How to Grow Your Instagram Following

How To Grow Your Instagram Following

How To Grow Your Instagram Following with Jonathan Tilley

Transitioning from Facebook to Instagram in 2015 felt like Amy Poehler’s cool mom character in “Mean Girls.” I wanted to be included in what all the young kids were doing but had no clue how to actually do it. I thought it was all about duck lip selfies, buying millions of followers, and becoming an influencer. The mysterious algorithm kept me up at night wondering why “that stranger followed me back after I liked three of her pics, but a friend didn’t DM me even though we’ve been friends for years.” And like any wannabe, I soon threw in the towel out of sheer exhaustion of trying to be something that I’m not… aka Kim Kardashian.

So I started over being as authentic as I could be. And three things shifted dramatically. My content felt genuine, my followers were engaging more, and I was booking more photo shoots. I said goodbye to what I thought it meant to be on Instagram and said hello to following the rules of Instagram to fit the format. I pimped my profile and used Planoly to schedule at least one month’s worth of content in advance for my feed and Stories. After I posted once a day, I stayed on Instagram for 15–20 minutes and started light and breezy conversations with my dream clients. And that’s when things really took off.

So here’s the breakdown that I’ve used to create genuine connections on the ‘Gram. It’s the exact same step-by-step I’ve taught thousands of creatives to do. We’re all feeling 100% ourselves on the platform, we’re looking mighty fine if you ask me, and we’re all booking jobs because we started conversations. It’s my hope that you will follow along and get the same results.


Instagram is the photographer’s social media platform. Period. So make it a daily habit to show up, be seen, and start conversations.


As mentioned previously, schedule your feed and Stories in Planoly and make it a point to make sure that day’s feed and Story went out OK. Any fine-tuning that needs to be done is done now before you post.


This is where 95% of photographers fail. They think a post is all they need to do. Wrong. Just because you post daily to Instagram doesn’t mean that you will magically get followers. Wake up. Do your daily posting, then get to work. Since you’re on your phone constantly anyway, why not stay there and spend 15–20 minutes interacting with your client demographic.

Think big with your client demographic. If you’re a wedding photographer looking for brides-to-be on Instagram then you’re thinking too small. Rather, look for wedding planners, reception halls and vendors that you can collab with. There’s more leverage there.

Before you dive into this strategy, whip out a pen and paper, create a document on your computer, or use your smartphone notes app. Make it work for you.


OK, let’s go. Use the search function in Insta like a Google search. Let’s pretend you’re a wedding photographer in Brooklyn and you search the hashtag #brooklynwedding. Don’t click on Top or Accounts. This will probably only show your competition. Rather, click on Tags. Then click on the hashtag there. Wow, #brooklynwedding has 100,000 posts! Click the Follow button to follow the #brooklynwedding hashtag. That will be a great reference to come back to every day.

Notice the other related hashtags that appear right below, like #manhattanwedding #dallasweddingplanner #njwedding. Not all of these hashtags will be relevant to you, but some of them will be. Make a mental note to revisit these hashtags and use this exact same strategy on them. But now, let’s focus 100% of our attention on the #brooklynwedding hashtag.

You can choose either the Top or Recent images to scroll through. Honestly, it doesn’t matter that much. You’re not looking for the best pics with the most likes. What you are looking for is a tagged event location.

I barely had to scroll down to find a post that had an event location tagged in it. @wildfloraldesigns tagged The Foundry in their post. So I clicked on The Foundry. The Foundry’s performance and event venue shows up with all of the Insta posts tagging them. Excellent. Now, click on View Information.

A new screen pops up with some vital info. The website and the telephone number. Go back to your notepad or computer or note-taking app and write down the name of the location, the website, and the telephone number. Save it. Then come back to this Insta search. Click on the website link. Take 30 seconds to check out their website. If they’re vibing with you then find their Insta icon on their website. It’s usually at the top or bottom of the website. Click on it and check out their Insta.

Yes, there are multiple steps to this and you could search within Insta for their account, but you will fall down a rabbit hole. Believe me. I’ve been there.

Once you are on their Insta account (in this case, The Foundry’s Insta account), do the following in this order:


Like their three most recent posts.

Don’t overthink this. Just share the love. Like their three most recent posts.

Comment on any one of the three posts that you liked best.

In this example, I’m commenting on the location that is covered in ivy. Use more than four words in your comment—this helps with the algorithm—and make your comment personable. Anyone basic can write, “Oh wow, pretty.” But you’re not basic. You’re smart like a private detective and can see things in the picture that could strike up a conversation. Everyone else, who is basic, wrote the following things in the comments: “Love your place”; “Beautiful!”; “Love the gold chairs. Looking luscious!”

Seriously?! The person who wrote that caption about the ivy is drawing our attention to the ivy… not the gold chairs, Rebecca. Read the room!

So I wrote in my comment, “Whoa! That ivy looks incredible. Does it need a lot of TLC or is it low maintenance?”

This comment does multiple things:

  • It makes the person feel seen and heard.
  • It’s longer than four words and I’ve actually strung together a sentence or two. Something revolutionary in the modern world. Honestly, if you can write one or two sentences in a comment, it makes you look like Shakespeare in comparison.
  • I asked a question, which in turn makes the person who posted this pic more likely to respond. This builds your relationship in small steps. This is the first time The Foundry has heard of me and I’m asking about the ivy. In their mind they’re thinking, “Wow, someone actually took the time to write to me and ask about the ivy. Nice!” So they respond. This is good for your relationship and for the algorithm.

Follow them

This should always be the last step. Follow them. Why? Because when they click on the heart at the bottom of their screen and go to Activity they will see your profile pic show up five times in a row: three likes, one comment, and a follow. You’re taking up the perfect amount of real estate in their activity feed. You’re invested in who they are.

If you invested 15 minutes of your day using this strategy you can start conversations with 20–50 different dream clients. That’s 20–50 new contacts you didn’t have yesterday.

At the end of your 15 minutes, make sure that you’ve written down everyone’s info in your notes and then call it a day. Then the next day revisit your list of new Insta contacts. Check out their accounts. Did they post something new? If they did then give it a like and a two-sentence comment. Try to end with a question. Then go back to your hashtag of choice and keep finding new contacts to make connections with.

Don’t overthink this. This is Instagram where things are light and breezy. You’re not writing a 6000-page dissertation on the neon orange color choice of the Doritos brand. You’re just writing a light and breezy comment on someone’s Insta post. Chill.


The final piece to the puzzle is when they follow you back. After all, that’s what this is all about, right? Getting more followers. Don’t be lame and ignore them. Be proactive and thank them in your next Story.

Create a few evergreen Story graphics in Canva where the theme is gratitude. One can be of you smiling into the camera, another can be a simple background with the text “Thank You” at the top, another can be of the thank you gratitude hands emoji. 🙏 It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be present. So make it work for you. Save those evergreen gratitude Story graphics in your phone and whenever you get a new follower, create a Story saying “Thanks to my new followers” and then tag them in the Story.

Tagging people is also good Instagram behaviour and helps the algorithm look kindly to you. The dream client will get a notification that you tagged them in a Story, they will look at your Story, and nine times out of 10 they will comment on your Story, which as we now know, lands in your DMs. The Instagram algorithm goes crazy because it sees just how much love is being shared between the two of you and will in turn show more of their content to you and more of your content to them. Win-win.

And that’s how to grow your Instagram following—just by starting a light and breezy conversation.

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To read the full article, launch the digital version of the July 2020 magazine.

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