When I started this experiment, I didn’t know what to expect. Admittedly, my expectations were very low. At most, I thought I had an outside shot at gaining 50 followers. In Alex Armitage’s Instagram experiment, he started with 5871 followers, or roughly 50 times the number I had. At the end of 30 days and 30 posts Alex had gained 107 followers.

Initial Expectations

I’d always assumed social media follower growth was exponential. Once you reach a critical mass adding followers gets easier. I’m not sure how many followers it takes to reach critical mass on Instagram, but I know it’s a lot more than 100.

I’m not sure if 5871 followers are enough either but it’s a lot better than what I had. Intuitively I would have guessed Alex would have gained a lot more than 107 followers during his experiment. Since that was the only real data I had to go by, I thought I would have little chance to add even 50 followers, let alone 100.

Surprising to me was the fact that I gained roughly the same number of followers as Alex, even though I started with so many fewer. After all, our experiments were roughly the same. It made me wonder how Alex had so many followers in the first place.

Willow Fork Country Club
Willow Fork Country Club, Hole #6, Par 4, 350 yds.

I consider myself some random guy on the internet with virtually no platform. Being a contributor at Fstoppers, Alex obviously had a presence on the internet. I’m sure that helped build his following.

The other thing that helped is time. Alex posted his article in June 2018, or almost four and a half years ago. I just checked his account and he now has over 12,500 followers. Alex’s work is very good, and there’s no doubt that helped build his following. Even though he hasn’t posted on Instagram in over a year, his follower count has doubled since his article was published. They say time heals all wounds. I would say time builds your follower count as well.

No Substitute

At the end of the day though, I don’t think there is any substitute for posting regularly. Not only does posting help you engage with your audience, but creating content helps you improve your craft. Quality is never a bad thing.

That to me is what I learned more than anything. Post, post, and post some more. Then when you think you posted enough, post again, and then again for good measure.

You’re bound to add followers and at the same time you can’t help but improve the quality of your work.

Chasing Ghosts

I have wondered how many of my followers are real. There’s no doubt that some are bots and that others are trying to sell me something. I’m sure a lot are like me and just want to build a following. I’ve noticed a lot of people will start following me, only to click the unfollow button a day or two later. I’m sure they are expecting a follow back and if I don’t, they simply move on.

Somewhere I saw a comment about an experiment where an Instagrammer followed 100 of a rival account’s followers. Later, they followed another 100 accounts but this time they took the time to like one of their Instagram posts. Finally, they followed a third group of 100 accounts where they liked and commented on one photo from each account. The results were as follows:

Follow – 14% follow back

Follow + Like – 22% follow back

Follow + Like + Comment – 34% follow back

Obviously following other accounts, liking photos, and making comments goes a long way to help generate followers. There’s no doubt you need to do this to some degree, especially when starting out. I’m not sure there is any other way to get people to see your work.

The big question is how many of my followers are actual people who are interested in my photographs and not just people looking to grow their own account? People interested in your work are the gold standard when it comes to followers. Get enough of those followers and that’s when good things start to happen.

I think that’s what has happened with my brother. He has a lot of followers interested in seeing more of his work, and ultimately that’s what has led to high engagement and opportunities outside of Instagram.

New York Yankees print by Triple Play Design
Chris Chambliss, Triple Play Design

I’ve heard being featured on big accounts is one of the keys to growing your account. While I have no doubt being featured on a large account draws immediate interest, I do wonder how much long-term value it has. They say any press is good press and that’s probably true, but it seems to me that kind of exposure is fleeting and can’t reliably be replicated. It’s akin to a one-hit wonder thinking their success is going to last forever, when that success was based on luck more than anything else.

Whether it’s music or art or photography, the kind of growth you want is a slow, steady build-up to an almost cult-like following. That’s when you know people are genuinely inspired and invested in your work. To build that kind of audience, you need to do the work, and a lot of it. Not only that, but the work has to be good, really good. Anything else is folly and any success is luck.

Lessons Somewhat Learned

So now that I’ve gone through this process, what exactly have I learned? I’m not sure I have any definitive answers. I don’t have a lot of data to back anything up. Instead, I just have feelings and intuition.

So, what do I think I’ve learned?

