Hacking Instagram to Grow Your Startup

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How I Helped A Friend Sell $4,000 of Neckties In One Day Using Instagram

Imagine this scenario I was in a couple of years ago:

My friend had just come out with a line of custom neckties. He hand-made them from fabrics he imported, took off of couches, etc. Very hipster-like, and he was selling ties for $80 a piece.

How do you gain an audience of people who want to buy $80 hand-sewn neckties? (spoiler alert: he opened his online store two weeks later, and sold 50 ties the first day with zero marketing budget. It has been his full-time job ever since).

The answer? Instagram

That surprises a lot of people; Instagram doesn’t exactly seem like an ideal marketing platform. Turns out, that’s part of why it’s an excellent marketing platform.

So how does one go from no Instagram account to $4,000 of Instagram sales in two weeks?

Methodology

Instead of breaking this chapter down step-by-step as in other chapters, I’m going to do things a little bit differently.

User acquisition is, above all else, a mindset. The tactics will always vary according to the circumstances of the network or audience you’re targeting, but the thought process is always very similar. I want to take you through my thought process from the very beginning. By the end, you’ll be able to pick this process apart and reverse engineer it — doing so will work on any other network and with any other product or service.

At the highest level, user acquisition consists of two steps:

  1. Creating something desirable enough that some subset of the human population wants it
  2. Getting in front of those people in the right way

Think about that as we figure out how to go from niche necktie company with no audience to $4,000 in sales on day one.

Preparation

I approach every user acquisition problem the same way I break down programming problems. The first step is to stop and slow down. Do not go ham creating an account or posting. Instead, grab a piece of paper and a pencil and start breaking things down into smaller pieces, until we have a solidified roadmap.

It’s important to not try to make anything perfect at this stage. Our goal is to start at the broadest point and break things down.

Do not stop your thought process. You want every thought and idea out on paper to sort out later, and your mind is the conveyor belt bringing those things to the table. If you stop the conveyor belt, you won’t have it to play with when you want it.

My thought process looked something like this:

Thought Process

OK, so we have a bunch of neckties that are a little bit crazy. They’re not really my style. Who wants to wear a necktie that’s been made out of fabric someone pulled off a couch?

Johnny P. would wear this — that’s who. He’s always wearing weird crap like that. Vests with hair from weird animals, clothes some orphan hand-knit in Venezuela, that kind of crap. Johnny is kind of a weirdo. But he also dresses really well. Sometimes it’s over the top, but that kid must put a ton of time and effort into the way he looks. Probably drops a ton of cash too. Ya, he’s the perfect person for something like this.

OK, so I’m Johnny. What is Johnny’s day like? Who does he hang out with, what websites does he visit? I know he’s really into international film — he’s kind of a designy hipster — big beard, cardigan, top-hats and all. And most of his friends are the same way; I guess they all like the same stuff.

Johnny is really into creating things; things being “authentic” and “real,” almost anti-corporate. Craftsmanship. Artisan. Those are the words I would choose to describe Johnny. To him things aren’t just to be used; objects have a heart and soul. Everything is art. Indie music, TV shows that most people wouldn’t care to watch, that type of thing.

When I think Johnny I think wood grain and thick wool. I think rustic, cabin. Very Thoreau, yet in a weird way very inner-city. New York or San Francisco. Very GQ. He’s what would happen if you mixed Into the Wild and GQ. Is Americana a word for that?

I hate this word, but you could call him a hipster. I don’t know too much about hipsters. He may be offended by that. I should talk to Johnny about it.

But OK, back to Johnny. What does Johnny do? What websites does he use? He’s not really a big Facebook fan — well, at least he talks about how he hates it, who knows how much he really uses it. He’s always making fun of Pinterest, too, which is interesting — you think he’d be the Pinterest type. Definitely an iPhone guy, almost to a “make fun of Android” extent. He loves design; he’s probably closest to a designer out of anything professionally. Oh yeah, I know that Johnny is on Instagram all. the. time. That’s probably because he’s into photography — most of the very artisan/designy types are, to some extent. I wonder if that was the original audience of Instagram — if their first users were really artsy people into the filters. It was kind of like Hipstamatic I guess. Did Instagram come before or after Hipstamatic?

