9 Steps to creating an effective Instagram strategy and why AI is not the answer

Key takeaways

  • Go niche: Finding an Instagram niche is the most important step in your Instagram strategy. Without it, nothing will work. Instagram rewards focused content. Don’t be afraid to define a niche smaller than your industry to resonate with a specific audience and leverage the algorithms.
  • Forget the Shortcuts: Organic growth takes time and effort. Avoid buying followers or relying solely on AI tools. These won’t give you the results you want.
  • Use Reels: Reels are the best way to grow on Instagram. Create quick Reels that hook viewers within seconds and utilise data to understand what resonates with your audience.

Your Instagram strategy should be human-centric

“AI can be a great sidekick for an effective Instagram strategy, crunching data and crafting captions, but it can’t spark genuine connections. The secret sauce of Instagram success? It’s still human.” (Gemini, 2024)

These are the wise words of Gemini, a large language AI model from Google DeepMind. Yet, in recent times people are increasingly turning to AI, hoping for a pre-packaged Instagram strategy that will transform their online presence overnight. Unfortunately, the reality is that building a thriving Instagram presence requires more than a standard template. Your Instagram strategy needs to be an insightful, constantly evolving document that understands the Instagram platform at a granular level. Moreover, it needs to transcend theory and be rooted in practice and reality.

Therefore, rather than providing you with generic advice, this article provides you with the first steps to growing your Instagram presence. We have spent the last three years dedicated to understanding how Instagram works. This has meant spending time testing, learning and understanding what the algorithms want. Consequently, the content of this article is based on our real-world experience.

Since we have already covered how to create an overall marketing strategy that works this article focuses on Instagram-specific considerations. Moreover, while AI can’t write a strategy for you, we’ll show you how to use it as a valuable tool within a human-driven approach.

Having an Instagram Strategy is important

Why is it important to have a marketing strategy for Instagram?

Instagram has over 2 billion active monthly users. This makes it the third largest platform in the world after Facebook and YouTube. Moreover, compared to Facebook, Instagram boasts higher engagement, and unlike YouTube, it doesn’t require extensive filming and editing. This combination makes Instagram a powerful tool for building online influence.

Yet, despite the potential to reach such a large audience, many companies forget to create an Instagram-specific social media strategy. Instead, they include a small section within their overall marketing strategy covering all social media channels. Yet, this means the strategy fails to outline the specific nuances of each platform.

However, thinking you can apply the same strategies to Instagram as you do on Twitter or LinkedIn is wrong. It’s like thinking you can become the next Monet because you painted your garden fence. They require different insights and understanding.

What is the best Instagram strategy?

Asking what the best Instagram strategy is like asking what’s the best song ever written. Some answers are clearly more correct than others. After all, “Who let the dogs out” was just awful. However, the “best” is dependent on several factors.

But, one thing you can be certain of is that the best Instagram strategy is one that is hyper-focused on your audience and niche. It’s a strategy that understands the nuances of the platform and constantly adapts as you gain new insights.

But, what about the 4-1-1 rule? I heard that’s the best strategy for Instagram

Strategies like 4-1-1 are grossly oversimplified. Instagram strategies like this are pushed because they sound simple and fancy. After all, everyone wants a quick easy solution. Moreover, what actually constitutes 4-1-1 varies depending on who you speak to.

One theory suggests that for every six pieces of content:

  • 4 posts should be shared from another account or elsewhere
  • 1 original content you create
  • 1 promotion/Ad like content

Another theory indicates:

  • 4 posts that are educational/engaging regardless of whether they are original or not
  • 1 post talking about your business but not directly selling
  • 1 promotion/Ad like content

Either way, these are not effective strategies. In our experience, sharing content from other accounts does not help you to build your own authority. After all, if JK Rowling was to just share other people’s novels do you think she would be a famous author? Obviously not.

Moreover, you need to be careful with advertising your services or products. This is especially true in the beginning before you have built a loyal following. People are on Instagram to be entertained or get information. This is a platform that helps you build trust which in return can help you to sell in the long run.

Instead, you need to deep-dive and understand the mechanics of Instagram when building your strategy.

How to build an Instagram strategy

The following steps to build an effective Instagram strategy are born from our real-world experience. We’ve set up and tried to grow numerous Instagram accounts from scratch, meticulously testing different content formats, engagement strategies, and growth tactics.  Every success and setback has equipped us with invaluable insights into how Instagram works.

While our agency specialises in health brands, the core principles we’ve learned are universally applicable. Moreover, we have refused to create accounts telling other people how to grow on Instagram. This is because these “Instagram growth hacking” accounts often go viral not because they are experts at Instagram strategies but because they promise people secret insights.  

For instance, we used the steps below to organically grow a running account to over 4,000 followers in just 6 months, without relying on external promotion or automation.