1) The time of day an image is posted has no effect on engagement or the number of likes. If you have an account with 100K followers it might have an effect, but for a tiny account like mine, it doesn’t matter at all. That said, I always posted between the hours of 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. in the U.S. Central Time Zone. I suspect if I had posted at 4 a.m. or 11 p.m. user engagement might have been less. With posts made during normal business hours though, the exact time had no effect.

2) Posting on the weekends generates less involvement than posting on weekdays. I assume that’s because on the weekend people have better things to do than scroll through Instagram. When you’re tired at 3 p.m. on a Wednesday, scrolling through Instagram is a lot more appealing. For the last few weeks of my experiment, I didn’t even bother to post on Sunday because it seemed like a waste of time. Anecdotally, I will say Friday seemed to be a worse time to post than Monday through Thursday. After all, Friday is practically the weekend.

3) It’s disheartening, but the quality of the work didn’t matter, at least on a case-by-case basis. I do think quality matters when it comes to Instagram as a whole. It just seems there’s no rhyme or reason as to which individual pictures are most popular. Granted, quality is subjective when it comes to photographs, but it seemed like the photographs I thought were my best generated less likes than pictures I thought were mediocre. In fact, my most liked post was an image I deemed to be a throwaway. Go figure.

New Haven Country Club
New Haven Country Club, Hole #2, Par 3, 157 yds.

4) Based on following the work of other golf photographers, I sensed it was the golf course that mattered most when generating likes and engagement. Courses that were well-known, had hosted major championships, or that were highly exclusive drew the most interest. Based on my account though, this was difficult to gage. I had photographed only a handful of famous courses and with the small size of my account, the randomness of my engagement made it difficult to determine if the status of the course had an influence.

5) The caption doesn’t matter. As time went by, I doubted whether anyone even read the captions anyway. At first, I tried to be creative, and I spent more time on each caption than I should have. Soon enough, almost every caption I wrote was short, sweet, and to the point. It didn’t see any difference.

6) Hashtags and tagging other Instagram accounts didn’t have a significant effect. Occasionally, I would get a like from a course that I had tagged. The more exclusive or well-known the course, the more likely it seemed they would either like or comment on my post. Generic municipal courses rarely bother to respond. As far as I could tell, the hashtags didn’t matter either. I do think my overall engagement would have been much less without hashtags, it just didn’t matter what the hashtags actually were.

7) Spam sucks. That goes without saying. On Instagram, it seems like every post immediately gets comments from bots asking to you promote your post on their account. I’m not sure why Instagram can’t do a better job to limit this practice. It’s hard to believe people are making money this way, but someone must be, or it wouldn’t happen. Please make it stop.

8) What really mattered was engaging with the golf course photography community, from liking posts and following accounts, to commenting on images. Before I started this experiment, I read The $1.80 Instagram Strategy to Grow Your Business or Brand by Gary Vaynerchuk. This strategy consists of leaving your two cents (i.e., commenting in a meaningful way) on the top 9 posts for the top 10 hashtags you’re interested in, and doing this every day.

I have no doubt that this would be a fantastic way to grow your account. I also think if you did this in a consequential way you would never create any new content again. This is insanely time-consuming. If all you cared about was your follower count and you had a stockpile of images, this would be the way to go. In my mind though, this takes attention away from the real point of it all, creating content that fulfills you. It’s great advice, it’s just not very practical unless you can hire someone to do it for you. On most days I spent 10 to 15 minutes looking at posts, liking pictures, and occasionally making a comment. I would also follow other accounts if they had content I found interesting. As time went on though, I followed fewer and fewer accounts.

9) By far, the most meaningful thing to do was the simplest. Post, post again, and then post some more. At the end of the day, that’s by far the most important thing. So get your work out there, nothing else really comes close when it comes to growing your account.

Was doing the experiment worth it? To that I can unequivocally say yes.

I learned a ton. Not only about Instagram, but about photography, and writing, and a host of other things. I became inspired by the work of others, and I became inspired by doing the work myself. That to me, more than anything, made it worth it.

I do plan to continue posting. I have lots of images ready to share. More importantly I plan to keep taking golf course pictures, and other kinds of photographs as well. I know I’m getting better at the craft and that excites me. I see no reason to stop now.