Instagram: The Must Dos and the Definitely Don'ts
by Georgina Steytler
Okay. Okay. I know! I mean what has the world come to when a bird photographer starts writing blog posts on Instagram (IG) right?! I am thinking exactly the same thing... But hear me out. Like it or loathe it, for the time being at least, IG is here to stay and as scary as it might seem to say this, it's become important.
Recently I have seen several high profile photographers join the IG bandwagon and I'm sure they're not doing it for the love of it. I am sure they are doing it because their sponsors have told them they need to. What's more I have had several clients book me because of my IG account. One client, in particular, they wanted to know not only my follower count, but also my engagement rate for my last 10 images: how many people liked my images, how many comments they received and how many views and impressions they garnered.
IG is serious business.
Here's why: It has over ONE BILLION USERS who are doing 95 million posts and liking 4.2 billion of them per day (statistics courtesy of Hootsuite).
ONE BILLION USERS means power, influence, money. ONE BILLION USERS matters to anyone trying to sell a product or service, run a political campaign, publish a book or save the world.
I could go into why the power held by social media giants is, quite frankly, terrifying, but let's just focus on the positives for now. And there are positives. You just need to know how to make the most of them, whilst avoiding the negative fluff that comes with any platform that promotes people who shamelessly promote themselves (and where everyone has a right to comment on it!).
IG is driven by an algorithm (ALGO): basically a computer program/system that IG uses to decide whose posts and profiles it shows to you based on who you interact most with, who it thinks you would most like to interact with and who has done a very bad thing and been sent to the IG 'naughty corner' out of sight and sound of anyone on earth.
Let me start by telling you straight up that no-one, not even those self-professed gurus, truly know how the ALGO works. At the end of the day, they are just guessing. For example, I know of one 'Influencer' with over 100,000 followers (not a bird photographer) who actively promotes their own 'How to Succeed at Instagram' course, and they have been steadily losing followers for over a year even though they are doing all the things 'right'.
What I am writing here is based on my own experience and observation over the three years that I have held an account. During that time I have fluctuated from growing 30 followers a day to 100+ a day to losing 50 followers a week! And some of this had nothing to do with what I had done, but was just a result of changes to the ALGO (though admittedly that image of a kangaroo with over-developed genitalia could have been a factor). In the good old days, when Instagram first started, it was simpler: whenever you posted an image, it was immediately shown to all your followers. This made it easier to grow your account as long as you chose to post at a time when people were most likely to be online. There were also far fewer 'bird photographers' around so your profile was more likely to be shown to new Instagram users with an interest in birds.
Nowadays, there are literally millions more users on Instagram, and growing daily, so competition for new users will also be growing. Further, where your post comes up on other people's Instagram feeds depends on a variety of largely unknown factors with varying degrees of importance. It's complicated and, at least according to Instagram itself, how each of the factors affects your account will vary from individual to individual (in other words, there is no one-size-fits-all solution).
Factors which might influence the ALGO (and therefore how successful you are) include:
· how often and when you post;
· the length of your captions;
· who do you most engage with (by way of likes, comments, messaging etc);
· how many likes and/or comments your post generates (and how strongly people react);
· how many followers you already have and how many followers the people you most engage with have;
· how many people follow you based on profile views;
· what photos other bird photographers post (since these are in fact your 'competitors' for viewing space on IG);
· what hashtags you use (and whether any are 'banned');
· how many people have blocked you and why;
· whether you have been reported;
· how much time people spend on your profile or reading your captions;
· whether you have a Facebook account; and
· (possibly) how strong you like your coffee...
The upshot of this is that combine all these factors (and others) and IG can be completely unpredictable. For this reason, don't hold expectations and don't get upset if your stupendous photo of a fairy-wren does not do as well as someone else's fuzzy photo of a seagull's backside. Quality does not necessarily equal 'airtime' or follower count and success is not dictated by what you do alone.
THE MUST DOS (IF YOU WANT TO GROW YOUR ACCOUNT)
So you've decided to take the plunge and start an IG account, or at least to try to grow the one you've had stagnating on 11 ambivalent followers for the last 10 months.
If you do the things that I suggest below, it is more likely than not that you will grow your account, but be warned, doing those things give you no guarantee of success and your account might not grow at all for some unknown reason.
DO (in order of importance, at least as I see it ):
This never used to be a thing (I remember happily not posting for a month and growing faster than when I did post!), but it definitely is a BIG factor in the current ALGO. How often should I post? Definitely more than once a week and ideally at least once a day (and if you have the images and the energy, three times a day (spread out) is probably best).
