I grew my Instagram from 300 to 3000 – here’s how

by Heather Cowper on October 3, 2015

It feels like you can’t open a Sunday magazine these days without reading about some Instagram superstar who is paid by brands to promote to their audience. Instagram is serious business in the world of Social Media and that’s one of the reasons I decided to focus more of my time and energy on building up my account.

It’s also a platform that I really enjoy sharing and engaging on since I am a visual person and love looking at beautiful photos. I find it’s quick and easy to use Instagram from my phone when travelling and the amount of likes and comments is so much more rewarding than other platforms like Facebook.

Heather Cowper Profile

Although I’ve been on Instagram since 2012 (you’ll find me @heathercowper), I didn’t really take it seriously until the beginning of 2015 when my follower numbers were still around 300. Now as I write at the end of September 2015 I’ve reached 3000+ followers and I’m confident the upward trend will continue. Even though I’m not yet at the 20K+ followers where I’d be taken seriously by brands I’m pretty pleased with the progress I’ve made in a relatively short time. This is not a generic ‘how to’ article about the do’s and don’ts of Instagram. This article is about what has worked for me personally on Instagram which may or may not be appropriate for you. I’ll leave you to decide.

How to grow your Instagram account I started to actively grow my Instagram account at the beginning of 2015

A bio that’s clear and consistent

It’s important that people who come to your Instagram account can quickly tell what you are offering. You only have a second or two to convince someone to follow you or spend time looking at your photos. Although my bio is pretty consistent across all my social media platforms, I’ve done a bit of tweaking for Instagram. From my photo and bio I want it to be clear that I have plenty to offer my target audience of the 40+ woman who loves to travel.

Heather Cowper Instagram bio

My travel style (Authentic travel with a little luxury) and travel themes (Culture, Food, Hiking and Cruise) are spelt out with a sprinkling of emojis to keep things light and fun. As many instagrammers are also into Snapchat I’m cross-promoting this as well as my association with Travelator Media, the blogger group that I co-founded as we also have an Instagram account that I manage. The photos that I post are consistent with the themes I’m presenting in my bio. You’ll see pictures from hiking trips, interesting cultural attractions I’ve visited, pretty food photos and the odd cruise ship as well as cruise destinations I’ve visited. If you identify with what you read in my bio you should find plenty to enjoy in my photos with no surprises.

Pay attention to what your audience wants

In articles about how to succeed on Instagram, you’ll continually hear the phrase “post your best photos”. Of course we all need to be the best photographer we can and be selective in what we post, but the “best” photos could be very different depending on what your audience are looking for from you. In the travel niche generally I’ve found that beautiful landscapes do best, especially with plenty of blue sea or sky. Beautiful landscapes with blue sky AND water reflections do especially well for me. Photos of iconic places or aspirational destinations that many people have either visited or would love to visit do extra well. Think the Eiffel tower, the white houses of Santorini, a gorgeous honeymoon beach in the Maldives.

Stourhead Instagram Pretty landscapes with blue skies and water reflections always do well, especially if the destination is a popular one


Food shots, providing they are appetising and nicely styled are good, though not quite so popular (obviously things might be different if you are a food blogger). If there are people in the shot they should be a ‘figure in the landscape’, not really recognisable and preferably wearing a red jacket! No-one really wants to see selfies unless perhaps you are a fashion blogger. Even then I notice people de-emphasise their face by looking away or hiding behind hair.

All of this is based on observation of what people respond to on my account and may be different for yours. The key thing is to pay attention to the relative amount of likes and comments that one photo gets compared to another and then give your audience more of what they are responding to. Within reason. It might get a bit boring if my feed only featured stunning landscape shots with water reflections.

Selfies are out, figures in the landscape wearing something bright are popular

Careful photo selection and editing

Having worked out the kind of photos that do well for you, you may still need to do a bit of primping and preening. I may take 10 variations of the same shot but will experiment with which one looks best when cropped square. Instagram now offers the option to share photos in rectangle format, but unless you are adding the white borders with an app like Whitagram you still need to ensure that they look good in the square format on your profile page.

