years.

Then I used the contacts I had in fashion to open my consignment shop in Annapolis. My New York friends provided me with interesting pieces to sell. It gave us a different spin and competitive advantage.

I used my manufacturing connections when we designed our capsule collection.

While running our store, I started @downtownannapolis to promote our shop and small businesses in the area. I already had a small following on our @shopnavette platform, and knew lots of business owners and locals because of this. So it was easy to connect and tell people about my project.

Then I worked on building the following bit by bit over the past 2.5 years. 

Now I'm starting to paint from my photographs of Annapolis, and will sell the prints both directly and to shops that I have relationships with.

I just got a freelance writing project and have connected with other people in the area that want to work together.

Who knows exactly what's next, or who or what will walk into my life because of this account.

Everything I've done led to the next place, but I didn't map it all out in advance. I've just gone with the flow. Let go and let God.

Don't ask for permission, don't give your power away, and don't bend the knee. Find your purpose.

I started @downtownannapolis largely because 1) there was a gap in the marketplace 2) I wanted to and 3) I figured I'd do a better job than 95% of people. Maybe not everyone, but most people.

I grew up in the area. I had a shop on Maryland Avenue. I lived downtown. I have a marketing and fashion background, plus visual media comes naturally to me.  I wanted a platform to market the area. I wanted a way to meet people. My motivations were very organic so I never felt like I was trying too hard.

The handle was open so I took it. That's all. I didn't feel like waiting around for someone else to do something I could do myself. I didn't want to hand my power over to the city or the tourism board or some politician.

No one is going to do the work for you. No one is going to care about your life or your business or your brand or your art more than YOU- so build the world you want. Just do it. No apologies. 

Any time I'm feeling a bit lost, I watch a Jordan Peterson lecture on YouTube. The man is brilliant and has the balls to discuss truths that no one else will. Check out this clip- The Nobler Your Aim, The Better Your Life.

You need a higher purpose to what you do- a reason for all your work. To take on a burden and bear it. Or as Jordan says, growing up and being useful is the new counter-culture.

It may seem silly to equate an Instagram account with higher purpose, but it's currently one of the best ways to strengthen a community. As long as you act in the general direction of "good"- for you, your family, and your world- it will be a net positive. 

And that's a wrap! Thanks for listening.