To most writers, “platform” is a bad word. The word can send us careening into self-doubt, overwhelm, and cursing fits. We’re in it for all the other words, not the “p” word. Not to mention, many writers identify as introverts, which makes social media interaction an extra drain.
But as nonfiction writers, we cannot escape the “p” word. Experts tell us that building and maintaining an author platform is key to landing an agent, a book deal, a royalty check, and even endorsers for that book you’re longing to put out.
This emphasis on achieving “platform” has made the means of achieving it secondary, and has reduced the usefulness of social tools to a number—the number of followers, likes, or email addresses—which we hope is always ticking upward.
Yet like any tool, Instagram has unique possibilities. One author’s immediate goal on Instagram might look entirely different than another’s, though the end goal might be the same (i.e., growing the follower count to publish and then sell the book).
To use the tools effectively, we must be intentional to name our specific goals, to identify the best methods to success, to set a realistic and boundaried schedule to meet your goals. And after all that, we need to be willing to throw the plan out a second-story window and adjust along the way.
What’s your goal for your Instagram account? What does success look like for you on Instagram? A writer’s goal on the platform will vary by genre, gender, even season of life. Some aim to learn about audience through posting or test out new content and ideas to explore (imagine honing that second, third, or eighth book on social media first!). Others hope to reach an existing audience in the middle of their day (perhaps in anticipation of an upcoming book or product release).
My goals initially when I started in 2013 were to find a new audience, to study successful writers and influencers up close, to network with other writers, and also to document my young family’s life.
Often successful accounts adopt several measures of success, one of which always seems to be finding a way to use Instagram as a way to feed a creator’s own creativity. The most compelling creators on the platform find a way to marry marketing with their own artistic pursuits. Their profile becomes a way to find enjoyment in posting, for its own sake as much as for an audience’s sake.
Followers can tell if you’re having fun, so find a way to enjoy yourself on Instagram, perhaps by integrating an artform or hobby you already love into your profile strategy. Are you a gardener? Do you paint abstract expressionism in your free time? Do you craft? Do you make up stories for your kids before bed? Do you share book reviews obsessively on Goodreads? Do you collect antiques? Believe it or not, there’s a community for you on Instagram in all of these spaces!
How will you meet the goal you’ve set? To become an expert requires close study. Discover and study the Instagram accounts of those who are succeeding in the way you hope to, and then mimic them. “Steal like an artist!” as Austin Kleon (and many before him) has written.
Note: I do not mean infringe on someone’s copyright by taking their content and claiming it as your own. I mean, mimic a style or genre of an account and make it your own.
So, perhaps you want to start an Instagram profile focused on politics, or cooking or fitness or memoir writing or meditation or outside adventuring. Or you want to start a poetry profile or a #bookstagram or a #planstagram. Live into what makes you unique, and follow your interests. Undoubtedly, there will be others in the category that stand out—study that creator. Practice taking the type of photos they do. Adopt the hashtags they do. Post often. Try and try again. Like, comment, and promote the posts of other accounts you love.
And what all amateurs discover is that “stealing like an artist” actually sparks new ideas. Your profile will become more and more you as you go. That consistency will attract other influencers and other users to your content, and the growth begins from there.
Additionally, I encourage clients who come to me seeking to grow their Instagram followings to switch from a personal to a business or creator account. That move allows writers to see more detailed audience insights and to occasionally promote posts with low-cost ads (I usually spend between $5-$20 monthly to promote particular posts that I suspect would draw in more followers or higher engagement). More information means more targeted marketing.
Study which posts get higher engagement on your profile. What makes them unique? Are followers responding to your writing or your image? How can you mimic that success in other less successful posts? Be a student of your Instagram audience, and pay attention to what they’re teaching you with their time and attention.
Last, continue learning about Instagram. Every so often, I check back in to refresh my learnings. How has the algorithm changed? How have “best practices” evolved? Has the company introduced new features, or has the popularity of old features shifted? Creators do not need to reinvent their profiles at the same speed as the tech company that makes the app you love, but it could provide inspiration and new methods for reaching your audience that you’d enjoy. So it’s worth staying up on what’s changing, on the off-chance it could complement what you’re already doing online.
