No formula will make all of your Instagram posts go viral, but there are a few things you can do to maximize the performance of each post.
It’s not about timing your posts perfectly, always using 25 hashtags, or applying the ‘Clarendon’ filter. There are no easy tricks or hacks to significantly boost your posts (which also applies to your Instagram strategy as a whole).
However, I’m not here to tell you that it requires a lot of work either. As long as you understand what makes a great Instagram post — all parts of it — applying everything will soon be like second nature to you.
Let’s get to it.
Have Something to Say
When you’ve got something interesting to say, people will listen. Think about your personal life. Your friends want to know if you’re getting married, having a baby, or moving to another city. Posts of that nature always get the most likes and comments.
What people don’t want to hear about is your uneventful weekly trips to buy groceries. There are hardly any surprises in grocery shopping, and studies show that surprises — positive ones even more so — are the key element to virality. People go on Instagram to tickle their emotions, and you buying bread won’t do that.
To put that into a more useful context, nobody wants to see a coffee shop posting a photo of a cup of coffee for the fifth time that week, a fishing store posting a rainy day photo with the caption “Great weather to go catch some pikes 🐟,” or a fashion brand putting up a looping video of someone trying on a beanie. All real examples, by the way.
Unfortunately, Instagram is full of posts like that, because most of the time there isn’t anything significant going on with a small business — or at least anything obviously significant, such as a birthday or a special event. Still, businesses strive to stay top-of-mind with their customers, and so they keep posting mundane content.
Constant uninteresting content leads to Instagram’s algorithm pushing your posts further down on the feed, meaning that you’ll have a harder time reaching people even with the good posts.
On the flip side, if you only post four times in a year, you’ll miss out on a lot of opportunities to make a connection with your audience.
The key is to know your audience
So how do you come up with something to say when nothing special is happening?
It’s actually not that difficult when you know your audience. When you know why your audience is following you — what kind of value they see in following you — it’s easy to post something interesting. Something positively surprising.
Let’s take a personal example again. I have a friend who, like me, is really into Apple products. Whenever I discover a cool new feature, find an interesting app, or stumble upon some intriguing news regarding Apple, I message him about it. Usually, he finds those messages interesting and that leads to a discussion about the subject.
Notice that all of those contain relevant, new, and useful info. I don’t send him photos of the Apple logo, captioning it, “Don’t you just love that iconic glow?”
I know what my “audience” likes. I could easily come up with something Apple-related every day, with enough depth to turn it into a conversation. That’s because I know a lot about the subject — as you do too. You’re the expert of your business.
Be useful and helpful. Tell actual stories related to your business or the problems you’re solving. Share success stories from your audience.
Before you post, ask yourself if this is something you’d show or tell your customer in person. Nobody wins when you post something generic just for the sake of posting.
Say it Well
Instagram is as media focused as it gets. People use Instagram to see interesting things through photos and videos. That’s why your photos and videos need to be good. Not necessarily professional level good, but enough so that the viewing experience doesn’t suffer.
The media should be the centerpiece of the post. Most of the message should be expressed through that. Your caption can give more context, but it shouldn’t be the main piece of the post.
Don’t post a photo of a leaf and write a screen full of text about how you or business have grown throughout the years. That type of story might be really interesting, but try to express it through photos or videos.
Also, try to make your posts simple and digestible. When people are in Instagram mode, their attention spans are notoriously low. They’re looking to receive a constant stream of small endorphin boosts — not something that requires concentration. That’s also the reason you need your media to do the talking. Media is much easier and faster for brains to comprehend than text.
If you have a long story to share with your audience, cut it down in chunks.Or, expand on the subject in your blog and provide a link. Some people might find the story so interesting that they’re ready to put in the effort to read something lengthy. But most won’t, and so don’t force it on them on Instagram.
Stop with the cheap CTAs
It’s no secret that the Instagram algorithm rewards posts that get the most engagement. Not all engagement is equal on Instagram, though. Comments are a much better indication that people find the post interesting.
Unfortunately, that tends to lead to those forced call-to-actions you see every day. Don’t ask people meaningless questions just to get them to comment on your post. Does it matter — to you or to anyone — if someone prefers coffee or tea in the mornings?
I’m not saying that you can’t ask questions. People have insightful opinions and interesting things to say. You just need to ask real questions. Ask questions that could help make your business or product better, and ask questions that result in comments other readers might find useful.
A comment section filled with meaningful comments can be the best part of an Instagram post.
People are eager to share their opinions and personal experiences, as long as you don’t patronize them with pointless questions, with the sole purpose of tricking a comment out of them.
Sometimes you don’t even need to ask questions to get comments. You’ll notice that an interesting post is often all it takes.
Use Hashtags Correctly
Hashtags are your best bet to reaching a new audience regularly. They help Instagram promote your content beyond your own followers.
At the risk of sounding arrogant, I don’t think most people understand how to choose hashtags for their posts. Even hashtag guides from respected sites seem to leave out the proper approach, and they list general advice that has been repeated for years — with no justification whatsoever.
The idea is to understand what most people want to see when they search for a certain hashtag — because this is what Instagram will give the most traction to within that hashtag. When people search for #sustainablefashion, you need to know if they’re looking for outfit inspiration, specific garments, or info about the sustainable fashion movement.
Popular hashtags will have people searching for them for multiple reasons, but it’s enough that you identify what the majority hopes to see. This is also one reason why you want to avoid general hashtags, such as #love, because there’s no clear majority of people looking for something specific.
Most people look at relevant hashtags in their niche, and then they apply those that they deem fitting. If the post is about sustainable fashion, they use #sustainablefashion. But that’s not good enough. You need to know if #sustainablefashion searchers and followers are actually looking for the type of content you’re about to post. If not, there’s no point in using that hashtag.
There’s no need to guess what people want to see from a certain hashtag. Instagram is giving us the data. Simply search for the hashtag and look at the top posts. To avoid getting skewed results, do your research through incognito mode, not logged in.
Examine the top nine posts you see. Don’t just look at the photos. Read the caption and the comments. Try to understand the post as a whole. Instagram is pretty good at knowing what people want to see — and the algorithm is only getting better.
To iron out the variance, do this a few times throughout the day. The more time you spend analyzing the posts, the more you can trust your results.
You’ll end up knowing what most people want to see when they search for that hashtag. Create a list with all the relevant hashtags for your niche, with all of them researched and characterized. The next time you’re posting, you’ll know which hashtags are actually fitting for your post.
Make sure your posts have an interesting message in the first place, say it through a nice photo or a video, keep it simple and digestible, make it easy to engage with, and use actually relevant hashtags.
That’s it. That’s the posting strategy I’ve been using with my account that grew from 4000 followers to 190k in a year, and it works like a charm.
You’ve got this.