I nearly wrote a post like this a year ago but I stopped myself because to be frank, I didn’t want to be just another blogger venting about the Instagram algorithm ruining their business, community and let’s go big, their life. I had a word with myself to just take it on the chin, keep my head down and plough on with small vents from time to time. I have to confess I’ve been a bit consumed by negativity recently around the whole issue and so like a relationship that’s gone sour, suddenly finding you’re at that stage where you really need to work hard at it, it feels right to put pen to paper or shall we say fingers to keypad.
Let me take you on a trip down memory lane. The start was dreamy. We certainly had that hazy honeymoon period and I enjoyed every minute of it! I know I sound like a pensioner sat in their moth eaten chair, spouting, ‘it just ain’t like the old days’. But it’s sort of true. I was a little late to the Instagram party for a blogger, only joining in 2013. When I started my blog in 2012 I didn’t really understand it was a social network more than just an app for jazzy, retro filters to make your photos ‘pop’ (jokes). I went to a creative business talk before I took on The Lovely Drawer full time and the main message was, ‘if you aren’t on Instagram then what are you playing at?’ I could see how it was helpful to give a little insight into the person behind the business and share new things you’re working on so as soon as I upgraded my iphone and got a decent phone camera I hopped on the bandwagon and saw why it made complete sense for creatives like myself!
Instagram was the only social media outlet that didn’t really feel like work to me. I remember the days I’d be constantly snapping anything I found remotely inspiring, those sweet, little snippets of my day. Of course I made sure it was all aesthetically pleasing, that was the joy of creating the content, but it was simple. If I was eating a pretty doughnut I’d snap a picture on a pastel plate because it was rude not to. If I like the colour combination of some papers or paints I was working with that day then out came my phone to capture a quick flat lay. I’d even snap a picture of a stack of orders I was taking to the post office because , why not?…that was what I was doing after all and I was thankful for people’s orders.
There really was more of a sense of community in the feed as we were all seeing things in real time so you could share your breakfast or morning moment of stillness and feel somewhat connected with what others were up to, whilst still in a very creative way. I remember the constant tags like #WIDN (what I’m doing now) or #onefromthecuttingroomfloor (the images that didn’t make the cut/ behind the scenes) from fellow Instagrammers. They’d do the rounds a lot but helped keep more of a dialogue running through mine and other’s feeds. There were specific hashtags for specific days, even daily competitions which now function with less oomph as what we’re shown is not day specific.
I remember getting to 500 followers and thinking that was pretty gosh darn special. I gained a lot more as time went on, mainly from my blog. I was often having a lot of my work shared and took part in various collective hashtag projects with other bloggers which was so much fun. My followers were engaged and got behind me when I quit my job and shared the sometimes rough process of that, along with new work I was developing and ideas. It was so helpful as a small business owner to to get the immediate feedback and insight from people. Obviously I wanted to create things that people liked and actually wanted to buy. I remember posting a photo on Instagram of a stylised pet portrait commission I was working on one November and that lead to 20 people getting in touch wanting one and almost my entire build up to Christmas was then a case of churning them out. I must have only had about 2000 followers at the time so photos really did have an impact. I was used to posting about something I had created and there being a sudden spike in sales which was so encouraging. That direct correlation meant you could see what worked and what didn’t.
My followers steadily increased and as you would expect, the engagement on each post increased with those extra followers. The whole process made sense. It was about trying to take good images and being consistent. You knew if what you were doing worked then you could just carry on in the same way, putting the effort in and followers and engagement would grow. Now Instagram was never just about the numbers for me but it was nice to see that my months and years of efforts paid off with a wider reach. I kind of knew what images would do particularly well and so whilst not totally shaping what I was posting around that I would get excited when the two collided. I felt like I knew what my followers liked and that was a good place to be.
Along comes March 2016 and boom! Well not entirely. In case you aren’t a blogger or haven’t been an avid Instagrammer for that long then March 2016 was the announcement that Instagram would no longer be chronological but instead an algorithm would decide what posts you would see and in what order. Most influencers and business owners I knew were up in arms, we were all wondering when and how it would hit as if waiting with bated breath for Y2K and the looming threat of the Millennium Bug. It was a slight anti climax as it was all rolled out gradually and some people seemed to feel it sooner than others. I’d say it took me until around the June to start seeing the impact creep in. I felt very discouraged but understood the reason for it and that everyone would be affected in one way or another.
