Instagram influencers get a lot of flak, but they also get a lot of money and opportunities in the real world—when they’re good at the job. To reach a level of goodness, you need lots of followers, but there’s more to it than that. You want brand deals? You want a nice blue checkmark? You need to keep your followers happy as you grow their ranks. Here’s how.
Try not to be phony
Yes, you can edit your photos or post skits with contrived plots, but you still have to seem genuine. It’s a fine line to walk, but it’s what your followers want.
“I look for authenticity in an influencer. I like following people who are unapologetically themselves, people who are easy to relate to and are still down-to-earth even though they have a large following,” said T’yanna Angeline, a 23-year-old acting student from Brooklyn who keeps up with online trendsetters.
Wajeeh Mahmood, a.k.a. Wajeeh West, a 26-year-old New Yorker with 139,000 followers on the platform, agreed: “As you start posting content that’s genuine to you, you start to realize what it is that your followers are into and what it is that they’d like the most. A lot of that is just about experimenting.”
Mahmood posts about his real-life experiences and interests—“fashion, school advice, Brown moms and how crazy they are”—then monitors engagement to see what his followers are enjoying most.
Even if your interests and posts are niche, there is a market for them, so don’t force yourself to fake investment in something with a broader appeal. That will only turn off potential followers who can sense when you’re shilling for something you don’t care about. Angeline, for instance, is sick of influencers posting ads for things like flat-tummy tea. She knows they probably don’t drink it or care about anything but the money they’re getting paid, and so she has “no interest” in them.
“I want to feel like they’re relatable to me,” said Adrienne Charlotte, a 31-year-old in Brooklyn who doesn’t follow typical fashion influencers, but loves the ones who post about home improvement. “I prefer to feel some connection to them, but as I live in a studio in NYC, there is some desire to have my own home that I could improve upon.”
Embrace trial and error
Mahmood stuck to two main points in his advice for Instagram success: Post what you love and experiment. A lot.
Look at your engagements. Study your metrics. Some of your posts will suck, and some of them will get very few views and likes. Instead of getting discouraged, compare those to the ones that do well. Figure out what the difference is, then post more of the content that gets good engagement. Even if you’re the hottest, trendiest person on the planet, this is going to take real work. That’s what detractors who make fun of influencers are missing: Successful influencers are working hard. The biggest brands you know hire entire companies to manage their social media. It’s a science and an industry unto itself.
Since you already know you need to be genuine and true to yourself, why not pull back the curtain and post about how much work actually goes into your pictures, Stories, videos, Reels, and Lives? Angeline said she’d love to see more of that from the influencers she follows.
“Transparency about the life of the influencer is something I think would give them some peace and give the followers insight into all the work they put into their social media presence,” she said.
Post consistently and make sure you carve out time to do it. If you want to make money, especially, you need to treat this like a job. You’ll spend a lot of time staging and taking photos, editing them, interacting with followers, monitoring engagements, and reaching out and responding to collaborators. Plan to invest time in this endeavor.
Be nice to your audience
We’ve heard from two followers and one influencer about how important being sincere and relatable is, but there are, of course, high-follower accounts that post more aspirational than achievable content.
While it’s fun to look at closet tours from rich kids or get a glimpse of the inside of a private jet from time to time, it’s not fun to be condescended to. Your followers are the ones driving your engagement. In a sense, once you start monetizing your content, you work for them. Show your bosses a little respect.
“I think influencers should treat their followers like they would want somebody they admired to treat them,” said Angeline, who’s had positive interactions with a few influencers herself. “I’m not saying interact with everybody, but definitely make it known the support is appreciated and do little giveaways or go live for Q&As. Those are just small things to acknowledge the followers and also set that reminder that even though they’re an influencer, at the end of the day, we’re all human.”
Charlotte added, “I think that influencers should interact with their followers, but I don’t often feel the need to reach out to them myself. I am a bit of an introvert so I would not want to feel pressured to constantly interact with my followers [if I were an influencer]. Getting a glimpse into their lives is all that I require.”
You don’t have to reply to every comment, but you can toss out a like here and there and just generally be kind.
The niceness doesn’t stop with your followers, either. If and when you secure a brand deal, follow through. TikTok is brimming with horror stories from small businesses who send free goods to influencers on the condition those influencers will post about them, only for the poster to ghost after receiving the goods. Don’t do that. Treat everyone you encounter, from other influencers to your followers to brand spokespeople, with respect.
Network, collaborate, and experiment
There’s a lot to be learned from influencer royalty, the Kardashian clan. For instance, the sisters are always posting promos for each other’s brands or collaborating on dual launches. Kourtney and Khloé Kardashian have fragrances with sister Kim’s perfume line and all three of them and sister Kendall Jenner have done collabs for Kylie Jenner’s makeup line, for instance. They all, of course, post about their joint efforts.
Say what you will about the Kardashian-Jenners—even though “what you will” say might be a little tired at this point—but they know how to drive engagement and turn a profit. No one is an island and no influencer is a solo act. Remember that.
Mahmood got into social media in middle and high school, but his presence didn’t really take off until he linked up with a new friend group in Los Angeles. They were “actually big on YouTube and are still killing it,” he said. They taught him the ropes and he ran with it from there.
Beyond the value of networking, that story holds another lesson: There’s a benefit to cross-platform integration and marketing. If you’re doing skits on TikTok or makeup tutorials on YouTube that are getting some traction, remind your followers to check out your Instagram.
Instagram also has plenty of tools to help you build your following in-app. Mahmood pointed out that every Instagram user has access to grid posts, Story posts, Reels, Lives, and IGTV posts. Not only that, he said, but the app wants you to use them, so you’ll please the algorithm if you use all the functions consistently. The algorithm is mysterious, sure, but it determines whether people who don’t follow you see your content on the Explore page, so do what Mahmood says here.
Now, go forth, be brave, don’t fear embarrassing yourself in public for the perfect shot, be sure to thank your followers every once in a while, and prepare yourself for the inevitability of your first PR box or brand deal.