How To Grow a Brand on Instagram

by Kevin Espiritu · 25 comments

in Content Strategy, Social Media, User Growth

How To Grow a Brand on Instagram

There are a lot of marketing articles about Instagram. Or any other “social media channel”, “online platform”, or “inbound marketing target.”

This is going to be another one of those, but with a little twist.

I’m going to tell you everything I did to grow a brand on Instagram, down to the daily tasks – but I’ll talk a little high level as well.

I feel that too many marketing blogs, articles, and ULTIMATE GUIDES gloss over the reason you’re doing any of this stuff – to connect with your customers, provide as much value as humanly possible, and build a strong, thriving community.

The Brand

For this experiment, I chose a site that I built as a pet project years ago, called Epic Gardening.

I built it because I have a strange, weird addiction to gardening and cultivating my own food, but also because every gardening site that I read for information looked like it was still running on Geocities or Angelfire.

I worked on it on and off as I had other things going on in my life, but decided to apply some marketing systems that I’d built for clients to it to see if they’d work, and they did.

I chose Instagram as a platform because gardening is an inherently visual niche that’s ripe for amazing photography – Instagram is the place for amazing photography.

Here are the results that I have achieved thus far:

Epic Gardening Results

  • Account Created: January 6, 2015
  • Followers: 10,850 (~124/day)
  • Total Photos: 127
  • Total Likes: 62,661
  • Total Comments: 2,308
  • Brand results outside of Instagram:
    • Increased traffic to the Epic Gardening website (caused some old posts to go viral and 4x my monthly traffic from 15,000 to 60,000/mo)
    • Increased following on Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook
    • Boosted credibility for partnerships with larger gardening brand

Want results like these for your brand on social media? Contact us now!

The Process In a Nutshell

  1. Finding people with a large following of our target demographic.
  2. Analyzing their accounts to see what they share and how they share it.
  3. Developing a repeatable, automatable strategy for connecting with the people that follow those accounts.
  4. Layering on levels of engagement to make sure the audience we’re building cares about us and our brand, and visa versa.

Define Your Ideal Follower

We need to get in the right mindset before we start on Instagram.  We need to know exactly what type of person we are trying to attract to our brand.


If you’re not willing to put in a few hours of upfront research, there’s really no point in reading the rest of the guide – it’s going to set the stage for every other decision you’ll make down the road.

As someone who loves tactics and strategies, it’s hard for me to sit down and do the research and digging, but it’s well worth it (just look at the numbers above).

  1. Exactly what type of person do you want to attract?
  2. What successful accounts are they already following in your niche?
  3. What types of photos are they liking?
  4. What hashtags are they using on their own photos?
  5. What are the hashtags successful accounts in your niche are using?

These questions need to be answered in extreme detail…so do the work!

How You Can Interact on Instagram

Instagram is a fairly simple social media platform.  There are only a few ways to generate social media signals:

  1. Like or unlike a user’s photo
  2. Follow or unfollow a user’s photo
  3. Direct message a user
  4. Tag a user in a photo
  5. Comment on a user’s photo
  6. Use hashtags
  7. Mention a user by their profile name


This is one of the simplest growth methods on Instagram.  Everyone wants more likes on their photos – we’re all subject to our own egos.

However, because it’s so easy to do, the value of the action is low.  For accounts with a lot of followers, liking often won’t have much of an effect as your like will be buried in the massive sea of likes that they get.

However, liking photos should be part of your overall growth strategy.


Following is one of the easiest ways to get individual attention on Instagram.  In the notification feed it shows up as a separate line item, meaning it can’t get drowned out or grouped with other actions.

It also shows up separately in push notifications as well if the user still has those active.


Tagging shows a user’s username in your photo if it’s tapped on.  The user also gets a notification that, like a follow, is a separate push notification and line item in their activity feed.

However, this should only be reserved for accounts that you know personally.  It’s bad form and very spammy to tag people you don’t know in your photos.


A higher-touch, but higher-effectiveness strategy.  When automated, this will come off extremely spammy and put your account at risk, so it’s not really worth it, unless you do it very selectively and very carefully.