I’ll experiment a bit with the cropping, choosing the portion of the shot that looks best. I know that some instagrammers do a lot of photo enhancing but I’m not so expert on using all the different apps and filters for that. All I do is play around a little with the exposure and the saturation, as I like my photos to be a little more intense in colour than you get in real life. Increasing the saturation slightly is part of my ‘look’. I’m also careful to straighten any horizons or lines that appear wonky. Within reason spend a bit of time making your chosen shot the best you possibly can. Check out my instagram feed @Heathercowper

Heathercowper Instagram feed These photos from Austria show how I try to ensure my feed has a harmonious look and consider which photos to position next to each other

The look of the feed as a whole

Another tip I picked up from top instagrammers is to develop a recognisable ‘look’ for your feed as a whole. Once you start looking you’ll easily pick out the instagrammers who are doing this. Whatever visual device they use, there’s a consistency about their images when seen together. My look is to use colourful images and where required to intensify the saturation a little. You also need to consider how each image you post will work with the one next door so that the feed takes on a pleasing balance. I tend to do this by mixing up a landscape with a close up such as a food shot.

I also post photos from a destination in multiples of 3s, so you might have a block of 9 or 12 photos from each place. I try to post photos from the same destination in a series to tell a story of that trip. I hate it when you see those white borders going all in different directions or multiple variations of the same shot together. Pay attention to the look of your feed as a whole since this is what people will judge you on when they come to check you out and try to develop your own visual style over time. Here’s another example of how a feed achieves a unified look from one of my favourite Bristol instagrammers @porthjess

Porthjess Example of a visually consistent feed with a distinctive look from Bristol instagrammer @PorthJess

Telling a story

I make an effort to add a few lines of commentary to every post that tells the story behind the photo. I try to keep it light and engaging and to pick out things that my audience may be able to relate to, since more people like or comment when they can identify with what you are saying. As an example I might post a photo of a delicious cake while making reference to the extra pounds I’m putting on, since this is a struggle that many of my 40+ audience will share. Sometimes I might ask a question, although I do this in moderation as it’s such a blindingly obvious technique for hooking people and can seem a bit fake. For me a few lines is enough, I’m not a great fan of instagrammers who write a mini blog post, they’ve lost my attention after the third line.

Instagram - ankle Mentioning my twisted ankle in this post got me a bit of sympathy!

Considered use of hashtags

Adding hashtags to a photo in the initial text or in the first comment is a good way of attracting other instagrammers to look at your photos. You can add up to 30 hashtags per photo. There are a few different approaches and I’ve experimented with most of them.

  • Popular generic hashtags e.g. #travel #instatravel #food #foodporn – I use a few of these but only where highly relevant. You can find them by looking at popular hashtags in iconosquare.
  • Location specific hashtags e.g. country, city, attraction name – I almost always use these
  • Sharing hashtags where a tourism board or other large account encourages users to post with a specific hashtag which gives them permission to reshare the photo. I am most likely to use tourism board hashtags e.g. #visitbristol as the chances of a repost are quite good. I occasionally use the big name account hashtags e.g. #BBCTravel #natGeoTravel #LonelyPlanet but I feel the chances of a repost are quite low. I almost never use hashtags created by personal accounts unless I know them personally and think there’s a good chance of them reposting.
  • Description hashtags e.g. #daisy #lake #mountain – I sometimes use these.
Instagram tags A list of top tags can be found on iconosquare under optimisation


Because I typically post a series of photos from a specific destination I normally research the best hashtags to use in advance using a few approaches

  • I’ll a search for the destination and see what comes up, noting the amount of posts against each hashtag – the more the better
  • I might click on a popular and relevant hashtag and see what other relevant hashtags are being used on the photos
  • I’ll review the local tourism account and see if there are any hashtags they are promoting
  • I will also check the hashtag that the local Instagram account e.g. #IgersBristol is using

I make a list of hashtags on the notepad of my phone and then copy/paste them under each photo, adding any others I feel are relevant. Normally I’m using 10-20 hashtags per photo with only one or two in the initial text and the rest in the first comment.