The key thing is REGULARITY. Have a posting schedule and stick to it come what may. What you can't do is post 4 images one day and none for 3 days then 2 images the next and so forth. This behaviour immediately gets you shunted to the end of the queue. On the other hand, a regular one post a day that never fails week in, week out, will probably see you rewarded.
Please note, any changes you make to your posting schedule may take weeks to show any effect. I have a theory that it takes at least 2 weeks of regular posting (after a period of no posts) before you will see any discernable change in your follower count (which is the way you can primarily determine if the ALGO likes or loathes you).
Post When your Followers are Online
To ensure you get the most engagement for your posts, it makes sense that you should post your images at a time when the majority of your followers are online.
According to my IG Insights page(see below), most of my followers are active between 6pm and 6am my time (Perth time: UTC/GMT+8) - see red arrows.
Conversely, the worst time for me to post would be anytime between 9am and 3pm (UTC/GMT+8).
I know some people seem to think that using hashtags is akin to 'selling your soul' but I think that, if you are on social media, you have already made the decision to sell yourself (through your work). That is what social media does - so why not use it properly?
These days people search and follow hashtags. So you use them not to get picked up by hubs (though that is a bonus) but to be seen, full stop. For instance, the image below was not re-posted by any of the hubs that I tagged, BUT if you look at the statistics, it had 21,825 impressions from hashtags alone. If I had not used a hashtag (and by the way, it's ok to put them in the comments section), this post would have been seen by 50% fewer people.
The other thing to note about this image is that although it had over 6000 likes and 190 comments, in terms of actual direct followers it only generated 14! If my account is growing in excess of 100 followers per day, that means that they must be reaching me through other means than via this post (and my best guess is it's your position in the ALGO and the 'pretty' image feed that is a large part of the difference).
Be Pithy in your Bio... and Make your FEED Pretty.
Your profile (Bio and photo) and latest 9 images of your feed are the first things that people will see when they go to your account. If you want to grow, even more important than individual posts (very few people actually decide to follow you based on one photo) is the OVERALL impression you give on this page. This is where they follow or unollow. So you have to make your account something that people want to see more of. You do this by having a good profile photo (or icon), an intriguing or inviting Bio and a 'pretty' feed.
Be pithy (as my sister rather unhelpfully told me when I had to give a speech for an award): How do you do that? I can't tell you what to write in your Bio, but what I can say is that "Tom from Bandoo" probably won't do. Take a look at what others (successful accounts) have written in their Bios and see what seems to work. As an example, Nike says: "If you have a body, you are an athlete"and then ends with a call to action hashtag: '#justdoit'. What statement best represents you and what do you want to achieve with your IG account? Make this your Bio and include a call to action if you can. Keep it simple.
Pretty (or otherwise impressive) feed: It's a sad fact that we live in an utterly superficial world where good looks count. So how your latest nine images look as a whole counts. That is one of the reasons why some IG accounts do much better than others. It's not that they have better photos, but that the look of their photos as a whole is more coherent and appealing. People usually do this one of two ways:
(1) by processing each image in a similar way (eg all the bird photos are closely cropped, clear background and saturated); or
(2) only posting images that will look complimentary to the previous images.
I prefer the second way. Lately I have been trying to do this using Tailwind App that allows me to preview how the new image will look alongside my existing feed. Take a look at my a screenshot of my feed below: it has a nice 'feel' to it (I think) even though the individual images are actually very different?
Even though my individual images haven't always performed well, overall my follower count at that time was growing by over +100 followers per day. Check out the screenshot below:
This ties in with the previous point in that if your images aren't great quality, then they probably won't look good on your profile anyway. Though quality alone wont get you to grow (I have seen some top accounts posting very average bird photos lately and still growing rapidly), all things being equal, it will definitely help.
Lighten. Brighten. Crop.
I'm afraid that this point really does involve selling your soul. There is no doubting that bird images that are lighter and brighter (and often super cropped), do better than darker, moody or small in the frame photos. I have tested this theory and my moody images never do as well as the bright ones (see below).
Here are the most successful images that I've posted in 2018:
These are my least successful images (2018):
See a pattern?
At some stage you need to make a decision about how important it is for you to get more followers versus your artistic principles. I have been able to do well (for the moment) despite posting many dark or bird in the environment types of shots and I think this is because my 'feed' overall is still appealing.
The danger of compromising your artistic soul and buying into the 'fast food' of bird photography (as someone called it) is that you risk becoming one of a number. Because so many have accounts like this (eg, bird on branch with clear background), you have to ask yourself how is YOUR ACCOUNT any different to everyone else's? So you end up with a lot of followers, but do you know what? There will soon be so many bird photographers with 20K plus followers that numbers will cease to matter and what will matter more than anything else will be a POINT of DIFFERENCE. What is yours? Find it. Promote it. Guard it with your life because that is what makes you special.
