Get Instagram Followers for Free: How To Grow Organically

Once known as "New York's Picture Newspaper," the New York Daily News has maintained its reputation for great photos, even if it dropped the once-famous slogan more more than 20 years ago.

But even for all the compelling "art" (photos) readers find in print and online, a trove of great shots go unused every day.

That's one of the reasons we launched a Daily News Instagram account. (I worked there from 2013-2015.) Early on, I simply posted behind-the-scenes 'grams, which was fun, but we needed a new strategy to see real growth. Here are the three steps we took to increase the follower base by more than 3,800 percent in two years.

Many of our early photos were behind-the-scenes looks at our work, but we needed to do more to grow our account at a faster pace.

Many of our early photos were behind-the-scenes looks at our work, but we needed to do more to grow our account at a faster pace.

1. Power in Numbers

First, we opened the account to anyone on staff who wanted to submit a photo. The social media team (just me when I started, but a team of seven two years later) still did the physical act of posting so that it wasn't a free-for-all with account access, but anyone could email submissions.

The only requirements were that you took the photo yourself, and that it represented New York City in some way.

We especially encouraged the photo staff (duh) to send unpublished work (aka "ropes" or "floaters"). They weren't going to post them anywhere else, so why not the main company account? This "greased the wheels" for everyone else. It also gave us a diverse selection of photos – in style and location – from which to choose.

2. Have a Theme

Although "New York" is in the company name, Daily News coverage spans the globe, so local photos and articles aren't always a given. We decided to go against that for the Instagram account.

Most of our staff is New York-based, and with nearly 200 of us editorially (before the layoffs), we had a huge advantage over any Instagram account trying to capture the pulse of the city. Truly worldwide organizations – i.e. AP, Reuters – were always going to beat us on international coverage, photos and otherwise. We were strongest at our home base, where we had the knowledge and talent to compete against anyone.

3. UGC Submissions

The quality and quantity of photos (and videos) on our account both went up significantly after implementing the first two steps, but in early 2015, one team member, Ryan Beckler, had an idea that accelerated follower growth: Let readers submit photos.

Asking users to submit photos took the New York Daily News Instagram account to the next level.

Asking users to submit photos took the New York Daily News Instagram account to the next level.

This strategy may not fit your brand, but in a city like New York, where the Daily News name carries great weight, a core group of users were suddenly very motivated to be featured on our account. Just like with staff members, we would be sure to credit them by putting their @handle in the caption. Most of the time, they would comment on our photo thanking us for featuring them.

Users loved being featured on our main account, and we always credited them and asked permission before uploading their photo.

Users loved being featured on our main account, and we always credited them and asked permission before uploading their photo.

In this case, though, we threw out the high-friction process of having users email photo files, which would have been a pain to sort through. Instead, we more openly promoted the hashtag we had been using all along: #NYDNgram

We used Iconosquare (formerly Statigram) to scour the hashtag for photos we wanted to use. Once we identified candidates, we commented on the photos using the @NYDailyNews account and asked permission to feature them, with credit, on our account. If the user said yes, we would drag the photo to our desktop (which you can't do via Instagram's desktop website), email or Dropbox it to ourselves, and upload it to the Daily News account.

(By the end of my time at the News, I got our team a separate iPhone we kept in the office solely to manage our social media profiles.)

Results

The account was launched in June 2013 and took about five months to reach 1,000 fans. Two years later, it topped 40,000, all without any paid promotion of any kind.

Our Instagram followers spiked once we implemented our new strategy.

Our Instagram followers spiked once we implemented our new strategy.

Additional Benefits

By opening submissions to our entire staff, it created a great deal of pride in the account. As an extra incentive, we told staffers to include their Instagram @handle in their emails so we could credit them.

When people knew their photo could be featured, they were much more likely to share photos from the account and encourage their friends to follow us, too.

The same thing happened on a larger scale when we allowed the public to contribute. Sometimes users who took a featured photo would tag their friends in the comments, and then their friends would follow us.

A strong Instagram account also allowed us to tap into a younger, more Web-savvy demographic – something the Daily News had long been chasing. (This was achieved through other means as well, such as our Snapchat and Twitter accounts.)

What if I'm not a brand?

Of course this strategy is largely based around a well-known institution with a great staff based in the media capital of the world. So how does this apply to an individual hoping to grow his or her Instagram following?

This is fodder for a separate post, but I'll leave you with these tips:

  • Have a theme: See above – it still applies. If you want to really grow your following, you may have to limit personal photos and stick to your area of expertise. If you like posting a lot of photos but also want to grow a following based around a particular topic, consider launching a separate account.
  • Use hashtags: I wouldn't recommend this on most social networks, but Instagram is an exception.
    • Look at people with popular accounts in your area of interest and see if they use a particular hashtag with regularity.
    • Search hashtags on Iconosquare and see how often they get used.
    • Only use relevant hashtags. If you take a picture of an American flag, #USA is fine (though very broad). But if you use #USA for a photo where there's nothing obviously American about it – even if it was taken in the U.S. – it's not going to resonate with people scouring that hashtag.
  • Follow other people:
    • Don't be one of those leaches who follows someone just to get followed back, then unfollows that person. Only follow someone you actually want to keep following.
      • If someone doesn't follow you back and you get upset, then you followed them for the wrong reasons. Unless it's your best friend or your mom, then maybe you should work that out.
    • While following prominent users is great, so you can learn from them, they aren't likely to notice you and follow back.
    • Following someone in your area of interest who doesn't have a massive following (less than 10,000, or even less than 1,000) could garner a "follow-back." But again, don't follow someone for the sole purpose of getting them to follow you back. Follow them because you like their photos and/or you can learn from them.
  • Comment on other people's photos: The same principles from "Follow other people" apply.
    • If you comment on a photo by someone who has tens of thousands of followers, they aren't likely to notice/follow you. This is OK, because you only commented because you had something sincere to say and not because you were trying to bait them into following you, right?
    • Only comment if you mean it.
    • Also, real friends comment.

Brad Gerick led all social media efforts at the New York Daily News from June 2013 to July 2015. Follow him on Instagram.

Have some tips I didn’t include? Spot an error? Please tweet them to me or share in the comments below.