It’s possible to give a genuine, flattering comment and do it at scale.

Whatever you do, do not advertise or sell yourself in any way in your comments.

Direct Messaging

Sends a photo with a message to a single user.

This should be kept for private communication among followers that you know well, or followers that have commented a lot and you want to reach out to personally with a call to action.


I’ve saved hashtags for last because they’re one of the least effective ways to grow your following that I have tested.

They’re one of the most over-emphasized growth tactics, and in my opinion are best used in the research and audience building phase rather than spamming them on your photos. If you do use hashtags, the best thing to do is to “claim” a hashtag that has to do with your brand.

For me, the choice was obvious: #epicgardening.  When I first started using this hashtag, there were 134 photos with the tag on Instagram.

There are now 4,500 photos tagged with #epicgardening. It’s one of the ways that I connect with my audience – I like and comment on photos that use the branded hashtag.

Mentioning a User

Mentioning a user can be done in the comments or in the photo description. It’s most often used by friends to let another person know about a photo that’s relevant.  Think Dan Bilzerian on Instagram – over half of the comments on any photo he shares are people mentioning other people.

It’s best to use this sparintly – like tagging. Don’t do it unless you know the person or have a good reason (we’ll get into that later).

Engagement: There’s No Point In A Dead Following

Ever see those accounts with 10k followers, 100 likes per photograph, and 1-2 comments? That’s a worthless account. Take 9,000 off of that number and you’ll be closer to the true amount of followers that they have.

Your goal in the research phase of branding on Instagram is to figure out where the most engaged people are – who they follow, what hashtags they use, and what photos and content they absolutely love. Produce that and add in a few of the strategies below and you’ll be on your way to a highly engaged brand.

This is what engagement looks like (there are 98 comments on this photo):



Encourage Them to Add Their Own Hashtags

Spamming the photos you post with a bunch of hashtags at the end of the description isn’t necessarily ineffective, but it’s in bad taste and is viewed poorly by your followers.

A slightly better approach is to ask your followers to add their own hashtag to your photos with a CTA in the photo description.

“Claim” a Hashtag


A great way to get your following hyper-engaged is to claim a hashtag as your own and encourage your followers to post photos to their OWN accounts using that hashtag.

A great example of this is – they’ve effectively claimed the #urbangardenersrepublic hashtag and get a ton of people in their audience to post photos that they then repost with credit.  It’s a great way to inspire engagement.

Get Them to Tag Someone They Know

If you post a photo that is extremely interesting to your following, they may decide to tag some of their friends that they feel would also enjoy the photo.  One of the best examples of this is Dan Bilzerian’s Instagram.

Since not all of us are multimillionaires, poker players, and gun enthusiasts all rolled into one, you may want to resort to giving a call to action to encourage your following to tag a friend like Lewis Howes:

In this quote photo he’s sharing something about his own personal life (connection with followers), indirectly asking them to comment (cta for engagement), and asking them to tag a friend who ‘always defies the odds’ (cta for growth)

Encourage Them to Like Your Photo


If you want a chance to get into Instagram’s updated Explore tab (which is much more accessible than it used to be), getting likes in the first 30 minutes of a post’s existence is crucial.

A lot of top Instagram accounts do this with a call to action in the description, usually saying something like, “Double tap if you agree!” This creates a bit of cognitive dissonance in a follower’s brain because the quote is something very hard NOT to agree with, if you want to think of yourself positively.

Encourage Them to Click Link in Your Profile


Instagram doesn’t (yet) allow you to share clickable links in photo descriptions, so your best bet if you want someone to move from Instagram to somewhere else is to direct people to your profile and update your link.

For example, Lewis Howes, who runs a podcast for entrepreneurs called The School of Greatness, will update the link in his Instagram profile to the show notes for the latest episode in order to promote the most timely piece of content that he has to offer his audience.

Types of Media to Share

We’ve covered research, ways to interact, and engagement strategies…but what about the actual content that you post?  I’ve saved the best for last as most people really, really mess this up.

There are certain types of photos that do extremely well on Instagram, and certain photos that absolutely suck.  Here’s a brief overview of the ‘genres’ of photos that you can and should consider posting to the account.

