In the last year I've decided that among my hobbies of blogging, seeking out iced coffee at local cafes, sending emails after midnight, and creating Facebook events for things that could be better coordinated in a group text, I am also a photographer. What this means is, I maintain an active Instagram account and cultivate a specific aesthetic. Sometimes I click over to my profile and just admire my patchwork of filters and life moments.
I am not the first millennial to pride themselves on their Instagram. I wouldn't mind being "Insta-famous." Many blog posts ago, I wrote about growing one's followers. At the time I thought it was a matter of strategic hashtags and luck. I still think it's about those things, but it's also a bigger game.
A few months ago, I created another Instagram account. For a while I had been posting photos of architecture in Richmond's Fan District on my personal account aka people's front stoops and Hanover Avenue. I decided I should stop burying my friends in unsolicited real estate propaganda and I would start an account just for the Fan. Enter @FanDistrictRVA.
The catch is, other than my personal page, I did not advertise that I owned this account. It's sorta like that time I created a Twitter for a secret society and didn't tell anyone. I like to stir the pot. It's a LinkedIn skill. Endorse me.
Because the account was not attached to my name in any way, I shamelessly pursued an empire of followers. That is, I followed seven thousand people and/or robot or business accounts in three days.
That is the trick. You have to follow people. Of course, the commercial gimmicks might also work - there's always the spambot saying "download this app and you'll get 1,000 followers overnight."
But I'm a prude. I wanted real followers. And I also didn't want to download anything.
In following seven thousand accounts, my return was relatively low: I gained about a thousand followers over the next week.
Now there are several sites that allow you to unfollow those that aren't following you. Because if you didn't know, your follower to following ratio matters in the way that Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez, and Katy Perry matter.
I did not want to be following seven thousand strangers with only a measly backing of a thousand (mind you, my personal Instagram account has nowhere near a thousand followers). I sought out these websites to unfollow the ungrateful millennials who hadn't followed me back.
But these websites typically limit you to a daily quota, usually about 25. That is, I can only unfollow 25 people a day. Well, in case you missed the part where I needed to unfollow six thousand people, this was not a plan.
Of course, the websites say you can unfollow more people if you believe in capitalism aka pay up. But while I'm impatient, I'm also cheap. These six thousand ungrateful accounts were not worth my pennies.
Over the next few weeks, I did some serious soul searching. I accepted I couldn't get rid of these six thousand pests overnight, and it wasn't that embarrassing if no one knew it was me running the account. And even if it was me running the account, what is so embarrassing about following six thousand strangers? Absolutely nothing. Right? Kylie Jenner, back me up.
But here are the other lessons I've learned:
The average return on following en masse is 4:1.
That is, for every four strangers you follow, one person will follow you back. This assumes you're also producing regularly quality content. Ain't no one going to follow you back if you post crap.
People like content that is thematic.
My personal account is a smorgasbord of travel photos, my pets, and clouds. I gather likes, but nothing like the raves I get when I share the same photo on an account honed for lifestyle (@astoldoverbrunch) or architecture (@fandistrictrva) aka thematic Instagrams.
People like food and fitness.
On the topic of themes, these are the real powerhouses when it comes to gaining followers and likes. If only I had a beach body to more regularly showcase with hashtag #fitness, imagine the empire I'd lead.
I am someone who very rarely post selfies. I think they're self-indulgent and usually the same exact pores in different bathroom lighting. I have been known to follow an acquaintance's private account, discover they post only weekly selfies #selflove, and unfollow. #boybye
That said, people's selfies do remarkably well. My highest like counts come when I display my pearly whites and dead follicles in a close-up.
And I will say, I've become more open to selfies after my friend made the following observation:
"I like selfies because it means that person woke up today and felt great about themselves, and that's a rare thing to feel in this society."
Beware the narcissists.
By this, I mean the accounts that are like my former self - searching for followers and giving nothing in return. You can identify them as the accounts that randomly follow you or like one of your photos and have 33.1K followers already, but only follow 233 people personally.
Don't follow back like a hapless victim. They will unfollow you as soon as you take the bait. They collect souls, not friendship.
Once you have 1K, you get another 1K.
What I've found is, once you cross a certain threshold - between a thousand and two thousand followers - more followers will naturally flock to you without exerting any effort. Again, this assumes you're posting quality content. Do more than selfies (unless you're that gorgeous).
Finally, it's not about the likes.
Okay, it is. But there is a life outside of Instagram. Like, the life you're photographing - the one in front of the iPhone. Make sure you're living that one, too.