As a writer, landing a book deal has always been a huge goal of mine. But in early conversations with literary agents, much of the feedback was the same: “Your book idea is great,” they’d say. “But you need to grow your following significantly in order for us to sell this to a publisher.”
When I started those meetings, I had just under 5K Instagram followers, and I realized I needed to get real about growing an audience before I could try again. But I also recognized that it’s not enough to simply have a large following. Your audience needs to be engaged and invested in the content you’re creating. Vanity metrics won’t work for this one: If your followers don’t actually know who you are or what you do, they’re far less likely to buy your book—or product, or music—when it comes out.
Since those first meetings, I’ve more than tripled my following to 20.3K. And I’ve done it intentionally, with the long game in mind. By that, I mean I’ve determined what kind of content aligns with my long term goals, and by building engagement with other members of communities I hope to become an integral part of. It can seem intimidating at first, but if you use a growth strategy that fits with your gifts and passions, amassing a following can be done quickly and effectively. Here are three ways I’ve grown an authentic, engaged audience.
1. Follow the yellow brick hashtags.
Through the wildernesss of the audience-building process, let hashtags light your path! Hashtags are the best way to discover accounts similar to yours, or who care about the same things you do. So work backwards. If your career goal is to be a sustainability expert, which hashtags would sustainability advocates follow? Plus, Instagram has a helpful feature that shows you smaller related hashtags for each major hashtag.
When you find accounts of people who meet your “customer alias” (in other words, someone who would be the perfect reader, customer, or follower for your content or business), engage with them. Comment on their photo thoughtfully or send them a message. These small efforts over time yield big results, because if you’re sharing content they feel a strong connection with, they’re likely to share your posts on their stories or recommend your page to others who share their interests and passions.
2. Use your profile as your stage.
Secondly, it’s not enough to just go after the ideal follower without changing your Instagram strategy. I made a clear and intentional shift from posting strictly about my personal life to posting more content that demonstrates what I stand for, and what my eventual book will preach: Empowerment and finding confidence to go after a bigger life. I’m also not shy about sharing my talents. Since I’m a writer, I make that known with long captions that show off my writing style. It helps my followers get to know me and my voice.
Strategic, thoughtful content will look different depending on your career goals. A close friend of mine, Caitlin Quisenberry, is a singer and songwriter. She was looking for a way to get the attention of music business executives, and recognized that much like publishing houses, record labels want to know you have a fanbase already invested in your work. So she began posting frequent videos of herself singing, turning each Instagram square into a miniature stage. She also began watching hours of advice on YouTube from music industry professionals. Over time, her strategy and self-education paid off. Her videos attracted the attention of a recording studio in Nashville, who invited her to come record. Her first single, Blue, will debut February 7th. “I realized I had to prove to the world what I could do,” Quisenberry told me. “So, I created a content strategy based on sharing my talent, and I’ll continue to grow my platform doing just that.”
3. Aim to create a community, not just a fanbase.
Finally, remember that in the end, your followers are more than a fanbase. They’re a likeminded community who you should support as much as they support you. To have any hope for an authentic, loyal following, you have to view your role on Instagram as twofold: To entertain, and to serve. This means you must be open to community feedback. Ask for more of what your followers want. What insights are they looking for? Do they prefer your landscape or portrait photography? Do they like your “how-to” podcast episodes, or your interviews with guests? Do they prefer hearing your original music or covers?
Engage with your community regularly by using the ‘poll’ and ‘question’ functions in your stories to gauge what your followers want more of. And always make time to reply to comments and thoughtful DM’s, no matter how busy you get. Followers are much more likely to engage frequently if you actually reply to them. It’s an honor and a privilege to share your talent and expertise with people who show they care, so treat it as such.
As you continue to build your Instagram presence, you’ll learn what works for your unique purposes and what you most enjoy sharing, as well as how you best engage with your community. But commit fully. Done is better than perfect, and the Instagram algorithm favors more frequent posts. And remember: the first step to building an authentic audience is to share your authentic self.