From Skateboards to Spaceships, 3 Strategies to Grow Your Followers on Instagram

I did a Google search earlier today for “how to grow your followers on Instagram.” While I appreciate all the marketers out there offering tips, there was something missing from their advice.

Here’s a summary of the advice you’ll find in Google’s top 30 results for “how to grow your followers on Instagram.”

  • Use popular hashtags (or create your own)
  • Be authentic
  • Don’t post too much or too little
  • Cross promote or steal other brand’s followers
  • Like other people’s photos
  • Be social and talk to other people
  • Have a give-away or a contest
  • Like related content
  • Connect Instagram to Facebook and Twitter
  • Ask your Facebook and Twitter contacts to follow your Instagram account
  • Find the best times to post
  • Influencers!

It’s not that these tactics won’t give you a small boost in Instagram followers. They will. But they won’t really build your business. If you are using the same tactics as everyone else, then you can expect the same middling results.

I think part of the problem is that there is so much opportunity with Instagram. People are successfully selling products, finding new customers, and growing their online influence. A few of the early starters had success growing their Instagram followers with simple tactics. And so they took the lead as experts. But over time, these basic tips bring diminishing returns.

The good part about the Instagram strategy frameworks you are about to read is that it isn’t a single tactic or latest trick. It’s a more thoughtful way to think about your Instagram strategy.

At Hootsuite, I’ve seen a lot of Instagram strategies. Most of them follow one of the three frameworks below. These frameworks aren’t magic pills. But they are similar paths that many businesses have followed to grow their Instagram followers and find new customers.

So which one of these frameworks will you use for your business?

After reading this post, grab the full guide:

This post also includes an accompanying guide called Instagram Master Tactics. The post teaches you the three frameworks—and the guide breaks each framework into step-by-step instructions.

  • What to say: content and marketing ideas that work
  • How to save time: schedule Instagram content with Hootsuite
  • What actually works: best practices from five successful companies

Read the free guide here

Tell your product’s story

Not every product is created equal. If you are lucky enough to have a business with an interesting product (skateboards, handcrafted goods, or art), then showing your creative process is a tried-and-true way to grow your Instagram followers.

I recently bought my groomsmen gifts (I’m getting married soon) from Etsy, the online marketplace. There were 72,215 “groomsmen gifts” results to choose from.

In the end, I decided on an online store called Starlightwoods. Part of this was the product. The other was the story about how their cufflinks were made in the woods of Pennsylvania. As they tell the story:

These unique wood cufflinks are made from storm damaged fallen tree branches, I don’t like to let even the smallest branches go to waste. My family and I go on hikes in the woods and haul back arm loads of branches! I get my chop saw out, safety goggles on and start cutting! Each piece is sanded down smooth, created and sealed with a coat of resin to give a glass like finish.

On Instagram, Starlightwoods could show pictures of this process. Show the woods and trails where they find these storm branches. Reveal the world in which the product is made.

There are a lot of cufflinks in the world but only one company that I know cutting them from storm damaged trees. As diamond miners and winemakers have always known, the story is just as important as the product. Instagram is a powerful medium to make all these things we say about our product—from what we talk about on labels to our web copy—actually come to life.

Another example comes from the surfer Gabe Willis. As reported on Instagram’s blog, this surfer moved from the ocean paradise of San Diego to the flat concrete streets of Oklahoma for college. Missing the ocean, he decided to try skateboarding. One day, he snapped his board and was too broke to buy a new one. To save money, he decided to make his own.

He documented his process on Instagram, showing how he learned to create skateboards by hand. Unlike modern skateboards, his resembled old-fashioned wooden boards. He kept showing his work, gathering followers and interest.


Soon, his Instagram followers began asking where they could buy these unique skateboards. He started fulfilling orders right from his Instagram account.

Now, he has expanded to four full-time employees and is selling through physical and online retailers. He also asks customers to include the @strght account when they take photos of their boards. This has built a little customer community and visual showcase of his products.

