How to make the most of Instagram

Leverage Instagram to build your creative business with this guide to using the medium to its full potential.

‘Instagram is the best platform at the moment in terms of communicating a message and getting your aesthetic across,’ declares Kat Cazanis of The Nitty Gritty.

She is articulating the zeitgeist. The platform is a playground for artists who wish to showcase their portfolio, reach new audiences, or even experiment with projects specially tailored to Instagram.

It has also proven to disrupt the sector, with cult artists such as CJ Hendry sidesteppingthe traditional 'struggling artist' phase in a typical career and earning a living through promoting their work on Instagram. 

Whether you have just signed up for an account or are an avid user, there is plenty to learn. We've collected tips from arts organisations, social media experts and individual artists who are getting creative with the platform. From authentically engaging with followers, to building your aesthetic and paying attention to the finest details, here's how to leverage Instagram. 

Instagram as an artistic platform

Instagram can be an effective way to showcase a variety of your work, but can also be harnessed to develop a specific artistic project.

Melbourne artist, designer and self-taught photographer Matthew Deutscher@oakandink has created an Instagram project that will see him work his way through the Pantone swatch book. Matching photographs of his surroundings to a specific Pantone swatch has created a sleek, colourful and enchanting feed, with individual posts garnering hundreds of comments and likes. 

Having a consistent theme has also worked in the favour of Melbourne based artist Phil Ferguson who started the Instagram account @chiliphilly to show off his crochet hats. The combination of a fixed theme, an uncluttered gallery and a generous sprinkling of humour saw him attract over 132K followers exponentially.  

Instagram projects can also be intermittent. Melbourne artist Kenny Pittock@kennypittock embarked on an experiment where he shared a photograph of everything he ate for an entire month.

Mini-projects can be as simple as sharing a poem or illustration on a specific day of the week and developing a hashtag for those posts for people to refer to. For example artist Melody Hansen of @themelodyh created the #BecauseHonestlyseries, sharing her illustrated musings.  

Self-published writer Robert Macias started posting excerpts of his diary-style musings to Instagram under the name R.M. Drake. What started as an experiment has seen his account grow to over 1.2 million followers, a boomingEtsy store and a global distribution deal for his self-published titles that now sustain his writing career.

From Instagram gallery to commercial gallery 

While some artists use Instagram to showcase their work, build a curated portfolio or develop creative projects, there is also a rise in Instagram feeds becoming art in their own right. 

The most prominent example being renowned American photographer Richard Prince who captured the art world’s attention when he recycled Instagram screenshots as his own art, selling them for up to $100,000

Locally, artistic work is being developed and shared on Instagram for the purpose of exhibiting in a traditional gallery space. Originally exhibited via the app, artist Jackson Eaton’s series Melfies 2 is exhibiting at Stills Gallery, Sydney from 2 September to 3 October, 2015. 

To create the works, Eaton took his own photo anywhere he could find a mirror before digitally dissected his body in Photoshop and reverse-image searched various body parts in Google to create ‘a surrealist collage of networked selves’.

Instagram from the art institution

The Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) has a steady following of 34.7K at @mca_australia and regularly shares works from their collection, as well as user generated images and upcoming exhibitions.

Myriam Conrié, Head of Communications & Marketing said it is important to encourage users to create imagery in their own space, to engage and share your content. 'Our visitors really have an eye for it… With each exhibition, we always make a point to share user-generated content, either as stand-alone posts or aggregating several images into a short video with Flipagram.

Also give back to your loyal followers. 'For our major exhibitions, we treat our most loyal and engaged Instagram followers to an exclusive preview event in the MCA Galleries, in presence of the curator and/or artist. Always a great way to generate positive word of mouth when an exhibition opens.

The MCA favours short, witty copy, but never compromises on including an artwork caption and photography credit. This is just one demonstration of putting the artist first - for most of MCA's exhibition, artists are also invited to run a three day Instagram takeover, giving a unique insight into the artist’s world.

