Getting Your First 500 Instagram Followers, in a Way That is Actually Useful

Whittle Away's instagram account

In the past 3 months, I’ve gotten a look at what success looks like as a small brand on Instagram, what it takes to get there and what doesn’t work. I’ve grown an account from 0 to, as of this moment, 531 followers: not crazy numbers, but they’re engaged and have directly impacted my business. Everything has been organic, no paid advertising and no automation. It’s been so much fun and has led to a ton of unexpected benefits and opportunities.

Background:

At the beginning of August, I started a company that sells whittling kits. $39 (with free shipping to the lower 48) gets you a high-quality carving knife, a few blocks of whittling wood, some sandpaper, a thumbguard and a note written in childish handwriting by yours truly.

It started as a bit of a joke but as I worked on it more and learned that I actually love to whittle, I’ve gotten more serious about it. It’s been a ton of fun and frankly has gone much better than I expected it to.

Instagram Stats

As you can see, growth has been pretty consistent over time. My follower growth has actually started to slow in the past weeks, and this is because I have gotten busier with everything else and have spent less time working on Instagram.

Why Instagram?

From the beginning, I chose Instagram as my main channel for getting initial traction. I did this for the following reasons:

  • Whittling lends itself nicely to Instagram. I can take pictures of the knife and wood in interesting places, or take pictures of things I make.
  • I’ve taken pictures as a hobby for years and really enjoy it. I knew it would take a lot of work to get any sort of traction at all, so enjoyment was a big factor to me. I would much rather spend an hour taking pictures than writing tweets.
  • Though it has decreased since algorithmic sorting has come to the platform and it’s been flooded with marketers, Instagram still gets high engagement relative to many other social platforms, and it’s decent for funneling traffic to a website (compared to Snapchat, for example).

I tracked my progress on Instagram from the beginning, both to keep myself organized and motivated and because I planned on writing this post. I kept a simple spreadsheet:

A spreadsheet used for tracking progress on Instagram
This is the spreadsheet I used to track Instagram progress

The only thing that might need explaining is the red/green conditional formatting. I shot for at least 8% week-over-week growth in followers, based on Paul Graham’s essay on growth at YC. This felt like a good target; as I got more followers it wasn’t easy to hit it every week but was very doable with a little work. I also wanted to keep the number of accounts I followed in check, so I tried to keep that under 20% growth WoW.

How I got People to Follow Me on Instagram

As you can see in the spreadsheet, I started with 40 followers on Day 0. These came from my existing Instagram followers on my personal account and from the post I made on my personal facebook page. It was nice to start with a little base, and made it easier to post knowing that at least some people would see it.

Still, obviously if this was going to be valuable at all, I would have to get people to follow me who weren’t my friends. This is how I went about doing that:

  • I searched for #whittling and spent about 20 minutes looking through existing posts to get a feel for the type of stuff people were posting and what hashtags they were using. Through this, I learned that spooncarving is very popular, and I learned the term “bushcraft,” which is a common hashtag in the whittling community.
  • I followed about 50 accounts of people who were actively posting whittling-related things. I figured it would be easiest to get people who were already interested in whittling to follow me at first, even if they wouldn’t necessarily buy anything, and that building a base of followers would add to my credibility. I was careful not to follow too many people; and throughout this process I’ve tried to keep the ratio of following:followers under 1:1.
  • I started posting at least twice a day. This has been lots of fun for me since my goal as a brand is to associate whittling with an interesting, fun lifestyle, so it has just involved me going to cool coffee shops and bars and taking pictures of myself (or other people, sometimes strangers who I harass) whittling there. I think you can get away with posting once a day, but if you really want Instagram to be a consistent driver for you, that’s as low as you can go. You have to be consistent and become part of peoples’ daily media intake.
  • I used relevant hashtags on my posts, that I had discovered in my research. In addition, I make the first tag on each picture #whittleaway, and I repost people who use that tag.
  • I generally follow back people who follow me who seem active on instagram and are posting things I think are cool. Once people follow me, I am very promiscuous with my “likes”– I like almost everything in my feed, as a way to thank people for their support.
  • I set up a (free) Hootsuite account. Since I’ve been working in marketing for a little while, I was familiar with lots of marketing tools, and Hootsuite is one I’m comfortable with, though it does come with some problems. I recommend it for beginners because it’s easy to use, and it provides a good interface for liking and commenting on your target audience’s photos.
  • This leads to the most important tactical component: commenting. I have commented on a LOT of photos the past 3 months (sorry no exact numbers, if someone knows an easy way to find this data let me know please). If I had to guess, I’d say 10 comments/day * 90 days = roughly 900 comments. And guess what? They’re all real, genuine comments, specific to what the person’s photo is. I am strongly against automated comments, and I love to mess with people who auto-comment on my posts:

    Instagram spam comments
    Ideal use of “do less.”

This idea of actually taking the time to comment on pictures will probably scare some people off (yes, if you haven’t gathered, this is actual work; it’s not something you can automate away and forget about).

Brief Rant Against Autocommenting

There are SO many brands and startups that are intoxicated by the idea of “scaling” and “growthhacking” and decide to autocomment something on every post with a certain hashtag.

This will win you quick followers. But that’s a vanity metric. Instagram followers can’t pay for your inventory or for the lease on your office. What you’re after are people who are actually engaged with you, who might buy something from you, who might tell their friends about you, who might partner with you.

Autocommenting destroys much of your opportunity to connect with people on this deeper level. It erodes trust in your brand and makes you appear desperate and disingenuous. I suppose if you’re trying to make a quick buck you might as well try it, but do you really want to structure your career/business around that?

