I've been researching the Instagram algorithm lately, trying to better understand how it works. This is partly because I've noticed that things will pop up in my feed that I've already seen, or I'll visit the page of someone I follow and realize that I hadn't seen the latest things they've shared. I wanted to know if there was anything I could do to not fall through the cracks.
After reading a number of kind of gross articles about how to like back and buy access and generally con your way to a bunch of followers, I felt compelled to write my own manifesto of how I use Instagram. I don't have a ton of followers by any metric, but I have only been active for the last year and a half, having started at zero with no facebook page to link up to. But Instagram is an integral part of how I market my spooncarving, teaching, scything work and Christmas tree farm, and I do take it seriously. So here are my seven rules that shape how I use Instagram:
1) Make it valuable for you.
It is easy when you are marketing yourself to lose sight of the bigger picture, which is that you are creating a body of work that should have meaning for you. For me this means using the discipline of taking photos on my phone to capture moments of my life that would otherwise just be a fleeting memory. Not only do I have photographic glimpses of my life, I also have a catalog of my work that gives me a lot of material to work with for my website, when I apply for teaching gigs, and for promotional materials. Keeping the focus on what I find valuable means that I'm never questioning the value of Instagram in my life.
2) Do good work
Ideally, the discipline of posting content on Instagram pushes me to do the best I can, since I am going to be sharing it. This also pushes me to be disciplined about producing new work, which in turn makes me better at what I'm doing and gets me a step closer to my goals.
3) Share yourself
I try to share a spectrum of my life, not just the spooncarving. I also try to be real and honest about what's going on, although I'm not going to take a picture of the toilet I'm cleaning. But I want to communicate the whole of me, not just the one part. And even with the spooncarving, I try to share tips and tricks and thoughts and basically everything I can, because I find that I always wish people shared more with their photos. Often, the photo is just a door to whatever broader thought the post is about. Being real and sharing my life in a thoughtful way is part of what makes instagram valuable to me, and it is good business, too.
4) Be respectful
Communication online can get weird. Because the back and forth of a conversation is delayed and sometimes dropped, we can read too much into pauses and silence. We can read too much into what is said, too. While I think it is valuable to chime in with dissenting opinions, I have also found it to be super important to be as respectful as possible. I also think it is important that we use Instagram to stand up for what we believe in, and not be afraid of losing followers if we share a post in solidarity with one cause or another.
5) Use hashtags strategically
Okay, now we are getting into the nitty gritty. I use hashtags a lot, because I don't have many followers and people find me through seeing my photos on hashtags. I am always on the lookout for hashtags that are being used in ways that seem promising (meaning I like the photos on them). A good hashtag is just the right size, too, for my posts to show up in the top posts, meaning it doesn't disappear in a flood of new images. Huge hashtags are easy to get lost in. Small ones nobody sees. I use different hashtags for different types of posts, but the goal is always to attract people who will appreciate what I'm doing and sharing, who will see my feed and want to follow and engage. Which brings us to:
6) View your feed as a whole
I didn't used to edit my feed, thinking there was information that would be lost, or that it was somehow less authentic. But then I realized that I needed to be aware of the impression the top six or nine pictures in my feed gave, since that was the first impression had by anyone deciding if they wanted to follow me or not. I started deleting the weakest pictures, and started posting pictures with an eye toward a good balance of color and content. I see my feed as a whole, and maybe once a month I go back and delete maybe a quarter of the recent pictures that don't make the cut.
7) Be consistent
This is a big one for me. I try to share multiple posts each day. I know this is too much for some people, and I probably lose some followers because of it, but for me it is about appreciating moments in my life and sharing my work. That usually takes between 3-6 posts a day to do well. If I am thoughtful about sharing interesting stuff and making it real and varied and if the photography is good, then I figure I will retain exactly the people who want this. And this is what I want from almost every person I follow, too: more. I want to see more of your lives, I want to know more of your thoughts, I want to see more of your work, whatever that is. By using multiple, varied hashtags on these posts, I spread out across Instagram and attract interested people from a number of paths. For selling spoons this works well because other spooncarvers will in general by a spoon here or there, whereas someone from outside the spooncarving community who finds you and digs what you do will by again and again, assuming you are producing good work (2), sharing yourself so they know a bit about you (3), are clearly in it for reasons other than just making a sale (1) and are respectful and approachable (4). They will find you in the first place because they saw some photo on a hashtag (5) and then when they checked out your feed they liked what they saw (6). Finally, they followed and were engaged, day after day, by a beautiful, thoughtful, honest and stimulating array of content (7). Those are your best customers.
