May I ask what benefits you have seen from Instagram? Speaking for myself, I used it for a couple years and became burned out on trying to keep up a consistent level of output, while dealing with the normal problems of social media (making subconscious comparisons to other accounts, habitually scrolling when I was bored, etc). Furthermore, my work got some decent exposure, but only from people I would call art “enthusiasts” or other artists, not anyone who actually wanted to give me work.
This is a question asked by a fellow Illustration Age blog reader, Chris Teague. He raises some good points on the pitfalls of using Instagram for self promotion. His question is in response to a previous post of mine about self promotion. Of course, because it is 2019, I included a mention of Instagram as part of an overall recommended strategy. As creative freelancers, Instagram is absolutely indispensable for getting our work out there.
Now, full disclosure, I am not an Instagram guru. Like many of us, I have a love/hate relationship with it. There are times when I tend this garden with love and care, and other times I let it all go to seed. Also, we all know how social media — especially Instagram — can affect us negatively, so rather than try to analyze the problems, I think it would be more constructive to discuss how Instagram can help us. Specifically, I would like to explain how Instagram has helped me personally, and then outline some ways we can all make Instagram work for us on our own terms.
When illustrator portfolios started moving to the “world wide web”, some skeptics pooh-poohed the trend as gimmicky and a passing fad. Hopefully they changed their minds before it was too late. It’s kind of the same with social media, and in this moment, it is so especially with Instagram. If you are successful and attracting clients and also not active on Instagram, you are an exception. So, this is my first premise — that we must accept that Instagram is here to stay (for now) and embrace it as a powerful tool of self promotion. Now, before you stop reading, I want to assure you: at no point do I to suggest that you let Instagram dominate your life in any way. Tools like instagram should both profit you as a freelancer and enrich your life. The moment it starts to negatively impact your life, it has too much power, and you need to pull back. Instead, here, I want to give you some reasonable, actionable, sustainable strategies to work with the platform so it can work better for you.
To start, let’s talk about the benefits of Instagram, answering Mr. Teague’s first question. For me, the biggest gain since joining in 2011 has been a sense of connection to others, first to friends, and then to the broader creative community. We all started with the people we know, and this gave me my first audience for my creative work. I know Teague later brings up the fact that such “enthusiasts” aren’t likely to bring him work, but like many big pushes in our lives, it always starts small and close to home. It’s the people that know us and love us that encourage us — help us to see our own strengths so we can believe in ourselves enough to push further and further out past our wildest expectations.
This sense of community that started with those who care most about me now includes fellow illustrators around the world, students from my Skillshare classes, friends I meet at conferences, and the odd stranger popping in for a look-see. Of course, today, it also now extends to clients and prospective clients, but that only comes over time, and of course, with some care and effort to make my Instagram feed relevant to people outside my immediate circle.
Another huge benefit of being on Instagram, for me, has been the opportunity and drive to be creative outside of client work. It is far more motivating to make side projects or share what I’m working on when I know there is an audience. Creating for an audience gives us a sense of greater purpose than creating privately, just for me. There’s a time for both, but as commercial artists, we are first and foremost visual communicators, and as such, we always have an audience. Creating on Instagram, for an audience (real or imagined) helps us sharpen our visual communication skills in this way.
Most fortunately, I have indeed found work through Instagram. While I cannot put an exact dollar amount on it, I know that in the past year, Instagram-driven business, either directly or indirectly, has been in the tens of thousands of dollars. This is the hope for all of us, but just like any form of advertising, we never quite know how our investment is going to pay off. Who knows if something we posted last year has been kicking around in the mind of an art director who is just about to give you a call? We just don’t know exactly what happens with things we put out there (unless, of course, we ask). But let’s linger on this notion of investing in Instagram for a moment. If you think of Instagram as a part of your advertising strategy (along with having a portfolio website at minimum), you can see the effort you put into your feed as your investment. We don’t actually pay for using Instagram, so our investment is in sweat equity. (I understand that you can also pay to promote a post, but I am a strong believer in organic marketing, that a truly good idea will promote itself).
We are still talking about how Instagram has benefited me, personally. This is my final point before moving onto some tips. Instagram has really helped me stay in touch with my core online audience — my Skillshare students. When you find an audience that follows you for something specific, you can really start to focus your content around those people. At one point, my audience on Skillshare was larger than the my following on Instagram. At this point, I think IG surpasses it a little, but not by much. Because so many of my followers are Skillshare students, I just assume those are the people I am talking to. It’s not to clients, not to my family, not to my friends. And I think having a specific group of people in mind, whom I know are interested in a very particular niche, naturally gives me a stronger voice. I tend to speak about things in the same way. It’s not even that conscious. I should add that, while I can name “Skillshare students” as my audience, I know it’s much broader than that. It’s really just people who are student-minded, whether that’s my peers or my pupils. As freelancers and creatives, we are all students, all eager to learn more from each other about what we do, how, and why. Regardless, believing that I am speaking to a student-minded audience overlaps nicely with the reality that my actual students follow me. Because of this, my content is naturally relevant to those who follow me.
