Despite rising competition from TikTok and YouTube Shorts, Instagram stands out as an awesome social media platform for both brands and individuals.
But it’s now incredibly crowded and competitive, so how do you increase your presence there?
The answer lies not just in the quality of content that you share, but also in how you interact with other Instagram users. By using ‘outbound engagement’, you can not only increase followers but build a tight-knit community.
It’s probably the most underrated and under-used Instagram tactic on the planet!
What is outbound engagement?
Outbound engagement is a proactive approach to connecting with your audience beyond your posts.
It involves liking and commenting on the content of users who aren't yet your followers, but are part of your target audience. This can also include sending a direct message (DM) at the right time.
Outbound engagement is not the same as replying to comments on your content, or DMs sent to you – this is inbound engagement.
The beauty of outbound engagement lies in its ability to make your brand or profile visible to new eyes.
And boy does the algorithm love it. Why? Because you’re engaging in what Adam Mosseri, the Head of Instagram, calls ‘meaningful engagement’. You’re contributing to the Instagram experience for all users by starting conversations. The reach on your content will be rewarded for it.
How does it work?
First, go to a post of an Instagram user that’s in your target audience.
Then, like the content and write a genuine comment. Not just a thumbs-up emoji or ‘Nice!’ though – there’s too much bot activity that does that.
Instead, show the person that you’re human and sincerely interested in their content. Ideally, ask a question as well so you kick off a conversation in the comments.
For example, “I’ve been to Italy too. My favourite city was Positano. What’s yours?” or “How did you take this shot? Love the angle.”
Yes, sometimes you’ll cringe. Yes, sometimes you’ll not know what to say. But most report that over time you become better and better at writing clever, funny and authentic comments.
When you do this, every interaction sends a notification to the user, drawing their attention to your account. Hopefully, your genuine comment will be reciprocated and the user will visit your profile, and engage with some of your posts.
And if your content resonates with them, they’ll potentially follow your account.
A few things to remember:
- Be patient. It may take more than one interaction with the user before they feel compelled to engage with you too.
- If you want to get noticed on Instagram, aim to build relationships, not followers.
- Keep in mind that some people have mobile notifications turned off
How to find users in your target audience
So how exactly do you find Insta accounts for your outbound engagement? Below are a few ways.
Hashtags are a great place to start. Consider what hashtags your target audience would be using on their Instagram posts. For example, if you're a fitness brand, search for content under #FitnessMotivation or #HealthTips.
Similarly, location tags can be great for engagement, especially for businesses targeting a specific geographic audience.
Search for posts or reels tagged at locations relevant to your brand. This could be as specific as a local landmark or as broad as a whole city. Just make sure it’s where your audience frequents.
Influencers and creators
Another great tactic is to identify influencers and creators in your niche. A large proportion of their followers are also people that you want to follow your account too. You’re not hijacking their followers, but instead making your presence known in relevant conversations.
Go to their account, click on Followers, then engage (like, comment) on that user’s posts.
You can also regularly comment on the influencer or creator’s posts as many people read the comments. The more visible you are in spaces where your audience hangs out, the more likely their followers will notice you, explore your profile and follow your account.
The same goes for your competitors – their followers are potential followers for you too. Engage with them by commenting on posts they interact with.
Be careful here though, as you don't want to appear intrusive or second-rate to your competitor. The aim is to introduce your brand in a respectful and relevant manner.
People who like, but don’t follow
This is my personal favourite. Click on a post of yours that has a lot of likes, then look at the users who like it. Visit their profile. If it says ‘Follow back’ then this user already follows you. Instead, look for users who have ‘Follow’ on their profile, meaning they don’t yet follow you. They’ve already liked one of your posts, so probably know about your account already. If you go to their posts and write a genuine comment, there’s a strong chance they’ll follow you back.
How to increase your productivity
By now you’re probably thinking, ‘How on earth am I going to have time to do this’? Fortunately, there’s a few ways to increase your outbound engagement productivity:
- Use a social media management software, or Meta Business suite, and write from a desktop computer. You’ll be amazed how much faster it is and less tiring than doing it on a mobile.
- Consider hiring a VA offshore to do it for you, but manage them carefully. Do the right training up front to ensure the comments they write reflect your brand’s tone of voice. Also, monitor their work in the early stages to ensure they’re not using a bot themselves.
- Aim for 20 mins a day, not a 2-hour session each week. Headphones in, remove distractions and smash it out. Ideally, do it just before you post content as it can give your posts an early boost.
- Use ChatGPT to come up with ideas for comments or the comments themselves. In your prompt, explain the posts carefully so that you get the best output, first time.
- Check out 'genuine' agency services like Path Social that use creators and micro-influencers to engage with relevant accounts. Disclaimer: we haven't used them before, but we've been hearing great reports.
Growing your Instagram followers for free vs paid ads
Regardless of the productivity tips above, outbound engagement is still a time-consuming tactic. If you’ve got the time, it can be incredibly effective. But if you don’t, consider whether other tactics might be better suited to you.
For example, if you charge $100 per hour as a consultant, then 30 mins of your time is worth $50. If you spent $50 a day on paid ads or influencer posts, could you achieve the same growth in followers?
The ‘No-Nos’ of Outbound Engagement
It won’t work if your content is bad
You can spend as much time as you like on outbound engagement, but if your content doesn’t resonate with people, you won’t be able to grow your Instagram followers.
Check the volume of traffic to your profile in Insights. If it’s high, and you’re not getting follower growth, review your content strategy. Most users will spend only 5 seconds visiting your profile. That’s not very long, so make a great first impression!
We get it. Automation tools that write comments automatically seem like an easy shortcut for outbound engagement. Unfortunately, most lack the personal touch necessary for this strategy to work.
In addition, Instagram is getting better at recognising bot-like-behavior, resulting in a potential account ban. You don’t want to spend years building up your Insta account only to have it taken away because of one bad decision.
Don’t be fake
In the same vein, avoid generic comments or bot-like behavior, even if you’re personally doing it!
As AI becomes more and more sophisticated, the average Instagram user is finding it harder and harder to distinguish robots from humans. Make your comment as relatable and authentic as possible.
Don’t overdo it
Avoid bombarding a single user with comments and likes – this can be annoying and do more harm than good. It's about quality over quantity.
Ensure your engagements are fun, and helpful and adds value to the conversation. This builds a positive image for your brand or personal account.
Outbound engagement is a powerful way to grow your Instagram followers for free. It's proactive, authentic engagement that builds relationships and your follower count.
You can find users in your target audience using hashtags and location tags, as well as looking at the followers of influencers, competitors and people who liked your posts.
It’s an investment of time, so if you’re short on it, consider whether it’s better to invest in paid ads or influencer posts instead.
Make sure your content is great, avoid bots, be genuine and don’t overdo it on one particular account.
Follow these useful guidelines and you’ll be well on your way to growing your Instagram followers for free – and quickly!