5 Steps to Stellar Engagement on Instagram
When only a handful of your Instagram audience sees your best content, it’s so tempting to blame that dang algorithm and sulk in a corner. (Been there, done that.)
But let’s be real here: Instagram isn’t going anywhere, and neither is its machine-learning algorithm. The only way you’re going to stay ahead of the game is if you play the game.
Here is (pretty much) the one and only rule when it comes to making nice with the Instagram algorithm:
You have to show up.
Now, before you start rolling your eyes thinking this is just another post about replying to all of your comments and posting every day, hear me out.
Yes, those things are actually important, and I do mention them in my list, but what I really mean is you have to show your audience and Instagram that you’re serious about building a community. Because really, that’s exactly what Instagram wants: More people who love the platform on the platform.
These are tried-and-true methods for improving your engagement in a long-lasting, human connection kind of way, while still playing the algorithm game and even using it to your advantage.
1. Reply to all comments + DMs
I’m sure you’ve heard this advice before, but here’s why it’s important to respond to your comments and DMs.
First and foremost, humans love it when other humans talk to them. If someone takes the time to reach out to you, either in the comments of your recent post or in your DMs, hearing back from you is immediately going to strengthen that connection.
The second reason comes down to numbers. The way the algorithm determines whether or not you’re actually building a community is by using the data from your account. So, the more messages coming in AND going out of your DMs inbox, and the more comments per post you have (including your replies), the more Instagram registers your account as active.
Higher numbers mean a higher chance of getting noticed.
(I have a huge BUT here in case the numbers tempt you to do something that won’t work, like buy followers or join an engagement pod: Some really smart people have programmed Instagram’s algorithm to care about the right numbers and identify accounts that are gaming the system. So no matter how tempting, cheating your way to higher numbers isn’t the way to go.)
2. Engage with your audience on their turf
It was May 2016. I’d been posting my work as a budding calligrapher for *almost* two whole months, practicing and posting almost every day, when I saw it.
My FAVORITE calligrapher at the time, someone I’d been following since before I even started an account, liked my most recent post AND commented on how beautiful it was.
Guys. I was freaking out.
It felt so affirming to have one of my idols notice me on Instagram. I loved her stuff before, but as soon as she engaged back with me, I became a lifelong fan. Whenever one of my IRL friends asked me who I like to follow in the calligraphy world, she was always one of the first accounts I mentioned.
From then on, if I realized I hadn’t seen her posts in a while, I intentionally searched for her account to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I reposted her work in my stories frequently, and I participated in all of her challenges.
Would I have maintained that level of intentional engagement if she hadn’t interacted with me personally? To some extent, probably (I still loved her art, after all). But in the minute or two it took her to click on my name and comment on my post, she forged a bond that meant everything to me. She made me feel seen, even though I had only a handful of followers while she had thousands.
That’s the power of engaging with your audience on their home turf.
Now, I’m not saying you have to follow everyone and their mother if their stuff isn’t your thing or spend hours every day going through dozens of accounts. But as you’re reading through your comments, especially if you see users who comment on a lot of your posts, give them a few minutes of your time. It could mean the difference between a casual follower and an ardent fan.
It could also mean the difference between a stranger and a friend. I know from experience -- because just a few months after that initial comment from my #1 favorite artist, she started FOLLOWING me. And leaving more comments. And now? We’re friends.
At its core, Instagram (and every other social media platform) is about connecting people. If you want people to connect with you and see you as a real person they want to seek out, then sincere, two-sided interaction goes a long way.
3. Show up everywhere
Remember when Instagram rolled out Stories (presumably as a way to compete with Snapchat)? Pretty sure I *audibly* rolled my eyes. No one was really going to care about random clips at the top of their feed, right?
Boy, was I wrong.
Turns out, when Instagram gives you new ways to use the platform, you should probably give it a try. Why? Because every time you use a different part of Instagram, that’s more data you’re giving the algorithm to prove that you’re actively building your community.
Instagram cares about numbers, remember?
But also remember that it’s smart enough to separate real numbers from fake numbers. So spending time genuinely connecting with your audience matters, both to the algorithm and to the humans who follow you.
That’s why Stories and IGTV are so powerful. When your followers take a peek in your Stories or click through to IGTV, your content takes up their whole screen.
For those few seconds or minutes, you have their entire attention. And the more people who choose to focus on only you, the more Instagram notices and wants to share your content to other folks who might want the same thing.
When I finally started using Stories -- not just to advertise new posts or courses but to actually connect with my audience by sharing small bits of my day and other random things I thought they’d find interesting -- my engagement started bumping up more and more.
Now, I try to spend time giving excellent content everywhere I can on Instagram. That includes:
Captions (long captions are my specialty, and long captions = more seconds people are in your content)
Highlights in my profile
… anywhere someone has to swipe or click through, giving Instagram more and more data, you’ll find me.
But putting yourself everywhere and using every part of Instagram, you’re giving your audience even more places to see you -- and more reasons for Instagram to share your stuff.
4. Be consistent
This one is another “duh, of course” tip for engagement, but I know from experience how important it is.
After two years of posting my calligraphy pieces, I was proud of the 18k following I’d accumulated as of January 2018.