Lifestyle Photo

The lifestyle photo works well for accounts that are promoting a way of life, whether it be the entrepreneurial journey, the yogini lifestyle, or healthy habits.

It’s non promotional, and usually carries with it an aspirational message that is trying to convey that your followers can also achieve this lifestyle.  If not that, then it offers a positive quote or message, like you see in Lewis Howes’ here:



One of the greatest things you can always give to someone that doesn’t cost you anything is your SMILE! Give it freely and give it often.

Promotion Photo

Every now and then, you’ll want to mix in photos that promote your brand.  It’s important to make sure that the offer and message are closely related to what a large percentage of your followership needs.

In this example, Dave Ramsey is promoting one of the lower-end offers that he has, telling people to click the link in his Instagram profile to pick it up.

His call to action works here because it’s timely (this was around New Years = financial resolutions) and he’s offering a solution to a very painful problem (getting out of debt).

On top of that, the image takes up most of the screen on Instagram and is an extremely high quality book image, versus a trashy eBook cover or 3d generated model that so many people use.


Quote Photo

If you’re running a profile that’s trying to convey a specific message, whether that be something global (motivation) or specific (finances), quote images are an amazing way to get a lot of engagement and organic growth.

By their nature, quotes are inspirational and aspirational and will entice a lot of your followers to @mention other people in their network that they think the quote would help.

In this example, Dave Ramsey is making full use of the quote image with a branded quote that’s probably coming directly from one of his books.  All of his quote images have the same styling, so people scrolling through quickly will know:


This inspires them to stop vertically scrolling because they like the brand, and give the photo a like or @mention a friend.

Here, Dave is also using a claimed hashtag of #DaveDaily that lets new people know that he posts these every day as well as including some more personal branding.


Niche Photo

These photos should make up the bulk of your profile if you’re in a focused niche.


How Cohesive Is Your Feed?

It’s very important to post photos that all have the same “flavor”, meaning that when you look at your Instagram profile page, all of the photos look like they belong together.

Too many brands post amazing photos on an individual level that look ridiculous when viewed in the feed.

A jumbled mess of colors, patterns, and distances that make the feed look disorganized and busy. When someone is making that 1-2 second decision to follow you or not, they’re not looking to see if your photo is cool – they’re looking to see if your FEED is one they’d want to see on a daily basis.

This is the profile page of a photographer with 30k followers.  He posts amazing photos, but as you can tell they all have the same type of vibe.

They’re all landscapes of some kind, usually with a focal point in the middle of the photo (line of trees, road, waterfall), and they are all taken on cloudy days, so the general color palette of his feed is very similar picture to picture.

Shoot for this type of ‘feel’ to your feed when you look at it quickly. Not the exact style, but the feeling that everything goes together.


A Recipe For Growing Your Account

This can be very tedious, but if your brand is well suited to Instagram, this work will pay dividends.  Below is a rough outline of the type of work that I did to build Epic Gardening to over 10,000 followers in around 3 months.


The follow is one of the strongest actions you can take to grow your Instagram account.  Because it shows up separately on your activity feed, following someone will grant you a millisecond of a potential follower’s attention.

So far, the most effective following strategy I have tested is picking 1-3 accounts that are similar to your account and popular.  Then, scrape their followers and start following them.

Generally you want to stagger your following efforts so you don’t hit Instagram rate limits, so anywhere from 450-650 a day is a good target. Use something like Iconosquare to do this on the web so your life doesn’t suck.


Liking photos is much lower value than following, but it’s still effective to use.  It still shows up separately in your activity feed, but can easily get drowned out by a large swarm of other likes.

The best way to use liking for growth is to figure out ~5 hashtags that the people you want to follow you are using the most, then like a lot of those photos per day.

Pro Tip: Use the “Power Punch” combo: Follow + Like + Like + Like. This takes up half of their screen and shoots followbacks up from a dismal sub 10% to around 25% if you have a solid feed.


Moreso than following, comment almost always spurs engagement.

It’s a very personal thing for someone to take the time to comment on a photo that you have taken, and most Instagram users are very thankful.  That, and they’ve got an ego and are trying to build their platform too, so any compliment is going to rub them the right way.