How can you replicate this strategy? Go to section one of our guide for Hootsuite and Instagram and follow the four steps.

Tell your employee’s story

If you work in an industry such as manufacturing or shipping (where your product has less interest from the public), then focus on what actually makes your company special: the people that do the work.

Sharing the perspective of employees—from a photo taken by a crane operator in Shanghai to an architect’s napkin sketch of a new project—can help boost employee retention, generate press interest, and demonstrate your category leadership.

Maersk Line, the world’s largest shipping container company, surprised people when they started using social media. How would posting pictures of big ships earn them new B2B business?

They first approached social media as a way to get closer to their customers. But soon realized that opportunity was much broader.

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As they explain in their social strategy, “we realise that there’s much more to gain from it, such as better press coverage, higher employee engagement, more brand awareness and even bringing in high-level insights and intelligence from shipping experts around the world.”

Every day, Maersk Line shares photos of the company at work. Giant ships, the bright Maersk logo, the shipyards and freeways—these are all scenes that make employees proud to work at the company.

Adding employees to your story and sharing company culture requires planning and coordination, though.

Go to section two of our Instagram guide. You’ll learn how Hootsuite makes it possible for large companies to schedule Instagram content, create approval workflows, and amplify your brand with employee advocates.

Tell your customer’s story

For consumer brands, a good path to follow is to tell your customer’s story. This is about aspirational branding. You aren’t selling features. You are inspiring customers to become a better version of themselves.

The North Face, a popular outdoor wear company, has an Athlete Instagram Field Team. This team contributes photos from remote places around the world. These are incredible spots that the average person would never get to see. They have 758,000 followers.

Some of their customers might have the skills to climb mountains. Others might follow a gentler path such as kayaking or hiking. But all of their customers share a desire to connect with nature and escape into adventure.

thenorthface insta

Airbnb’s CMO Jonathan Mildenhall is an advocate of this type of value-based storytelling rather than product-focused marketing. As he put it, “people have to understand what the product does for them and how they might feel when they’re using it. But they also have to be inspired by the type of person that that behavior suggests that they are.”

As Jeff Beer pointed out in Fast Company, Airbnb is moving from product-based marketing to value-based marketing.

If you want a concrete example of the difference between these different approaches, take a look at the Airbnb ad below.

Both are trying to get you to believe the same thing: “I can let strangers stay in my house or stay in a stranger’s house without them stealing my stuff or thrashing my kitchen.”

Both are clever. But only one of them gave me goosebumps. The other made me think of a marketing persona.

In the first ad, the basic message is: “You won’t be disappointed with our product. It’s safe to be adventurous when you use our product.” The ad is focused on the product features (safe, affordable, adventurous travel) and what it feels like to use it.

Now, compare with a value-based approach.

Unlike the first ad, the video expresses a broad universal emotion. This isn’t about what the product does. It’s about the type of people who use Airbnb.

It says: “I want to live in a world where humans trust their neighbors. I want to be a person that believes that the world is open and free. I want to believe that we are all good.”

When you open such a big emotional umbrella, your brand has room for billions instead of millions. And if you believe in humankind’s essential goodness, traveling and staying in the homes of strangers is much safer.

How can your brand tell a bigger visual story on Instagram?

Go to section three of our guide and follow the six steps. You’ll learn how Hootsuite’s Instagram scheduling and team permissions make it easy to allow influencers, employees, and external agencies to contribute content.

That way, you can do things such as getting all of your hotels to submit photos from travelers or schedule photos from hundreds of team members working around the world.

Here are the tools you need

That’s the broad framework of what stories your company can tell. These work in any industry. You don’t have to limit your strategy to one either—most really successful brands will tell all of these stories at once in different ways and perhaps on different social channels.

In this post, I told you the WHY. But in Hootsuite’s free guide Instagram Master Tactics, you’ll learn how to actually set this all up.

The guide shows you:

  • What to say: content and marketing ideas that work
  • How to save time: schedule Instagram content with Hootsuite
  • What actually works: best practices from five successful companies