Instagram: The Must Dos and the Definitely Don'ts

IG logo

Okay. O.K. I know! I mean what has the world come to when a bird photographer starts writing blog posts on Instagram (IG) right?! I am thinking exactly the same thing...

But hear me out. Like it or loathe it, for the time being at least, IG is here to stay and as scary as it might seem to say this, it's become important

Recently I have seen several high profile photographers join the IG bandwagon and I'm sure they're not doing it for the love of it. I am sure they are doing it because their sponsors have told them they need to. What's more I recently had a client book me because of my IG account. In particular, they wanted to know not only my follower count, but also my engagement rate for my last 10 images: how many people liked my images, how many comments they received and how many views and impressions they garnered.

IG is serious business.

Why? 

Here's why: It has over ONE BILLION USERS who are doing 95 million posts and liking 4.2 billion of them per day (statistics courtesy of Hootsuite).

ONE BILLION USERS means power, influence, moneyONE BILLION USERS matters to anyone trying to sell a product or service, run a political campaign, publish a book or save the world. 

I could go into why the power held by social media giants is, quite frankly, terrifying, but let's just focus on the positives for now. And there are positives. You just need to know how to make the most of them, whilst avoiding the negative fluff that comes with any platform that promotes people who shamelessly promote themselves (and where everyone has a right to comment on it!).

 

The Algorithm

Instagram is driven by an algorithm: basically a computer program/system that Instagram uses to decide whose posts and profiles it shows to you based on who you interact most with, who it thinks you would most like to interact with and who has done a very bad thing and been sent to the IG 'naughty corner' out of sight and sound of anyone on earth.

Let me start by telling you straight up that no-one, not even those self-professed gurus, truly know how the IG algorithm works. At the end of the day, they are just guessing. For example, I know of one 'Influencer' with over 100,000 followers (not a bird photographer) who actively promotes their own 'How to Succeed at Instagram' course, and they have lost over 5,000 followers in the last month and are still going backwards. Yep. 

What I am writing here is based on my own experience and observation over the two years that I have held an account. During that time I have fluctuated from growing 30 followers a day to 100+ a day to losing 50 followers a week! And some of this had nothing to do with what I had done, but was just a result of changes to the algorithm (though admittedly that image of a kangaroo with over-developed genitalia could have been a factor). In the good old days, it was simpler: whenever you posted an image, it was immediately shown to all your followers. This made it easier to grow your account as long as you chose to post at a time when people were most likely to be online.  There were also far fewer 'bird photographers' around so your profile was more likely to be shown to new Instagram users.

Nowadays, there are literally millions more users on Instagram, and growing daily, so competition for new users will also be growing. Further, where your post comes up on other people's Instagram feeds depends on a variety of largely unknown factors with varying degrees of importance. It's complicated and, at least according to Instagram itself, how each of the factors affects your account will vary from individual to individual (in other words, there is no one size fits all solution).  

Factors which could influence the algorithm (and therefore how successful you are) include:

  • how often and when you post;
  • the length of your captions;
  • who do you most engage with (by way of likes, comments, possibly messaging etc);
  • how many likes and/or comments your post generates (and how strongly people react);
  • how many followers you already have and how many followers the people you most engage with have;
  • how many people follow you based on profile views;
  • what photos other bird photographers post (since these are in fact your 'competitors' for viewing space on IG);
  • what hashtags you use (and whether any are 'banned'); 
  • how many people have blocked you and why;
  • whether you have been reported;
  • how much time people spend on your profile or reading your captions;
  • whether you have a Facebook account; and
  • (possibly) how strong you like your coffee...  

The upshot of this is that IG can be completely unpredictable. For this reason, don't hold expectations and don't get upset if your stupendous photo of a fairy-wren does not do as well as someone else's fuzzy photo of a seagull's backside. Quality does not necessarily equal 'airtime' or follower count and success is not dictated by what you do alone. 

