Seven days of Instagram: Mixed results from a short push to increase engagement

Would it be possible to increase Instagram engagement measurably in just seven days? We conducted an experiment and came up with an answer: yes, kind of. Read on to find out what lessons we learned and how you can put our learnings into practice.

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Say hello to Pixel, one of three subjects I discussed on Instagram during my experiment.

When I first installed Instagram a few years ago, I subscribed to as many kitten and puppy-related hashtags as I could. Whenever I opened the Instagram app, I was transported to a happy place, with an endless stream of cute puppies and kittens.

I'm telling you: do not subscribe to #yorkiepoo on Instagram. Consider this a public service warning. (For those of you who aren't up on such things, a Yorkie Poo is a Yorkshire Terrier/Poodle mix. They are the cutest, most wonderful dogs ever. And yes, my little Pixel is a Yorkie Poo.)

With its constant productivity-draining stream of cute, I've generally avoided Instagram. But for people and companies whose work involves outreach to various audiences, Instagram is more than than a source of entertainment, it's a key communications tool.

Also: 5 social media mistakes that could kill your business TechRepublic

Last week, I made the decision to re-engage with Instagram and regularly post pictures. I wanted to conduct an experiment to see what would happen if I followed a very specific set of steps each day for seven days.

I've completed that experiment, and the rest of this article details the results. Oh, and I only very, very briefly allowed myself to visit the happy land of #yorkiepoo.

The experiment parameters

There were three key parameters for my seven day experiment: posting frequency, posting topics, and hashtag discipline. Let's discuss each.

For posting frequency, I decided to post two images a day. No more, and no less. I didn't want to spam the social network with pictures, but more to the point, if I felt the experiment worked, I wanted something that would be a sustainable practice. I felt that I probably could find two interesting pictures to post each day, even after the experiment ended, especially when I'm hard at work on new projects.

Posting topics gets to the core of branding on Instagram. A parent using Instagram to post pictures of the baby for Grandma to enjoy is very different from a company promoting a brand, or a columnist like me engaging with my existing audiences and hoping to bring in new followers.

I write about a lot of different topics, but the most visually interesting are related to the DIY and project work I do. So, I decided I'd post workshop-related images and images related to the various desktop fabrication projects I'm working on. And because he's so adorable, and I hoped it might give me a slight engagement advantage, I also allowed myself to post a few pictures of Pixel.

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This was where I was starting from.

That, in fact, is how I've described my "brand" on Instagram since day one: "Pixel pup and project pix (mostly)".

The third parameter was hashtag discipline. Hashtags are key to increasing your Instagram audience. Because Instagram doesn't allow you to share other peoples' posts, the only way to make yourself discoverable is for people to find you via hashtags they follow.

One of the reasons I didn't do much with Instagram prior to this is that I didn't enjoy typing in hashtags. You're allowed up to 30 different hashtags per post, and the savvy Instagrammers make full use of those tags to reach a wider audience. I committed that even though typing in hashtags is a pain, I'd do it for the seven day period.

So that was my plan: two pictures each day, alternate among topics of workshop, desktop fabrication, and puppy, and make myself post each image with hashtags.

Getting started

Here was my starting point. I had 187 followers and, in my entire lifetime on Instagram, I'd made 51 posts. This week for my experiment, I posted 14 more.

The first thing I did was try to find a series of hashtags for each of my topics. To find a set of hashtags, I just clicked into a few hashtags I follow. I looked at other posts and the hashtags they listed, and built up my own list. Here are my three sets of hashtags:

  • For 3D printing: #3dprinter #3dprintingproblems #cr10 #makerspace #fablab #maker #3dprinting #lulzbot #ultimaker #lasercut #robot #robotics #makerbot #3dprintinglife #3dprintingresin #3dprintingvideo #3dprintingvideos #3dprintingworkshop #3dprinting101 #3dprinting2019 #3dprinters #filament #3dfilament #lasercutter #lasercutting
  • For workshop: #workshop #howto #diy #maker #makerspace #pegboard #ryobi #dewalt #bosch #dremel #harborfreight #powertool #powertools #woodwork #metalwork #makers #shoptour #ridgid #homedepot #lowes #making #woodshop #garage #garageshop
  • For Pixel pictures: #puppy #puppies #dogsInCoats #puppiesincoats #yorkie #yorkiepoo #iloveyorkies #cutepuppy #mycutepuppy #yorkiesofinstagram #yorkshireterrier #yorkies #yorkiepuppy #yorkiesrule #yorkielove #yorkielovers #yorkielover #yorkiebaby #yorkiegram

Because Instagram is very phone-centric, it wasn't obvious to me how to post from my PC. Instead, I posted from my phone. On my first day, I actually copied all the hashtags from my computer screen and hand-tapped them into my posts. This proved to be as hateful a job as I thought it would be.

