It’s hard to believe that only 10 months ago, I innocently started the @watchstudies account to post about the intersection of two of my greatest loves: watches and photography. In the beginning, my profile humbly read: A study of watches through photography. A study of photography through watches. I still think this is pretty descriptive of what I do, albeit a bit wordy (I’ve never been known for concision anyway).
Truth is, I had taken photos of my watches before, but mostly limited their exposure to my personal blog, with fear that sharing them too publicly would attract criticisms. And then I discovered the watch community. I didn’t know it at the time, but that changed the entire trajectory of the year ahead.
On December 19th, I posted my first photo to the @watchstudies account and quickly discovered how slippery the watch community slope was. 10 months and 10,000 followers later, I’m starting to figure out how to explain to my parents that I take photographs of watches as my full-time gig. What a blessing.
Of course, not all of it was a happy accident. Watch Studies wasn’t my first Instagram rodeo, after all. I went in with some sense of foundational knowledge and felt comfortable navigating the wild west of posts, hashtags, algos, and the like. I’ve also learned a lot of new things in the short time I’ve been running this account.
And so, in celebration of hitting 10,000 followers recently, I wanted to share some of the approaches, lessons, and philosophies that have helped me get here, with hope that it helps or inspires others who are on similar journeys. Don’t get me wrong though – while this is the story of how I gained 10,000 followers in 10 months, this is not a “how to gain 10,000 followers” tutorial. Rather, it’s a “how to do what you love on Instagram and have a blast every step of the way without losing your sanity” tutorial. Enjoy!
In this tutorial:
PSA: Today's the last day to enter my 10K Giveaway!
You have until Sunday, October 31st at 11:59pm PT to get your entries in for a chance to win an iPad Mini, Creative Cloud subscription, and a masterful suite of inspiring products. Get the full prize list and details!
I need to start here. One because my own personal goals for Instagram usage underpins the giant asterisk attached to this entire tutorial. And two because how you approach Instagram (and inevitably what you get out of this write up) largely depends on what you want to achieve.
"It seems highly unlikely that you’re creating purely for the sake of creating. If you were, you wouldn’t be on Instagram."
It’s okay to want to grow your Instagram followers. And it’s okay to want to get your posts liked. I know that seems taboo to say out loud.
Yes, you should 100% create and post what makes you happy. But part of the joy of creating is also eliciting reactions – happiness, inspiration, curiosity, criticism even – from those you share your work with. If you’re on Instagram, it seems highly unlikely that you’re creating purely for the sake of creating. If you were, you wouldn’t be on Instagram.
So the key is to temper your desire for engagement with your own personal goals and make sure the pendulum doesn’t swing too far in one direction or the other. Creating only for yourself and creating only for everyone else can both feel equally empty at times.
My goal on Instagram has always been to create content that delivers value to my audience. I like helping others hone their inner creativity and enjoy offering tools that help them to create. Followers and engagement is one of many metrics that I use to gauge whether that value is being delivered effectively. It’s not a very clean measurement (given how many variables are at a play on Instagram), and that’s why it’s just one of many ways I measure my impact. But it’s with this goal in mind that I hope you contextualize the rest of this tutorial.
And with that, this is a good a time as any to pause and ask yourself: what are your goals?
While you ponder that, let’s carry on!
"Let me cut right to the chase: hashtags matter."
There’s the work (your photos) and then there’s the medium (Instagram). Like a painter’s choice to use canvas, choosing to post photos to Instagram indirectly subscribes us to the nuances that come with the platform. Those nuances may often look like a combination of black magic and luck, but there are also some predictable constraints that are simple to work with, rather than against. Great work needs to cater to the medium, after all.
Here are a few basic approaches that help me make the most out of posting on Instagram, with the goals I outlined above in mind.
I always post vertical photos
The reason is simple: Instagram is a vertical-only app. As such, vertical photos fill the screen real estate most efficiently and provides my audience with the best viewing experience. Said another way, vertical photos are larger, and larger photos are more engaging to look at on Instagram.
I use hashtags
Let me cut right to the chase: hashtags matter. That said, how to use hashtags effectively is a moving target and an ever-evolving beast, so I’ll save you from my
conspiracy theories hypotheses. But here are the essentials that are tried tested and true:
- Instagram allows up to 30 hashtags per post
- Hashtags can be posted in your caption or as a comment (many debates whether one is better than the other)
- If being posted as a comment, hashtags should be posted within seconds after the post is published
Here are some additional points that are less factual but represent how I think about hashtags:
- I generally post 25-30 hashtags (again, many debates on what is the optimal number)
- My hashtag set is a mix of general watch hashtags (#watchfam), branded hashtags (#tudorwatchclub), community hashtags (#barkandjack), style hashtags (#pocketshot), and thematic hashtags (#toolwatchfriday)
- I measure hashtags by their popularity (how many posts use them) and look for a mix of far-reaching hashtags (1m+ posts) and more niche hashtags (30-500k posts)
- Hashtag performance is unpredictable, so I’m constantly experimenting with different combinations and changing what I use periodically
Lastly, here are some pro tips if you’re just getting started with hashtags:
- Find accounts and posts that are similar to yours and use their hashtags as a starting point (feel free to grab any of mine!)
