January 13, 2019
I haven’t blogged in a long time, partly because I’ve been building a house (more on that later) but I wanted to share some thoughts on Instagram with other makers. Keep in mind that I'm still learning, and I know I'm risking sounding like a know-it-all on a topic that I'm just beginning to understand. I started researching and working on a new strategy for my account this fall, around September. I tested out ideas myself, seeing how well they worked, rather than following the advice of any one marketing “expert.” There are so many people out there, trying to get you to buy a class on how to gain 1000 followers, or some similar goal. The thing is, everyone’s account is different, so you need to learn what works for you and decide on your own goals. That’s not going to come from a consultant. I had to spend some time. What also motivated me to spend time was I was helping to manage an account for an arts organization (Etsy Metal) and I wanted to figure out what the best practices were. If there are people depending on me I tend to do a little more research about anything I’m going to do! Since then, my account grew from about 1200 to 7800 followers, and currently gains at a rate of 50 to 150 new followers per day. So I thought I'd share what I did to get there.
That follower gain sounds great, but what’s actually important on Instagram (and for your business in general) is not large numbers of followers. In fact, large numbers can be a problem. If you’re the kind of person who likes to focus on a number (I’m not!) right now that number is your engagement rate. It’s a measure of how interested in your account viewers are. You also need to look in “insights” (Instagram’s stats for business accounts) and see how likely they are to click through to your website and make a purchase. Since I’ve been spending time learning how Instagram works, sales from my account have been slowly increasing. Yesterday I posted a photo of some earrings, and shortly after three sales showed up on my website and one on Etsy. Although sales are always great, what I’ve learned is that there’s value in finding your people on Instagram that goes beyond that. Even more valuable than sales is the feedback I get from customers and other makers, and the community aspect of Instagram. No more guessing which product will be popular, and how many I should make. Instagram lets me know, and it’s amazingly accurate. So I really recommend spending a little time figuring out how to make Instagram work for you. I can’t really tell you what that is, just what works for me, but if you’re another maker with a handmade business there may be similarities and I think I have some of the basics figured out.
The first thing I learned about Instagram is that follower count is not important. Engagement rate is. Have you ever seen accounts with 50k followers (some of them are giving advice on Instagram!) and been puzzled as to why they only have about 70 likes and 2-3 comments on each post? Maybe they’ve asked you if you wanted to pay them to feature your work, hoping you’ll consider them “influencers” based on their follower count. These accounts likely grew in followers with the help of some type of automation. Sometimes you’ll notice that they don’t use hashtags, or only use a couple that don’t really apply to their post. They didn’t need them with automation. Instagram has now been able to block some of the apps that automate likes, comments and follows. These apps would result in large numbers of followers who didn’t engage (like or comment) and are partly why Instagram now ranks posts based on engagement rate. This removed the incentive to use them, and made them detrimental. Things are very difficult now for accounts that grew using automation. If you’re considering advertising with an influencer (I haven’t at this time) always check engagement rate and see who is actually engaging. Make sure they’re real people.
Instagram used to show posts in chronological order and it would show your posts to all of your followers, so if they just scrolled enough or viewed at the right time, your post would be there, in order of when it was posted. This is why follower count was traditionally so important. Now that Instagrams ranks posts based on engagement, while your posts may still be in your followers' feeds, they will be higher or lower based on engagement rate. So make engagement your new goal, if you were focusing on followers. To calculate engagement rate, add up likes and comments for a post, divide by number of followers, times 100. You can average your last three posts, or even last 30 days. Instagram probably averages recent posts to rank you. There are also calculators you can use if you google “Instagram engagement rate calculator.”