1. Your Instagram strategy needs to clearly define a niche

A well-defined niche isn’t just the first step of your Instagram strategy – it’s the foundation for long-term success.  Choosing the wrong niche can make it impossible for Instagram’s algorithms to understand who you’re targeting, leading to low engagement and no growth. Identifying the right niche is also why a generic AI Instagram strategy template won’t work. This is because you need to spend time understanding the platform.

The first thing to understand it that an Instagram niche is not the same thing as an industry niche. For instance, you may sell a range of at-home health tests. This covers everything from gut health to hormone testing. Logically you may think your niche is at-home tests. While this makes sense in general business terms, on Instagram, there are only 100 posts for this niche. Therefore, it’s too small. Even gut-health test only has just over 1k posts. This means the Instagram algorithms are unlikely to understand who you are targeting.

Yet, going too broad will also cause problems. For example, healthy lifestyle has over 130m posts and covers everything from yoga to healthy foods. Targeting such a broad audience makes it difficult to stand out and connect with a specific group of potential customers.

The key is to find a sweet spot – a niche that’s specific enough to be easily identified by the algorithm and attract a dedicated audience, but broad enough to allow for content variety. This should be detailed in your Instagram strategy document and you can use this to revisit your analysis at a later point.

2. Analyse your competitors but they are not necessarily who you think they are

Once you have found your niche, it’s important to look at who your competitors are. However, it’s important to remember, that your competitors might be different to business rivals. For example, if you sell running wearables, your business competitors might be Garmin or Fitbit. However, a lot of your content will be about running so you will need to also look at running accounts like ours.

Through your analysis look at:

  • Who has grown quickly? You can do this by clicking on the three dots on the top right-hand corner of the competitor’s account and navigating to “about this account.” This will tell you when the account was set up.
  • Some accounts may buy followers. So, look for clues to make sure they are legitimate. One way to do this is to see how many views their reels have. If they don’t have many views this is not a great account to learn from.
  • Evaluate how many accounts they follow. If they are following a couple of thousand accounts it’s probable that they have not grown organically. Instead, they will have used “follow for follow” or automation methods.
  • Identify what hashtags they use and what the general theme of their account is. This can form the basis of your content creation.
  • Consider if they have thoughtful comments on their posts. If so, they have done a good job at building engagement.

There are AI tools that will claim they can find similar accounts. However, in our experience the suggestions provided will be too broad and the accounts too big. Therefore, it’s important to spend time doing this research to understand what other accounts in your niche are doing.

3. Your Instagram strategy should identify and detail your themes and branding

The theme section of your Instagram strategy should outline the energy you want your account to display. This can be a great use of AI tools like Gemini or ChatGPT as they can help you to brainstorm ideas. The key things to factor in are:

  • Whether you should set up a professional account or not. This is recommended for businesses and those people who want to see insights
  • Your colours/branding
  • What do you want your content to be famous for e.g. educational or funny
  • Design considerations e.g. what feeling do you want to convey to your followers and how will that be reflected

During this section, you should remember not to be too corporate. Too often we see businesses set up accounts and post content that resembles a corporate update. You may struggle to get engagement even on LinkedIn for many of these types of posts, so you need to understand how you stay loyal to your overall brand identify and translate it for Instagram. Remember, Instagram is a highly visual platform and people expect to see content and accounts that inspire them.

4. All good Instagram strategies need a growth strategy

If you are not growing on Instagram, it’s likely something is wrong with your strategy. At Antlerzz, our extensive research has found organic growth is best achieved by utilising Instagram Reels. This is by far the best way to increase your reach and get followers.

However, getting more fans on Instagram can take time, so it’s critical you deep dive into this section and learn how you will do it. Some of your main focus areas will be:

  • Detailing how your chosen niche aligns with your content strategy
  • Positing a lot, especially in the first few weeks
  • Finding an authentic voice
  • Spending time on the platform and engaging with others
  • Appreciating where you are in your Instagram journey and how that’s reflected in your growth tactics

For example, in our Instagram strategy for our running account, we recognised that:

  1. Running is a large niche and people want different things
  2. Since we were starting our account from scratch, we needed to build our authority

Therefore, we spent time finding a large sub category of running. This meant we focused on running motivation. We have been strict with this and refused to do other posts like how to run marathons. It’s important to keep focused on getting famous in one area.

However, because it can take time to start growing on Instagram, many people do get tempted by using AI to purchase followers. But you should avoid this. It will not give you the influence you want as many of your new followers are likely to be bots. Instead, you should understand how to grow organically.

5. Develop an engagement-first strategy

It’s common for people to become obsessed with how they will grow on Instagram but not consider how they will increase engagement. Yet, Instagram engagement is arguably the most important metric on your account. Without engagement, you are unlikely to have influence. Therefore, make sure your Instagram strategy is led with engagement in mind.

