The numbers are important. Especially engagement.

They’re important because they’re a great way to measure progress; to determine failure or success.

That’s not to say you should be emotionally effected by them; but rather – as with all metrics – you should use them as a quantitative indicator of movement.

All you really should be asking yourself is; “Am I moving forward”? Then, you pick your metric, measure, and answer the question.

One of the big, meaty, important measures when it comes to Instagram is engagement. I’ve said in the past that Instagram is indeed a game of engagement. You may have 400,000 followers but if your engagement is less than 1%, you’re doing shit and your followers mean nothing.

If you have 10,000 followers and your engagement is above 10%, then great! You’re on a good track and you should try to keep that up. Keeping an engaged community is tough, but ultimately, that’s what brands are looking for, and that’s also one of the many things the algorithm is looking for, too.

Having a high engagement ratio means that you’re doing things that Instagram likes. You have great content that you’re probably evolving regularly, and your actions and behaviours are within the app are conducive to helping the platform grow. If your engagement is growing, you’re playing the game right.

So naturally, you want to do everything you can do boost this number, so what I’m going to outline is a few conceptual ideas and some tactics around what you can do and why you should do it.

Please note that if you’ve been in this game for awhile, you probably know a lot of it. But hey, a refresher is nice every once in awhile, right?

What is engagement

Really quickly before we get into it, we need to talk about what engagement actually means within Instagram, because it’s not the same on every platform.

On Instagram, engagement means likes, comments, shares and saves. It doesn’t mean views, or impressions or any other metric. It’s the cumulative number of these 4 metrics that equal your overall engagement number for that post.

Pat Kay - How to build great engagement on Instagram

It’s all about the content first

It seems kind of stupid for me to put this here, but ultimately, I could end this article with this point alone. The content always comes first. Always. If there was a multiplier on massive engagement, it’s great content.

This means figuring out which images do well and which images don’t. It means constantly iterating on your style and refining the subjects you like to shoot and how you like to shoot them, until you reach the point where small tweaks make a big difference.

It also means constantly evolving and not being tied to styles that may have been previously successful.

It look me the last couple of months to figure that last one out and to really let go. The reason why it took me so long to let go is because you become so comfortable with the things that cause (even minor) success – places you’ve shot before with images that have done well, an editing style that people react well to, a theme you like to stick to because it feels safe.

Even though these images may elicit a successful emotional response in people, over time (usually pretty quick), the same thing over and over again gets tiresome and that response wears away. The pressure of making the same bangers fails to yield the same result.

I, for one, am really sick and tired of seeing my Stockton shot. Every. Single. Damn. Day. Although I love it, there’s only so many times you can see the same thing and still feel fuzzy inside.

All of this to say; the content is something you should always be working on. If you’re not pushing for something different, if you’re not posting images that make you feel uncomfortable, if you’re not constantly evaluating your own work, you’re not growing. You’re not progressing. And work that is not progressive is not good work. It’s just work.

Work on your work to make your work good work.

Side note: I actually hate using the word ‘content’ in replacement of images or videos. To me it cheapens the images and videos we create, but hey, the market wants what it wants.

Pat Kay - How to build great engagement on Instagram

Be a part of the community you want to build

This is specifically to do with the ‘Instagram-as-a-platform’ perspective. It’s split in to two parts. Two ‘spheres’, if you will. An internal sphere that you cultivate, and an external sphere you bring people in to.

Internal sphere – Be an active member of the community you’ve deliberately built

Be cognisant in the people you follow and the people you bring close to you. Don’t just follow any Tom, Dick, or Harry in the hopes they’re going to follow you back, or ‘just because’. That’s a waste.

Instead, make sure everyone in your feed is inspiring you in some way, or has a purpose to be there. If your aim is to become a better landscape photographer, a feed of food flatlays and puppy dog pictures isn’t going to help you get better. Instagram is probably an app you use every day, so immerse yourself in the right kind of content – the kind that is useful, not just ‘entertainment’.

It’s for this reason, that if ever you ask me to follow you back, I’m far more inclined to say no. If you’re not my friend already and I follow you, you’re doing something right and I like it. Keep that shit up.

By the way, following people because they’re your friends is okay, too. Because, friends.

Once you get a good internal sphere, you need to make sure you start strengthening those relationships with the people inside it. Here’s a few ways:

Comment on everybody you follow

Put in the effort to comment on people’s images in your feed. If you’ve followed them, chances are you like their stuff – so let them know. One of the cornerstones to good engagement is people commenting on your posts. You get what you give, and if you give nothing, you get nothing. Plus, it’s really nice to let people know how you feel about their image. If you can leave a nice, considerate comment, that’s fantastic. But even something short will do.

Be a giver.

Likes are free. Give them abundantly

And they take less than a second to do. Again, much related to the previous point; if you’ve followed someone for their work, chances are you’re going to like their post. Even if you don’t, like it anyway because again, another cornerstone to good engagement is likes.

Be a giver.

Story regularly

Let people in to your life. Even if it’s something small, it’s always more meaningful to know more about the person you’re engaging with. Stories are cheap and fast, and if your community doesn’t like them, then they’ll skip them. But there will always be people who do. Talk to them by sharing your story.

DM people you admire and start a conversation with them

Referring to the people you follow because of their work. Try to talk to them. It doesn’t hurt to shoot a DM their way, introduce yourself, strike up a conversation and start something. Who knows what it could lead to? There are some overseas people I talk to regularly now because they showed me around in their country and vice versa. Cool people. Reach out.

Meet people in real life

Because putting a face to a name strengthens a relationship exponentially. Go to instameets, workshops or gatherings and meet real people, because that’s where the best friendships come from. Face to face.


External sphere – Spend some time reaching out to people outside your regular sphere

Now that you’ve got your housekeeping sorted out and have started to cultivate your initial community, you need some ways to draw people into your sphere, because the more people in your sphere, the more chances for engagement you have. Real engagement. Not some shitty bot spam or follow-spamming.

Make sure people can find you and reach out to new people regularly. This is how you grow your engagement. This is one of the ways to grow a great community.

Have the right hashtag strategy and setup

The basics first. Learn how to research the right hashtags, and use them properly. Once you do that, double it and make sure you’re using 60 hashtags. Forget the feeling of ‘spammyness’. Every post, use all 60. Every time.

Interact with photos using the same geotags as you

You should be using geotags on every image you can, as it’s another way that people can find your work. Conversely, chances are that there will be other people using the same geotag as you, after potentially having gone to the same location as you. Check those people out. It could mean they’re interested in something similar to you. Engage with them and potentially bring them into your sphere.

Follow feature pages for images you love, go into the photographer profile and start engaging

This is a great way to find inspiring images in the categories you’re interested in.

Feature pages are Instagram accounts that regram images about a particular niche. This means that someone has done all the hard work for you and found some great photographers, photographers you can go and engage with, draw inspiration from, and perhaps one day even mutually follow each other. This is how communities grow, after all.

Meet people in real life

Again, meeting people in real life is so important. The relationships you have in the real world are so much stronger than anything over the internet. Get out of your comfort zone, meet new people. Bring them into your sphere and share your journey together.

So, that’s it! For the more old-school of you out there, this is all probably no surprise. And for the newer people, I’m sorry, but just like the old-timers know, there’s no magic bullet.

Focus on the content, interact and engage with the people within your sphere, and always be looking out for new ways to interact with new accounts and people to bring in to your sphere. It takes awhile, but it’s the only way.

Good luck!