- If you use an iPhone, a friend and I built an app called Jetpack that lets you manage your hashtags and copy them for posting seamlessly
- Like many things on Instagram, hashtag usage requires experimentation and it can take a while to start seeing trends – be patient but diligent!
I always post at the same optimal time
I always post at a time that best suits my personal schedule and that aligns with when most of my audience is active (8am PT). From my observations, the engagement on a post in the first hour affects how far the post will go thereafter, so making sure I post at an optimal time matters. Plus, there’s value in being consistent as my audience knows when to expect new content.
Finding the optimal time is a process of trial and observation. Start with what’s feasible for you and then experiment! If you have a creator or business account, you can also look at your analytics to see where your audience is located and optimize for those timezones.
I use mentions and tags in different ways
Mentions are when I type out an account’s name in the caption or comment of my post. This format of referencing another account is primarily for the viewer to have an easy way to tap and discover another account. The account being mentioned gets a notification, but it does not stay persistently visible so it may get lost in a long list of activity.
Tags are when I label a part of a photo and link it to another account. It can be a helpful visual format for helping the viewer get additional information about my photo (for example, tagging a product I’m using with the brand’s account). The biggest benefit is that it not only notifies the account being tagged, but it stays persistent in their Tagged tab on their profile. This is an optimal way of letting the other account know that I’ve referenced them in my post. In fact, I check my Tagged feed daily and use it to keep up with the majority of community posts.
"Posts that are liked, commented on, saved, and shared have a higher chance of being seen."
The basics listed above just get me to the starting line, but it’s the investment into the community that truly helps me go the distance. Understandably, not everyone has the goal of building a community around them or their work, but it’s my personal opinion that to benefit from the community, one also has to be part of the community and contribute to it. We’re literally all in this together.
So here are some guiding lights on how I approach community building on Instagram.
I try to be a great host
As an account owner, I sometimes compare myself to a host at the entrance of a restaurant. I greet everyone I see, respond to questions, and help contextualize the experience as best as I can. On Instagram, there are a handful of opportunities where I can offer a good hosted experience: my profile bio, my captions, my comment responses, and my DM responses.
I try to respond to every comment and Direct Message
I’ll be honest, this can sometimes take over a hour each day to accomplish. But it’s an important facet of community building to me because, at minimum, it’s returning the effort that someone else put in to leave a comment or send a message. But at its best, it’s how I connect more directly with the humans behind the screens.
Everyone has their style, but I try my best to make my responses feel personal and personable. This makes Instagram feel more like a two way conversation rather than a series of messages being lobbed back and forth over a wall.
I like, comment, share, and save
Supporting each other sounds like a no brainer but there’s actually a bit of nuance in how we do it that impacts how effective our support is. At the base level, there’s the emotional support provided by simply liking and leaving a nice comment. Those are super helpful.
To go the extra mile, I also try to save and share posts that I enjoy. This type of engagement feeds into Instagram’s algorithm and helps the platform amplify the content more effectively. In essence, posts that are liked, commented on, saved, and shared have a higher chance of being seen. It's a few extra taps but it can really help your fellow creators!
I aim to make friends, not followers
One of the keys to maintaining your sanity on Instagram is to remember that it’s a community of humans that are truly at their best when human connections are being made. It’s super easy to get lost in the Instagram game and forget that we’re actually all here because of a shared passion. But if we can hone in at the root level of that commonality and allow ourselves to geek out with liked minded people, we can better sustain that sense of connection that we joined this community for in the first place.
I give more than I take
A personal philosophy of mine has always been to try to give away more than I take. I feel privileged in what I have, what I know, where I’ve been, and what I’ve learned and I feel like I have an unspoken responsibility to give away as much of that as I can. This means I will continue running Sunday Study Club and keep sharing what I know about creative work for as long as I can. Fundamentally, I think this is not only what attracts people to my account, but also what helps me connect with others with similar ambitions.
I'd be remiss if I didn't leave a few thoughts on the numbers side of Instagram. By default, our brains are programmed to release dopamine when we see those like counts go up. Conversely, when the count is low, we sometimes feel equally low. It’s human nature to take the figures that Instagram parades at face value and ignore the nuance that goes with them.
"I don’t let numbers define how good I think a photo is. Performance is entirely different from quality."
Over the years that I’ve used Instagram to publish my work, I’ve learned a lot and have tried to adopt some healthier perspectives on Instagram metrics. Here's my take on them.
