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A few weeks ago I asked my Instagram community, “How did you find me?” I had my (well educated) suspicions, but since I am developing an online Instagram marketing course… I needed to make sure I was right!  If you are serious about growing your audience on Instagram, I think it is helpful to know all of the different ways people can stumble on to your account.  Some of them are totally out of control, but some of them you can heavily influence. I have broken them down here for you, and we’ll start with the “out of your control” ways!

Hashtag Search / Trending Posts

hashtag-feedLimited to no control. You, of course, control WHAT hashtags you put on your posts, but you can’t control how many people are using the same hashtag(s). The more people that use a particular hashtag, the faster your photo moves down the feed and is less likely to be seen.

In case you need a quick refresher on how the hashtag feeds work on Instagram: when you go to the explore tab (magnifying glass) and type in a hashtag, all of the images with that hashtag come up, with the most RECENT photos appearing first. If 100 people have used that hashtag, there is a good chance your photo will appear at the top for a while… but if 1,000,000 people have used that hashtag, your photo is going to move down more quickly.

The other aspect of hashtags that you can’t control is what Instagram chooses to show as the “trending” photos for a particular hashtag. Now when you search a hashtag, in addition to having the most recent photos appear, Instagram also shows 12 photos that are “trending.” This is decided through an algorithm that no one knows. I will say that I have had several of my photos trend for hashtags that I use, and it appears to be some combination of how many likes and comments come in, and how soon after posting they build up. Whenever I trend, I see a major spike in new followers.

ACTION ITEM: While it would be frustrating to make it your goal to trend, you should be inspired to always post your best content and engage with your followers, which will help increase your likes and comments over time.

ACTION ITEM #2: Check each of the hashtags you use and make sure you have a mix of “big” and “small” hashtags. It’s good to be visible in both types of hashtag feeds. Steer clear of super general, and super giant hashtag feeds like #instagood and #love. I think these are worthless. #myopinion

Instagram Suggests

Limited to no control. Usually after you go to someone’s profile and hit the “follow” button, Instagram will recommend three more similar accounts that might interest you. You don’t get to tell Instagram who to recommend you around, and I would assume that this is also done by some sort of algorithm. You can attempt to control this a little bit by focusing your account narrowly on a topic, making sure your bio clearly states what you do, using appropriate hashtags, and following and connecting with other accounts in your niche. I was surprised by how many people told me they had found me after following the account of someone else in my niche.

ACTION ITEM: Make sure your bio is amazing, looks attractive, and clearly states what you do. When you ARE suggested and someone clicks over, you want them to say to themselves, “I need to follow this one too! They’ll add value to my life.”

Discover New People

discover-new-peopleLimited control. If you go to the explore tab on Instagram (magnifying glass), one of the top banners that rotates is called “Discover New People.”

When you click in to Discover New People, you’ll see a list of suggestions from Instagram. Typically, the accounts listed here are of pages you already like on Facebook, or accounts that are followed by multiple accounts that you are already following. While you can’t completely control whether or not Instagram shows you here, it may be a reason to build up your Facebook presence a bit… or at least not ignore it!

ACTION ITEM: Don’t ignore your Facebook page completely. You may be fed up with the news feed algorithm, but at least keep your page populated with fresh content… and maybe even consider growing your fan base on the book of faces.

Word of Mouth

Medium control. The better your content is and the more engaging you are, the more likely people are to tell others about your feed. I had someone comment once that they had told all of their fellow farmer’s market vendors about my account at that weekend’s market. Sometimes it is difficult to measure these things because they could be happening offline, but don’t underestimate the power of delivering valuable, high quality content day in and day out. Be worth talking about!

I listed “word of mouth” as medium control because you CAN ask people directly to spread the word. You can ask your current followers to tag a friend in the comments under a particular post image. You can do this as a call to action in your post (“tag a friend that would find this helpful”), or you can make it part of a contest (“tag three friends to enter to win”).

The caveat with this one is that you should only ask for people to share when you’ve demonstrated for a while that you are a high-quality, high-value delivering account. The other caveat is that you shouldn’t ask for the share too often, or people can start to get annoyed… but when used sparingly, it can be super effective.

ACTION ITEM: Try asking your loyal followers to spread the word, either as a call to action on your post, or as part of a contest.


Cross Promotion from Other Social Media

Total control. When you post to Instagram, consider pushing your post to your Twitter feed or Facebook page. You probably have fans on Twitter/Facebook that aren’t already following you on Instagram. While I don’t advocate having your Instagram post be your ONLY Twitter/Facebook post, when used as part of your overall Twitter or Facebook strategy, it can boost your Instagram followers by bringing your fans over.

ACTION ITEM: Pick one of your other social media platforms to push your Instagram post to.

Shout Outs

Little to medium control. I wasn’t sure where to put this one, because sometimes “shout outs” from bigger accounts just happen (lucky you!), and sometimes you get a shout out for having some kind of relationship or co-promotion with an account. In general, I don’t think that shout outs are a massively effective means to grow your account. If the account giving you a shout out does them often, their followers might be a little desensitized to it, and are less likely to click over and follow. I do know a few people who have had dramatic follower increases following a shout out, but it is pretty rare.

ACTION ITEM: Deliver consistent value daily and make sure your bio is well written, so if you do get a shout out from a larger account you are ready!


Total control. You have control over if and when you run a contest. There are several different several kinds of contest, which I won’t get deep in to here, but they include: loop giveaways, tagging a friend in the comments, or reposting your content with a specific hashtag. I’ll openly admit that I really dislike contests as a way to grow an account.  Often, people will follow just for the chance to win, not because they are deeply interested in your content. When the contest is over, most account owners experience a drop in followers from people un-following because they didn’t win. Overall my experience with contests (both for myself and my clients) is that the “quality” of followers gained from a contest are much lower. They are much less likely to interact and engage with you.

ACTION ITEM: If you are considering a contest, be sure that the prize you are offering is very specific to your business (not something like an Amazon gift card). A specific prize will probably bring in fewer new followers, but they will be the right ones! Also consider doing a contest as a way to say “thanks” to current followers, instead of using it purely as a growth tool.

Being Active

Total control. I have saved the best for last! This was the #1 way that my audience reported “finding” me when I asked them a few weeks ago. Many, many people said, “you liked one of my photos.” Engaging with your potential audience by liking photos and leaving genuine comments can grow your account by leaps and bounds. The trick is to think of what hashtags your potential customer uses, then search those hashtags and get to work liking and commenting. This is something that needs to be done at scale. Liking 10 photos at a time probably isn’t going to lead to a noticeable number of new followers, but liking 100 or 200 photos at a time will.

ACTION ITEM: Make a list of hashtags that you think your potential customer might be using. Spend some time each day liking and commenting on photos with that hashtag.

Where do you think most of your new followers come from? Which of these will you try to influence?There are only so many ways for your ideal customer to find you on Instagram. Let me show you all 8 ways, how much control you have over them, and what action items you can do to optimize them. Click to read or pin for later.



Molly Marshall teaches small business owners and online entrepreneurs how to systematically and simply grow a profitable online presence through social media. Get your FREE Instagram Strategy Guide now!

Get your FREE Instagram Strategy Guide

Learn what's working now to build your brand, authority, and credibility on Instagram in 2021.

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