Instagram has come a long way since the food photo days, but recently you could be forgiven for feeling that the changes are not for the better. With tricky algorithms, relentless ads, seemingly endless bots, and a graduation to a more TikTok style format, those of us who love to share photos, information and reviews, are now feeling increasingly side lined.
Instagram has been my main platform for several years now. I’ve used it for several reasons during that time, and currently run five small accounts in different niches. The largest, my book account, currently stands at 6.2k followers. A modest figure, by all accounts, but a good place in terms of learning what seems to work in terms of growth.
On my book account, I have noticed that many people have left Instagram. I like to follow as many followers back as possible, and recently went through all of them, only to find that nearly 2000 accounts had become inactive. That doesn’t include the ones I removed previously when it became apparent that they had been hacked by the ‘free money to Cashapp’ crew (you know the ones)!
I wouldn’t blame this exodus entirely on the new format and algorithm though; ‘Bookstagram’ tends to have a relatively high turnover. People join during the Christmas holidays with ambitious reading plans for the new year, only to be gone by March. Others who join while they are students often leave once they join the world of work. Then there was lockdown, where people became avid readers while stuck inside and moved on when the world reopened.
So the question remains; how do you grow an account these days?
Many people are on Instagram giving advice on the matter. Most of the advice, if followed, would be completely detrimental to reading of actual books – post Reels every day, take part in lives, spend several hours engaging and posting etc. So when do you read? What if you are shy?
I have been studying the algorithm for about 6 months now. Here I am recording how I found it best to connect with others in the book community and grow your account organically, without devoting hours and hours to it. This advice is not geared towards growing FAST or going viral. At the time of writing I only have just over 6000 followers myself and I intend to bring it down a little (I will explain why shortly).
These findings are for helping to balance staying visible and being able to do what the majority of us came to Instagram to do – connect with others who like books and love to discuss them and to find great book recommendations.
So the key? Engagement. Comments and saves are what you really want, along side likes. The following points will help to get that engagement level up and hopefully help make genuine connections with others online.
DISCLAIMER: I am not a marketing expert. My observations are based on my own experiences of using IG. I have both an android device and an iPhone and these features work on both. This article has been written based on accounts that have under 10k follows.
Reels. Let’s get those out of the way first. Instagram does indeed prioritise Reels. At the moment, there is no getting around this, and if you want to grow your account, this tool offers the best chance to be seen and help to build the type of space you desire. But that doesn’t mean that you have to do Reels in traditional TikTok style, and it certainly isn’t necessary to dance or even show your face. Apparently, high quality Reels with aesthetic appeal tend to get the good views, especially if they are between 3 and 6 seconds. Do they attract people who genuinely want to engage though? Not necessarily.
Then there are the funny, relatable and trending Reels. There are often trends and sounds to act as guides or templates . The downside is that without original content, growth might tail off. Typically, you need to create Reels regularly, and some take a few weeks before they start being shown to people. Some people get around this by making them in batches and scheduling posting for times where their followers are most likely to be online.
However, if you aren’t really into Reels or don’t tend to show your face on IG, then transferring some book recs, wrap ups and read lists are probably the best way of balancing authenticity and visibility. And unlike TikTok, you can still include chatty captions, so more informative Reels with more information in the captions offer a unique opportunity for engagement that isn’t available on other platforms.
2. List cleansing
Instagram does not allow you to mass unfollow at present. And if you use outside apps to do this, you run the risk of your account being flagged. Since the emphasis is on engagement, there is a handy engagement-focused tool to help refresh your follow list. If you tap the following button on your profile, you will find a ‘Least interacted with’ category at the top. If you tap this, you will find 50 accounts that you haven’t interacted with much through comments or story reactions. These update every 90 days, but they will shift if you go through them too.
If you check each of these profiles, you can decide what you would like to do. If they have become inactive, you may want to unfollow them, but in this case, I would advise removing them as a follower as well. This is because IG seems to show people the accounts that have the highest engagement. If you have followers that are not interacting with you, it will seem like you aren’t creating valuable content.