For those of you who are that for me, know that I am deeply grateful that you are a part of this thing we are doing.
So the last couple of days I was home alone, as my wife was taking our daughters camping with her brother and his family. I was slammed with work (along with carving spoons, I have a small online business editing scientific manuscripts from around the world) and so I stayed home and put my nose to the grindstone.
For the first day I wallowed in the mess of the house. The kids had torn it up before they left, and I was working hard enough that I told myself I didn't have time to pick up the floor or unload the dishwasher. I have neat habits, so while I wasn't picking up the house, I wasn't making it worse, either. But I just kind of mooched around, burrowing my nose back into my computer every time I thought about sweeping or doing a load of laundry.
Now, I am not a stereotype of a guy, unable to clean a toilet or run a vacuum cleaner. In fact, I do the majority of the housework in our home, since I work from home and my wife is a full-time student. But something about the combination of my family being gone and having a lot of work to do made me apathetic to the whole state of things.
On the second day I started to pick up. Just a bit here and there, snagging stuff as I passed by and putting it where it belonged. I never actually set out to buckle down and clean, nor did set aside time or pump myself up. But as I did each tiny thing, my apathy faded. I picked up the floor, folded the blankets on the couch, did the dishes, a load of laundry, swept the floor, cleared the tables and counters, made the bed, put away shoes, laid out fresh towels in the bathroom and scrubbed the toilets. And the thing was, it took less than half an hour to set the house to rights.
I am acutely aware that there are other parts of my life where I am still apathetic. Big financial planning. Filing paperwork. Bookkeeping. My goal is to do what I did with the house. Pick up a thing and deal with it, a little bit at a time. Maybe, in less time than I might think, my apathy will fade. And I will be the better for it.
Last night my wife and I went on a triple date with her brother and parents to see Wonder Woman. Before the movie we had dinner at a falafel place, the type of restaurant that at first glance you are not sure what to expect. It looked unpromising, with a plasticky menu above the counter and basically no decor on the walls. There was almost no one there when we arrived.
My first impression was totally wrong. The food was incredible, with falafel plucked in front of our eyes out of the oil and handed to us on a paper plate to try. The pita pockets were assembled in front of our eyes and it was the quickest, cheapest and most delicious meal I have eaten out in a long time.
But what I really appreciated about the experience was the absolute lack of pretension. The food was served on paper plates. The cook stepped outside after assembling our food and smoked a cigarette in plain view. The other customers were a mix of college students, construction workers, an old man in a wheelchair and a woman in a headscarf.
We are accustomed to businesses packaging themselves in way that supports or establishes our feelings for them before we even buy anything. Before we do anything besides glance at a website or walk in the door, we are exposed to a carefully curated experience. The goal is to associate our brand with desirable things or a certain type of experience, but this presentation is not the same thing as the product itself.
There is a belief that if you present an object beautifully that it will increase our perception of its value. The falafel place is a wonderful example of the complete opposite sometimes being true, where the lack of any of this artifice makes the food (or the whatever) that much more amazing. Because it is so clearly not leaning on any of these marketing things to be great (and that is the rub, that the thing itself must be great for this to work).
In the spooncarving world, we use this sort of marketing all the time. We photograph our spoons beautifully, we package them in ways that are meant to evoke positive emotions and associations, we show only the parts of our lives that do the same. This is certainly true of me. But last night's meal made me want to push harder in the opposite direction. To show the real, without pretense, and to strive to have my spoons be great enough that they will be a surprise and delight when they arrive on someone's door, rather than leave the vague feeling that they were suckers for my packaging.
My blog has evolved into a series of short essays on the nature of entrepreneurship, craftsmanship, and their overlap. If either of these topics is something you think about, you will probably like this.