Sadly it only got worse and in no time I was noticing my photos getting less and less engagement. On some images I was getting comparatively the same amount as when I’d had a fifth of the followers years and years before. For a while my followers were increasing but my engagement was decreasing which was a pretty confusing place to be. It doesn’t feel so strange to be moving forwards slowly ( I don’t believe in overnight success) but going backwards from somewhere you had been is a tough pill to swallow. I didn’t like how the Instagram community suddenly felt more disjointed and I was missing out on so many people’s posts myself! Big life news things would just pass me by and I’d either see the post well after or not at all and wonder for instance why someone suddenly looked 25 weeks pregnant sipping their latte in a photo on my feed.
In the September I decided to hop over to a business account which I can’t help wondering was duly noted by Instagram and followed up with being somewhat penalised for the shift. Things plummeted even more and I heard others saying the same. Suddenly I could see the harsh reality of the stats behind my feed and the bleak truth that about a fifth of my audience were being shown my posts on the whole! So people would say, ‘you’ve got a decent amount of followers haven’t you?’ And I’d more than likely tut and explain that nowhere near that many people saw more posts anymore so it was all a facade. Instagram wants businesses to pay for sponsored posts in order to promote anything being sold which felt sneaky when I first heard about it but I get it, they’re a business too. Having said that I tried the paid promotion a couple of times on workshop posts and it literally made no difference. I heard the same from many other business owners so I can’t help but think if you’re aim is to get people to pay then at least make it work!
Since then I’ve noticed that some posts, seemingly out of nowhere do much better than before and I see a spike in engagement but on the most part it’s a real struggle and therefore my numbers are all over the place, a far cry from the old days when things were pretty consistent. Today my feed is more of a rollercoaster which I’m bored of riding…can I get off please? I know the algorithm is trying to determine what people like and want to see but from experience I don’t always get shown what I most want to see and resent not being able to choose to scroll past if I want to. I know the quality of my photos aren’t getting worse so sometimes it feels a little like I’m stabbing in the dark, with no real clue what the algorithm will deem good enough, relevant and exciting. There isn’t one algorithm for every one at the same time and therefore some weeks I feel like things aren’t too bad if I embrace my adjusted expectations and some weeks my images are bombing all over the shop!
To give some context a post that does really well for me will usually reach 6 – 7k. The 10k you see is by far my largest reach in a while and that’s not even half of my followers.
I know lots of people have talked about getting that crippling, fear of posting because you feel so off balance and in the dark, it most definitely effects your creativity and starts you questioning everything you consider posting. Is it good enough? Does it tick all of the possible ‘Instagram boxes’? Is it too minimal? Will people think it’s a total bore? Can I really be ‘salesy’ without cringing? It feels a bit exhausting to be honest and often I’m finding myself choosing between photos and opting for the one that is more likely (but who knows really) to succeed on the gram rather than the one I actually like best, eek!
It’s meant that my grid has looked a little out of sorts over the last few months and it’s all felt more like a slog than the creative outlet it used to be. I’ve particularly seen a radical affect on anything I post that’s related to my design work or workshops, basically anything I’m selling so no surprise there. Even so it’s made me lose some confidence despite knowing that there is a reason for it. I’m well aware I still need to shout about what I’m selling so potential customers can hear about it but I really lament having to put those posts out there these days, knowing they’ll almost certainly receive the algorithm hand of doom. I’ve turned to Instagram Stories for that side of things which I love because it’s not riddled with the same pressure and you can share spontaneously and more importantly, chronologically. The feedback and community has moved away from the grid and into the safe place of stories and messages, at least it has for me. I’m thankful for still having that connection and freedom (although lets not get too comfortable with that) and yet I miss that lovely stuff over on the grid where it’s about those little squares of art, a curated photo album to look back on, an online portfolio of sorts, a window into your style and passions.
