I was recently invited to Collective Chemistry, a co-working space in Seattle, to share my experience with Instagram. The talk was part of a series to provide freelance designers a place to learn and converse together. It was an amazing experience for me and the perfect opportunity for reflection on all I have learned in building a strong Instagram following.

I would love to share these reflections with a broader audience, including my Instagram community. Each of the sections below could easily be expanded as its own post. However, my purpose in this post is to provide a broad overview as a landscape in which readers can find context, new areas to pursue, and their own stories within each section.

Feel free to join the discussion by offering your own tips or asking for elaboration in the comments!

iPhone in hand showing Instagram account open, with artwork in background

The start of @drawntosketching

Three years ago, I dove into an experiment with Instagram. I made my first post on a whim, brought on by the pressing urge to fill a sketchbook. Recently, both my Nana and Mom passed away. They each left behind partially filled sketchbooks. I couldn’t let them remain that way, with their unfinished pages more evidence of their absence from our lives. So, I resolved to fill the pages in their memory.

That was all the motivation I needed to rediscover my affinity for sketching. As I started, I thought that having a place to share the artwork along the way would help me maintain my momentum to reach my goal. Beyond that, I had very little expectation of what could be gained from using Instagram as the platform for my endeavor.

Three years after my first post to @drawntosketching, I have published almost 650 more posts, and earned the support of over 35,000 followers. Through this growth, I have gained valuable insights into using Instagram to reach out to and engage a broad audience, while targeting and attracting niche crowds as well.

This has spawned personal and professional growth, as well as an unexpected and increasing income. As my account has evolved from a hobby to a business, I am learning how best to connect with and convert my ideal clients and customers. This article is about some of the things I have learned along the way, and though it is specific to my experience as an artist, I believe many of the concepts will translate to other accounts.

Pencil sketch of trees, lake, and mountain
My first Instagram post!
Pen sketch of Yosemite National Park
Artist Jonny Bobgan holding wood plank with pen sketch
Artist Jonny Bobgan holding acrylic landscape painting on wood
Interior mural of sunrise over mountains

Instagram Basics

Many people in their rush to get started or their desire to be creative overlook some of the basics. While these may appear to be minor details, they can be foundational for your online presence.

Account Name

Your account name should be memorable, easy to spell, and descriptive. This is not a place for creative spelling and special characters. You should be able to tell someone your account name without explanation and it should be easy for them to remember.

If your name is not a brand name, you can make it something relevant to what you do. My account name, @drawntosketching requires no explanation and it instantly communicates that I am an artist with an unrefined style.

Another great benefit of using key words in your name is the increased likelihood of showing up in search results!

Profile Description

Your profile description serves as your introduction to potential new followers. You wouldn’t introduce yourself in person with a funny quote or a confusing series of emojis. Quickly explain who you are, what you are there for, and what’s in it for your followers.

Instagram Stories

Instagram Stories is a place to give your audience a look behind the scenes. This is a great place to share content that might not be suitable for a regular post, or to tell the story of a recent or future post.

Your Instagram Stories provide a wonderful opportunity to initiate direct messages with potential customers. If they reply to your stories, it will create conversation in a direct message. In the same way, replying to the Instagram Stories of others provide a great way for you to engage with accounts you want to be noticed by.

Screenshot of @drawntosketching Instagram account

Hashtagging

Be thoughtful with your hashtags and experiment with a balance of general and specific tags. If you use general hashtags—such as #sketch and #drawing in my case—your post will show up in a busy feed with a major following. However, your post will be pushed down the page and swallowed up quickly by all the other posts using those tags. On the other hand, using a specific tag—such as #iblackwork and #tenkara—you will show up in a quieter feed with a smaller following. The benefit to this is that it will remain higher in the feed , giving it a longer lifespan.

You will also have a higher chance to show up in “Top Posts”, which features the best 9 posts in that hashtag over an extended period of time. Ultimately, the most effective hashtags are those that are not only relevant to your work, but increase the opportunity to be featured on a bigger account, which I will cover later.

Geotagging

Geotagging your posts is another great way to be discovered. I have found no reason to neglect geotagging my posts with my general or exact location. Whether I am at a cafe, working from home, or on the road, I geotag my posts. Not only is it a way to show up in another feed, you are able to target local audiences and potential clients and customers.

Explore Tab

This is where engagement can really pay off in visibility. You will show up in people’s Explore tabs when you are using the tags they are actively engaged with. You will also show up when users in their community are engaging with your account. The same goes for the Following tab in your notifications, where you see what accounts and posts your community is currently engaging.

In the Top 9 for #scribbles
In the Top 9 for Maple Valley, Washington
Screenshot of my explore tab

The Benefits of Accountability

Personal Accountability

Instagram keeps me accountable to my sketching goals. It gives me a chronological and visual record of my artwork, making it obvious when days go by without putting my pen to paper. I knew this reminder would be a good “stick” to keep driving me forward.