What I look at numbers for
Analytics are useful to me to figure out trends. The key to identifying a trend is to look at figures over a longer period of time. While it’s easy to get caught up in the like count or reach of an individual post, looking at those same figures at a weekly or monthly view is actually much more valuable.
When you look at figures with a wider lens, the outliers wash away and you become less concerned about “that one post that didn’t do well”. All the other variables that affect a post’s performance also get averaged out. What you’re left with is a clearer view of how your content is performing.
With this approach, I can sometimes figure out how the community is responding to a certain style of content (like me sharing insights on shooting versus editing), a format of posts (like carousels versus single photo posts), or even a way that I’m posting (like hashtags in captions versus comments). I just have to remind myself often that the numbers can at best give me hypotheses, not facts. So I try to take every figure with a grain of salt knowing that there are multiple factors at play at all times.
What I don’t look at numbers for
I don’t let numbers define how good I think a photo is. Performance is entirely different from quality. I know this because I know I don’t look at like counts of my favorite creators before deciding whether I actually like one of their posts. Great work is great, regardless of what Instagram’s metrics say.
I also don’t let numbers define my success as a creator. I don’t need figures to tell me whether I’m enjoying what I’m doing or whether I think the work I’m doing is good. I’m clear about the role that Instagram plays in my work (a place to connect with a community and a marketing tool) and I don’t confuse that with my goals as a creator.
"Be intentional about the time you spend with the app and don't let it run your day."
In reading this tutorial, you might immediately jump to the conclusion that managing an Instagram account is a full-time job. And truthfully, without some deliberate self-control, it has the power to consume all of your time and energy.
Instagram burnout is a real thing. I've felt it myself and have many close friends who have had to walk away from the platform temporarily, or worse, permanently. When I started this account, I promised myself to adopt healthy habits so that I could sustain the good parts of this platform as much as possible, and minimize the bad parts.
Here are some of those healthy habits I try to practice.
I try to use Instagram only a few times a day
To ensure that Instagram doesn't consume my entire schedule, I limit its use to a few times a day – usually once in the afternoon and again in the evening before bed. This means that on most days, after taking a few minutes to post at 8am PT, I might go many hours before opening the app again (see below for an exception).
While I do keep an eye on notifications through the day, I simply prefer to use Instagram in focused bursts rather than on a continuous ad-hoc basis. It also helps me stay productive when I'm writing or shooting, or engaged when I'm with my family and friends.
Twice a day may still feel like a lot for you. That's okay! The lesson here is to use Instagram at your own pace. Be intentional about the time you spend with the app and don't let it run your day.
I separate consumption time and engagement time
This might be a me thing, but I think of consuming content and engaging with content as two different types of activities. When I have some downtime and just want to mellow out for a few minutes, I'll sometimes open Instagram and just browse new content. When I do this, I prefer not to engage with any posts or do anything that requires much thought. Instead, I'll save posts that I want to come back to later to engage with.
Then, when I have more time and energy, like in those few bursts I mentioned above, I'll go back to what I've saved and like, comment, and share with more thoughtful effort.
I give myself permission to fall behind
This might sound silly but sometimes I just have to remind myself that I can't possibly stay on top of everything on Instagram. As soon as I was able to embrace this mentality, it made the above two habits a lot easier to follow.
The same goes for posting content. I choose to post every day and will do this only as long as I feel I can sustain it healthily (keep in mind, this is my full time job). For you, that might sound like way too much commitment, and that's very okay. Just choose a posting schedule that works for you!
I (should really) take breaks
My good friend Eric (@averagewatches) reminds me all the time that everything I do for the community is a bonus. If I don't do something, nobody is showing up at my door with pitchforks.
This is a great reminder that I should take more intentional breaks from Instagram. Since starting this account, I've only missed 2 days of posting, and it was only because I was on a plane. Even running Sunday Study Club every week can have its toll. So, one of the things I'm working on is taking more planned breaks.
I remind myself of my goals for Instagram
Remember how this tutorial started? Yeah, those goals that you defined for yourself are not only good for keeping you focused, but also to keep your sanity in check. Whenever I find myself overly stressed or exhausted from Instagram, I try to take a step back and revisit my goals. Often times, I'll realize that the things I'm worried about aren't relevant to what I'm trying to achieve.
Like all creative work, there is no single right way to approach Instagram. This tutorial represents one person's set of rituals and philosophies that have resulted in mostly positive outcomes thus far. That said, Instagram – and social media as a whole – is constantly evolving so what works today may not work tomorrow.
Staying aware of your own goals and being deliberate about your relationship to any product and platform is probably the closest I can get to providing evergreen advice. If you do it right though, Instagram has the ability to create incredible opportunities and fulfilling experiences that complement – and even accelerate – your work as a creator. And even if it doesn't, the people you'll meet along the way will surely make the journey worthwhile.