Then, my first viral watercolor night sky video started the craziest momentum I’ve ever experienced.
Based on how popular that video was, I started making more tutorials like it, pivoting into watercolor illustration instead of just lettering and calligraphy. Turns out I really liked exploring watercolor, so I practiced a lot and posted (mostly videos) 3-5 times a week.
Months went by, and I eagerly passed 25k, then 50k, and by November 2018, I hit 100k followers.
At this point, you might be thinking the “I posted every day and hit 100k followers” part is the moral of the story -- but it’s not.
Around the time I reached 100k, I found out I was pregnant, and my pregnancy was… not easy. A lot of pregnant women experience morning sickness in the first trimester, but my morning sickness lasted all day, for nine months.
Even sitting on the couch scrolling through Instagram made my nausea unbearable. Planning and recording videos was just… out of the question.
Between October and December, I didn’t engage on Instagram much at all, much less make and post tutorials or classes. And for most of 2019, from the end of my pregnancy to those first few months of having a newborn, I was a casual consumer and creator at best.
My top-notch engagement rates from the months before kept me going for a while (that’s one awesome thing about videos -- they often get views weeks or even months after you post them), but at some point, everything stopped. And instead of gaining thousands of followers a week, I was losing hundreds a day, and the percentage of my followers who actually saw my posts dwindled to an all-time low.
Why? I wasn’t giving Instagram data anymore. I wasn’t even liking other people’s posts, so as far as the algorithm was concerned, I was gone. Why should it show content from a dead account?
I’m back to regularly engaging and posting (I mean, as much as I can with my new, high-maintenance baby intern), but it’s taken months of steady, consistent engagement on my part to get on Instagram’s good side again.
The consistency game is a slow build, and if you stick it out and play the right way, you can get incredible results.
More important: If you let that consistency slide, your audience may forget about you -- and Instagram definitely will.
Posting every day isn’t necessary for a stellar engagement rate, but posting valuable content consistently (1-2 times a week minimum) and regularly interacting with your audience and others on Instagram is vital, regardless of how many followers you have.
A note: I don’t regret AT ALL taking the time off to take care of myself. I was doing the best I could at the time -- when you’re sick and tired from growing a baby, Instagram is basically the last thing on your mind, and that’s exactly how it should be. But just because my break was 100% necessary for my mental and physical health doesn’t mean my account and business didn’t suffer. So if you need to take a break AND keep up your social media engagement, my best advice is to plan really well. Make a long-term content calendar, and batch create the content before you need to take the time off. Or, if you can afford it, hire extra help.
5. Listen better
This last one is pretty simple. If you care about engagement on Instagram, you have to listen to the people who engage with you.
Sharing your story is important, yes, but using social media as a vehicle for sharing your story is also about making the people who follow you feel seen and loved.
If your goal is just to share whatever you want as a personal creative outlet, regardless of who sees or notices, awesome! Most of this post doesn’t apply to you because it’s not necessary to have excellent engagement to enjoy sharing things with the world.
But if your goal is to grow a community around your brand and use Instagram as a powerful tool, especially for business, then what your audience needs matters. A lot.
The most successful creative entrepreneurs don’t focus on what their audience can do for them; they think about how best to serve their audience.
That doesn’t mean you have to compromise your values or your brand vision for the sake of pandering to your audience -- that’s a straight shot to burnout and resentment land on your part.
It just means taking the time to understand your community because you care about them. Figure out who you want to serve, and then serve those people by making what you make best.
I like to think of a strong social media presence like a long-term collaboration between you and the people you serve. When both teams are working together, it can be pure magic.
My best passive listening tools are:
Post analytics (reach and overall engagement more important than follows)
Comments (both the number of comments and what people are saying)
My best active listening tools are:
Captions (issuing a call to action)
Polls (IG Stories)
Questions (IG Stories)
Quizzes (IG Stories)
The cool part about listening better, from a data perspective, is the algorithm typically rewards you for encouraging your audience to give you feedback. Every time someone answers a poll or a question in your stories, that’s data telling Instagram people are engaging with you. Every time you issue a call to action in your caption and someone responds in the comments, even more data.
Listening better tells Instagram that more people should come to you. Following through on the feedback you get will help your audience know that you care about them and their needs and that you understand why your brand is making a difference in their lives. If they’re spending valuable time consuming your content, the best thing you can do is to give them what they want.
I know that it sucks to feel like you have to play the game to “win” on social media. It can feel kind of gross to think about community-building in terms of numbers and engagement. We all know there’s a lot more to it than that.
Yes, Instagram cares about numbers. But the best way to get the numbers that matter, the numbers that reflect a real community of people who live and breathe for the stuff you make (aka YOUR PEOPLE), is through authentic, sincere connection.
You can’t get the numbers that count or build a community without showing up, for real.
There are no shortcuts here -- and no promises of millions of followers. But if you keep showing up, you’ll have something even better: A circle of humans who love what you do enough to keep coming back for more.
If the tips in this post were helpful for you, I’d love to hear about it! Let me know if you have any experiences to share in the comments below, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d also love to know if you have suggestions for future blog posts -- because I’m here for you, always.