There are several steps you need to take and outline how you will increase engagement. Some of the best strategies include experimenting with catchy headlines and understanding what triggers your audience.  For instance, imagine your account is about gut health and you want to discuss the gut-brain axis. Most people will simply kick off the post by telling people gut health is important. This doesn’t capture anyone’s attention because they are likely to have heard it before, especially if you have picked the right niche. Instead, a headline that says “People have a x% lower IQ if they have poor gut health” is likely to trigger an emotion that drives engagement.

However, make sure you again avoid using AI. AI tools to increase engagement not only make your account look fake, but it’s unlikely to yield the results you want.  

6. Your Instagram content strategy needs to capture your audience quickly!

Since Instagram Reels are the best way to grow and get engagement, you also need to understand how you will  create them and get more views. This is much harder than it looks.

Instagram Reels are a maximum of 90 seconds. However, some of the best-performing content is much shorter. The key is to make sure you engage people within the first 1 to 2 seconds and keep them watching. This not only increases views and engagement but will also help you to attract new followers.

For example, imagine you are on holiday and decide to watch television in your hotel room in the evening. Do you give every channel a chance? Or do you quickly flick to the next station hoping something catches your attention? It’s likely the latter. It’s the same on Instagram. Your content needs to capture your audience immediately and it needs to provoke an emotion. For instance, a surprising fact or question can help.

This is why AI content should be avoided. Despite, the increasing movement towards AI-generated content, this is not likely to work for you. Whilst it may help in the short term, over the long run you are unlikely to develop a stronger bond with your audience. This ultimately should be the main objective of every Instagram strategy.

7. Understand the algorithms and outline how they will match your Instagram strategy goals

The Instagram algorithms are complex, and it’s unlikely even the people at Meta understand them completely. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t factor them into your Instagram strategy. Instead, outline the key algorithms and identify how your content strategy will help satisfy them.

However, whilst this step is important, don’t become obsessed with it. The Instagram algorithms constantly evolve so its better to have a strong appreciation than attempting to mastermind them. Moreover, the other parts of this Instagram strategy guide, if done well, will help you align with the algorithm ranking factors.

8. Outline the key metrics you will use in your strategy for Instagram

How will you know if your Instagram strategy is working? The most obvious metrics are your follower count and engagement rates. However, these provide you with a macro view of how well your strategy is working. This is not particularly helpful if you don’t see growth on your account.

Therefore, you will need to look deeper. We would recommend monitoring each of your Reels and reviewing:

  • Accounts reached. If it reaches only a limited number of accounts, you may have an issue with your niche or content hooks
  • Initial plays vs replays. These are critical metrics as they give you insight into how popular and engaging your content is. The Instagram algorithms favour content that is replayed at least once if not twice.
  • Shares. This sends a strong signal your audience aligns with your content
  • Follows. The more follows per Reel the better. Monitor to see which ones bring in the most and replicate them.
  • Saves. Saves illustrate content that your audience finds so valuable they want to revisit it later.

There are other metrics you may want to monitor like comments and likes. Moreover, third-party tools can be great for analysing your competitors to see how they are growing and their metrics. However, be sure to outline how you will track these metrics to inform your future content creation process. You may want to use AI tools like ChatGPT to help you analyse trends once you have collected a good sample of data points.

9. Remember, you may need additional tools and resources

For a coherent Instagram strategy, it is imperative you outline the amount of time, resources and tools you will need. This will largely depend on the content you create and how often you post. However, it is easy to underestimate the time and effort it requires. Therefore, we would recommend creating a handful of Reels to see. As a benchmark, it may take you an entire working day to do one or two Reels in the beginning. Over time you might be able to gain efficiencies but it’s worth investing in the appropriate resources to help you.

The most effective Instagram strategies often have a dedicated resource. This person will not only create content but also spend time responding to comments, sharing stories and engaging with the community.

Moreover, for most accounts, a smartphone will be sufficient. Instagram has many great editing features. However, for our running account, we realised we needed more because there is a lot of movement. Therefore, we invested in a good stabiliser. Moreover, good lighting is important for Reels. So, consider whether you will need to buy an Instagram lamp.

Your Instagram strategy is the start of your journey

Creating an Instagram strategy can feel like it’s overkill. After all, you have likely spent days if not weeks on creating an overall marketing strategy. Yet, creating a detailed Instagram-focused strategy can help transform your presence on the platform.

Gaining influence on Instagram is not straightforward. There are multiple factors to consider from the platform algorithms to identifying a niche that the algorithms recognise. By dedicating time and resources to building an Instagram strategy you can help focus your efforts and ensure you are not making the same mistakes over again.

This deep understanding of the platform is why using AI to create your strategy document is pointless. AI can be a great assistant in helping to brainstorm ideas and analyse data. But whatever AI tool you use, it won’t be trained on Instagram or understand what makes people engage with content. Only you can do that.

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