How often will you engage? For me, part of trying something new is also setting boundaries around the practice. I can lean toward workaholism, so I have to make a goal for myself and not exceed it (others may have the opposite problem).
Decide when, what, and even where, you will post. Find a way to get consistent. That might mean scheduling moments to post into your daily calendar (you might even need to set reminder alarms!).
For example, your weekly plan might look like: posting one selfie each Friday to catch #fridayintroductions and find new followers, and you might always find yourself doing that in the parking lot at work. In addition, you plan to post twice more, on every Monday and Wednesday over your lunch hour in your kitchen, where you feature food writing and photography. That comes to three posts weekly, with unique and predictable content, each with a planned moment in your day when you can sit down and complete the post.
Maybe your weekly content plan includes—as mine does—highlighting a user you love in your stories once a week. Maybe you plan to give a fitness tutorial once a week, or you interview a maker on the first of each month. Maybe you summarize the news every weekday for your followers at 6am, the moment you wake up.
When followers know what to expect from you, their engagement with your content will go up, which will in turn make your content more popular (based on how Instagram’s algorithm works). You can discover this information as a business or creator on Instagram through audience insights in the profile or post settings.
Further, nailing down a concrete plan for your own sake eliminates the guess work, the doubt, and the despair of platform building. It becomes a habit you do, instead of a thing to dread (and never do). Set the goal and then do your best to keep it by creating rhythms that allow you to be successful.
Adjust as Needed.
But of course, bad days happen. You’ll make a plan. And then a pandemic hits. Or your kid gets sick. Or you need a vacation from toxic political debates. Or you won’t be able to summon the will to post one more crappy photo of your plate of dinner because the winter light is so bad and the photo is blurry and your kids are screaming in the background and what you really need is a nap. (Yes, this has happened to me.) Give yourself permission to ease off of the schedule occasionally.
Likewise, every good marketer understands that your business plan won’t go to plan either. You might have intended to post every morning at 9AM, and after a week of 9AM posting, you’ll check your audience insights and see that engagement on those posts has actually gone down from the week before—even though you made the plan and stuck to it.
Or you might have supposed your audience appeals to everyone, adults aged 18-65, and in fact, when you look at the data in your Instagram audience insights, you see that what you are writing mostly for women, and mostly for young moms, aged 25-45. (Yep, this also happened to me.) So, you adjust. You write more content toward the audience you already have, and the engagement goes up. Or you decide to write different content to try to capture a different demographic.
Marketing is an experiment. Your writing is a unique product, and you’re a unique author. Your best guesses about your audience, even about what you want to write and feature on Instagram, are still only hypotheses. Every good plan needs the flexibility to be reevaluated and shifted according to the data in front of you.
If you’re miserable and unhappy on Instagram, that means it’s time to change your plan, to take a vacation from Instagram, or to try something new. Flexibility means your Instagram profile can change along with you.
Because after all, Instagram is working for you; you’re not working for Instagram. And if it’s not working, maybe switch to Twitter. Or carrier pigeons. Or photos of carrier pigeons. Plus, remarkably, you might find platform-building isn’t as terrible as you thought it was.
Liz Charlotte Grant is an award-winning nonfiction writer who lives in Denver, CO, with her husband and elementary school kids (she/her pronouns). She received her B.A. in Creative Writing from Wheaton College, IL, and has published work at the Huffington Post, Christianity Today, Hippocampus Magazine, and others. She won third place in the Jacques Maritain Nonfiction Prize in 2020 and was awarded two Collegeville Institute residencies (2019, 2021). On Instagram (@LizCharlotteGrant), she discovered exactly who her audience is and continues to test out ideas (with real time feedback!) on her 4,1000+ followers. Sign up for her weekly newsletter of five must-reads at LizCharlotte.com/sign-up.