Around 1% or less is considered poor engagement, 2-3 percent is good, and anything over 4 is pretty good, especially for a larger account that may have gained followers when automation was allowed. Mine’s currently at about 7 and has actually been increasing as my followers increase. It’s common for larger or older accounts to have less engagement, because they gained followers when engagement rate wasn’t important and automation was common. New larger accounts should not have the same issue. Something to look into if you have a larger, older account is trying to identify and remove non-engaged followers. You should also pay more attention to your hashtags. General hashtags can lead to new non-engaged followers, because people following those hashtags might not be as interested in your account as your specific audience is. If you have a poor engagement rate and a high number of followers, you can remove (block) a few followers a day. There are probably a lot of different ways to identify accounts that are non-engaged, sometimes called ghost accounts or fake accounts. It’s not something I’ve done yet, so I won’t go into that too much, but it’s something I’ll be doing as my account grows.
Since Instagram places your posts higher or lower everywhere they can be visible based on your engagement, something to consider is that posting too often (more than every 12-24 hours) might cause your posts to compete with each other and each get less engagement. Posting once a day has been working best for me. You can help draw attention to your posts by posting stories daily or even a couple of times during the day. However, if you only post a story in a day, that won’t do much, as you can probably see from your insights if you have a business account. The reach for a story is much than for a post that has the right hashtags for your niche, but it can boost that day’s post, slightly increasing your engagement rate. So if you have time, stories may give you a slight increase in engagement for that day’s post, but it’s not something to focus on if you haven’t first addressed the basics, meaning hashtags, and you still need to post daily. If I don’t post daily, and post a story, I still gain followers. Maybe 40 instead of 60. But looking in insights, I can see exactly where they came from and it’s not from stories, it’s from recent posts that have been featured in top posts for one of more hashtags. So while stories may keep you slightly more visible, it’s hashtags that will help the followers you want to discover you.
A common attitude used to be that using all of the allowed 30 hashtags will make you look spammy, and that you should only use a few “fun” hastags. Using hastags that have numbers over 1 million just because they’re fun words to use may get you the wrong kind of followers. Your hashtags should be specific to your audience, and have numbers in the thousands to a few hundred thousand, although this depends on how much engagement you have. If your posts are getting 500-1000 likes and dozens of comments consistently, you might try a few hashtags with higher numbers, say 500,000 to 800,000, because Instagram with rank your post higher in hashtag searches and be more likely to show it to people following that hashtag. Just make sure they fit your audience. It’s okay to include a few especially relevant ones with high numbers (even just under or over a million) if you think your post is engaging enough to stay at the top posts for a while, but only if your engagement (not engagement rate but the actual number of likes and comments) is high. If it isn’t that high, that won’t work for you. Your post will probably only show up in that hashtag for less than a second. Stick to hashtags with much lower numbers. This will improve your engagement rate, but do include a range of smaller and larger ones. The larger ones may give your post a boost for the short time you’re visible there, but if your account typically has 50 likes, a larger hashtag for you might be one with 500K, not one with 500M.
So how do you decide which hashtags to use? Research them in search, looking at related hashtags, paying attention to numbers and visuals. Make sure a hashtag means what you think it means. The overall look of a hashtag has to appeal to your audience. People follow hashtags based on visuals. Chances are if you have a handmade business your target audience on Instagram is a mix of customers and other makers. Other makers are good to have as followers because they tend to be very engaged. They’re on IG working on engagement for their own accounts. So mix in a few hashtags like “silversmith” along with things like “handmadependant.” Community hashtags like “instasmithy” are good to mix in with ones like “showmeyourrings. Broad hastags like “etsyseller” are being posted several times a second, so your post will be pushed out of sight quickly and possibly never be seen. Find hashtags by browsing and make note of the numbers and look of each hashtag. Also look at accounts that have high engagement in your niche for best practices with hashtags. Save hashtag sets to use over and over, only changing a few that relate to the specifics of your post. It’s okay to use many of the same hashtags for each post. There used to be some advice to the contrary, but I haven’t found it to be correct.
You can use hashags in stories. Story hashtags are useful because for some hashtags, your story has a chance to be featured at the top of the hashtag page (check and see if this is the case for the hashtag you’re considering) but it’s bit of a long shot. If your engagement is high, it might work occasionally.
