Two years ago, I started an Instagram profile for my French Bulldog, Ludwig. Social media has long been central to my work — first at Pinnacle Creative, and now at Rowan Coaching—but this was a personal project. Just something my husband and I do for fun to connect with other frenchie lovers in our neighborhood (and around the world!). Despite paying only a minimal amount of attention to it each day, it has grown to over 20,000 followers.

We work with lots of people who are starting something new — be it a business or a personal project. Last week, I was asked by no less than 15 of these folks how I managed to get so many followers with ZERO budget and a minimal investment of about 30 minutes per day. So I figured it was time to share the wealth!

Here are my top tips to power up your Instagram experience and get followers:

1. Above all, TELL A STORY!! Instagram users will mostly encounter your posts in their feed (vs. scrolling through your whole profile), so you want to make it easy for them to figure out “what you’re about”. Also, telling a story is usually more intriguing than just sharing your personal life (unless you’re a celebrity or person of interest). For example, @turtlebatpig’s story is that he is an evil overlord in frenchie form. It’s all tongue-in-cheek and big fun for the audience.

2. Choose a “voice”, and use it consistently. For example, I “speak” in @turtlebatpig’s voice, as if the dog himself is talking. This allows me to make snarky comments about “my humans”, and in general opens up a lot of fun possibilities with the storyline. This will set you apart from the hoard of Instagram users who just write what’s happening in the picture, in their own voice (i.e. “Look at how cute he is when he’s sleeping!”). Adopt this strategy if you want more than just your personal friends to follow you.

3. If your profile is for a business, either give your brand a single character with a single voice (as I mentioned above), or be transparent about who is behind each post (“-Colleen @milcbox”). Transparency is always important, but even more so when selling anything.

4. Once you have your story idea nailed, focus on writing engaging captions. The best three ways to write captions are: (1) pithy and fun, (2) concise and informative, (3) 1–2 paragraphs with a compelling story (use this last one sparingly, and only once you’ve already established a rapport with your followers).

5. Take good photos in a consistent style, no matter the camera you’re using. I take all the photos on the @turtlebatpig account with my iPhone 6+. If you want to step it up a notch, I reccomend the ōlloclip 4-in-1 lens system, which gets you good quality fisheye, wide-angle, macro (10x), and super macro (15x) lenses for only $80.

6. Use hashtags. At the beginning, use more hashtags than make you comfortable. Hashtags are the subways that connect your potential audience to your posts. Stats consistently show that photos with more hashtags get more likes. HOWEVER: don’t go overboard! People make decisions based on their feelings, so if you annoy them with a barrage of hashtags, they won’t want to follow you or otherwise engage. Find a balance.

7. Make sure to use a combination of “most searched for” and “most relevant to the post” hashtags. You can find the top searched hashtags on Instagram under the “Statistics →Optimization” section of your profile. Hashtags relevant to your actual post will include the names of things (#dogs, #frenchbulldogs, #astoriapark), activities (#snuggling, #snacktime), colors in — as well as feelings evoked by (#cute #lol #happy) — the photo.

8. Give your followers ownership in the brand. If they recommend products, or story ideas, or nicknames for your company dog, USE THEIR IDEAS, and give them credit through “@” tags. This makes people feel as if your company (or character) values them personally, and gives you credibility.

Similarly, I reccomend using the same language that your followers use (when they comment on your photos). If someone says your dog looks like a manatee, post a picture describing him as a manatee and tag them! This strategy is called mirroring, and is one of the most effective ways to connect with people on- or off-line.

9. Stay positive. Instagram is great at self-policing, and most of the niche topic communities are dedicated to making connections and supporting each other. Beyond that, people like to feel good. If you can inspire, motivate, or thank someone — empathize with them or make them laugh — they will associate you with that good feeling and come back for more.

10. Treat social media like any IRL social interaction. Answer when people talk to you. Respond to comments, and keep any promises you make (i.e. “Sure, I’d be happy to do a shoutout for you!”).

11. Don’t lie to your audience, ever. (This doesn’t include creative license — go ahead and keep posting photos from “today” that we both know you took last week.)

12. Don’t expect people to be interested in you unless you are interested in them. Take the time to look at, like, and comment on your followers’ photos. Sometimes wander outside your club too; you’ll get more followers if you engage with people who aren’t yet following you. Focus on new people who seem like they’d be friends with your existing followers.

13. Don’t ignore someone who brings a problem to your attention. Give them your time and respect, and try to see where they are coming from. Address the situation fairly and fast, and don’t delete the original negative comment. Show your followers that you are willing to take constructive feedback, and that you take their concerns seriously. This will go a long way towards building trust with your audience.

14. Don’t buy fake followers (that’s tacky!). Instead, invest a little money each month to run a contest. This will get you more attention, engagement, and (real) new followers — and your only investment is the cost of a small prize or donation (on the winner’s behalf) to a charity relevant to the theme of your profile/business.

15. Align yourself with a charity — either sporadically in contests, or regularly, as a percent of your business’ proceeds. Pick a brand that reflects your values and has a good track record regarding how much of the money donated goes directly to the cause (vs. to executive pay, marketing, etc.).

16. Pick a regular frequency for posting shoutouts. 1⃣ First invite people to use a hashtag whose theme is relevant to your brand or character. For example, famous French bulldog @barkleysircharles uses #BarkleysHomies. 2⃣ request that they include your handle (@barkleysircharles) in the caption of your photo. 3⃣ Choose a frequency to post (such as every Sunday), and stick to it. 4⃣ Repost one of the (#BarkleysHomies) posts using your handle and that hashtag. Make sure that profile is positive and reflects your brand’s values.

That’s the long and short of it. I hope this post has answered some of your questions, and will give you a good foundation as you start your new project. If you have any other tips you’d like to share, please leave them in the comments section below!