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How To Build a Community on Instagram.

9 min read
March 17, 2015

By Kevin Heffernan

Brand Coordinator

Aside from my work at TMG, I recently started a very small business that is navigating its way through various social media platforms while we seek to grow our brand. Through various trials with Facebook and Twitter, we found our strength on Instagram because of its emphasis on public interaction and community. I’ll explain how we came to that realization, and the lessons of Instagram interaction we learned.

In July, 2014, Drew Brown and I started Rise Collaborative. We wanted Rise to be in support of grassroots Buffalo. We thought we’d sell some apparel and get local artists and small businesses working together to contribute to the positive momentum going on around the city. We wanted to gather up those people doing work on a smaller scale – the kind of work that makes a city cool, unique and accessible for its residents – and promote them.

We had some connections in the city, but knew we needed to meet a hell of a lot more creative makers and influencers in order to see this plan start to come to life.

We bought a domain and created accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Drew and I would be up late each night trying to pump out content on all platforms in an attempt to strengthen our brand.

When we grew to over 100 likes on Facebook, the system began providing analytics for our various posts, letting us know how many people had viewed them. It became very clear that without paying to boost our posts, not many of them were being seen. Even now, at over 500 likes, we still see minimal organic growth and reach. Facebook was making it very difficult for a small business with a microscopic budget to increase its brand awareness.

What about Twitter? Write just the right tweet, at just the right moment, and your brand could explode in popularity. So yes. We are on Twitter. It’s too huge to ignore. However, you can tell by reading this blog post, we tend to be wordy. 140 characters or less just does not fit in with what we’re about. To be honest, as both of us operate Rise outside of our 9-5 jobs, it’s difficult to keep up with the super high-speed social network of Twitter. When we’d review our feeds after work, it was like walking into a party a day late. When we’d post about an article we wrote, or shared someone’s work, we saw our tweet immediately get lost in the abyss.

Instagram is our most successful platform for Rise. They have set up a system that encourages you to share often and interact always. As people get thirsty for new and different content, they are turning to Instagram’s featured page or suggested accounts. Those lists are populated by people who use multiple hashtags on every post. We used to think it was obnoxious to see a photo of a sunset followed by #sunset #sky #blue #red #orange #summer #instagood #likeforlike #love etc … and so we kept our hashtags to two or three at most. However, the game is changing and as you try to build a follower base, the more hashtags the better, but maybe not ones of every color, or ones like #instagood that lead to a sea of spam and offensive photos. Often, successful accounts will research hashtags relevant to their market and pile up those hashtags in their second comment, knowing that comments will flood in and the list of hashtags will be buried.

As we were developing our voice, it was easy to only write a sentence or two about what we were featuring in our photos. We thought if we followed up with #buffalony and #buffalove, we’d take off in a couple of weeks based on content alone. We were wrong. Once we hit about 300 followers based mostly on friends and carry-overs from our personal accounts, we plateaued. At 300 followers, it’s hard to be effective when you’re trying to promote artists, local businesses, local advocacy groups or your own apparel for sale. It’s also difficult to convince people to speak with you when they don’t believe your social media following has enough clout to be worth their time. So we embarked on the long, slow organic route to growth. Interaction became the name of the game. We sought out the best accounts in and around Buffalo, Cleveland, Toronto, Detroit and Pittsburgh. We weren’t just throwing likes in every direction, we commented with questions, congratulations or mentioned other accounts all the time in order to make connections and develop a community.

Slowly, the likes, follows and comments started coming back to us as well as the comments on our photos. After the November 2014 snowstorm, we saw our region once again being the butt end of the national media’s jokes. So we developed #buffalocameback and received almost 300 photos in response that we turned into the most popular article to date on our website. It became clear to us that featuring other accounts actually led to more growth for us. So we developed our Feature Friday tradition of sharing eight great photos from our connections on Instragram along with a 10-song playlist on our blog. To us, it introduced people to those we were following that took amazing photos, displayed a piece of our brand’s personality and helped to enrich everyone’s feed in the process.

It has now been seven months, and we’ve seen some strong growth in a follower base, but the connections we’ve made in the meantime have been in line with our goals all along. Our sales doubled. Local artists we had not known previously will be contributing to our next round of apparel. An artist we interviewed this month, @inkillustrations, has begun collaborating with a friend of ours who is an author in New Jersey, @thealiciacook. We’ve attended an “instameet” to foster even stronger releationships with people we had only previously interacted with online, and another is in the works for warmer weather. We hope the growth continues, and we believe that the majority of it will happen because of the community Instagram has allowed us to cultivate.

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