Everyone will tell you that Instagram best practices follow a specific formula.
Post at least once a day, a few times a week at the very least. Find the best time of day to post to your audience to maximize engagement. Use hashtags that are relevant. Have a feed that follows a specific and obvious tone and format.
While I think those are good guidelines, and can lead to a specific type of result, I don’t particularly care for or follow them every time. They're restricting and can lead to a dearth of authenticity.
If there’s more than one way to skin a cat, then there’s more than one way to utilize Instagram. Also, if you know of more than one way to skin a cat, please call a professional. That's weird.
I try to post at a consistent time of day, but I don't always let that dictate whether or not I'm going to post. Do I see a dip in engagement when I post at 11 a.m. instead of 9 a.m. (typically the best time to post, by the way, along with 5-6 p.m.)? Yes. Do certain photos of mine do better than others? Absolutely. Does it matter in the long run? Who knows? That's my point.
Engagement on any sort of social network is always a moving target. It's important to be aware of where that target is moving, but equally important—if not more so—is questioning whether that should be your target in the first place. It does you no good to have 200 likes on a photo if the majority of those likes come from spammy accounts, or even real accounts using spammy practices (more on that one in a bit). When the majority of your likes come from accounts that aren't truly engaged, can you really call it engagement? It can certainly help your overall stats if you're trying to become an influencer—which you should stop trying to do, but that's a post for another day.
That being said, there are legitimate ways to utilize Instagram without feeling...gross.
DO: Use Hashtags Intelligently
As you probably know, hashtags help users discover content that is relevant to whatever they're searching for, be it a topic or event. At least, that's the idea and hope, but not always the case. I've seen too many posts of someone's dog (raises hand, for I too post too many photos of my dogs) that have hashtags that have nothing to do with dogs. You have a finite number of hashtags, so why waste them on things that aren't relevant? Do you think someone looking at #fitfam cares to see a picture of your chubby pitbull, no matter how adorably ironic it is? Ok, not the best example. I want to see (and pet) every chubby pitbull no matter the hashtag, but you get my point.
Speaking of the finite nature of hashtags, you get thirty of them to use in each post. That doesn't mean you have to use them all. I'm guilty of doing so as much as anyone, but it's something I'm working on. It can be difficult choosing which specific hashtags to use when you're hoping to hit a wide swath of an audience, but this brings me to my next point.
DO: Find Your Post's Niche
You have to be very intentional in understanding what your goal with your post is, and once you've determined that goal you have to turn around and do the exact same thinking on the hashtags you use. The more specific you get with your post, the more engaged of an audience you're going to find. If you're researching hashtags and see that a general tag has over a million posts and another more specific tag has 10,000, you have a choice to make. Hint: if you go with the hashtag with over a million posts, you're going to be disappointed.
The nature of hashtags is that unless you're in the top nine for that hashtag that day in terms of engagement, you're going to be at the mercy of a chronological timeline. This means that after a few minutes, chances are nobody is going to see your photo unless they're incredibly boring people with way too much time on their hands. They'd have to scroll for a long time. It's much better to have 100 truly engaged users checking your stuff out than hoping to get in front of a million.
DO: Post Good Content
Your photos don't have to be amazing—though, that does help. They don't have to be technically sound, or edited in such a way that all the beautiful elements are brought out to evoke some sort of visceral response. Great job if you can swing it, but good content is more than that.
Good content has meaning. It has a sort of "call to action", if you will. While I loathe marketing buzzwords, there is some legitimacy here. If you're seeking a specific result from your post, expecting people to divine what that is won't lead to anything. Just straight up ask for it.
Do you hope that your post encourages or informs the public and creates a discussion? Straight up ask them to sound off in the comments with their opinions or experiences and then engage back with them.
Do you hope people looking at your photo eventually sign up for your newsletter? Straight up give them the ability to do so and then ask them to.
Do you want people to buy something you're selling via your posts (never mind the fact that I loathe this)? Straight up tell them why it's worth their while and then give them all the information they need to buy it if they decide they want it.
DON'T: Get Spammy
Spamming is for creating meat-like flavors and consistencies that taste vaguely like real meat without any of the minuscule health and taste benefits of real meat. Like actual Spam®, spamming is tasteless and does nothing good for you. Apologies to all my Hawaiian friends.
I've had a number of my posts get spammed. Initially, it looks like a cool thing. Here's someone I've never heard of that's "liking" my post or leaving a comment. That's neat!
And then I read their comment or look at their profile. The comments are usually incredibly vague and offer no substantive response to whatever I'm posting. These are accounts that use a service that automatically searches specific hashtags a user wants to grow their following in and then posts canned responses or "likes" to photos within that hashtag. Telltale signs of someone using a spam service include comments like:
And my all-time favorite:
"Single women in your area are trying to meet you. DM me for their information." Who among us can resist a good single woman in their area?
If you're paying for services like this, even if your canned comments are more substantive than informing me of single women in my area, you might as well have lit that money on fire. Nobody sees these spam tactics (and they're quite obvious) and thinks, "Single women in my area, you say? Maybe I should hear this guy out."
Also, don't follow every account within your preferred niche (or in general) unless you really care about what they're posting. This is all too prevalent, and it chaps my rear. Too many people follow too many accounts in hopes that those accounts will follow them back and inflate their follower numbers. Many spammers even unfollow not long after following someone, even if that person follows them back. To use a prime example from another social media platform, this is common on Twitter. Everyday I get a notification of a new follower or two and my endorphins spike just enough to make me think this is finally my day. I'm going to skyrocket up the social media sphere. I will finally get to give a Ted Talk.
And then I see something like this:
I find out I'm not that special, and—much like existence can feel—social media is meaningless.
In summation, using Instagram is supposed to be fun. It's supposed to be a way to share parts of your life or what's happening with your brand. Sure, you can gain a large following, and thus make some money on the platform. However, the chances are slim to none that it will ever happen to you.
The most important thing to keep in mind on Instagram should also be the easiest: just be you. Just be authentic. Just be whomever/whatever you are and whatever your intentions might be.
Be a human.