The Secrets of Instagram Growth-Hacking

It depends on what you mean by “secret,” and also “success.”

Credit…Dado Ruvic/Reuters

In October of last year, Rachel Reichenbach, an artist and college student in the Bay Area, got an email from Instagram — specifically, from a human being at Instagram who was offering to help her expand her audience. She was intrigued.

Ms. Reichenbach has more than 78,000 Instagram followers — a sizable audience, but nowhere close to the millions who follow the platform’s biggest stars. Suddenly, out of nowhere, someone was offering one-on-one advice. She took the meeting.

“He had his spiel that he had to go through,” Ms. Reichenbach said of her call with the Instagram representative. “Basically, it was all about Reels, and how you can use Reels to make your reach better.”

That Instagram wanted people to use Reels, a TikTok-style video feature introduced in August, wasn’t a surprise. But Ms. Reichenbach was taken aback by the specificity of the advice. He said the goal was “four to seven Reels a week,” she said. This felt like something more than general guidance, so she started asking questions.

How many photos or videos should she be posting to her main feed? (Three a week, she was told.) How often should she be posting Instagram Stories? (Eight to 10 times a week, but preferably at least two times a day.) What about posting longer videos to Instagram TV? (One to three per week.) Consistency was key, the representative emphasized.

Ms. Reichenbach, who makes “a full-time living and then some” selling her art, finds most of her customers through Instagram, but she doesn’t consider herself an influencer. “My business is: I draw cute frog characters who like to do crimes and stuff like that,” she said. She sells prints, pins, buttons and other merchandise. She’s on Instagram to support her work.

Still, her friends and peers were curious about what she’d learned. “I felt like I suddenly had all the secrets,” Ms. Reichenbach said. Word of her meeting got around, and soon she was overwhelmed by messages in artists’ groups on Discord and elsewhere. She wrote up her experience on her blog — mainly, she said, to make it easier to share with the people reaching out to her. She illustrated the post with an anxious frog.

The post went viral within days and has been viewed nearly 200,000 times. Ms. Reichenbach was startled by some of the responses. “On Instagram, most people were like, ‘Thank you so much, this is helpful,’” she said. “On Twitter, people were like, ‘I want to burn Instagram and Facebook to the ground.’”

Some people wanted more information; others just wanted to vent about how Instagram was making them miserable. Ms. Reichenbach began to see the guidance from her post circulating without context — she had portrayed Instagram’s recommendations as unrealistic, and offered advice for reducing stress — not just on Instagram and Twitter but on TikTok. Strangers accused her of being a “corporate shill,” while a few sent her “hateful” emails.

She also saw artists she had looked up to “since middle school” sharing her article. “The social media landscape is bleak as hell these days, and it’s designed to whittle away at your self confidence and capitalize off of that, so do your best not to let it,” tweeted one of these artists, Jen Bartel, in response to the post.

“I felt like I had dealt psychic damage to some of my heroes,” Ms. Reichenbach joked. All she had done was accept a meeting and share a few notes. But, at least for a moment, that had transformed her into a guru — privy, in the eyes of the Instagram-using public, to secret information that could change others’ businesses, brands, identities and lives.

As soon as any platform shows the slightest social or economic potential, subcultures will pop up that are dedicated to optimization and growth.

On YouTube, accounts with millions of subscribers specialize in sharing the “secrets” to subscriber growth. On TikTok, people claim to possess secret knowledge about how to break into the app’s automatically and individually generated “For You” pages. Information from meetings similar to Ms. Reichenbach’s quickly becomes gospel. Useful advice can be difficult to fully separate from get-rich-quick hustling, but many professional creators can’t afford to tune out these conversations completely.

According to Jackson Williams, who helps oversee talent outreach and development on Instagram, the contents of Ms. Reichenbach’s post were generally accurate, as was her characterization of the meeting.

Mr. Jackson said that a “large global team supports our partners in a variety of verticals,” doing similar sorts of outreach across Instagram, but did not disclose how many people work on this team, or how many similar meetings are held during any given period of time. Ms. Reichenbach was told she got the meeting because this team noticed some of her successful Reels. “Very popular” Instagrammers, Ms. Jackson said, might have “high-touch” relationships with company representatives.

