I’ve talked about how board game developers can get big on Twitter and use Facebook to its fullest potential. Now it’s time to talk about the prettiest social network on the internet: Instagram. Many marketers pass over Instagram because it’s not as easy to understand as Facebook and Twitter.
Instagram is very particular about how you can use it. You can only post photos and you must use a mobile device. On top of that, it’s populated largely by young people who are resistant to advertising. For those reasons, many marketers don’t know how to approach Instagram. As it turns out, it’s not as hard as it looks.
I’ve broken this guide into five parts:
- What is Instagram Good For?
- Getting Started
- Getting Noticed
- Refining Your Approach
- Using Instagram for More than Just Pictures
What is Instagram Good For?
Reasons to Use Instagram
As of 2017, Instagram had 800 million users. They skew heavily toward the age group 18-29, which makes it a decidedly younger audience than the one courted by its parent company, Facebook. This represents an enormous opportunity for board game developers like yourself. While an older audience may be more likely to back your Kickstarter campaign since they have more discretionary income, Instagram is really good for sewing the seeds for your future brand. In fact, this is my primary rationale for using the website: Instagram is really good for branding. I believe there is an intangible benefit to young people knowing who you are and what you’re all about.
If the potential to build a quality brand isn’t an attractive enough prospect on its own, perhaps this will win you over. It’s the easiest social media site when it comes to passively pulling people to your page. For better or worse, Facebook requires cash to bring in an audience. Twitter’s hashtag system is broken, so you have to actively reach out to get anywhere on there. With Instagram, if you can get your photos in the “Top Posts” for a given hashtag, people will follow you without you doing anything else. The Top Posts section places nine popular photos at the top that people will immediately see when they look up a hashtag such as #boardgame.
Because people on Instagram actually search for hashtags, if you can get an image into the Top 9 of a popular hashtag, your image can go viral. Instagram lets you add up to 30 hashtags on your images and it’s common to use 10-15 on each image. You get several chances to get into the Top 9. That means if you make it into the Top 9 on multiple popular hashtags, you can pull in a lot of people very quickly. Here is a good rule of thumb: post photos with a clear object in focus, contrasting colors, and lots of detail. Photos like that stop people from listlessly scrolling through their feeds, enticing them to click on your images.
That brings me to my penultimate point, and a very important one: Instagram is inexpensive to use. You don’t have to spend money on advertising like Facebook. You don’t have to spend lots of time on outreach like Twitter. Instagram is the last major social media network on which you can reliably break 1,000 followers within three months.
Lastly, Instagram has a much more global audience than any other social media site I’ve used. Twitter and Facebook are based on language, which tends to mean English speakers communicate with other English speakers almost exclusively. Instagram breaks down those barriers – you could end up getting fans in Los Angeles, Berlin, Tehran, Jakarta, Auckland, New York City, and Baghdad. Having a globally diverse audience can help you out if you decide to launch a campaign on Kickstarter. Global support may boost your visibility within Kickstarter’s search algorithm.
Reasons not to Use Instagram
For all the beautiful reasons to use Instagram, it has some really annoying qualities. It’s mobile-only, so you can’t easily use the full app on your desktop. You have to download the Windows app instead.
You can’t link directly to your site in the captions of your photos, making it really hard to have an effective call to action. The next best thing is to put a link in your bio and tell people to click your bio. Obviously, this is suboptimal. In addition to that, every single like, comment, and follow results in a notification on the app…and it caps you at seeing 100 at a time. There is no good reason why they can’t group likes and follows together for more meaningful notifications.
It also doesn’t help that the advertising system, despite being managed on Facebook’s website, doesn’t give you the same bang for your buck. I’ve tried a few experiments with advertising on Instagram and I’ve yet to have a campaign I’m satisfied with compared to its parent company. Facebook, on the other hand, can pull in potential customers with their extremely effective ad system.
Last but not least, for all the praise I’ve heaped on Instagram for being a place where you can still go viral, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Posting quality photos all the time can be difficult to maintain and I’ve had weeks where I haven’t had time to post decent photos. That can put you in the unenviable position of saying “do I post this mediocre photo and risk losing engagement?” or “do I post nothing and risk being forgotten?” I’ve yet to find the right answer to that.