Developing a theme and tone

Having an easily identifiable theme or aesthetic can encourage people to press the almighty Follow button when they stumble across your profile. 

‘Consider how all of your posts work together to create an overall look and feel. A well thought out and curated account has a far better chance of acquiring a following by making a great first impression,’ said local illustrator Jeffrey Phillips,@jeff_the_peff.

‘Theme, colour, or content are some of the many ways to craft a cohesive look. Good photos of your work make an incredible difference.’

While Matthew Deutscher doesn’t necessarily like being boxed in, he acknowledges it is the shtick that has worked for him. He recommends focusing on one thing and being niche of niche.

Whether it be crochet hats or a Pantone swatches, users appreciate being able to instantly recognise what you are about and what to expect from you - and ultimately deciding if it is for them. 

‘Although you are sending out one image at a time, it should really turn into a story over time – for instance you can see the development in the art work so you are taking people on a journey with you,' said Cazanis.

It is also important to develop and consistent and authentic tone, Cazanis adeed. ‘Keeping your tone aligned can help you come up with content and keep up consistent.’

You can tailor the information blurb to communicate your tone and capture your audience’s attention. This could include your profession: writer, photographer, illustrator or artist; your location; your email and your shop details. 

Phillips keeps it short and sweet with ‘Doodle peddler’, keeping in with his humorous tone and communicating his work as an illustrator. 

‘While Instagram is primarily an image-based platform, adding a caption to your images is a great way to inject personality and context to your posts. People will more likely engage and interact with your account if they feel there is a real person at the helm, not a bot or faceless corporate entity,’ said Phillips.

Quality engagement, not quantity of followers

Despite a steady following of over 18.6K, Deutscher stresses that the focus shouldn’t be on growing numbers. 

‘Focus on building relationships. It’s quality, not quantity. The best connections I have from Instagram are the relationships that I have built through Instagram. The best connections I have are not numbers driven.’

Denise Kwong agrees that connection and engagement with the community is key. When she joined Instagram, she was inspired by the stunning photography on Instagram and began snapping her own images on an iPhone. Her account@twistdee has now garnered the attention of almost 50,000 followers.   

‘When you come across a gallery that inspires you, take the time to go through the images and like and comment on images that stand out for you. If you come across work that inspires you, make sure you tell the person.

‘Follow the feed if you like but don't feel obliged too. If someone has made the effort to do it to your feed, reciprocate and leave encouraging comments,’ said Kwong. 

Phillips encourages making conversation, interacting with like-minded accounts and regram images where appropriate to support the community. 

‘In a nutshell, be involved and demonstrate you are a real person with an active passion for what you do, other than the sole purpose of self-promotion,’ he said. 

The 101 on #hashtags

‘There are two billion people on the internet (and maybe a dog or two),’ said Phillips. ‘It’s impossible to reach them all, so use hashtags to target an interested and relevant audience.’

Phillips advises people avoid using generic tags such as #art #creative #inspiration. ‘They move too quickly and are inundated with junk. Niche, industry-specific terms place your work among relevant and better quality content. These less common hashtags also last longer in search results.

‘For example as an illustrator I would choose the slower tags of #gesturedrawing, #valuestudy or #editorialillustration over the quicker moving #drawing #illustration or #sketch,’ he said.  

Using hashtags is the best way to share your work on Instagram, said Kwong who believes you can leverage off the hashtags of popular users. For example, feature accounts are those dedicated to a specific topic and feature handpicked images to share.

‘A lot of hashtags are associated with a feature account and if an images gets selected by that account to be featured, it will mostly likely send users to your gallery,’ she said. 

‘If you're unsure what feature accounts are best for you, look at the hashtags that some of your favourite Instagrammers use. More often than not, the hashtag is the same as the feature account name, but not always. 

Kwong also suggests going through the tagged photos section of an account that you like to see who has featured them and find relevant hashtags.

Consistency is key

Creator of Foundr magazine was able to grow his Instagram account from 0 to over 100,000 in just five months. This was achieved by finding out what his demographic best responds to - in this case, inspiration quotes for entrepreneurs - and consistently posted original content four times each day. 