Location tagging in Instagram An example of how I might tag a photo (left) and the map view you get when you click on the location (right)

Tagging and location

It’s ideal if you can add the correct location for the photo, which will normally come up automatically if you took the photo on your phone. I occasionally search for photos using the location feature when I am in a location to see who’s nearby. Maybe you should just be a little aware of the implications of posting locations on ‘live’ photos if travelling alone, but I am normally posting a while after I left a specific location.

I regularly tag the Instagram name of anyone I think is relevant to the photo such as a restaurant name or a tourism board account. In addition to tagging in the text I will use the tag function on the photo itself. On large accounts where the notifications are moving quickly, this tends to get their attention more quickly. My aim here is to encourage a reshare or a like/comment at least. Plus it never hurts to let a tourism board or business know you are promoting them.

Are you with me so far?

I’ve covered things that are relatively easy to implement on your Instagram account. Now for some stuff that may require a bit more hard work and dedication, but will actually make most difference in the long run.

I’ve observed many accounts on Instagram with small followings posting photos that are equal or better in quality than those with much bigger followings. The difference is the dedication you put in over a period of time that will grow your account numbers and engagement to serious levels. I’m afraid there’s actually some hard work and time involved. Sorry if you thought there was a magic wand.

Regular posting – day in day out

The big difference between those with small followings and those with big followings (celebrities excepted) is posting regularly and consistently. Since I decided to focus on building my Instagram following I’ve posted practically every single day over a period of months.

  • I try to post at least 2-3 times a day, occasionally 4 but no more.
  • I spread my photos out, trying to leave 3-4 hours between each photo so as not to flood the feed with multiple photos.
  • I consider and prepare the photos I plan to post in the next couple of days, making them favourites on my phone so I can find them easily.
  • Sometimes I use the ipphone app Latergram to pre-schedule photos and send me an automatic reminder when they are due to be posted. Because Latergram doesn’t pick up photo locations I don’t always actually post using the app, using it more as a prompt to remind me when I’m busy.

Each time I post a new photo I get a few more followers and by posting every day, 3 photos per day, this builds up over time.

What if I run out of photos to post?

I take a lot of photos on my phone when travelling and in between I might be taking photos in my home town of Bristol. During a trip I will post my 3-4 photos per day ‘live’ but continue to share photos after the trip until I consider that all the best ones have been used. If I run out of photos from recent trips I’ll go back to my Flickr account where I store the photos from previous trips – I have the app on my phone. Perhaps I’ll find photos from a previous trip that are relevant to an upcoming trip. Or perhaps I’ll look for photos from a trip that I took this time last year. I’ll download a selection of the best photos from a destination via the Flickr app to my phone camera roll and then use those to fill the gaps in between trips.

Flickr heathercowper I download photos from previous trips to use on Instagram via my Flickr iPhone app

Regular interaction with other instagrammers

Like all social media platforms, being active and present on Instagram is the key to building up an active and engaged following. However, rather than simply scrolling through my home feed and liking any photos that take my fancy I’ve tried to take a more targeted approach. My priority is to engage with those who are engaging with my photos rather than spending energy on those I follow but who pay me little attention in return, so here’s what I will do;

  • I review my notifications each time I post a photo (3 times a day) and respond to anyone who has commented on my photo or reposted my photo. It is important to do this regularly as the notification will only go back so far.
  • While reviewing my notifications I’ll check new followers and if I like their photos and think we have some connection will follow them back.
  • I go to my previous photo and click on the ‘likes’ then review the list of people who have liked that photo. I will go onto the feeds of as many of the ‘likers’ as I have time for and like one of their photos, occasionally commenting on any photos that engage me.
  • I’ll also review any of the ‘likers’ whose accounts I’m not yet following and if I like their photos will follow them (at the same time liking or commenting on their photos to let them know)

By taking this approach I am rewarding engagement with engagement and hopefully reinforcing that behaviour, while building up social relationships.

Only once I have done the above, which normally takes around 10 minutes each time, if I have any additional time I will scroll through my home feed and like or comment on other photos.

Pro-active following of other Instagram accounts

If I didn’t go out of my way to find Instagram accounts to follow I would likely have a steady stream of new followers and would follow a few new people each day. However, by pro-actively following other Instagram accounts I have been able to speed up the growth of my follower numbers and also my engagement.