Setting Up Your Account & Making it Look Good
Getting set up on Instagram is easier than most other social media websites. On the home page, enter your email or phone number, full name, username, and password. Click Sign Up and follow any further prompts. It is really that straightforward. My only caution is to be careful choosing a username because your username will become part of the URL people use to reach you. For example, my main Instagram account is http://instagram.com/brandongamedev.
Once you’re logged in, click Edit Profile. Upload a profile photo – I suggest one of your face since people respond more positively to faces than logos. Tweak your Name and Username to your satisfaction. Add a link to your website – remember, this is the only link you will have on Instagram. Then write a catchy and short bio like you would on Twitter. Click Submit.
If you need an example of a bio, here’s the one I use with @BrandonGameDev: “I’ll help you learn to make board games from scratch. I made War Co., and I’m making Highways & Byways. I own and run Pangea Games.”
As with Facebook and Twitter, before you do any serious outreach, you’ll want to post for two weeks first. Unlike with Facebook, you can’t backdate Instagram posts, so you’ll need to take a couple of weeks to post one picture per day to establish your account. You’ll want to have the right Content Mix to attract people to your account. On Instagram, I generally recommend that between 25-30% of your images be self-promotion and the others be sharing others’ work. No matter what, though, make your pictures gorgeous. Remember: clear object in focus, contrasting colors, lots of detail.
I have a little more advice about the images you post. Don’t go overboard with filters – usually, a slight bump in brightness, contrast, saturation, and/or structure can really bring out the pizzazz in your photo. I’ve also found the best results posting between 10 am and noon eastern time, but you should experiment with different times to see what works for your audience.
Methods of Gaining Followers
There are a number of techniques you can use to gain followers on Instagram. Some of them are legitimate methods I would recommend and others gain you followers in the worst way possible. I’m going to lay out all these methods and give you my opinions. The methods you choose to use to build your following are entirely up to you. I’m listing these methods from “cleanest” to “dirtiest.”
The most acceptable way to gain followers on Instagram, to nobody’s surprise, is to simply post great images. Facebook requires money and Twitter requires aggressive outreach. Instagram, however, rewards users for posting great images on the right hashtags. For example, let’s say you post a gorgeous photo of a game of Scythe in progress, and you tag it with the following: #boardgame #boardgames #tabletopgame #scythe #bgg #boardgamegeek. With a great photo and some luck, you could get into the Top Posts on those tags. If you do that, you’re likely to pick up a few followers every time you do it. You can even pick up followers if you don’t get in the Top Posts since hashtags are chronologically ordered.
Since Instagram is connected to Facebook, you can use advertising to gain followers too. I’ve yet to see hard data on how well this works. I’m not sure if there is a good return on your investment. It’s really hard to tell what an Instagram follower is worth. Yet advertising is a very, very clean method of gaining followers.
If you’re willing to put in some time, you can look up photos by hashtag, such as #boardgame, and start leaving comments on the photos. It’s time-consuming, but people are fairly likely to follow you if you leave comments. Do this enough times and you can slowly gain hundreds of followers. This is a pretty clean method of outreach, assuming you don’t automate it or lazily give the thumbs up emoji to every photo you see.
If you’re willing to do aggressive outreach, but you’re looking for something faster, you can always go down a popular hashtag and indiscriminately like every photo you see. This is a little dirty, but it’s fast and effective. If you do it too fast, Instagram might think you’re a bot and kick you off the site, though. Even if they don’t kick you off, it’s just a little…seedy. It’s engagement with engaging.
You can always follow people, leaving likes and comments on their photos to entice them into following you back. This can be shady if you don’t target your leads or if you try to follow the same people twice. If you very carefully create lists of people to follow, though, and you make sure to never follow anyone twice, this method can be acceptable. Still, you’re left with the mess of following a bunch of people and using some lousy free app on the App Store to unfollow people who don’t follow you back after a couple of weeks. Overall, this is a very fast and effective technique, it’s super common, and – if we’re being totally honest – is probably the nastiest acceptable behavior on social media.
If you want to get out of the moral gray area and go straight for the darkness, you can always use automation to mass like, mass comment, or mass follow. When you see one-word comments that don’t really apply to your photos on Instagram, that means somebody is leaving a generic mass comment on your photo. It’s basically the friendliest form of spam on the planet…but it is spam. There are very simple Python scripts that can auto-like, auto-comment, and auto-follow for you, but I strongly advise you don’t use them. It may gain a lot of followers, but your leads will probably be bad and the whole concept is deceptive.