IG feed snippit


The Must Dos (if you want to grow your account)

So you've decided to take the plunge and start an Instagram account, or at least to try to grow the one you've had stagnating on 11 ambivalent followers for the last 10 months.  

If you do the things that I suggest below, it is more likely than not that you will grow your account, but be warned, doing those things give you no guarantee of success and your account might not grow at all for some unknown reason.

DO (in order of importance, at least as I see it ):

 

One

Post Often.

This never used to be a thing (I remember happily not posting for a month and growing faster than when I did post!), but it definitely is a big factor in the current Instagram magical algo. How often should I post? Definitely more than once a week and ideally at least once a day (and if you have the images and the energy, three times a day (spread out) is best). 
Two

Be Pithy in your Bio... and Make your FEED Pretty.

Your profile (Bio and photo) and latest 9 images of your feed are the first things that people will see when they go to your account. If you want to grow, even more important than individual posts (very few people actually decide to follow you based on one photo) is the OVERALL impression you give on this page. This is where they follow or unollow. So you have to make your account something that people want to see more of. You do this by having a good profile photo (or icon), an intriguing or inviting Bio and a 'pretty' feed.

Be pithy (as my sister rather unhelpfully told me when I had to give a speech for my award at WPY): How do you do that?I can't tell you what to write in your Bio, but what I can say is that "Tom from Bandoo" probably won't do.  Take a look at what others (successful accounts) have written in their Bios and see what seems to work. As an example, Nike says: "If you have a body, you are an athlete" and then ends with a call to action hashtag: '#justdoit'. What statement best represents you and what do you want to achieve with your IG account? Make this your Bio and include a call to action if you can. Keep it simple.

 

My Profile
 
Pretty (or otherwise impressive) feed: It's a sad fact that we live in an utterly superficial world where good looks count. So how your latest nine images look as a whole counts.  That is one of the reasons why some IG accounts do much better than others. It's not that they have better photos, but that the look of their photos as a whole is more coherent and appealing. People usually do this one of two ways:

 

(1) by processing each image in a  similar way (eg all the bird photos are closely cropped, warmed, brightened and saturated); or
(2) only posting images that will look complimentary to the previous images.

  

I prefer the second way. Lately I have been trying to do this using a (free) app (UNUM) that allows me to preview how the new image will look alongside my existing feed. Take a look at my recent feed below: it has a nice 'feel' to it (I think) even though the individual images are actually very different?
   
 
IG Feed

 

The proof is in the pudding. Even though my individual images haven't always performed well, overall my follower count has grown to over +100 followers per day. Check out the screenshot below:

 

Follower count

    Three

    Post Quality.

    This ties in with the previous point in that if your images aren't great quality, then they probably won't look good on your profile anyway.  Though quality alone wont get you to grow, all things being equal it will definitely help.    

    Four

     Use Hashtags.

    I know some people seem to think that using hashtags is akin to 'selling your soul' but I think that, if you are on social media, you have already made the decision to sell yourself (through your work). That is what social media does - so why not use it properly?

    These days people search and follow hashtags. So you use them not to get picked up by hubs (though that is a bonus) but to be seen, full stop. For instance, the image below was not re-posted by any of the hubs that I tagged, BUT if you look at the statistics,  it had 21,825 impressions from hashtags alone. If I had not used a hashtag (and by the way, it's ok to put them in the comments section), this post would have been seen by 50% fewer people. 

    screenshot

     

    The other thing to note about this image is that although it had over 6000 likes and 190 comments, in terms of actual direct followers it only generated 14!  If my account is growing in excess of 100 followers per day, that means that they must be reaching me through other means than via this post (and my best guess is it's the 'pretty' image feed that is a large part of the difference).   

    Five

    Lighten. Brighten. Crop.

    I'm afraid that this point really does involve selling your soul. There is no doubting that bird images that are lighter and brighter (and often super cropped), do better than darker, moody or small in the frame photos.  I have tested this theory and my moody images never do as well as the bright ones (see below).