Some Guidelines: How to Make Instagram Work for You
While my anecdotal experience is helpful to a degree, I want to give you the overall guidelines that I follow, which can help position you to gain the most from Instagram without losing your mind. My hope is to encourage you to approach the platform with a positive mindset that not only can benefit you, but the many others who follow you. I really don’t care if you’re on Instagram or not, but I care if you are able to share in the amazing sense of community and connection that platforms like it can afford you. Below are five ways you can start seeing more returns from your efforts on Instagram.
01 Understand What Makes Good Content.
One of the most important things I ever learned was just what makes a good post. People are just scrolling through, so you don’t have much time to persuade them to respond to yours. Here are three key qualities of a “good” post:
Your post should be easy to describe.
If people don’t know what they’re looking at, they’re not in a “make me work hard” frame of mind when scrolling. They’re not going to make the effort to figure it out. It doesn’t need to be brilliant, it just needs to be identifiable and easy to describe in a sentence: An illustration of a murder of crows on a telephone wire. A hyper-realistic pencil drawing of Willie Nelson. The more interesting the description, the more intriguing the image will likely be.
Your post should be well crafted, unique, or interesting.
Any image posted on Instagram should have something “more” for the viewer. Crows sit on top of telephone wires all the time. Telephone poles and birds are a huge cliche. But if it’s reinterpreted in a fresh way, whether in an unexpected composition or concept, or perhaps in a novel style, suddenly the old and familiar is made new again, and that’s always a hit with people. That’s why cover songs are a perennial favourite. Willie Nelson may not be on everyone’s mind, but he’s iconic and instantly recognizable. If someone draws him with impeccable realism and detail using pencil, a lot of people will be impressed. People are drawn to things that look like they were made with a high degree of skill and effort. In the absence of these, people will accept things that express a strong voice or have a lot of personality. While personally I cannot claim to be the most skilled illustrator, I do think my posts carry a sense of voice and personality. Over time, with consistent delivery of this same approach, people can rely on seeing more of the same if they follow me.
Your post should be relevant.
The most important thing for any image you post is relevance. Who is your audience, why do they follow you, and why should they care about your content? It’s okay to post things that are unexpected and unsolicited, but what you post must matter to your audience. Often this starts by mattering to you on a very deep level. With some practice, you can start to get a sense of what matters on this level to both you and your audience, and this is how you grow a following. On the other hand, you can post images that have deep meaning to you but none whatsoever to your audience. A simple example is posting photos of your family on an illustration related account. The photo might be expertly shot and your family might be really great, but if you have a large audience that doesn’t know you personally, they don’t care. Not a fig. So maybe keep the photos of your family or your recent hunting trip off as a rule.
02 Have an Audience and a Purpose.
You should have an audience in your mind when creating and posting content to Instagram. This goes hand in hand with having a purpose. Why do you have an account? What is it for? What do you want to share, to whom, and why? Just as important, why should others follow you? What value do you promise to deliver to your followers? State this purpose in your profile and hold yourself to it. Having an audience in your mind helps you have a stronger voice because you know who you are talking to, and presumably, why your message is important to them. Having a purpose in mind helps you filter out content that you are perhaps tempted to post but probably shouldn’t. I struggle with this more on Twitter, where it is a lot easier to put out a snippet of thought in a few seconds. In my profile, I specifically say “illustration related only”, and even still I drop a few dad jokes in there every now and then — and pay for it in lost followers. Their loss I suppose?
03 Understand how Instagram’s Algorithm Works, Sort of.
I really don’t understand everything about the Instagram algorithm, nor whether my limited understanding is up to date, but I know this: the algorithm favours regularity. What is the algorithm? It is code that determines which of your followers a given post actually sees it, and when. It basically determines, on behalf of your followers, whether they would like to see your nice cat drawing or not. Perhaps most frustratingly, it prevents most of your hard earned followers from seeing most of your posts (unless they check your account feed directly). That is how you are able to see one person’s posts all the time when you in fact follow hundreds of people. You just never get to see what those other folks post, because algorithm.
In order to unlock as much reach to your followers as possible, you have to play a little game. Remember, Instagram is free, so this is how you pay. If you can approach this with a sense of humour, it can be fun. But like many games, there are losers, and you might be one of them. What is the game? Here are the general rules (my words):
- When you post something, it should be related to other things you post on your feed.
- Don’t use too many hashtags, but be sure to use really relevant ones.
- Once you post, if you see a spelling mistake, don’t go and edit it until a few days has passed, if you can bear it.
