Becoming a Social Media Influencer & 11 Steps to Growth Hack Your Instagram

This past year, I was speaking with one of my friends that had recently picked up a gig as a cinematographer at a big ad agency. We were discussing some fascinating nuances about how the advertising agency is changing, and eventually we got onto the topic of how agencies are embracing working with social media influencers.

“It’s so cool for the influencers,” he said. “There are influencers out there getting paid so much money by these agencies.”

“Really? How much are we talking?” I asked.

“It depends on the influencer, but typically they’re paying five to ten thousand dollars per post.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Are you serious?!” I asked.

“Yeah! I mean if you think about it, it makes sense. Ad agencies are moving past billboards and TV ads and stuff because it just doesn’t make sense anymore and it isn’t cost effective – if you can spend five thousand dollars on an influencer that has several hundred thousand or a million followers, then you’re getting way more bang for your buck as an agency.”

“That’s insane. What an awesome gig for the influencers. I want to do that,” I said.

“I know. Me too. It’s nuts.”

A few months later, I read this article written about a couple of famous social media influencers, @gypsea_lustand @doyoutraveland was similarly astounded by the fact that they can sustain their adventurous lifestyles through Instagram. They even said that they wouldn’t post a photo for a brand unless it was for more than $3,000. How crazy is that?! What an incredible level of abundance – I’d do anything to be able to make that kind of money just for posting a picture on Instagram.

This whole “social media influencer” idea really started to pop out to me. I’ve thought to myself about how I’d be happy to do it. I love traveling, I love creating epic images, and I love sharing with people via social media. I’d love the opportunity to do all the cool, exclusive things that influencers get to do. Sounds awesome. It’s the dream lifestyle I’ve had in mind for years now.

An influential social media presence can also be used to communicate with a large audience, leverage social good, and promote products or ideas that can improve people’s lives (and the world).

In our digital age, social currency is as valuable (if not more) than paper currency, and the opportunity to capitalize and create social capital seems like a damn good investment of my time. One of the best investments possible, in fact.

Still, I’ve had little idea how to actually do it– that is, how to go from having a relatively small-time to the big leagues. That was my question… how on earth did my favorite social media influencers get so huge?!

Sam Kolder, Taylor Cut Films, Jay Alvarrez, Morgan Maassen, etc… how did they do it? Obviously, they each post awesome, quality content. That makes sense. And I know Jay Alvarrez got really big through tumblr, and then continued to explode as he dated supermodel/Instagram Alexis Ren, but I couldn’t imagine how the rest of them got big.

Anyways, I stopped thinking about it.

Until this past September, when I sat on a flight next to a social media influencer.

She’s “small time,” so to speak; she has almost 28,000 followers (I say “small time” because I typically think of people that have millions of followers when I think about the term “influencer”)

Despite having only 28,000 followers, brands reach out to her and pay her to sport their stuff all the time, and she’s turned it into her living.

Curious, and keen to learn how she’d gotten to that point, I asked her for her best tips to get to “influencer status.”

She was more than happy to share her methods. Surprisingly, they were pretty simple!

Her exact methods (plus a few I added that I’ve heard elsewhere) are as follows:

1. Pick a niche and do your best to stick to it.

Her niche could be described as “being an horse-riding babe that looks cute, shoots guns, and rides off into glorious sunsets,” or whatever. On a basic level, I suppose you could describe my desired niche as “classy and badass photographer/filmmaker that does adventurous and action-packed shit with cool people, and also travels the world.”

2. Follow people that follow other influencers in that niche. 

So, in her case, she goes onto the pages of other influencers in the equestrian-babe space, clicks to see who’s following them, and then follows those people. By doing following people in the same niche as her targeted influencer, she’s essentially exposing her profile to more people that are likely to find it interesting, and are therefore likely to want to follow her. Very smart. She does this in the thousands. There are bots that will follow people for you, but it allegedly makes you more likely to get banned, as opposed to doing it manually, which is safer.

3. Download an app to track followers/unfollowers.

For example, this free app would work perfectly (it’s the one I’m using).

4. Use the app to track who follows you back and who doesn’t, and then stop following the people that don’t.

The app I listed above will show you who doesn’t follow you back, and it also has the option to bulk-select and unfollow the people that aren’t following you back. Personally, I think this is a very valuable tool. If you’re mass following people in the thousands, you’re gonna want to be able to clean up your feed, and you also don’t really want to look like you’re following thousands of people just to get more followers… that would make your strategy (and the fact that you’re likely to eventually unfollow them) very, very obvious. They probably won’t want to follow you back, as a result.

5. Continue following your new followers for at least a few weeks, at which point it’s safe to unfollow them (if you want to).