    Here are the most successful images that I've posted this year: 

    Successful images

    These are my least successful images:

     

    least Successful images

    See a pattern? 

    As I mentioned above, bird photographers routinely over-lighten and 'warm' images to make them more appealing (and almost never post birds small in the frame) and it works - you will see their numbers growing rapidly. 

    At some stage you need to make a decision about how important it is for you to get more followers versus your artistic principles. I have been able to do well (for the moment) despite posting many dark or bird in the environment types of shots and I think this is because my 'feed' overall is still appealing.

    The danger of compromising your artistic soul and buying into the 'fast food' of bird photography (as someone called it) is that you risk becoming one of a number. Because so many have accounts like this, you have to ask yourself how is YOUR ACCOUNT any different to everyone else's? So you end up with a lot of followers but do you know what? There will soon be so many bird photographers with 20K plus followers that numbers will cease to matter and what will matter more than anything else will be a POINT of DIFFERENCE. What is yours? Find it. Promote it. Guard it with your life because that is what makes you special.

    Maybe Dos 

    There are many people who will tell you that you have to post videos, do daily stories (500 million people use Stories every day - yikes) and reply to every single comment to grow your following. All I can say is that I don't do daily stories (I'll do a story or re-post someone else's story very occasionally), I don't watch stories, I don't have a single Highlight, I almost never post a video, I rarely look through my Feed, I rarely thank hubs for re-posting my photos and I'm still growing just fine thank you very much.  

    So yes I have no doubt that these things probably help, but they are not as important as the Five items I have listed above. If you value your time, just don't feel like it or don't want to spend your life in IG, then don't bother. They're not a game changer.

    Definitely Don'ts

    On the other hand, these are game changers. Consider this as your IG List of Commandments. Whatever you do, DON'T:

    • Use offensive language. This goes without saying but social media is not the place for offensive or abusive language or comments of any kind. Ever.  Leaving morality aside, it will also be a fast track to getting banned by the platform or having someone somewhere report you, with the same result.  
    • Reference (positively or negatively) an Instagram, Facebook or What'sApp competitor. I have seen this happen. A bird photographer had #Snapchat in their profile. This person never gained a single follower for over 12 months. I suggested that the person remove the reference to Snapchat  and, having done so, immediately their account began to grow again. 
    • Spend hours liking and commenting on every random post in the hope that its author will return the compliment. Firstly, the Instagram algorithm will probably identify your behaviour as 'spamming' and your profile/photos will be discreetly moved to the back of the queue (in other words, hardly anyone will see your images)  and secondly, it's much better for people to find you naturally. You want quality followers and quality engagement. Don't sell yourself short. Be positive. Do the Dos.
      • Follow and unfollow. Some people follow squillions of people to lure them into following them, and then unfollow them. Not cool. I doubt it works that well and in any event, you want 'organic' growth - in other words you want people to follow you because they are genuinely interested in you (ps I, too, hate the way people bandy the word 'organic' about like it's the hottest thing since drive through coffee outlets, but in this case it's actually quite apposite...honestly...).
      • Spend hours trawling through an Instagram Followers app trying to work out who has un-followed you, or blocked you, or isn't commenting quite as often as you'd like. This is a recipe for unending angst, my friend. When I first started using Instagram I got so worried if anyone unfollowed me and wondered what I had done. Well, here's the good news: 99% of the time IT'S NOT YOU. People unfollow for many reasons - maybe they died, maybe they decided to eliminate social media from their life (probably a good idea), maybe they only wanted you to follow them back or maybe their ex-boyfriend got the phone and decided to get revenge. The more followers you have, the more people will unfollow you each day - that's a fact. At 45,000 followers, I estimate that probably at least 30-50 people might unfollow me each day. The trick to growth (if that is your goal) is to have more people follow you, than unfollow you. Soooo, DELETE that Followers App.You don't need it. Stop stressing about what everyone else is doing or not doing. You do You, as Sarah Knight would say.
      • Compromise ethics or act illegally. One of the biggest problems for nature photography that social media has caused is that many people have become obsessed with getting a photo to post. I have heard more and more stories of people using call playback with speakers (over and over again), getting too close to nests, live baiting and illegally entering areas - just to get a photo. None of my images on social media are of nesting birds or have been taken using call playback or live baiting - in fact I have never used those things to get a photo - and I am doing pretty darned well. So the excuse that you are doing it to promote the love for birds is not going to wash with me.  I am proof that you don’t need to do any of those things to spread a love of birds. It’s not like the good ‘ol days anymore with one or two birders where impacts were minimal. There are one billion users on Instagram (also a local WA bird group on Facebook alone has grown from a couple of hundred to 17,000 members in the last two years) - just imagine how many bird photographers are out there and if they all do those things then our poor birdlife will be significantly impacted - and the rarer the bird the more dire the potential consequences.We have to start considering the cumulative effect of our actions and start changing our methods. Always put the bird before the image: #ethicsbeforeimages.  [Ps I am planning to run a social media Nature Photography Ethics Education Campaign in the future as I think many people new to nature photography are not even aware there is any issue. If you are interested in helping, please send me an email].
      • Let the bastards get you down. As I said above, it's just a communication tool - no more, no less. If it's not working for you, you don't have the time or it's making you a paranoid maniac, take a break or delete it altogether.  

