The Reality of Instagram: A PSA to Stop Letting It Ruin Your Travels and Your Blog

Instagram is easily my largest and most successful platform. I started @thereshegoesagn in May 2015 right before my Kyoto trip and when I decided I wanted to create There She Goes Again the travel site. I initially did everything wrong and grew to about 300 by March 2016.

You know who wants to work with an account of 300 followers? No one, that’s who.

In March, I decided to buckle down and learn how to grow my account. I joined a few different Facebook groups, overhauled my feed and hashtags, and grew to about 1,000 followers by June 2016. I was addicted. I’ve always loved photography, and I loved being able to create this aesthetic collage to look at. And I was gaining a following where only a handful were IRL friends.

After joining some more groups and reading countless threads, I played around with a few different methods to figure out what worked for me and what didn’t. For the record, no, none of them included paying for anything beyond a Mass Planner trial, which I didn’t actually like. I’m now nearing 25K, and it’s just the start of 2017.

By all accounts I’m making it on Instagram. In my natural and embarrassingly competitive nature, I slowly started surpassing the follower numbers of Instagram accounts I couldn’t dream of surpassing when I first started (don’t lie, you’ve used other Instagrams as small mile markers too).

Of all social media, it’s the one that comes most naturally to me. I’ve even done VA work for a few clients handling parts of their Instagram and am in the middle of testing my Jumpstart course.

I get Instagram. I probably get it better than someone who naturally went viral to grow their influence, and I definitely get it better than your friend joining Influenster with his or her 100 followers. So I want to share some realities of the ‘gram, and the rabbit hole I dove into last year in getting my account.

5 Realities of Instagram

1. Some places naturally do better than others. 

Fact. of. life. Sorry, someone who lives in Paris and takes semi-decent iPhone pics still might do better with engagement than someone who lives in Malaysia and has breathtaking DSLR photography. It just happens. People want Paris more than they want Malaysia. I remember when I first started, I’d post a pretty shot of Korea and get maybe 50 likes, but an old, crappy shot of the Eiffel Tower could get 100.

If you’re a good photographer and you live in Paris? Well, you might as well start raking in the sponsorships right now.

Here are some trends I’ve noticed:

  • Europe does the best. One of my friends started sharing Europe photos after a long slew of Asia ones. Her follower count has stayed more or less the same. She went from getting maybe 5-600 likes a photo to over 1,000. Nothing about her methods, photography style, or hashtag usage has really changed. So yes, it’s the location.
  • Dreamy photos of Paris or the English countryside are like a $$ goldmine. Seriously, though. There’s a reason @parisinfourmonths blew up the way she did.

2. Certain subjects do better than others.

A slim, conventionally attractive white girl is the most appealing. As my marketing professor once said, there’s no sense in being PC in marketing. Instagram is marketing, and you can’t manipulate results. I want you to think of all the big accounts and influencers you know of in the travel industry.

  • Are they white?
  • Do they often feature a female?
  • Is she conventionally attractive– thin, decent hair, cute style?

I sometimes gripe that many of the female feature accounts seem to feature the same editorial style photos over and over again, but truth be told, that’s why they’re getting over 100K followers. As much as we’d like to think people want to see a “real” side to travel, the truth is, they don’t on Instagram.

Now break this formula down. Being white isn’t necessarily needed. Female vs Male, I’m not going to pretend to know because I don’t follow a lot of male only accounts that feature themselves. However, no one’s made an “Instagram wife” parody, so, you know.

For the record, I am not a conventionally attractive, slim, white female. However I am female, I have good hair, and relatively cute style, so I can pull of a few poses or angles for my IG. What were most of my most popular photos of 2016? You guessed it.

I should also note, two of these are of my very photogenic friend, @wandrfox_. I learned my posing from her :P

So, yes, you can roll your eyes when someone says they do and don’t play games. Well, yeah, if you’re an attractive woman with good photography, whether through your IG husband, tripod, or self stick, you’re going to do pretty damn well. If you travel to tropical destinations and look good in a bikini, you’re going to hit it mega big.