Note that there is no longer a ‘Most Shown in Feed’ category if you have a creator/business account, but there is a ‘Hashtags, Creators and Businesses’ tab, where you can refresh your interests and train the algorithm on what you like to see.
3. Meaningful Interactions
As mentioned above, Instagram is focused on engagement. This means you need to do some engaging too! This seems to help with training the algorithm. I noticed this because whilst I like a lot of book accounts, I find myself commenting on ‘deskies’ and ‘shelfies’ a lot. As a result, my explore page has started to show me a lot of those sorts of pictures and Reels.
What I am shown also relates to the sort of hashtags I follow and use. The hashtags that appear most on my feed are usually the ones I use most frequently and recently. Which brings me nicely onto the next point.
I have heard a LOT of advice around hashtags. Some say use all 30, some say use 10-15. I have tested out different combinations and it is possible for either strategy to work (I’ll explain why in a moment). But what is MOST important, whether you use 15 or 30, is making sure that whatever you are using has a solid theme. This helps the algorithm to learn who is most likely to want to see your content. It is also worth keeping how active the hashtag is in mind (you can check by tapping the hashtag). If other people are not using it at the moment, then it will be more difficult for the algorithm to match your content with accounts who want to engage with it. If you use a group of hashtags that are widely used, it will be hard for the algorithm to narrow it down to the specific audience you need and your picture is likely to get lost in the ether.
So you use 10-15 hashtags, or 30? I would say, as long as you stay on theme, it doesn’t matter. I haven’t proved it yet, but I suspect the first few hashtags are weighted more heavily than the latter ones too. With this in mind, those first few need to summarise the type of accounts you hope to engage with, so choose wisely. I think that when you use the full 30, it gets more tempting to use hashtags that cast the net far and wide, making it less likely to find the accounts that will actually engage with the content.
I’ve seen advice that says to stop posting stories for a while and then post one to generate a notification to everyone and get them to notice your account. That might help draw someone to that story. But what you need is to keep them there. Because stories add to your engagement score too. Stories are fabulous because they help you to interact with your followers directly and show them who you are outside of the grid. Instagram offers these tools for a reason! Recently they introduced big reaction buttons – use them! It makes it easier than ever for people to engage with you. And it helps you find out what your followers are enjoying and what they would like to see more of.
Nearly two decades ago, I worked in a bank, and one of the first things I was taught in training was that ‘people buy people’. This has always stayed with me. I find it remains true in face, on the telephone, and online. Are you accessible? Are you interacting with people? People will engage most with people who engage with them. Even if you spend a few minutes scrolling through stories or your least interacted page every day and leave a few comments, it helps. It reminds people that you are there, that you are interested, and quite often, people reciprocate. Also, if the accounts you like to see keep dropping off your feed and being replaced by ads and hashtag accounts, showing them some love will put them back on your feed again.
I have noticed that after interacting, my account is suggested with higher frequency for a period of time and my follower count goes up. I try to go through stories and my chronological order (more on this next) every day or two. I try to go through my ‘Least Interacted With’ list about once a week. I’m a chatty caption lover and get all of my book recommendations from Instagram, so it is important to me that I get to read the reviews that people have taken the time to write.
7. Follower (Chronological Order) Feed
This is a hidden gem! If you are sick of seeing sponsored post and hashtags every few seconds, it is worth taking some time to check out your chronological order feed. From your feed, if you tap the Instagram sign on the top left, it will give you the option to view followers only (chronological order), or favourites only. I am also shocked by just how many accounts fall off my main feed when I go through them.
8. Engaging Content
In order to grow your account, you want content that inspires people to save or comment. You might have recommendations, or questions, or a problem you identified that you can solve… You might want to share challenges or good news. It takes time to get to know your audience, so for organic growth, this is something that cannot be rushed. I am a chatty captioner, which receives less engagement than other forms, but it makes me appreciate the people who take time to read them!
I hope that some of these findings will prove useful to you. Is there anything else you would add? Let me know!