I’ve been ‘making do’ and trying to remind myself ‘it’s only Instagram’ but it’s hard when your whole business is so interlinked and up until recently has been the biggest part of that. Lots of people are very vocal about others moaning about the algorithm and essentially the notion of ‘those losers should just get a life and get over it’, but I’ve noticed the people saying that seem to be the ones that are actually thriving on the platform right now. They’ve either jumped onto what’s hot right now whether that’s in aesthetic or subject matter whether intentionally or not or they’ve found some means outside of Instagram to build that conversation and community and transfer it over (podcasting / youtube / ecourses). I could be wrong but it seems to have had the most negative effect on those of us that have been plugging away for a long time, whilst newer, smaller accounts seem be doing well out of it and proportionally having much more of an impact. This of course starts a comparison game which I never used to do much of. I mean every human does it to a certain extent but I was confident in what I was doing because I appreciated the loyal and engaged followers I had and as time went on felt like I had a distinctive style that worked. Recently I’ve been over indulging in that comparison nonsense not because I’m looking at other people’s feeds wishing I could have their lives, like Instagram gets a rep for but I’m wondering why so many who seem to be doing a similar thing to me are doing comparatively better or even some people that don’t appear to put much effort into their photos and yet still seem to have highly engaged followers. What are they doing differently? Are they focusing on well crafted captions? Do people favour a different style of photography these days? Am I just clueless with hashtags?
I reached a real low point about a month ago when my engagement suddenly fell off a cliff! It lasted for about a week and a half and was so bad I started to question whether I’d been shadow banned. That wasn’t in fact the case but it was a total extreme with perhaps a twelfth of my followers being shown any one image. I did seem to coincide with the first time I used the shopable tags which I was so excited to have in action but who knows if it was that or not. Either way I really didn’t want to post but I hated that I was feeling so effected by numbers. I knew that it was silly to judge the success of my day on Instagram and yet it was so hard not to get sucked in and worry if this was the new normal and what on earth would become of my business. I think that was the first time I really wanted to just come off the app altogether and say, ‘see you later, it was nice but now we’re not good for each other any more’. I really did want to ‘break up’ with Instagram for my own sanity more than anything else. I was tired of obsessively reading about where not to put your hashtags and how often you should post, not to unfollow too many people at a time even if you fancy clearing out some of the noise to see more of what you want to see on the feed….Oh yeah and don’t go back and edit your caption after posting even if you realise you’ve made a horrendous spelling mistake because the algorithm will smite you. Are these even true? It feels like Instagram is making us jump through a whole lot of hoops and for what gain?
After my sudden desire to ditch the app I remembered that was totally unrealistic. ‘Hi I’m a blogger but I’m not on Instagram’…erm no. I still need it in order to work with brands and to keep my design business going, at least for now. I remembered all the things I used to love about Instagram and all the relationships I’d formed through the app, lots of which have ended in face to face friendships. Along with the amazing support I’ve had through tough times like our miscarriage where I heard from an insane amount of Mum’s that had walked that same path. Thankfully those Instagram engagement lows didn’t continue in quite the same extreme and so I’m having to once again just get on with things and have a little dance party when something sticks and does well and push through the other bits. I don’t have any advice to offer on Instagram these days. In case you can’t tell by this post, I have no real clue what I’m doing anymore but I have resolved to attempt to post more of the things I like to look at. I don’t want my feed to be overly colourful just to grab people’s attention and I don’t want to go down the route of always posting controversial captions like some people have adopted. A few people pointed out to me that like anything there will come a day when Instagram won’t be ‘the big thing’ for creatives. If Instagram folds tomorrow then I still have my blog under my own domain. I have control over what happens on that space at least and it will still be there and searchable even if no other social network is. I’ve ploughed years of hard work into this blog and I’ve tried very heard to create useful and beautiful content so that is something to hold on to. I’m going to try better to dedicate more of my time to this space as well as my new shiny newsletters. I’ve got a new and improved newsletter with exclusive content that you can sign up to via the pop up or a newsletter specific to brush lettering which will help you improve with tips and prompts. You find the sign up button on the workshops page.
So Instagram, the honeymoon period ended a while ago and while things aren’t as rosy by any means I still get inspired daily by the beautiful content that people create and still enjoy the back and forth with real people even if it’s moved to a different space. I don’t see much growth these days but it’s not my only outlet for business and creativity and that’s a good space to be in at least. I can’t control what the algorithm is doing from week to week and that can feel very uncomfortable particularly when working with brands that are relying on your reach to form a good partnership but in a strange turn of events business has been better than ever in the last 9 months so my fears probably aren’t legit. Come and follow along on Instagram. I can’t guarantee that you’ll see everything or anything I post but I’ll still be there, chugging along, trying to make pretty images and share snippets of my life.