Instagram, that could be interesting. So assuming that Johnny is on Instagram, he probably has a bunch of friends that are too. After all, Johnny isn’t everyone, it’s just his type we’re looking for. How could I find them?

I could just look at the people that Johnny follows. But there’s probably a lot of friends and family; I know he follows me and I’m not the target audience. But who does he follow? Who are the big hipster Instagram accounts? Not like Humans of New York hipster — that’s too “mainstream” — ha, it’s kind of ironic that something is too mainstream for this hipster company.

At this point I pull out my phone and start to play.

Alright, let’s find Johnny’s account. Who does he follow? Huh, it looks like he only follows friends and family. Or at least, these seem to be friends and family, I’m not sure if they all are not; he has a lot of friends that look and act just like him. These could be celebrities in his world for all I know. I’ll find if there are any big accounts later. What words does he use, what kind of photos does he post? How can I find all these people?

Here’s a picture of a lake. Hashtags #lake. Very understated. Not much going there.

Here’s one with him in it. Oh wow, he’s cobbling his own shoes. Uses the #artisan hashtag. Let’s check that out.

Eh, this looks mediocre at best. The first few photos are someone making chainmail, remodeling their house, etc. Not as targeted as I would have thought. Back to Johnny.

Family photo. Next.

Oh very interesting. He’s got on a suit from goodwill — that fits him really well. Hashtag #dapper. #Dapper — that’s very interesting. That’s very GQ. Not as artisan-y, but let’s check it out.

Wow. These guys are all obsessed with clothes. Weird clothes. This dude made a coat out of hair extensions. WTF. That might be too crazy for Johnny. And 13,000 likes? Let’s check this dude out.

Alright, maybe he is the right type. He and Johnny would hang out and talk about clothes. This is the person we want. He’s using the keyword #dapper. And there are millions of Johnnys using that keyword. Here they are — the people we want to reach.

I apologize if that was a little bit annoying, but that really is where most of the important stuff happens in marketing. If you take that apart and look at where the stream of conscious started, you’ll find a few things.

Always start with the target market.

The biggest mistake I see people make is they start with figuring out how they can get reach. That is very dangerous. Always start by figuring out the type of person you want to target, and where a bunch of them congregate.From that point we can figure out how to target them or get our message in front of them; first we have to know who they are and what they like. Sending out an email to 15 million random people would probably be less effective than engaging in a real conversation with a dozen of these folks. We just avoided a lot of wasted time.

Get in the mind of the people you want to reach.

Later on we’ll do A/B testing and figure out where we were wrong, but your assumptions and playing around can get you a long way. The most enlightening thing to do is talk with someone who falls in your target market (ideally you are that person), but for now we’ll just stereotype and try not to be too evil in doing so.

Find where the people you want to reach congregate

You want as large of a grouping of your target market as you can get. You also want that target market to be as specific as you can. You can’t always do that in traditional ways like finding accounts they follow or finding a big intentional group of them. One of my favorite ways is finding a keyword or hashtag that unintentionally ends up belonging to a specific group.

You already know how to reach them

The interesting thing about following this process is that in doing to you accidentally figured out what your marketing should look like. In this example the words that stick out are “artisan” “dapper” and “craftsmanship.” Now we go into creation mode with a great understanding of how to build up a world that they want to be a part of.

Creation Mode

Our end goal will be to get in front of the market we’ve found, but more importantly than that we have to have a home for them to land.

Looking back at the discovery process, you found the look/feel we were going for — words like “artisan,” “dapper,” and “craftsmanship.” Once we had that for guidance, actually creating the content was natural.

Not surprisingly, these photos were some of those that performed the best:

You can see they all went for that handcrafted feel.

Linking
Instagram is a little tricky, because no links are allowed in the posts themselves. That is probably a good thing — it forces you to keep your posts non-spammy. If you really want to send people to a specific link, it’s common practice to add the comment “link in bio” to a photo, and change the link in your Instagram profile. Don’t let lack of linking turn you off from using Instagram; it works just fine without it.

Contact Mode

Contact mode is where the fun stuff starts. We have a million people who we think may want what we’re offering, we have the perfect profile set up to drive traffic to our store/product/whatever, now we just have to get in touch with them. Our hopes are that if they see a mention of our profile they’ll visit, hopefully follow us, and maybe check out what we’re selling. If everything is done right, we should be able to watch traffic flow from our profile to our website, and sales converting as a result.

