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What makes an Instagram user worthy of thousands of followers? Already being famous in real life doesn't hurt, but for the rest of us, mobile photography stardom requires a mix of quality, skill and social prowess.
One year ago, we outlined six effective ways to get new followers on Instagram. Since that time, the company has launched an Android app, been acquired by Facebook and grown its user base dramatically. We thought it was as good of a time as any for a refresher.
Quality Over Quantity
On the Web and certain social services, it's possible to optimize one's way to a bigger audience. Instagram is different: There are no bots to trick or algorithms to game. As a distinctly visual medium, it demands that the content published there actually looks good. That could mean a smartly composed photograph of the utmost artistic integrity or a young woman who happens to be attractive. Or perhaps a puppy.
Instagram isn't about creating a frame-by-frame documentary of one's life. Instead,the service is best used by carefully selecting the most visually interesting, funny or otherwise sharable moments and then gradually sending them out into the streams of one's followers.
The temptation to post a rapid-fire series of photos at a sporting event or concert, for example, should be ignored. Not only does this dilute the quality of one's photo stream, but it has a tendency to annoy followers. As a square image, an Instagram photo takes up much more screen real estate than a tweet or Facebook status update. Dominating people's screens with repetitive, uninteresting images forces them to plough through the visual noise in a way that feels more laborious than it does on other social networks.
It may also serve to discourage potential new followers. When other users look at your profile, keep in mind that they're going to see a block of the most recent photos posted to your account. You'll do a better job of convincing them to tap the "follow" button if what they see is diverse and of high quality, rather than a flood of shaky concert photos snapped from a distance.
Pay Attention to What Works (and Mimic It)
For a better idea of what kind of imagery works best on Instagram, there's no better place to look than the "Explore" tab (now designated by a compass icon). There are lessons to be learned here, but a few caveats are worth mentioning. First, there's definitely a correlation between the number of one's existing followers and the amount of "likes" their photos tend to garner. Thus, many of the "popular" photos win that designation in part because they came from popular accounts, not necessarily based solely on the merits of the image itself.
Instagram is a lot like the Web itself in that people using it love sexy ladies and cats. The Explore tab offers irrefutable evidence of both facts, should there be any doubt. So yes, posting pictures of attractive women (and in many cases, men) and cats will always do well on Instagram. But those aren't the only things.
If you can get beyond the ooh-yeah-sexy-ladies and just-because-they're-popular factors, the Explore tab does offer a few clues about what kinds of legitimate, less shallow qualities can get people's attention on Instagram. Many of the service's most popular photos share one of a handful of qualities: Bright colors, unique angles, effective use of contrast and subtle humor all seem to do well.
As with any other form of publishing, it helps to look at analytics to see what does well. Instagram doesn't offer this feature natively, but third-party services like Statigram let users take a closer look at how their photos perform. In a series of color charts and graphs, Statigram breaks down a ton of metrics in thorough detail. This includes things like most liked and most commented photos, as well as habitual details like favorite filters, tag usage and which days of the week one is most likely to post photos. You can even see when users unfollow you.
Statigram has an "optimize" tab that suggests optimal posting times and shows you correlations between photo filters and number of likes. On my account, photos given the "Rise" filter were most popular among my followers, for instance. Who knew?
Using Statigram, you can not only get a clear picture of what's popular, but you can also dig into the depths of your Instagram account's history to see which photos were least popular, which may offer a clue or two about what doesn't work.
Like other popular social networking tools, Instagram uses hashtags to tie together posts with common subjects or attributes. Strategically tagging photos, especially using the most popular hashtags on Instagram, can lead to a flood of new likes and followers.
Geotagging is another powerful but underrated feature on Instagram. Tagging a photo with its location adds that image to a little psuedo-archive of photos taken in that particular place. In many cases, this has a way of building up a sort of crowd-sourced visual representation of that location, be it a historical landmark or local hangout. Contributing something visually worthwhile creates a new opportunity to attract new followers.
This is true of places you may be visiting temporarily, but its effectiveness is especially potent where you live and at venues you frequent on a regular basis. Geotagging a photo taken at the neighborhood bar is bound to grab the attention of other locals who use Instagram, many of whom will naturally want to follow their fellow natives.