Commenting on the 1-3 best hashtags at a rate of 100-150 a day is a great way to grow engagement and followers.

Typically I like to go with a simple compliment that is templated  so I’m not posting the exact same text everywhere.

Note: it’s not automated, just ‘spun’ in the sense of using different words to say more or less the same thing. I keep all of these variations in my notes app on my phone.

Here is a template:

<@owner> this {shot | photo | picture | images | snap | insta | photograph} is {breathtaking | amazing | incredible | lovely | marvelous | stunning | awesome | fascinating | badass | rad | epic}!

*If using a spinner you will likely need to remove all spaces, I’ve just added them here to maintain mobile responsiveness.

A Simple Daily Routine

If you want to go hardcore, this is a great way to do it. It will take some time and effort, but if you’ve identified Instagram as a great place for your brand to expand to, then it’ll be worth the time.

For Epic Gardening, I’ve lined up a ton of interest from gardening product creators to the point that I have a free giveaway of a product in the $100-$500 range scheduled for every month of this year already.

Running online giveaways for those has expanded my list, traffic, and every social channel immensely. So the manual effort of building Instagram was most definitely worth it.

  • 450-650 follows
  • 1500-2100 likes
  • 100-150 comments
  • 500 unfollows (if not following back – this keeps your ratio at least 1:1)

Go Forth and Build

Hopefully you got some value out of this post – I tried to make it as extensive as I could, but I’m sure that I missed a bunch of little things that I do to make my Instagram brand growth as simple and easy as possible.

Feel free to reach out to me via email, comment, or social media if you have any questions or comments about this piece.  Now, go forth and build your #brand!

– Kevin

About Kevin Espiritu
Kevin Espiritu runs marketing at Book in a Box, a startup turning book writing and publishing upside down. He writes about marketing and business at Supreme Strategies, and life and other oddities at his personal blog. Gardener, skateboarder, rock climber, musician.

Follow me on Twitter · Visit my website →

  • The best layout for instagram I’ve read hands down. Thank you for taking the time to share this. I’ve been go back and forth on strategies and wondering how these successful accounts do it. I’ve realized from your post that many accounts I think are good, aren’t really so good (engagement is low, probably many paid likes). And impressive of what you did.

    I checked out Iconosquare, seems pretty good, are there any other software/app you use to make things easier? I was looking at instafollow too.

    Also, as you grew your followers and now at past 10K, do you notice a significant increase in organic growth? Just curious if at some point it takes a life of its own.

    • Thanks for the kind words Mark.

      I use Iconosquare for the data crunching that they do.

      I use Phonegram to browse and save photos quickly, and share them to my community with the descriptions intact (I obviously still edit them and give credit).

      There are a couple other things that I use as well but they’re more minor.

      It takes a life of its own for sure, but only if you’re posting media that helps it live. Posting stuff that gets a lot of “@friend @otherfriend” type of comments is what will grow your channel.

      It’ll pop you into the new explore tab quicker, get organic followers quicker, etc.

      Hope that helps!

      • Helps a TON. Thanks Kevin!

  • Great strategy Kevin! Definitely bookmarking for later.

    Is there a good approach you would take for a business that’s typically not visual? I’m thinking something like a SaaS business or online marketing business.

    • I’d do it a different way and have a channel that’s branded around a value or principle that your audience is likely to hold. Entrepreneurship, ‘the hustle’, productivity, etc. It’d be pretty tough to get anyone to care about a SaaS business through IG if you marketed it super straightforward.

  • Kevin & Nick,

    First off, this is seriously an amazing run down that is action packed! I’ve recently started to attempt to build up the IG presence for two brands that I’m involved with and this could not come at a better time.

    Secondly, I’m in the midst of starting my first home garden and the intro to Epic Gardening is also perfect timing.

    This is the “power punch” of Instagram/Garden strategy posts 🙂

    Finally, is there a software out there that you are aware of that allows users to schedule IG posts a la Hootsuite or Buffer?

    Thanks for sharing!