What I didn’t anticipate was all the “carrots”! The encouragement from friends and strangers, in the form of kudos and specific requests for new artwork have been far more motivating than any realization that I haven’t posted in a while. This encouragement has resulted in thousands of hours of sketching, and has profoundly influenced me to grow and evolve as an artist.

Accountability to followers

As important as the accountability to post regularly, my audience has held me accountable for producing solid and consistent content, and has encouraged me to explore new ideas and approaches to my style.

The Instagram community serves as an instant, crowd-sourced review of my artwork. Some posts I thought were exceptional failed to hit the mark with my target audience, while others that I nearly didn’t publish because I felt they weren’t good enough, were highly successful. Don’t let your audience force you to betray yourself or your brand, but let the feedback help guide your growth.

If you feel like you are taking a risk by posting content that could lack the quality or consistency of your regular posts, provide your audience with context or a question for them to provide feedback. Invite your audience to engage with you in discussion about your work. They will feel valued and you will reap the rewards of real conversation with your audience and potential customers.

Don’t let your audience force you to betray yourself or your brand, but let the feedback help guide your growth.

Six months ago, I posted a poorly recorded time lapse of me scribbling a quick, raw landscape with my 4-year-old daughter joining in to color it. Surprisingly, the short clip earned over 23,500 views on my account, and many more views on several popular accounts that featured it. This kind of feedback has no doubt given me to confidence to explore, evolve, and even risk a bit over the last few years.

Don’t let your audience force you to betray yourself or your brand, but let the feedback help guide your growth.

Standing Out

One of the biggest challenges on Instagram is standing out in a flood of phenomenal imagery. Posting beautiful images alone is not likely to gain you a quick following, but posting beautiful images that tell a unique story, or tell a familiar story better than others or in a new way, will stop the crowds from scrolling past your images or backing out of your account.

Hashtags

In addition to the basics of hashtags (described above) they can be used to follow the right accounts. If you neglect this use of hashtags, no matter how powerful your content may be, it may never be seen by those it would impact most. I have seen incredible artists, far more talented than I, with a small following, and in many cases it is because they aren’t using Instagram as strategically as they could be.

Style

I stand out with my unique style of artwork. But it has taken time for me to understand and refine that style. It’s established and detailed enough to impress followers, but rough enough to appear honest and full of character. Understanding my style and how others perceive it has empowered me to further refine my work. And the more my style is refined, the more it stands out.

This understanding evolved and solidified through feedback. Without the feedback, my assumptions may have lead me to believe I should be producing more realistic, refined, and accurate drawings. On the other hand, understanding my style also helps me know which feedback, while always appreciated, should be incorporated in my future work.

Posting beautiful images that tell a unique story, or tell a familiar story better than others or in a new way, will stop the crowds from scrolling past your images or backing out of your account.

Maintain a beautiful spread that tells your story

Successful Instagramers need to maintain a beautiful spread that instantly tells their story. Your feed is an art gallery or brochure of your brand, and should be presented as such. You wouldn’t pay big money for a printed brochure and include a photo that doesn’t effectively and attractively represent your brand or services.

Your last 9 posts can make or break a follow or a potential customer connection. Be yourself, but if you have an art account, focus on your art. Don’t post a bunch of photos of things in your life, like your cat or what you are eating.

That being said, every once in a while, you may want to throw in an occasional plot twist to stay fresh and reach out to new people.

@mountain_lines Instagram feed with conceptual illustrations
@mountain_lines illustrates familiar content in a unique style with a lot of conceptual work.
@drawntohighplaces feed with adventure and colorful watercolor
@drawntohighplaces is adventurous, colorful, and very much has her own style.
@wolfandbear.co Instagram feed showing elegant and clean illustrations
@wolfandbear.co does beautiful work with an elegant and clean approach. Using props helps set a tone for their feed.

Community

Reach more people

First and foremost, Instagram should be about authentic relationships, not numbers.

The Instagram community is a massive, global audience ready to see your content. When I started my account, I saw this as a potential flaw. I didn’t think the community could be very personal with its millions of strangers. “Likes” can be an almost thoughtless act. Followers can just be following because they want a follow-back, so they come and go.

Of my 35,000 followers, typically about 5% “like” each of my posts. However, I have discovered that the larger my reach, the smaller and more personal Instagram starts to feel. I receive more thoughtful comments from my loyal fans, as well as more personal messages and requests to purchase my artwork.

To grow my following, I have found that reaching out to new audiences is possible without being inconsistent with my content. For example, the video of my daughter and me sketching together satisfied my current followers with the outdoor subject matter, but it was also met with a flood of new followers. They were less interested in the outdoor adventure culture where I have my core audience, and more interested in family lifestyle.