Content was created through Wordswag and labelled with @foundr, meaning when shared by other users, it links back to their account. 

Another technique the account executes well is asking questions of its followers such as 'Name one reason you follow us'. Posts often content the phrasing 'double tap if you agree' to encourage likes, or 'tag a friend who needs to hear this' to grow their follower base. 

Share the artistic process

‘Behind the scenes and work in progress stuff works well. You can do a time lapse with the videos and showcase where you started, how your ideas have developed and what the finished work looks like,' said Cazanis.  

In Let Instagram do the talking, Cazanis highlights several creative Instagrammers and what they do well. Illustrator Alice Oehr @aliceoehr for example treats Instagram like a ‘pocket folio’ and offers an ‘intimate glimpse behind the scenes and sketches of her studio reveals the process and routines of a freelance designer, creating an intimacy with follower,’ writes Cazanis.

Illustrator Ashley Ronning at @ashleyronning also enjoys work in progress shots and tries to post hers as often as possible. ‘People love to see the magic behind the final product. Draw back those curtains and show off your work all through the process.’

Art and money on Instagram

Cazanis recommends artists and arts organisations make the most of the web link in their profile.  

‘Whether you provide a link for people to purchase your work is up to you, but it can work really well on Instagram. You might change it once a week in order to promote different pieces you have for sale,’ she said.

Using Instagram as a portfolio lends itself to commissions. Ronning advises creatives to try and focus their commissions and free projects on work you enjoy doing. ‘It's awful to complete a commission that isn't entirely you, and you don't want to let see the light of day. 

‘The more work you do that is fun for you and you love showing people, the more fun work people will pay you for.’

As well as your web address, add your email address to your bio. ‘Emailing is the best way for businesses to contact you,’ said Kwong.

Gaining traction on Instagram can lead to opportunities to make a dime, but Kwong stresses that artists should not compromise their feed for product or commission opportunities.

‘If you don't agree with their requests, try negotiating with them. You don't want to post something that doesn't fit with the aesthetics of you gallery. Keep true to your artistic vision. Suggest other Instagrammers who are better suited. Not all opportunities will be appropriate for you,’ said Kwong. 

It’s all about timing

It’s important to consider where your audience lives and when they are most active on Instagram. 

‘Where does your audience live? If you have a lot of American followers, try not to post at 2 a.m New York time,’ said Ronning. ‘Your beautiful posts might drift too far down their feed. Generally morning time in Australia is good, a lot of the world are still awake!’

Third-party apps and websites can help you understand more about how your followers engage. IconSquare offers free social analytics, tools and statistics to help you learn more about your audience. Crowdfire also offers you information about your followers and if you have a thick skin can also tell you who has unfollowed you and when, giving insight into what content works best. 

Don’t be shy

One of the most encouraging aspects of Instagram is how accessible it is to form authentic connections with people. 

In my own experience, I have had countless email exchanges with people I’ve met through Instagram and a few Skype conversations. I have found connections for interviews and articles, and even had brunch and coffee with over a dozen people. 

Reaching out and engaging with the vast Instagram community makes it both an enjoyable platform, but can also helps boost your own following.  

‘Be active, comment, like and direct message people. Don’t spam people. But engage with people who’s work you love. If they like your work back, they will likely want to meet up and collaborate,’ said Deutscher.

‘Be bold. What’s the worst that can happen? People either say no or don’t respond. The wins are great!

Don’t judge a user by their followers

Deutscher said it is important to be generous and kind as you don’t know who is on the other end of a message or a user account. 

‘I had a follower remark on a painting of mine asking if it was available. I said ‘unfortunately it’s sold. But I’m taking commissions (wink-face)’ – just being cheeky, thinking nothing of it. 

‘She contacted me directly. She made a commission for herself, but is also an interior designer and I am now doing work for her clients. 

‘If I was snobby about only messaging back to people with big followings, I would have missed that opportunity,’ he added.

Read the full article on ArtsHub