Nearly two years ago, I dove into an experiment with Instagram. I made my first post on a whim, brought on by the pressing urge to fill a sketchbook. In recent years, both my Nana and Mom passed away, leaving behind partially filled sketchbooks. I couldn’t let them sit, with their unfinished pages as evidence of their absence from our lives, so I resolved to fill the pages in their memory.
I thought that having a place to share the artwork might motivate me to reach my goal. Beyond that, I had very little expectation of what there was to gain from using Instagram as the platform for my endeavor.
Nearly two years after that first post to @drawntosketching, I have published almost 500 more, and have earned the support of over 26,000 followers. Through this growth, I have gained some valuable insights into using Instagram to reach out to and engage a broad audience, while targeting and attracting niche crowds. This has spawned personal and professional growth, as well as an unexpected and increasing income. This post is about some of the things I have learned along the way, and though it is specific to my experience as an artist, I believe many of the concepts will translate to other accounts.
Instagram keeps me accountable to my sketching goals. I knew it would give me a chronological and visual record of my sketches, making it obvious when days go by without putting my pen to paper. What I didn’t anticipate was the power of the encouragement I have received along the way, from friends and strangers, in the form of kudos and specific requests for new artwork. The results of this accountability, including thousands of hours of sketching, has profoundly influenced my ability to execute concepts as a designer and to approach art-oriented projects with more confidence.
As important as the accountability to post regularly, my audience has held me accountable for producing solid and consistent content, and they have even encouraged me to explore new ideas and approaches to my style. The Instagram community serves as an instant, crowd-sourced review of my artwork. Some posts I have thought were exceptional, but they failed to gain likes and follows, while others that I nearly didn’t publish because I felt they weren’t good enough, were surprisingly successful. Six months ago, I recorded a time lapse of me scribbling out a quick, raw landscape of mountains with my 4-year-old daughter joining in to color it. I did it more for fun, and didn’t think much of it. Surprisingly, the short clip has over 23,500 views on my account and far more views on several popular accounts that featured it. This kind of feedback has no doubt encouraged me to adapt and evolve over the last two years.
One of the biggest challenges on Instagram is standing out in a flood of phenomenal imagery. Posting beautiful images alone is not likely to gain you a quick following, but posting beautiful images that tell a unique story, or tell a familiar story better than anyone else or in a new way, will stop the crowds from scrolling past your images or backing out of your account. But it is equally important to use proper hashtags and actively follow the right accounts. If you don’t, no matter how powerful your content may be, it may never be seen by those it would impact most. I have seen incredible artists, far more talented than I, with a low following because they aren’t using Instagram as strategically as they could be.
I have discovered that I stand out as I build on my unique style of artwork. It’s established and detailed enough to impress followers, but rough enough to come across as honest and full of character. I’ve capitalized on this feedback by further adopting and developing the rough style. Whereas without the feedback, my assumptions would lead me to believe I should be producing more realistic, refined, and accurate drawings.
The Instagram community is a vast—almost endless—audience ready to see your content. When I started my account, I saw this as a potential flaw. I didn’t think the community could be very personal with its millions of strangers. Likes can be an almost thoughtless act. Followers can just be following because they want a follow-back, and so they come and go. To put it in perspective, of my 26,000 followers, typically less than 5% like each of my posts. However, I have discovered that the larger my reach, the smaller and more personal Instagram starts to feel. I receive more thoughtful comments from my dedicated fans, and more personal messages and requests to purchase my artwork.
To grow my following, I have found that reaching out to new audiences is possible without being inconsistent with my content (a mistake many Instagrammers make). For example, the video of my daughter and me sketching together satisfied my current followers because the subject matter was a mountainous landscape, but it was also met with a flood of new followers less interested in the outdoor adventure culture where I had a solid audience, and more interested in parenting. Occasionally, I also make it my mission to incorporate a trending subject matter with the proper hashtags, or I try to get featured by a different kind of account. In doing this, about 2/3 of my hashtags stay fairly consistent, pertaining to sketching and outdoors, while 1/3 of my hashtags are unique and used to reach new pockets of the Instagram community.
The most important route to success on Instagram is engagement. Without engagement, there are no relationships, no loyalty, and minimal reach. Engagement can be as simple as responding to people’s comments on your posts, or it can be as active as doing giveaways relevant to your account. I do my best to respond to people’s comments, but my biggest form of engaging with my current and potential new followers is collaborating with fellow artists and friends.
Collaborations can serve as a personal introduction to new audiences. More importantly, they can build lasting, mutually beneficial relationships with business partners and even competitors. It’s a friendly way of doing business together without a lot of risk or investment. My biggest form of collaboration has been working with other artists to create something new by combining our talents. My friend Nikki, @drawntohighplaces, is an insanely talented artist working primarily in watercolors. We have created several pieces together and given them away to our audiences who participate by tagging their friends in the comments. In addition to the immediate benefit of gaining some of her followers while sharing some of my own, the longer-term relationship has led to us having an art show together this summer. She initiated the art show and it’s not something I would have had the opportunity to do if I hadn’t built that friendship.
I’ve come a long way since my first Instagram post, but in some ways, I see my adventure as just beginning. I am beyond grateful for the Instagram community and the support of my followers. I am also grateful for the inspiration gained from the artists I follow. And on a professional level, I’ve gained enough real experience to confidently assist our clients with their social media campaigns.
Ultimately, the wisdom I have gained from my adventures on Instagram is this: Never stop listening to your audience, and be willing to adapt and evolve, while staying true to your brand.