Oh, and cute kids do super well. Just look at your favorite fashion bloggers who became mothers in the last few years. I guarantee you the majority of their top photos have their adorable babies in them.

3. Creating a niche is super important.

This is the trickiest, eh? It’s not always clear cut what a niche is, but every truly big and influential Instagrammer (and blogger for that matter) has one. It dictates their aesthetic, captions, profile, and the brands they work with. It’s hard to figure out, and I’m not going to pretend I have mine 100% figured out either. I do know I edit my photos to be more muted, and I avoid anything too exciting or bright because I want to appeal to slow travelers and aim for a dreamier aesthetic that fits my “escape to the world” motto. Let me break down some popular travel IGers for you based on what I’ve seen:

  • @mylifesatravelmovie— Adventure solo female travel born out of hard work and saving. Alyssa’s photos are bright, with a slight HDR edit (something I personally don’t use on mine). Guess who’s not in her photos? Other people. Why? Because she’s a solo female traveler. Her captions are quick and funny. She’s not going to wax poetic about Shakespearean tragedies in them.
  • @helloemilie— Nostalgic travel. On the flipside is Emilie. Her captions are threadbare, and most of the focus is on her photography. If you actually Google interviews about her, it’s pretty slim pickings whereas Alyssa’s more “controversial” articles have gone viral. Her colors are muted and matte, and the level of photo editing is pretty complicated.

Emilie’s more silent approach fits with her nostalgic travel aesthetic while Alyssa’s brighter approach fits with her adventure solo female travel one. If either switched into the other’s niches, you’d be able to tell instantly. I use these two as an example because Alyssa shared a photo from @helloemilie on her feed while talking about World Wonders, and it stuck out immediately. This is neither a good or bad thing, it simply speaks to how the two have defined their niches.

On a more obvious note– if Bread Face started adding photos of a man eating hamburgers, it’d be an obvious, unwelcome change, wouldn’t it?

4. Going viral outside of your Instagram account can result in more followers.

I don’t think I need to bring up the @gypsea_lust copycat/maybe not copycat articles to get that point across. She gained over 200K followers from that in weeks, and is now on mark to hit close to 1 million. When I first heard about her she had 300k!

Of course, going viral is like expecting to find the love of your life on your first Tinder swipe. You can’t plan to go viral, it just happens. Even well executed marketing campaigns based on research can fail (though they often do succeed). You know why Buzzfeed makes the videos they do? It’s because they have a formula for what will go viral. That’s literally what most of their producers’ jobs are– viral videos.

This has led to social media fame not only for Buzzfeed, but for their creators. Anyone who likes Buzzfeed, definitely knows Quinta, Ashly, Eugene, the Try Guys, Ladylike, etc.  They all have hundreds of thousands of followers from their viral videos.

5. GOOD PHOTOGRAPHY IS THE ULTIMATE DECIDER 

Guess what? Instagram is a photo app. Those blurry photos of your dog? Good for a private account, bad for a business one. If you really want your Instagram to represent you and your brand, take. good. photos.

Blurry selfies. Weird night out shots. Grainy photos. They’re not gonna do well. Study photography, study photo editing, invest in the right tools. Ultimately, you are the key to your photography improving. As someone once said, you can have a great camera, but it’s the person behind it who dictates if it’s good or not.

You’ll never go big with semi-decent photography. Unless you’re a celebrity, in which case, you’re probably not reading this article to begin with.

INSTAGRAM =/= LIFE OR BLOG

Hearkening back to half of this post title…

You know how long it takes me to get the perfect Instagram shot? 30 minutes maybe, and that’s for more styled ones like flatlays. If I take a photo of myself, it doesn’t take me or the person snapping it more than a five minutes. I don’t agonize over the perfect angles. Heck, half the reason I’m not facing the camera is so that I don’t have to worry about sucking it in or making sure my face isn’t derping out. I’ll have to do a BTS of my IG shots, because they can be pretty hilarious.