Last but not least, you can always buy Instagram followers. This is shady and the vast majority of the followers you buy will be total crap. If you see someone who gains 20,000 followers in a day, that’s what happened. Check their profile two months later when all those followers are mysteriously gone.
You Must Experiment
As I discussed in How to Rise Above the Noise of the Internet & Get Noticed, when we use social media as business owners, we are at the mercy of the ever-changing algorithms that curate our experiences online. What works today may not work tomorrow. When I created @WarMachinesCo on Instagram, I was able to get nearly 34,000 followers at its peak because I could regularly get in the top 9 pictures for #scifi, which would bring in 50-60 new followers per day. Sometimes a picture would get massive amounts of likes, drawing in hundreds of people per day. If they had changed the way the top 9 pictures for any given hashtag were chosen, though, the account would go into a slow decline.
You always to keep an eye on what blows up on social media and what is ignored entirely. Pay attention to Instagram insights and challenge your assumptions. Never take anything for granted. Remember that your ultimate goal is to sell your game or other products/services, not to gain followers. Figure out what helps you achieve that goal.
Refining Your Approach
Automating Your Posts: Ongoing
You can upload your photos and write your captions to a scheduler such as Buffer. Then at a specific time of day, a time of your choice, you’ll get a push notification. You open the Buffer app, it saves the photo to your camera roll, copies the caption to your clipboard, and opens Instagram. You then add the photo and paste the caption.
Despite the annoyance, spending 30 seconds every day posting to Instagram that you had already prepared is a lot better than trying to cobble something together on the fly. Since Instagram is so visual, it’s really beneficial to prepare everything on your desktop or laptop computer, upload it to Buffer, and post a little throughout the week. It keeps your processes lean and your audience engaged.
Refining Your Account: Ongoing
Instagram, like Facebook, has a built-in analytics tool called Insights. Pay attention to which photos get the most likes and post more photos like them. Unlike Twitter where you need to factor in retweets, replies, and likes; Instagram is a lot simpler. Comments on Instagram tend to go hand-in-hand with likes, so if you focus on optimizing likes, that will help your pictures be seen by more people, get in the Top Posts of certain hashtags, and passively gain followers.
Using Instagram for More than Just Pictures
Videos and Stories
As a keen reader, you may have noticed that I’ve not yet mentioned Instagram’s ability to share video. Instagram allows users to share brief videos on their Instagram profiles, up to 60 seconds in length. These videos will stay there forever unless you take them down. You can also post Instagram stories up to 15 seconds in length – these are only shared with your followers and last up to 24 hours. Last but not least, you can do live videos that are up to 1 hour in length.
At the current time, it’s tough to tell how important videos will be to your overall Instagram strategy. I encourage you to experiment and see what works for you and your brand. I still recommend you post lots of pictures since those are likely to show up in the Top Posts of hashtags more easily than videos. That said, the three different video formats that Instagram allows you to use leave you with plenty of opportunities to engage your audience.
Like with Twitter and Facebook, Instagram can allow you to keep a finger on the pulse of the board game industry as a whole. Twitter can be difficult to navigate and parse. Facebook contains lots of great information, often through Facebook groups. Instagram, however, has a working hashtag system that you can easily and visually search. Just pulling up the #boardgame hashtag and scrolling through the photos can tell you what’s popular.
Testing Artwork with an Audience
Instagram also provides you with a tremendous opportunity to test artwork. You can post two versions of your artwork at the same time on different days with the same hashtags and see which one gets the most likes. You can use the more popular one in your final product. It’s not a perfect method, but it can be a very insightful one.
As with any social media site, the real purpose is to talk to people. Be genuine, make friends, help others out. The connections you make that way will be far more rewarding than ones you make by aggressive lead generation.
Instagram can be a wonderful way for a board game developer to create a global community and establish their brand. It takes relatively little time to maintain and can passively bring in people you’d never be able to reach on Facebook or Instagram. While Facebook is a much better backbone for your marketing, Instagram is definitely a site you should learn to use.
How have your experiences on Instagram been? Feel free to share thoughts and questions below 🙂