The Instagram Conundrum

What fuels your Instagram usage? Everyday life? Highly curated personal branding? Or….

This article is a repost from a Linkedin article I wrote and posted February 22, 2016. I wanted it to have a home on, and perhaps, serve it to a wider audience. I think it’s still quite relevant here in 2019. These are simply my own observations about Instagram, in some cases, supported by referenced articles. Please add your own voice to this discussion, I’d love to hear your thoughts. -Kerry

Approaching Instagram Marketing Without a Net—Not a Success Story….Yet.

Funny story; I created the above image for this article using a recent photo we posted on our Instagram feed. As I set about writing this piece, my eyes left the screen for a few moments. When they returned, for a fraction of a second I felt that little rush of excitement upon seeing the engagement notification icon that I had added to the image! Can you say clicker trained? In a small way this illustrates why social media and Instagram in particular has become ground zero for audience engagement and the huge part perception and emotion play as well.
So I’ve been woodshedding on Instagram lately. As a photographer, in a vast ocean of photographers (isn’t everyone these days?), Instagram has presented many questions. Questions such as, iPhone/phone only, or professional images? Narrowly focused, niche content or variety? How often to post? How often to promote a product or service? What ratio of personal/professional content to feature? And more recently, should I actually purchase followers or likes (more on this later…)?
Perhaps the biggest question or conundrum I grapple with, is how are there so many IGers with thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of followers? More specifically, why doesn’t our IG account, after 3+ years, have thousands of followers (we’re slowly, but steadily growing with fewer than 1k followers as of this writing)? Could it be our IG images are just not that great? Not that interesting? Perhaps poor curation? Why? Here are a few of my own observations as to why…
First of all, I do believe in our work. I think it holds up to that of prominent photographers on IG. I do think we need to do a better job curating our feed. Sometimes we all get excited about a particular photo because it means something to us, within the context of our own lives. It becomes our baby. We automatically assume the whole world will love it just as much as we do and find it equally as interesting. So, we allow our emotions to make the decision and as we know, emotion isn’t always the bellwether of good decision making. Secondly, our photography and interests tend to be diverse. Diversity is great but many highly successful IGers are such because of carving out a niche for themselves. Does your pug enjoy cuddling with your cockatiel? You could be IG’s next superstar! With that I give you Penguin the Magpie:

And yes, I’m buying whatever he’s selling. Anyway, content focus is something that I am thinking about, however, we (“we,” being my Wife and business/creative partner, Taylor) also want to be true to our style and brand and not bend over backwards to be something we’re not.

Sex Sells

The age old adage has not lost its meaning on Instagram. Sex appeal, in whatever scale you’ve to measure it, brings in the followers like cake in the break room. Whether it be an actual moviestar/rockstar, a hunky, bearded hipster or a teenager doing mirror selfies, we’ve all seen it working like a charm. It’s pretty much a guarantee for collecting IG minions. It’s also the one thing that I (personally), 1. do not claim to have in ample reserve, and 2. will not pander to in my IG feed. Do I/we favor natural beauty? And might that natural beauty in fact also exude some degree of “sex appeal?” Ok, yes. On both counts. But shameless selfie overload or sexually evocative poses will not be featured @Birchblaze anytime soon. And lest you think I’m being prudish, I’m not; the human body is a beautiful creation, but the numbers of followers on skin-heavy feeds don’t lie.
On the other hand, I have some beautiful people in my Family, not the least of which is my partner-in-crime, my lovely Wife, Taylor (she can be seen making occasional appearance in our @Birchblaze feed) and my kids. But fortunately, they aren’t the endless selfie type, nor would I exploit that even if they were.  

In a similar vein, Instagram is clearly a young person’s game. Which accounts do you see piling up tens of thousands of followers? Which IG feeds do you see companies like Mercedes, Cadillac, Patagonia, etc., etc., clamoring for endorsements from? You bet it’s the sub-30 crowd. I get it, I do. Teens & 20-somethings, Gen Y, Gen Z…they’re the ones that have grown up in the digital age. Gen Z literally has grown up with Instagram. It is an ingrained part of their social currency. Those of us in our 30’s, 40’s+ are glommers-on, let’s be real. Has IG passed us by? In the eyes of some, uh, yeah. What to do about it? Not really sure, but being something I’m not is definitely not my answer.