Occasionally, I make it my mission to incorporate a trending subject matter with the proper hashtags, especially when it increases the likelihood of getting featured by an account with a unique audience. In doing this, about 2/3 of my hashtags are fairly consistent, pertaining to sketching and outdoors, while 1/3 of my hashtags are unique and used to reach new pockets of the Instagram community.

Instagram should be about authentic relationships, not numbers.

Engage with people

Without engagement, there are no relationships, no loyalty, and minimal reach.

Engagement can be as simple as responding to people’s comments on your posts, or it can be as active as doing giveaways relevant to your account. One of my favorite methods of engaging with my current and potential new followers is collaborating with fellow artists and friends.

Collaborations can serve as a personal introduction to new audiences. More importantly, they can build lasting, mutually beneficial relationships with business partners and even competitors. It’s a friendly way of doing business together without risk or investment. My most successful form of collaboration has been working with other artists to create something new by combining our talents.

My friend Nikki, @drawntohighplaces, is an insanely talented artist working primarily in pen and watercolor. We have created several pieces together and given them away to our audiences, who participate by following both of our accounts and tagging their friends in the comments.

I have another great friend, Jared @mountain_lines, who I met on Instagram a few years ago. Not only have we grown alongside each other as artists and Instagramers, we have collaborated on numerous projects and he recently visited the U.S. from South Africa. It was amazing to have him spend a few days in the mountains of the Northwest with me after a long-time friendship on Instagram.

Without engagement, there are no relationships, no loyalty, and minimal reach.
Collection of artwork for giveaway
Giveaway with fellow artists and friends, @drawntohighplaces , @nick_terrel , @alexapland .
Illustration collaboration between @drawntosketching and @mountain_lines
Art collaboration and giveaway with @mountain_lines.
Art collaboration and giveaway with @drawntohighplaces
Art collaboration and giveaway with @drawntohighplaces.

Follows and Likes

Don’t follow-for-follow, like-for-like, or pay for illegitimate followers and likes. Respect yourself.

If you’re in it for the numbers on your profile, it will be obvious to your followers and you will struggle gaining the loyalty of a real audience. Follow and engage with relevant accounts that genuinely interest you.

It’s also important to maintain a low level of followings. If you follow thousands of accounts, people might perceive it as a shameless method to gain followers by following. Not only is it impossible to truly follow that many, it dilutes the value of each following.

As with following, only like relevant content, especially those posts with similar hashtags to your own. This will not only give you a more relevant and enjoyable explore tab, but the Instagram algorithm will recognize that you are using hashtags that actually interest you.

Lastly, I keep my personal Instagram account separate. This ensures consistency in my Instagram artwork community, and prevents distractions when I’m using my account during business hours.

Slightly Manipulative Tactics

There are other proven methods of increasing your success on Instagram that may be viewed as slightly manipulative. If you practice any of these, I strongly encourage you to be genuinely interested in the accounts with whom you engage, and keep the motive of capturing an audience secondary.

After posting something, instantly go through your own hashtags to “like” and engage other posts using that tag. The Instagram algorithm will recognize you as a real user, and it is those people that will be most interested in your content.

Another tactic is to go to accounts with similar target audiences and engage with them and their followers in the comments.

Don’t follow-for-follow, like-for-like, or pay for illegitimate followers and likes. Respect yourself.

Get Featured

Getting featured by a large account is the fastest way to earn a boost of followers. But it’s not just the size of the account that’s important. I was recently messaged by an account with 500,000 followers asking me to pay them to feature me. Upon looking at the posts, there was no consistency of content and less engagement per post than I had on my own. What makes an account worth chasing for a feature is its visibility into—and influence on—your target market.

To make the most of your efforts when going after feature accounts by using their hashtag(s), it’s best to gauge how likely a feature would be, as well as how relevant their followers are to you.

The two accounts I have been featured on the most are @insta_blackwork and @pnwonderland. @insta_blackwork is a solid account for me to be featured by because they have a massive following that likes and comments on posts, and often follows featured artists like myself. @pnwonderland, on the other hand, only occasionally features artists other than photographers, but their followers are my core target audience for my outdoor-inspired artwork, and the mostly likely to become customers.

@drawntosketching feature on @pnwonderland Instagram account
One of my posts featured by @pnwonderland

Closing

Ultimately, the wisdom I have gained from my adventures on Instagram is this: Instagram is an amazing community, and the ideal platform to connect with and convert your ideal clients and customers. Never stop listening to your audience, and be willing to adapt and evolve, while staying true to your brand.

And of course, never stop having fun!

Join the discussion by offering your own tips or asking for elaboration in the comments!

I will soon be publishing an article about tools used for Instagram analytics, as well as tips for managing your account. Sign up for the newsletter below!

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