When I was starting I thought that Instagram would work like Twitter; you follow someone and very often they follow you back. I soon discovered that this was not very effective and that Instagrammers are more selective about who they follow and engage with. I also tried following other bloggers that I regularly connected with on Twitter or Facebook – there’s even a list of Facebook connections within the settings to help you with this. Again, I found that this was ineffective. I discovered that even some bloggers I knew pretty well didn’t respond, probably because they are not actively monitoring their Instagram notifications or using Instagram in a consistent way. I had to devise a new strategy for finding people to follow who were likely to follow me back. This is my approach;

  • Whenever I have time I review those who have liked my last photo that has been live for a few hours.
  • I pick one of the ‘likers’ that I feel is aligned to myself in terms of audience and go into their feed.
  • I pick their last photo that has been live for a few hours and review the people who have liked their photo.
  • I will then selectively check out a handful that look promising. If on reviewing their feed I like their photos and feel they we have common interests and therefore they are likely to follow me back, I will follow them.
  • At the same time as following, I will like a few of their photos and sometimes comment on one. The follow combined with some likes/ comments is normally enough to make them want to check me out and hopefully follow me back.

The advantage of this strategy is that I am only following accounts where;

  • The user is recently active, since they were on Instagram in the last few hours
  • The user already likes another instagrammer that has a similar audience to mine, so they are likely to enjoy my photos too.
  • I am following accounts that I also believe I’ll enjoy so that there is likely to be a reciprocal relationship
  • I typically won’t follow large accounts who are only following back a handful of people since there is less likely to be the reciprocal engagement I’m after.

The disadvantage of this strategy is that it takes a lot of time – but that’s the consistent hard work that makes the difference in the long term.

By following this approach whenever I have time I have steadily built up a wider group of followers who are also likely to engage with me since they share my interests.

Monitoring and management of the account

I will periodically (at least once a month) review my Instagram account using Iconosquare to see if there are any trends or analysis that would be helpful such as

  • My follower engagement % – you have to work harder to maintain this as your follower numbers grow
  • Which are my most popular photos based on likes and comments
  • Which are my most engaged followers.

I also really like Crowdfire which is a helpful iphone app I regularly use. Around once a week I will review my account using Crowdfire and;

  • Unfollow those who have unfollowed me.
  • Review those I followed over a month ago and unfollow if they have not followed me back, unless they are accounts I really admire or want to build a relationship with
  • Review recent followers to ensure I haven’t missed following back someone that I know or follow on other social media
  • Check admirers – the most active likers on my account and like a few of their photos

Follow or Unfollow?

There are mixed views and sometimes heated discussion on unfollowing other users if they don’t follow back. I am selective about who I follow, choosing those accounts where I love their photos and feel we will have interests in common. However, I also want to be in a reciprocal relationship which will build engagement on my account.

My pet hate is those large accounts who only follow a tiny handful of their followers back. I call these ‘vanity accounts’ because those instagrammers are happy to bask in the glory without really engaging with their fans. There are some accounts who don’t follow me, but I continue to follow because I admire their work. For the rest, after some time I will unfollow my non-followers, because I feel it’s like another instagrammer saying ‘I’m not interested in you and your photographs’ , so why would I try to cultivate that online friendship further?

What’s next?

From observation of other successful Instagram accounts I believe there are other things that can boost your account, once you achieve a critical mass such as;

  • You connect and form supportive relationships with other Instagrammers, perhaps in your area
  • You get mentioned in an article about ‘top instagrammers to follow’
  • You get reposted or mentioned by a much bigger Instagram acount
  • One of your photos is featured on the main Instagram account
  • You are asked to contribute photos to a larger travel acount or start doing instagram takeovers for DMO accounts
  • You are perceived as an authority in Instagram and are asked to talk or write about your success

I’m also trying to encourage these things to happen for me. For instance I’ll be attending my third Instameet in Bristol with local Instagrammers this weekend in Bristol and I recently did an Instagram takeover for a company I’d been working with. Did you spot I’m writing an article about what works on Instagram?

So there you have what’s working for me on Instagram. I hope you find it useful and please let me know in the comments what’s been working for you too.

Oh and of course do come on over and check me out on Instagram @heathercowper

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