Pay For Play

Lastly, let’s address Instagram’s elephant in the room. That is, the practice of paying for followers and likes. It happens, and probably more often than you think. Most of these purchased followers are fakes, robots. You’ve probably had some fake accounts sign on or try to (you know the type, random or overtly sexy images on their feed, very few images, very few followers, following maybe 50-200 accounts). You can actually check someone’s account for fake followers. Depending on how many they have it could be an indication that they have done some shopping. A very high number of followers paired with a relatively low number of regular post likes would be another indicator. Why does it matter? Not only does it call into question brand authenticity but to would-be “brand partners,” the companies that pay for endorsements from the IG elite, it very well might, and has been, considered a matter of deceptive business practices. It’s also been noted that some people tend to value an IG account, and whether they follow it or not, based on its number of followers; as if lots of followers automatically determines the quality of content. I myself admit to being impressed by lots of followers. Normally, it makes sense, like a restaurant with a full parking lot, but when a pretend audience can be purchased for peanuts the restaurant logic kind of goes out the window.
On the other hand, considering the herd mentality factor, would it be so wrong to “prime the pump?” A great article on entitled, “The Dirty Business of Buying Instagram Followers,” (that you should definitely check out) related the experience of a popular LA blogger who did just that:

“One LA blogger, who requested her name not be published, told Racked that buying Instagram followers helped her get her foot in the door. She bought 5,000 two years ago, and that bump got her noticed by local boutiques looking for influencers. The blogger argued that the move was not deceptive because her actual Instagram fan base, now over 40,000 strong, is authentic and what actually matters to her partner brands.” –Chavie

That actually does make some sense to me. Anything, though, when taken to an extreme, tends to take on a less than forthright tone. Take Kim Kardashian, last summer, for example…

“Friday morning, the 34-year-old took to her Twitter to share news that she “woke up to over 40 million Instagram followers,” which was a jump of roughly 3 million in just over one week.” – article

In speaking out against buying followers, some hypocrisy bubbles to the surface. In this article the author, a popular IG personality with over 134,000 followers, goes on a diatribe about how dishonest and inauthentic buying followers is, not mincing any words, and then is called out in the comment section of her article for photoshopping one of her Instagram pics. She denies that there has been any photoshop work done to the image, but as a photographer, it’s pretty clear to me that it was “liquified,” (a poor job of it, at that) probably to make her appear slimmer which is a pretty common technique in glamour and fashion retouching. I don’t bring this out to be catty or unkind, but to rightly call into question, what makes one “illusion” acceptable to allow followers to believe, but another unacceptable? Please add your voice in the comments, it’s kind of the point of this article.

All is fair, in love and Instagram?

What Does it All Mean…?

Excluding entities that are big enough to have their own social media teams, what’s the long & short of it for the rest of us? Those of us that are trying to market/promote our “brand” using Instagram but aren’t innately considered God’s gift to the men, women, or at least have no desire to market ourselves that way; those of us that aren’t on a perpetual world tour with epic, moody snaps of plane wreckage in Iceland or that have some uber-unique niche (an entirely monochromatic feed of breakfast cereals of the world, perhaps?) and those of us over 30?…ok, 40.
The best practices I can surmise at this point in time is, 1. be who you are. I know that sounds SO cliche, but honestly, why would you want to be simply an imitation of someone else and who’s buying that anyway? 2. Along with that, develop your own style. It’s those that do that really attract attention and recognition and, yes, followers. 3. Curate your feed. Really think about what you’re posting, objectively. Try to post only your best, but keep it real. People appreciate the human element, something they can connect with. 4. Do your best to maintain consistency without becoming boring and predictable. This is so easier said than done. I certainly haven’t mastered it but I will keep trying. 5. Pace your posts. 6 or 8 posts in rapid succession is a no, no. From what I’ve observed, popular IG accounts post 2-4 times per day. Regular posting, perhaps at least once a day, is important also. 6. Engage. Remember, Instagram is a community. So give back. Like and comment on others’ posts. Respond to comments on your own posts. Be kind, be neighborly. And finally,7. Please….follow @Birchblaze ;)    

@Birhblaze/@thebarterarthouse “Harvesters,” Lunar Farming Art Collaboration. Please check out Matt and what he’s up to next at his Brunswick, Maine Art Gallery: @thebartersrthouse.

So, these are simply a collection of my observations, gathered thoughts, some commentary & opinion thrown in. I am not an expert, just trying to figure things out and thought I would start a conversation. So please, weigh in, let me know what your thoughts are. Happy to hear lots of input, alternative views, corrections, etc. –Kerry    

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