      Troubleshooting

      As I have said above, nobody knows exactly why sometimes your account goes from hero to zero, but it does seem to happen to most people sooner or later. If that does happen to you, I suggest you do the following:

      • Delete any Post or Highlight that you made around or shortly before the time the decline started.
      • Have a break for a few days or weeks (or years). When you come back, post quality content, often (at least once a day) and shamelessly use some of your most popular images to build up momentum again.  
      • Smile and wave... smile and wave.

      NEVER FORGET: Instagram is just a social communication tool. Success, or perceived lack of it, is governed by an unknown set of factors and is not a reflection of you or the value of your photography.  

       

      Muskipping

      Happy Posting (and Mudskipping)! 

       

        Did you find this article helpful? Is there anything else you'd like to know about bird photography? If so, please be sure to leave a comment.
        I would really love to hear from you!
         

         

         

         

         

         


        3 comments

        • Wow!
          Thank you Georgina.
          It’s as though you heard all my concerns and answered them one by one. (Serendipitously, I even posted a photo of a fairy-wren the day you posted this article. And, you know that fuzzy seagull photo, well. . . no, I didn’t see that particular one. . . but. . . !)
          I will sleep so much better tonight. Thank you again
          :)evelyn
          Launceston, Tasmania

          Evelyn
        • Thanks Georgina ! Keep on doing you (of course it helps when ‘you’ is a pretty decent person too :)
          Love your ethics and work
          - all the best ! 😊

          Mark Jones
        • Hello Georgina,
          Another fabulous newsletter and I have totally enjoyed it, this whole Instagram thing had me fizzed too, I was going to ditch my account a while back from the pure frustration of ruining images for the “silly” crop size and can’t agree more it is going to create a culture for the young and seasoned alike that this is how we should view a “good” image?
          It’s only thanks to so many lovely people and the shear fact that I think like you it is almost, do I say it necessary to have a Insta account to share your images in this modern world we live.
          This whole algorithm thingo is another thing all together, just makes me believe there must be Aliens living in this world to come up with this rubbish, oh well we have to deal with it, If people follow your tips above in this article I think there is some hope though, a great image is a great image, if just you or 100,000 people think so is all that truely matters, we shouldn’t be put off by numbers or how many likes or comments you receive, learn from them, but most of all share your work, get it out there….
          So many talented artists create so much amazing work it would be shame not to see it in the first place.
          Kindest regards
          Michael

          Michael Jury

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