Also: You can now post to Instagram from your computer -- here's how CNET 

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Here you can see most of the images I posted during my experiment.

By day two, I had a better system. l copied the hashtags from my previous posts into my phone's notebook, and then, for each post, copied and pasted them into the post. I used this approach for a few days, and then decided to use the iPhone's native text replacement capability. Unfortunately, that didn't work all that well, because the iPhone's native text replacement is now limited to only 128 characters.

Finally, I decided to use TextExpander, which I use regularly on my Mac. I created three abbreviations: ig3d, igshop, and igpup, and when I switched to the TextExpander keyboard and typed in those phrases, they expanded out nicely into the full hashtag sets. Stay tuned. I'll be telling you more about how you can harness the power of TextExpander to increase Instagram hashtag engagement in an upcoming article.

Feeling the love

Over the course of the seven days, I got a lot of likes. Many of my posts had 20-40 likes or more. It was nice to see that level of engagement with my audience.

Likes seem to serve two key purposes. First, they let you know you're engaging with your audience. But it seems that the Instagram algorithm takes likes into account, and so if you get more likes, there's a better chance your post will be highlighted for those scanning the hashtag.

Follower engagement was mixed. I really hoped to be able to tell you that merely by adding some hashtags and posting regularly, I doubled my audience in a week. I didn't.

I went from 187 to 212, or 25 new followers. Now, to be fair, it's still cool that in seven days I increased my followership by 13 percent. It shows that if you do engage, there's a better chance of picking up followers.

Lessons learned

For the first few days, I picked up about five new followers a day. But that changed. At about halfway through my experiment, I hit 213 followers. From that point to the end, my follower count dwindled to 210 and improved to 212, on and off, day by day.

I was gaining followers. But I was also losing followers.

I'm pretty sure I know what was happening. It's the dog pictures.

I came to this conclusion by putting myself in the shoes of someone who followed because they saw a cute Pixel pic. I've certainly done that. I've followed people with a cute dog -- but I didn't want to see anything else about their life. I've unsubscribed from some dog owners' feeds because their feed wasn't all dog, all the time.

I suspect that's what happened on my feed. While someone following because they're interested in my DIY-IT projects might enjoy seeing Pixel from time to time, someone who just wants to see cute puppy pictures probably doesn't want to see a pegboard, a microscope, or a 3D printer.

If I wanted to keep all the doggy followers, I could create a separate Instagram account for Pixel, and those folks would probably be satisfied. But using Instagram for outreach is about my work product, not about creating another random cute puppy account. So, for me, I'm willing to take the adds and drops from dog fans, as long as I service my core audience, the same folks who read my work here on ZDNet.

Another lesson I learned was that it's often difficult to find something to post. I was able to create enough pictures by keeping the Instagram project in mind, but I had to pay conscious attention to specifically taking pictures for Instagram as a tool for outreach. I couldn't just mine my photo stream and hope for the best.

I do think Instagram is an important tool for engagement. One thing I discovered by posting regularly was that I got viewer comments. I got about ten comments in my seven days. That's more than I think I ever got, in total, from the time I started my Instagram account.

Also: How to protect your Instagram account from hackers CNET

That user engagement, that ability to talk to individuals in my audience via another channel, is incredibly valuable. One user critiqued (in a good way) my image composition. Another told me about how he cared for his dog in the cold. Another talked briefly about his workshop.

These individual connections are precious for someone in the public eye, like me, who mainly talks at people. When I get comments on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram (not to mention our comment section below) I get to meet you all. I get great feedback. Sometimes I get scolded. But it's real. My work becomes a discussion, and that's valuable to me, but it's also great for engagement.

The more of us who talk with each other, the more engaged we'll be. That's good for branding. That's good for promotion. And it's just good for us. It's healthy. We learn from each other, encourage each other, and share with each other. It's, dare I say it -- social.

So, bottom line: was posting two posts a day worth it? Yes, absolutely. Will I keep it up? Yes, mostly. I'm not going to beat myself up if I miss a day, but I see no reason not to share my projects as they progress. Clearly, some folks find that interesting, and with the ability to quickly add hashtags, it's not that difficult.

For me, I don't think Instagram will ever be as powerful as, say, YouTube. But producing a YouTube video takes days and days. Producing an Instagram post takes minutes. It's a different pace and a slightly different audience.

If you're not posting on Instagram and you want to do outreach, go for it. Figure out a set of hashtags that fit your positioning and post away. After just seven days, I found the rewards -- not necessarily in terms of increased followers, but in terms of quality engagement -- to be well worth it.

Editor's note: Follow ZDNet on Instagram at Instagram.com/zdnet_cbsi/.


You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.