It isn’t wise to follow someone, wait till they follow you, and then instantly unfollow them. According to her, it’s important to give it time, otherwise people will just unfollow you instantly as well. If you give it a few weeks, people might not notice. (side note: to me, this feels very manipulative, but there’s a ton to be gained from status as an influencer and it’s really not that big of a deal, so it’s more than worth it, in my opinion)

6. Build relationships with your new followers, and add value to their lives.

Adding tangible value and actually interacting with all these new followers is a great way to get followers for life, but at the end of the day, this is about more than the number of followers I have. This is about adding value to people’s lives! When I started doing this method, a bunch of amateur photographers started sliding into my DMs for photography tips and tricks. I did my best to help them, and I imagine that now, I’ve earned a bit of loyalty and social capital with them, and they’ll probably be stoked that they have an ally that’s a bit further ahead than they are on “the path,” so to speak. That’s awesome!

7. Use relevant hashtags to your niche.

This is pretty self explanatory.

8. Network, collaborate, and create stuff with other relevant influencers.

This is something I’ve observed my friends inadvertently do. A few of my friends are friends with TJ Hunt, the über famous YouTuber, and because they’ve simply made brief appearances in a few of his videos, they’ve gotten thousands upon thousands of new followers.  By intentionally collaborating and creating images, videos, and content with other influential content creators you merge your audience with their audience, and vice versa. In another example, I had no idea who Sam Kolder was until I saw content put out by Beautiful Destinations. When I discovered Sam, I instantly started following him. After following Sam for a while, Sam introduced Taylor Cut Films in one of his videos, and I instantly followed him, too! By collaborating with other influencers, it allows you both the chance to give each other a lot of exposure.

9. Post qualitycontent.

This isn’t a hack by any means, and it probably goes without saying, but if people are going to follow you, you need to elevate your content creation game to the highest level you possibly can. Invest your time into learning photography, developing your style, and creating quality content that’s relevant to your specific niche. It takes a lot to stand out on social media nowadays, and it will not pay to have mediocre imagery. Check out some of my other blog posts if you’d like more info on upping your photography game.

10. Post consistent content.

Stick to your look, style, and niche as best as possible. If your work is dark and moody, like Sam Kolder, stick with that! People will know what they’re getting. If your work is bright and airy, stick with that, too!

11. Post on a regular basis.

According to my new friend, the equestrian-babe influencer, posting regularly can have a huge impact on the amount of engagement you get on your posts. You want to stay top-of-mind, so that you’re relevant and so that people are talking about you and bringing you up in conversation with their friends. If you post once a month (or even just once a week), you’ll become basically irrelevant to all the new followers you’ve earned!

12. Consider sharing your story and letting people in on your life.

My friend also mentioned that people love to hear about her journey, her stories, what’s going on with her horses, and what’s going on in her life in general. I can definitely confirm this in my own experience, too! When I’m sharing my goals, my aspirations, and my vulnerable side, people feel much more connected to me and my story. That’s huge! I know from personal experience that I love discovering more about my personal heroes, what their lives are like, what their dreams are, etc.

Again, our intention here isn’t just to get a bunch of followers so we have an impressive looking number on our profile. Our goal (or my goal, at least) is to connect with more people, more experiences, and more opportunities to grow and discover what life has to offer.

As of recently, I’ve been exploring all sorts of methods diving deeper into growing my photography/cinematography/filmmaking brand and presence online. I also saw that Jay Alvarrez literally just purchased a home on the North Shore of Hawaii (at, what, 22 years old?), and considering that being an influencer is like, his sole source of income, that was pretty much the last straw for me.

I had some free time while traveling from Utah to California today, so I decided I’d try these methods.

They seem to work.

Here’s what I did:

I went onto the instagram accounts for @samkolder, @taylorcutfilms, @jayalvarrez, and @arniewatkins (four huge influencers that are operating in the same space I want to fill), and I followed almost 800 of their most recent followers.

In the past 8 hours, I’ve gained over 100 followers from those 800 people I followed.

Pretty awesome results.

I expect that as more of them re-open their instagram app and discover that I followed them, more of them will follow me. Cool! For the ones that don’t follow me, no worries, I’ll just bulk-unfollow them later using this app I described earlier.

At this rate, for every 8,000 people I follow from those four niche-specific accounts, I’m estimating I should get about 1,000 followers.

At this rate, if I spent 45 minutes on a daily basis to follow about 800 people, I could theoretically have 1,000 new followers within ten days, or 3,000 new followers within 30 days, etc.

Plus, as I gain more followers and post more cool content, I’m sure it’ll have a snowball effect, and more people will discover my account from the increased exposure I’ve earned.

It’ll take a lot of time, and it’s a process, but in my mind, it’s definitely worth it. Like anything, it all comes down to repetitions. Small, daily, consistent action taken over long periods of time. It’ll add up.

Edit: I stopped the follow/unfollow technique after about a month or so cause I felt guilty. My feed was extremely lit during that time frame though and I did gain about 700 followers from the method, though, so that’s cool.

I won’t judge you if you do it. It’s useful.