How to Grow on Instagram in 2021 (The Hard Truth)

Once upon a time, you could easily gain 1,000 followers on social media from one picture, just because the sun was hitting you right, you debuted a new hairstyle, and the hashtag odds were in your favor. 

Those days are long gone.

And anyone telling you how to grow on social media, who had any kind of substantial following on their own social media account before 2020, is blowing smoke up your *ss. Because the rules of engagement have completely changed. And it is much easier to grow an account that has traction than one that doesn’t because it is already “socially validated” in some way. Just think about it: how often have you discovered a new account on IG, clicked on the profile, saw that they had 50,000 or more followers, and immediately followed? Now, how many times have you randomly found an account, saw that they had 500 followers, and immediately followed? Right.

But preaching social media growth strategies to people who are aspiring bloggers & influencers is a big business, so if you’re willing to pay or scour the internet for it, you’ll get plenty of tips on content optimization, self-portrait hacks, and even advice on “gaming” the algorithm. And while those strategies might give your account a slight boost, here’s the hard truth about how to grow on Instagram in 2021.

It is MUCH harder to grow from scratch on Instagram now than it was 2-3 years ago.

There are only a few kinds of accounts that can grow from scratch (say with under 2,000 followers) on Instagram today, and they are completely different from the kinds of accounts that could grow 2, 3, or even 5 years ago.

Before, the types of Instagram accounts that grew exponentially were the “I’m not even trying, I’m just this beautiful & rich” aspirational account, where (usually) thin women with long hair posted the “no-edit” edited pic of themselves in a bikini and Gucci sunglasses on a mysterious yacht off the coast of an unknown island. Then there was the “super-relatable girl next door” blogger account, who shared her OOTD and Starbucks order and the occasional picture of her cute kids and her overflowing laundry basket. Many “successful” Black female Instagrammers (defined here as having a follower count significant enough to earn substantial income) — myself included — have mobilized one of these two personas to propel our careers forward. Not that we were faking it, but it was an archetype that worked, so we chose our buckets and ran with them.

It’s hard to tell whether it was the pandemic or just us waking up to the reality that we will either never be this girl or already are this girl, but super aspirational content and traditional blogger content no longer appeal to the masses. We’re not traveling, we don’t have a secretly rich boyfriend or father to fund a lavish lifestyle, and we don’t have time to be in the gym all day or starve ourselves in the name of a flat tummy. We buy the same furniture at Target and the same dresses from Zara and know who to turn to the one day we want to experiment with our makeup so we’re not looking for more Liketoknowit links to click on.

So if the two things that used to work before — aspirational content and girl next door content — no longer move the needle in terms of social media engagement, what does?

If you want to grow on Instagram in 2021, you have to entertain people.

There’s a lot of talk online about how all you have to do to grow on Instagram is provide value. I disagree. Unless people are actively looking for a new set of accounts to follow, they are already finding value in the ones that are currently clogging their feed. What people are looking for is entertainment. And Instagram knows this, which is why they came for TikTok’s neck by rolling out Reels and pushing it so heavily on the platform. And why they spend so much energy refining the algorithm so it shows you content you find entertaining to keep you on the platform for as long as possible.

Not to further burst your pipe dream of being IG famous, but the creators behind the entertainment accounts that are growing quickly also have something that you probably do not have: the time and resources to create entertaining content. The accounts that are growing the most right now are dance videos, comedy accounts, or fashion reels with multiple outfit changes. Trends come and go quickly so they have time to spend on the app to see what’s trending, time to practice their dance moves or plan out their outfit changes, and time to record multiple takes and edit it exactly to the beat. Content creation of this kind is much more labor-intensive than snapping your OOTD in a mirror or your four-course dinner in Thailand. It takes hours. Some people have time because they’re 20 years old and have been in school virtually for a year. Some have time because their partners make enough to support the whole family. Some have time because they are unemployed. Or retired. Or childless. Others have time because they’ve already learned the basics of content creation and have been implementing their processes and cultivating a community for years, so are not starting from scratch trying to figure out how to use a Bluetooth timer.

Be honest with yourself: do you have 20 hours a week to devote to Instagram content creation? If you are spending your time asking other creators how to grow on Instagram, you probably don’t have time to actually create content, which is why you’re looking for strategies and shortcuts. And if you do have the time, do you have the creativity? The personality? The money to invest in the equipment or clothing or editing services/contractors to make your content stand out?

Here’s the truth: Instagram growth probably won’t happen for you.

I know it’s harsh but hear me out. There are already 1 billion accounts on Instagram. 89% of accounts have fewer than 10,000 followers. It’s impossible for everyone to have 100,000 or more followers (only 0.32% of accounts do). Those of us who started back in the day were able to get by on our basic posts about our boring lives and purchases, but that messaging doesn’t work anymore. You can’t expect to grow on IG in 2021 using strategies from people like me who grew in 2018. I could lie to you and say if you post 3x a day everyday with a specific set of 10 hashtags and tag certain pages you can get to 10,000 followers, but I won’t. The game is COMPLETELY different. So that’s the hard truth about how to grow your Instagram following in 2021. You probably can’t.

Does that mean you should shut down your Instagram account? Does that mean you should stop creating? Does that mean there’s no way for you to make passive or supplemental or even full-time income from social media? No. But it’s not as easy as following 5 steps because the truth is the odds are already stacked up against you and the system is set up in a way that rewards people who have already built a following and those who have the time, resources, and creativity to pump out immense amounts of content each week.

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  1. I recently shared my experience as a new blogger (starting from scratch). Some of the things you mentioned here…are what I learned to be true via close observation. This is one reason why I made sure to start my agency before I started blogging. I realized that blogging was going to be a lot harder to monetize in the beginning. It’s not to say that a person should give up…it’s just that people need to start prioritizing the audience they already have…aannddd stop comparing their account numbers to 5 & 10 year content creators. Times are different.

  2. I look at social media as those albums our mum kept with pictures of us. I don’t take too seriously especially with creating content. The truth is if you have a job, you only pop up to post every once in a while which I do and I enjoy it for what it is and where I am at. For what it’s worth really because I have 1185 followers and that to me is enough.

  3. This is so true, I have tried half of the Instagram strategies, they don’t work. I create content, I have 9-5 and other side jobs so it’s difficult to put lots of hours on content. Infact am about to delete my TikTok Acct. I just go with the flow, am creating content because I love it. But thanks for sharing your thought!!!!!!

  4. The hard truth indeed! These are pure facts honestly. I, for one, know this and still go to google looking for how to grow my Instagram. Entertainment is the order of the day. People want to laugh or feel something. Aesthetics don’t do it anymore😃Thank you for sharing.

  5. It’s good to know the truth. I have an IG account and I am not worried too much about growing it right now. I love to see pictures and stories of you and a few more creators accounts. I follow more people but I rather stick my OG people. There’s nothing against other creators but I just like my regular ones. 😌