Bring in your customers
To help engagement, you should invite your customers to follow you. Give them an incentive like Instagram only coupon codes, or giveaways if you want to. Let them know that they can see one of a kind pieces there before they’re available for sale. Make sure your customers know you’re using Instagram actively. Feature it on the first page of your website. Ask questions about what people would like to see for new items, and post photos of custom orders (if they’re not surprise gifts) so that the customer can comment. Ask customers to DM you photos of your work they’ve taken. Sometimes these are great, and often people like the opportunity to have their account mentioned, especially if your account is larger. Share a little bit about your life as it relates to your craft, but don’t overshare, share depressing things, or post excessively long captions. While it can inspire more comments, in the end, no one really likes that. Only use shots of yourself wearing your work if they’re attractive and engaging and you’re able to take great photos. Otherwise have a friend model and include a few shots of yourself that someone else has taken. A lot of people go to Instagram for an inside look into your craft business, so post about your creative process. Drawings, materials, etc. give people something more to engage with than posting just product photos. You won’t get good engagement with product photos alone. I know everyone says “tell a story” and “depict a lifestyle” but it’s true. Those in progress shots and shots of products being worn or in arranged together in styled photos are important. Your life and your creative process is probably more interesting than you think it is. Capture them with a well taken photo and well written caption. I’m still learning this… it’s a work in progress. I’ve never liked sharing too much about myself. Recently I posted a selfie for the first time in a long time. People want to see you and a glimpse into your life occasionally, but too much of your face or your studio or your dog or cat isn’t a good thing. It doesn’t add a lot to repeat those things. Your face is something they’re curious about, but once they’ve seen it they probably don’t need to see it again for a while.
Engage with other accounts
If you only have time to do one thing, focus on using the right hashtags for your audience. If you have more time, you should like, comment and follow accounts in your target audience. Post genuine comments that are specific to the post even if they’re short. You should actually like what you’re liking and have something to say about what you’re commenting on, otherwise don’t. Be authentic. I always tried to limit my time on social media, and I had to learn to like scrolling through Instagram. I think what I’ve really learned to appreciate is the community aspect. It’s the most interactive place to spend your time, and for that reason, right now it seems to be the most worthwhile. I don’t see that changing any time soon.
For me, minimalism, light, using the whole frame, and being spontaneous (not using predictable patterns) has been the most effective, but a variety of styles can work. I think it’s good to have some consistency in photo style so that your feed is visually pleasing as a whole, but don’t just post product photos over and over or use alternating predictable patterns. Being that repetitive a terrible idea. Novelty is better. Use a combination of macro and distance shots. Show your products in motion or in use. Use video and photos that create curiosity, where the subject isn’t immediately discernable and needs viewing time. I’m pretty sure that Instagram takes this viewing time into account when they rank your post. The biggest mistake for a small handmade business on Instagram is removing the personal aspect and behaving like a larger business, posting only product photos.
Posting at a certain time of day may or may not be important (I think it’s less important now and Instagram shows your posts to people for a longer time) but you should check your insights (stats for business accounts) to see peak viewing times for your followers. Don’t use a general guide like “The best time to post Tuesdays is at 2 pm” because you have stats to show you your own best time on Tuesdays. Scheduling can help you stay on track and posting at the right times. You should post once a day. If you’re posting too frequently, more than 12-24 hours apart, your posts will probably be seen by fewer people. The same applies if you post only a couple of times a week. I use Planoly, and it does have a feature where it will post to Instagram for you. This is allowed and approved by Instagram, so your account won’t be hurt by it. At least that’s the official word, but I’ve always been skeptical of automated anything on Instagram (turns out with good reason) so I’ve avoided that feature.
I’m still working on all of the things I’ve discussed and I’ll certainly post an update as I learn more! But I thought I’d share what I’ve learned, with my account as the guinea pig, so other makers can benefit and not have to do a lot of time consuming research, join groups, or buy classes. I want to learn more, so if you have your own insights please post in comments!
January 16, 2019
Super-helpful post. Thank you for sharing!
January 16, 2019
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