Don’t let it ruin your travels, don’t do things just for the ‘gram, and don’t spend hours on your account. Yes, IG is great. Yes, building a following is exciting, especially for someone like me who’s NEVER been a popular person growing up (my own friends and coaches have forgotten about me multiple times). But it’s not life.

If your blog and other social is suffering for your Insta, stop and rethink it. If you find yourself saying, “Oh, I haven’t been focusing on that so much because I’m growing my Instagram,” then pause.

Instagram is not the end all, be all of travel blogging or life. It’s a fun, very trendy platform with increasingly annoying algorithm changes that, hey, might totally die out in a few years! Just think about Myspace. Where is that platform now?

I see a lot of information being passed around on Facebook, and I’ve done a lot of individual research and studying on my own (yes, I have literally sat and watched some accounts to better understand their patterns). Sometimes the advice on point, but a lot of time it doesn’t really jive with what I know to be true from both my experience growing to 24K, auditing many IG accounts, and studying some of the top ones as they grow.

What do you think? Have you seen some of these realities at play? Have you noticed anything yourself? 

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Discussing some things I've learned about the reality of Instagram. Stop letting it ruin your travels!

Feature photo by Adrian via Unsplash

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  • Great guide! I wanted to start taking a handle on my Instagram, but I’m currently static as I’m in the midst of a visa application that has taken my passport away for months so my travel niche is taking a hit. Will get back to it hopefully soon! I have a question, how do you research hashtag? I would love to learn to do that, but can’t figure it out lol

  • As someone who is just getting into IG and loving it a little too much at times, I really appreciate the perspective of someone who’s been there! Thanks so much for sharing 😊

  • Lol number 2 is too real… Lately, I’ve been trying to find a balance between taking insta-worthy pics and actually enjoying my travels/being in the moment. Cause at the end of the day, it’s just a bunch of strangers liking my pic. Thanks for the good read Sam!

  • Thank you so much for this insight. Sometimes you need a good reality check. I completely agree and it does seem like pretty girls in pretty places rule. One thing I am trying to focus on is injecting more fun into my pictures, so my Instagram account more accurately represents the fun times and smiles I have on my travels. Just like you said, back to great content and awesome pictures. xx Morgan

  • Thank you for sharing your observations. This is helpful and a good reminder that it’s not always all about numbers. That’s why I refuse to do the follow/unfollow game and try to observe what works for others. It was time consuming though.

    You are right, sometimes it’s just about the place or the subject. I don’t live in Paris and I’m not white (hehe) so it’s been slow growing my following. This year, I resolve to just focus on improving my photography and being consistent with how they look like. :)

  • Great analysis and observation! It was interesting to see how fast parisinfourmonths grew. The niche part is a hard one to crack. Instagram is so huge now and countless have invested so much time and effort behind, I’ll be waiting to see how things work out eventually!

    • Right? She grew so fast! I think it her location, photography, and her friendship with GaryPepperGirl. Like a magic trifecta! It’s definitely hard with niches. I look at mine sometimes and get so frustrated with it!

  • I just started a blog insta a couple weeks ago and I’m already feeling burnout hahaha, it’s good to hear the flip side, there are SO many articles out there telling you do this, do that, and it can get out of control pretty quickly!

    • It really can. And oh, no don’t feel burnout yet! Trust me, blogging is one of those long haul things. I’ve been reading blogs and hobby blogging since 2008– the sheer about of fashion blogs I’ve seen come and go is insane. The ones I’ve been following for a long time (Song of Style, Cupcakes + Cashmere) have simply persevered and really gotten to know their target audience.

  • This was so beautifully written and really refreshing – I totally agree that location matters way more than we’d like to admit. My IG grew SO much when I moved to Norway, and I’m pretty sure my photography skills are just as mediocre as they were before, haha.

  • Great article Samantha! I remember we talked about this topic a few weeks ago! You have great points here, IG is only one tiny side of travel blogging. Love your points of views and well done girl!

  • Really interesting read – thanks for sharing! IG is something I’ve struggled with for a while and deciding how much time to dedicate compared with my other social media accounts. I really appreciate your frankness and willingness to share a bit of your IG journey. Cheers!