Aside from that, if you engage in auto-commenting, you’re violating Instagram’s Terms of Service and exposing yourself to a huge platform risk. Let’s say (generously) that your little growth-hack works and you get a big pop in business from Instagram. Those overpaid engineers at Instagram are pretty smart, and they don’t like people spamming on their platform. There are always updates and tweaks that can penalize you for being shady, and you never know when one will hit. Proceed at your own peril.

View it as an Opportunity

A partnership with Northern Market
A great partnership through instagram is this simple! Check out @thenorthernmarket, they’re great

I think you should look at the landscape and see all these brands automating their social activity and view it as a tremendous opportunity. You’d be shocked at what can happen if you actually take the time to engage with people in a genuine way. And it’s not just sales (though that’s a huge part of it). In the three months I’ve been doing this, Instagram has led directly to:

  • 70 percent of my revenues (not comfortable sharing numbers publicly, and it hasn’t been anything crazy but it we are profitable and growing every week)
  • Several beneficial partnerships, including one that led me to a super helpful mentor/ free coffee in a lovely package delivered each month from the wonderful boxo.coffee (insta: @boxocoffee)
  • A trade for a new hatchet (along with some other goodies) from a fellow woodworker, @elreyfalcon
  • My learning a lot about whittling/woodworking, largely from the advice and comments from my followers
  • Free tickets to a pub crawl and a couple of free dinners

I am convinced these nice things have happened because I have approached Instagram as a way to genuinely connect with other people who might be interested in what I’m working on. I have worked on other companies’ social strategy before, with varying success, and I have fully come to believe that the way to win as a small brand without a ton of money is to put in consistent effort and make things that you love, and be genuine and straightforward with people. Check out Jay Acunzo and his project Unthinkable.fm for a better articulation of this philosophy, he’s a terrific marketer and person.

General Thoughts and Tips

These are things to think about if you’re setting out to do something similar. By the way, I really encourage any student or anyone looking to get into marketing/business to start an Instagram account and try to grow it, you’ll learn a ton and it costs you nothing.

Instagram whittle away
Me being an idiot (I’m j.hovde)
  • I have found it absolutely essential to express myself in the posts. This keeps it from feeling like a chore and keeps me consistently posting. I let my personality go through, even if it’s weird, I let myself joke around and some people seem to enjoy it. For example, I like and comment on each photo from my personal instagram account, as if I were a crazed fan of Whittle Away.
  • Image quality really does matter. If you don’t have a background in photography, google around look up basic photographic principles. I’m no expert, but you can improve a ton with a little bit of effort.
  • Treat every person you interact with on Instagram as someone you can potentially work with in a mutually beneficial way. It’s a great way to network and meet like-minded people, give people respect and it’ll benefit you
  • Don’t worry much about optimizing for posting time, number of hashtags, etc. You’ll start to feel what works and if you are in it for the long haul and are consistent, it won’t matter if you post at 12pm or 2pm one day.
  • I am sure that much of what I do could be outsourced, and I will consider hiring someone to do social media at some point, but for now I am learning a lot and enjoying myself, so I’m not worrying about it. I’d advise you to do the same if you’re starting out, I think the feel for your customers you’ll get it is worth the time you spend

This is already too long, so I’ll sign off there. Thanks for taking the time to read, and please do reach out if you have any questions or would like some more information! Cheers.

P.S.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a pitch– do you have any friends, family or people you care about? Are you going to buy them presents this year? Get ’em a whittling kit! Use coupon code “instafamous” for 10% off at checkout 🙂

10 Comment

  1. Michael says: Reply

    Gotta love the charts….

    Up and to the right!!!

    1. jhovde2121@gmail.com says: Reply

      Yeeeeeeah son!

  2. Alex says: Reply

    Very complete guide and I love your approach in getting genuine followers! Check our tool for Instagram marketing for pure organic grow: https://www.instaheads.com We would be hapy to hear your feedback about it!

    1. jhovde2121@gmail.com says: Reply

      I will check it out! What’s the benefit over hootsuite?

  3. Alex says: Reply

    Thank you for your interest! We have few points to beat Hootsuite:

    – Combined search by location + hashtag
    – Batch mode for posts commenting, liking and following
    – Search of commenters and followers of any open Instagram account, you can exclude non-active accounts from search results as well
    – Different filters for the posts
    – Smart Unfollow system: ability to unsubscribe from accounts that followed or unfollowed you
    – Sorting by likes, followers or comments
    If you have some suggestions how we can improve it, don’t hesitate to send them to us!

    1. jhovde2121@gmail.com says: Reply

      Sweet! I’ll be in touch with my thoughts.

  4. Curtis says: Reply

    Forgive me if you have mentioned it already — but what do you use to take your Instagram pics?

    1. jhovde2121@gmail.com says: Reply

      Hi Curtis,

      Thanks for reading– I just use my phone, which is an iPhone 5s. I’ll generally edit them a bit in Instagram but nothing too fancy. Let me know of any other questions! Happy to help.

      Joe

  5. Excellent guide. My ’Gram’s for my own leisure, so the subjects are varied, but if I were doing one specifically for work, I’d take a leaf out of your book. In the four years I’ve been on there, the fastest-growing accounts are those who stick to a single subject. I definitely agree with your advice.
    Instaspam is getting worse though, and Instagram seems to do very little about them, despite reporting. (I’ve had a so-called PR company in Los Angeles Instaspam me like crazy—all that does is confirm that they are a firm I want to stay the heck away from). I hope someone is checking those reports …

    1. jhovde2121@gmail.com says: Reply

      Thanks for reading! I agree, insta spam is pretty brutal. But as long as it doesn’t completely drive people away from the platform, I think it increases the value of real, thoughtful interaction– people are starved for non-spammmers commenting on their posts.

      Cheers!

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