    • Thanks dude, hope it helps you quite a bit! Unfortunately I know of absolutely zero pieces of software that allow you to schedule IG posts 🙁

      What I do is use templated descriptions and Phonegram to speed up the posting process a little bit. Then I just remember to do it once or twice a day – usually takes a couple of minutes.

      A minor annoyance, but it’s actually a healthy barrier that helps the platform from being complete garbage.

    • Hi Anthony,
      Check out latergram, you can prepare your posts ready to go live at a certain time and date and when they are due to be posted you are being prompted on your phone. All you have to do then is follow the directions to post and it automatically gets you on the IG app to finish posting. The free version allows 31 posts per months but you can gain extra allowance by getting others to signup. Actually if you decide to go ahead here is my link 😉
      I know there is another one that does the posting too but has no free version. Hope that helps 🙂

  • Hi Kevin
    I loved this post, thanks so much for sharing, I particularly love the fact that you give practical advice. One thing I was wondering though is do you know if there is anyway to follow people easily and still check their profile but all on one page, not having to click in and out of each one? Do I make sense? 🙂
    Thanks again

    • Yes, I get what you’re saying and no, I don’t know about that. My method is usually to get a list of all of the people following accounts that I want to model, and just follow them ALL. I do it over time, spending a lot more on posting stuff that people will care about than going on a following spree. Hope that’s helpful!

      • I have just started doing this, I see exactly why it is more time efficient. I have actually spent all day applying your tips, thanks again 🙂

  • Great Article from Kevin Espiritu,

    I never seen such an in depth blog about Instagram. I am also promoting my website brand in Instagram and i i hope these fantastic tips will help to grow my brand.

  • I want a great way to watch instagram on my computer. I have been using Pixsta but it won’t allow me to switch back and forth between accounts (personal and business) for some reason it only allows my personal account.

    Can anyone help me out? Or offer a suggestion on what app to use?


    • Good Samaritan can help, or, or gramblr. There are lots of PC interfaces, although most of them aren’t free.
      This is a great article illustrating how strong is instagram’s business potential. Keeping users engaged pays off directly, thousands of entrepreneurs can confirm. But the app itself is only good for customers, for those who try to attract people it’s not enough. It’s almost impossible to build up a good follower base without apps for statistics and search, and then maintain it without service like allowing to filter existing base. This is actually a very underrated domain, not many users understand the importance of possibility to unfollow like 5k people at once, but as a person who faced this necessity i can relate. Stay close to your customers and you’ll reach the success.

  • These are awesome tips. Thank you for this post.
    I’m building a knowledge base about how to most effectively work on Instagram in our new tool River – Instagram Web App (
    Your article will be one of the most important.


  • Nice update in Instagram because at present Instagram is updated with latest features. This will also help us to clarify.

  • Instagram is the popular social media platform for marketing.and its very popular in day by day.most of the people did ‘t know about real Instagram promotion steps with proper me so this is the best Instagram content for learning new steps .thanks.If you can promote other social media with best promotion steps .so its beneficial for every one .

  • I never see such an in strength blog regarding Instagram. I
    am also promote my website in Instagram and i i expect these incredible advice
    will help to grow up my brand. Look at my Site Any Internet Marketing Help Visit Here

  • Alex Larson

    I think most of you do not to know beans about promotion. Yeah, this strategy is great, but you can’t use it effectively without followers, which would grow so slow. Damn, it’s reather rational to prefer other methods with boosters or smth like that, e.g. Nearly forgot about management apps, such as Hootsuite,etc.

  • Window Square

    Very Awesome Article regarding Instagram Strategy

  • Dowls

    Wow, insanely in-depth article. I reckon you’ll grow at a very good rate using most of these strategies.

    but if you don’t you can always get free instagram likes or followers to help you on your way.

  • Ron

    Loved your article, went right to work at implementing your steps. Unfortunately, instagram now has a limit to only 30 likes per hour for a 3rd party client like I was using. Got an update to work within instagram’s guidelines?

  • Roman Zheleznov

    Hope you received a vote of thanks from the audience for this awesome article. Totally agree that instagram is the best way to earn money on it and have fun connecting with others. Btw, 777spinslot is my second way of earning money

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