- To really get IG to unlock your reach, once you have comments on the post, respond to them right away — within the first hour. If nobody comments in that period, things are looking grim, my friend.
- Post at least once a day if you are able, but no more than two posts in a given day — and not too close together!
- Finally, be sure to post content to your stories also. Your stories should be mostly relevant, but they can also be where you let your hair down a bit. I like to post videos of my cat, but I also share stories from my Skillshare students.
The algorithm is designed to keep people glued to their screens and on Instagram. It favours content that engages people more and encourages interactions like comments, likes, and more scrolling, tapping, and dopamine rush-seeking. This is the deal. Understanding the algorithm can help you reach more people with your content. Sometimes this actually matters. When it does, for me, I put in the effort. On the other hand, knowing how the algorithm works helps me to not to take it personally when a post doesn’t gain the traction I hoped. When something I post fails to receive the accolades it clearly deserves, I often take comfort in this small fact: for a given post, I expect an average of 10% likes, meaning if 100 people viewed a post, 10 will have liked it, give or take. If I have 40 likes on a post when I typically might get 300, I’ll check the insights (a Business Account feature) and see, of course, that only 400 people were allowed to see it. I will know the image is truly unsuccessful from a “other people like it’ standpoint if the percentage of likes to views is much lower. This is not the hoped for result, but it can be an insightful metric from a visual communication standpoint (hence IG calling this feature “Insights”).
04 Value Quality Content (Not Quantity).
To Mr. Teague’s point that trying to have an active Instagram feed can be exhausting, I agree. And it really can take a lot of time to play the game well. In my life, there have been entire days devoted to creating and husbanding a single instagram post — often when I can least afford the time. Was it a waste of my time, though? Sometimes it was and sometimes it wasn’t. Maybe the creative diversion fuelled me up again. Maybe I needed to connect to my people in the illustration community. Maybe that post led to actual paid work. Some people can be quite efficient at generating content daily, and these are likely the happiest on the platform. But others, like me, are rather slow and find it easy to get carried away. We are not all cut out to be social media moguls. While it is great if you are able to post quality work every single day, not everyone can, nor should they be expected to. Lately, my own approach is simply to post what I want, when I am able, as often as I want. While it’s important that my existing followers see as much of my work as possible, it’s equally important that my instagram account presents well to newcomers checking out my profile. Not everyone will go to your portfolio site — they’ll jump right to your profile instead and possibly stop there, especially if it’s not well put together. So I say focus on the quality of each piece rather than some cheapened thing you needed to pump out on a schedule. It will be better in the long run, I guarantee it.
05 Post What You Love.
This is the most important of all my tips. If you post something that you love, nothing else matters. The whole purpose of sharing things online is to show others what you are excited and passionate about. This is such an amazing feature of social media that we just kind of take it for granted: we get to share cool stuff with many, many people, with the push of a button, from a computer the size of a wallet. Before we had phones, when we were kids, when we made something we loved, we shared it with our first audience, mom and dad. They “posted” it on the proverbial refrigerator. We never really outgrow our desire to toot our own horn, to be recognized, and I think that’s why social media has become a multi-billion dollar industry. It’s one of our most primal instincts. But I digress.
When you are considering what to share online, nothing matters more than whether you actually care about it. When you post something you made that you are excited about, it doesn’t matter whether others like it as much. This may seem to contradict my earlier point about posting work that is relevant to your audience, but, again, I believe that when you truly post from your heart, others will care. More to my point here, though, is that if you know you like what you post, before others react to it, whether it receives praise and accolades should matter less.
On the other hand, if you posted something feeling uncertain about something, hoping others like it first so you can too, then get ready for an emotional roller coaster. Posting what you love matters not just for your fragile artist’s heart, but also in building a deeply engaged audience. When you post what matters to you, it comes from an honest and authentic place. That means you will be able to draw from that well over and again to post more great stuff. And your joy and voice will shine through. It won’t feel belaboured or try-hard. It will simply be an expression of who you are and what you love, and that universally will attract more people than trying to pander to what you think your audience might want to see. I know I said earlier that you want to imagine an audience when posting content, and this is indeed true. But in imagining your audience, you should also respect them enough to give them your heartfelt best.
Post What You Love, When You Want, as Often as You Want, and Don’t Worry About It.
In this guidelines, I don’t have any gimmicky tricks, except perhaps in the algorithm part. What it all boils down to, really, is making content that you love, and learning how to make it well, and then finding that overlap between something you are passionate about and something others care deeply about as well. Other than that, it’s about doing what you can without losing your mind. More and more, as a culture, we are enslaved to our machines and are constantly stuck in this fear of stopping work, a form of FOMO. Remember that you are the boss, not social media, and it’s up to you whether and when you use the tool. When it brings you joy to do so, do it. When it challenges you in a good way, do it. When you hate it so much and it creates anxiety and stress in your life, baby, it’s not worth it.