Since mobile purchasing is hard, in the beginning we set up a landing page where they could drop an email address for 20% off.

Going back to Johnny, there are four main ways I could contact him using Instagram:

  1. Tag him in a photo
  2. Comment on his photo
  3. Like his photos
  4. Follow him

Tagging in a photo

This is spammy and annoying. Don’t tag me in photos if you don’t know me.

Commenting on photos

This is often spammy and annoying, but could possibly be pulled off well. It would just take a lot of time and effort. If you are commenting on others’ photos, be very careful. Commenting “Hey, check out my products at @username” is among the worst ways one could initiate a conversation with anyone.

Liking photos

Liking photos is easy, and no one hates it when others like their photos, though it’s possible the likes will be buried amongst dozens of other likes. But I know that I’ll see someone who liked my photos and go check theirs out all the time, so this isn’t a bad strategy.

Following

The most obvious and easiest way would be following. You show up independently to them for a few minutes, and they’ll most likely check you out. Having more followers is a good thing as well.

If you’re following, though, make sure it’s very targeted and don’t just go crazy. A good way to tell if you’re targeting the right people is seeing if you actually enjoy your feed. If following ruins the Instagram experience for you, you’re probably doing something wrong.

One of the biggest mistakes is to use the number of followers as the most important metric. There are plenty of accounts that will follow back just because. You’re not looking for those — you’re looking to generate interest and create a community around your photos, not get a bunch of ego boosts that don’t help you at all.

Now let’s get down to brass tacks.

Follow, Like, Like, Like

After about a day of experimentation and testing, we found the method that works the best. We called it “follow like like like.” The process is simple — go to the most recent section for the hashtag we chose to target and choose the top picture. Follow that account, go to their photos, and like their most recent three.

This shows the user that not only did someone who is kind of like them follow them, but they also dug a little bit and really liked what they found.

Here’s the crazy part: When we did this, the follow-back percentage approached 25%. Meaning for every four people we followed, one would follow us back. And, more importantly, we could see a decent amount of traffic going through to the pre-launch landing page we had set up.

We did this for a week before setting the product live, and by the end of the week we had 10,000 followers. In one week. Each photo was getting over 100 likes, and other people were being tagged in each of the photos by their friends. The content was great, and people really cared about what the company was doing. And, perhaps best of all, it was all done legitimately, without (I hope) annoying too many people, and completely manually. It did get tiring spending literally all day liking photos on Instagram, but it was all worth it come launch day.

Launch day came, and, as stated before, the company sold over $4,000 of inventory. This had been a side-project before that, and now the creator could quit his job and go full-time doing what he loved. He hasn’t gone back since. As a marketer, there’s nothing more rewarding than letting the makers support themselves by doing what they do best.

It’s always a good rule of thumb to do everything in marketing manually first. Once you see that your method is working, it’s time to automate and scale. There will be more on scaling out later on in the book, but for automating there are some really simple bots you can use to save yourself the time and effort of mashing your fingers on Instagram screens all day.

FollowLiker

For automating the Instagram process, I recommend a bot calledFollowLiker. FollowLiker is a bot that does the liking and following for you automatically. You’ll need a PC or a virtual machine to run these bots, unfortunately, but at a price of a few dollars per month it’s probably worth your sanity.

Make sure that you know your process is working manually before automating it. Bots do not solve problems for marketers; they just make the processes that work more repeatable.

Note: Bot at your own risk. If you do anything that seems unnatural or automated, you risk getting banned. Bots that don’t use the API are against the Instagram terms of service, as is doing anything spammy.

Instagram is getting stricter with its rate limiting (how many you’ll be able to like and follow per day), so you have to be careful with the settings the bot is running.

I use the following settings per account:

  • 2100 likes per day (17–22 second delay)
  • 450–600 follows per day (15–20 second delay)
  • 350–450 unfollow per day (15–20 second delay)
  • Minimum of 1–2 photos posted manually per day while running these settings,

The average account will increase at around 250 followers per day at these levels, while the better ones will approach 500 per day.

Unfortunately the bot doesn’t allow the “follow-like-like-like” strategy, so it will be per photo/account, but even the worst accounts should grow by about 7,500 followers per month. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you have 90,000 people seeing your photos after a year, you’ll see the sales/traffic really start rolling in.