There are many people who will tell you that you have to post videos, do daily stories (500 million people use Stories every day - yikes) and reply to every single comment to grow your following. All I can say is that I know people who don't do daily stories, don't have a single Highlight, don't reply to comments and almost never post a video and they are still growing.
However, doing those things probably does help because the key to the ALGO is ENGAGEMENT. That means that any way you can get a user to stay on your image, profile, feed or post longer, such as by viewing a video, the higher up the feed you are likely to climb (that is, Instagram will show your account to more people because it thinks it's popular).
The bottom line is, how much time do you want, or need, to spend on social media?
On the other hand, these are game changers. Consider this as your IG List of Commandments. Whatever you do, DON'T:
· Use offensive language. This goes without saying but social media is not the place for offensive or abusive language or comments of any kind. Ever. Leaving morality aside, it will also be a fast track to getting banned by the platform or having someone somewhere report you, with the same result.
· Reference (positively or negatively) an Instagram, Facebook or What'sApp competitor. I have seen this happen. A bird photographer had #Snapchat in their profile. This person never gained a single follower for over 12 months. I suggested that the person remove the reference to Snapchat and, having done so, immediately their account began to grow again.
· Spend hours liking and commenting on every random post in the hope that its author will return the compliment. Firstly, the ALGO may identify your behaviour as 'spamming' and your profile/photos will be discreetly moved to the back of the queue (in other words, hardly anyone will see your images) and secondly, it's much better for people to find you naturally. You want quality followers and quality engagement. Don't sell yourself short. Be positive. Do the Dos.
· Follow and unfollow. Some people follow squillions of people to lure them into following them, and then unfollow them. Not cool. I doubt it works that well and in any event, you want 'organic' growth - in other words you want people to follow you because they are genuinely interested in you (ps I, too, hate the way people bandy the word 'organic' about like it's the hottest thing since drive through coffee outlets, but in this case it's actually quite apposite...honestly...).
· Spend hours trawling through an Instagram Followers app trying to work out who has un-followed you, or blocked you, or isn't commenting quite as often as you'd like. This is a recipe for unending angst, my friend. When I first started using IG I got so worried if anyone unfollowed me and wondered what I had done. Well, here's the good news: 99% of the time IT'S NOT YOU. People unfollow for many reasons - maybe they died, maybe they decided to eliminate social media from their life (probably a good idea), maybe they only wanted you to follow them back or maybe their ex-boyfriend got the phone and decided to get revenge. The more followers you have, the more people will unfollow you each day - that's a fact. At 58,000 followers, at least 30-50 people unfollow me each day. The trick to growth (if that is your goal) is to have more people follow you, than unfollow you. Soooo, DELETE that Followers App. You don't need it. Stop stressing about what everyone else is doing or not doing. You do You, as Sarah Knight would say.
· Compromise ethics or act illegally. One of the biggest problems for nature photography that social media has caused is that many people have become obsessed with getting a photo to post. I have heard more and more stories of people using call playback with speakers over and over again, sometimes near nests, getting too close to nests full stop, live baiting and illegally entering areas - just to get a photo. None of my images on social media are of nesting birds or have been taken using call playback or live baiting - in fact I have never used those things to get a photo - and I am still promoting a love of birds very effectively. It’s not like the good ‘ol days anymore with one or two birders where impacts were minimal. There are one billion users on IG (also a local WA bird group on Facebook alone has grown from a couple of hundred to over 12,000 members in the last two years) - just imagine how many bird photographers are out there and if they all do those things then our poor birdlife will be significantly impacted - and the rarer the bird the more dire the potential consequences. We have to start considering the cumulative effect of our actions and start changing our methods. Always put the bird before the image: #ethicsbeforeimages.
· Let the bastards get you down. As I said above, it's just a communication tool - no more, no less. If it's not working for you, you don't have the time or it's making you a paranoid maniac, take a break or delete it altogether.
As I have said above, nobody knows exactly why sometimes your account goes from hero to zero, but it does seem to happen to most people sooner or later. If that does happen to you, I suggest you do the following:
· Check you haven't done any of the Don'ts.
· Delete any Post or Highlight that you made around or shortly before the time the decline started.
· Post quality content, often (at least once a day), at regular intervals and peak user times and shamelessly use some of your most popular images to build up momentum again.
· Smile and wave... smile and wave.
NEVER FORGET: IG is just a social communication tool. Success, or perceived lack of it, is governed by an unknown set of factors and is not a reflection of you or the value of your photography.
Happy Posting !