“This isn’t a secret,” Mr. Williams said. “This is the same type of thing that we talk about to our broad open presentations” at influencer events such as VidCon. In bits and pieces, for different audiences, the information in Ms. Reichenbach’s post had been shared and intuited before.

Mr. Williams took issue, however, with some of the responses.

In particular, he pushed back against the idea that Instagram was punishing users who didn’t engage with its newest feature. “There’s no penalty for not using Reels,” he said. “Broadly speaking, this is an Instagram best practices sort of thing.” A representative later added: “Other content is not being downranked in service of content on Reels.”

Like most social platforms, Instagram’s app has never been shy about its priorities. In the beginning, social platforms tend to be blunt about what matters, minting new currencies with likes or shares, comments or reposts, followers or reach. As social platforms mature, becoming both more crowded and more important in some users’ lives, growth can become more difficult to sustain. Competition is greater. User preferences change. The platforms themselves change as they please, leaving longtime users scrambling to find their footing again.

Currently, Reels are front and center. And like the Snapchat-inspired Stories, this new feature conscripts users into a battle more Instagram’s than their own. (This time against TikTok.)

There is also a hint of déjà vu in Instagram’s broadening outreach. In the mid-2010s, Instagram’s parent company Facebook was scheduling similar meetings with low-tier partners, offering advice about how to get ahead at a time when success on the platform was seen by many brands and publishers as valuable and necessary.

I attended one such meeting as an editor at a small publication; I was advised, by a representative who did not seem familiar with the site, to diversify our Facebook content. A few image posts a day would help, in addition to the links to articles we were already sharing. Her main message was that the best way to grow our audience would be to post more videos (at least one a week, but preferably many more). Our meeting was in 2015. Facebook’s video feature — a direct challenge to YouTube — wasn’t yet a year old.

A year later, publishers, brands and influencers were being invited to similar meetings, only this time the advice centered on another new Facebook feature. Regardless of whether you were an artist, or a brand of chips, a publication about animals, a fringe political page, or an arm of government, you were told that your best bet for reaching more people on Facebook, where you might have been posting for more than a decade at that point, was to start broadcasting live video. There was a whole new tab in the app for it. It was, the company said, a great way to build their audiences, and to improve reach.

Image

Instagram’s Reels feature is its answer to the short-form video app TikTok.
Credit…Tali Arbel/Associated Press

Victoria Ying, another artist admired by Ms. Reichenbach, recently took stock of her social media presence. “I joined Instagram back in 2012, almost a decade ago,” she said. “It was almost quaint to look back and see a raw feed full of just whatever I wanted. Back then there was no algorithm to contend with, or if there was, it wasn’t something on my mind.”

At first, Ms. Ying, who had a stable job as an artist for Disney Animation Studios, didn’t need to use Instagram for work. When she embarked on a “more nebulous” career as a graphic novelist and teacher, she decided to try to build a bigger following. “It shocked me how difficult it was,” she said. “It’s been more than five years and I haven’t seen any significant growth in my following.” (Ms. Ying has more than 70,000 followers.)

“Even though I’ve tried to build my Instagram and follow all of the ‘rules’ for engagement, I still haven’t seen any significant growth,” she said. “It’s been a frustrating exercise. I tried everything that was within reason for someone who has to produce art under N.D.A. full time.” It’s worrying to have so little control over something that has become so professionally important, she said. “My Instagram has been cited by almost all of my clients.”

When she read Ms. Reichenbach’s post, she saw the same thing many others did: secrets revealed, demands made, a company conveying to a fellow artist that Instagram would reward her for treating it like a full-time job, and that it might leave her behind if she didn’t adapt.

“After reading the post, it all started making sense,” she said. “The platform wants creators who are wholly devoted to being Instagram artists,” she said. “I’m sure that this is a new and viable way of creating a career in the arts, but it’s not my own personal goal.” The post, she said, gave her a sense of relief. “I was giving my maximum to the platform and now I knew that it would never be enough, so it made it easier for me to just let it go,” she said.

Mr. Williams said that “burnout is top of mind for us” at Instagram, and that the company tries to encourage users — “partners,” again, in platform parlance — to be “intentional about the role Instagram plays in their lives.” Asked how he might convey this to anxious Instagrammers hungry for insider information and then disheartened when they finally hear it, Mr. Williams echoed Ms. Reichenbach’s representative.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all,” he said. But, he added, “consistency is key.”

January 26, 2021
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