    • Thanks for reading, Lindsay :) Yeah, it all depends on what you want from your brand. I’d love to do photography heavy campaigns someday, so Instagram is a great way to learn what does well and figure out my own style. It’s also something I want to use a portfolio for brands when I reach out to work with them.

      But if you’re, say, more interested in writing being the hallmark of your brand, it’s not as necessary. It’d better to build a tribe on Facebook or become known for witty tweets!

  • Sorry, but I’m calling bullshit on the “some subjects do better than others.” What you’re describing is people who want a lifestyle/luxury feed. Yes, those fit attractive people who can pose will do very well for themselves, but that’s just one branch of travel ‘grams. As someone who hires influencers for branded campaigns (and has grown her account to 40 k in 6 months), there are plenty of brands who don’t want to be associated with that aesthetic. Do you think an outdoor company would want a bikini model repping them? Do you think Visit South Dakota would think that’s their target market? What about Disney? Or any destination who cares about attracting foodies? Be careful with your over-generalizations…. there’s plenty of room for everyone to carve out their own niche in the industry.

    • Congrats on growing your account! I never said nor implied there wasn’t room for everything to carve their own niches (after all there are plenty of landscape and adventure accounts that do quite well for themselves). But I’ve done my own case studies of many accounts, and in terms of purely organic growth (not using automation, not having to follow a ton of people, not having to really do anything beyond upload and use some hashtags), it’s always the ones that feature people that seem to take off on their own. Or, as I compared within my own account, if an account uploads a photo of themselves vs. just a landscape, the one with the person in them does better with engagement.

      Don’t know much about bikini models specifically, but as far as female instagrammers who feature themselves heavily in their accounts, I’ve seen them work with Disney AND tourism boards similar to South Dakota.

      Example: @gypsea_lust (and @doyoutravel):
      -She features herself quite a lot in bikinis.
      -She did a campaign with Disney to promote the Jungle Book and (not sure because she doesn’t always disclose in her posts, but she does have 3 photos here) Tokyo Disney.
      -She did a campaign with Visit Montana as well. While I recognize it’s different from South Dakota, I’d say they’re probably pretty similar in what they want to promote to tourists.
      -She also literally just posted a cafe photo that would appeal to vegan foodies in Bali.

      Anyhow, when I say some subjects do better than others, you can take that comparison as you will. I’m speaking in terms of engagement and how quickly an account can grow, not whether or not a brand wants to work with them. I’ve seen female based accounts, and particularly female accounts with HQ photography, (@polkadotpassport, @gypsea_lust -even without the whole copycat thing-, @helloemilie, @marinacomes, and so many more) grow much faster with much higher engagement than pure landscape accounts. I’ve been following all of them for quite a while, and they’ve grown without needing to use any of the other things many of us use.

  • Hi, I loved your article! Like that you are saying what many things but dont say out loud like yes.. white, attractive females are just more popular. Another thing I have noticed is that people love pictures of turquoise water and white buildings/white sand. I often look at my pictures on Instagram like “damn u cloudy skies and not so bright coloured nature” but thats the reality here in Patagonia – even though its summer. And I refuse to take cafe-latte pictures! My photos are not the most attractive once so I try to make good content; not just a quote about life or “miss summer” captures. Thanks for sharing :)
    Hugs, Nana

    • Thanks so much, Nana! Definitely agree. The #1 thing I remember reading when studying Instagram was that people loveedddd blue. And it’s always so annoying when the weather doesn’t cooperate. I’m editing photos from South Africa and some of the days, the light just cast the weird tints and even playing around with things in Lightroom aren’t making me happy.

  • A very good post! I recognise so much of it, and I had a couple of months where my sole focus was on growing my instagram account. It went very well, but in the end it took too much time from other things and I needed to find balance. I’m growing slower now but I’m not as IG obsessed as I was then, and that’s a relief.

    • Right? I remember getting excited breaking 2K on Instagram after spending weeks hyper focused on improving and growing it. Meanwhile my Pinterest was a sorry excuse for an account, and I still hadn’t done anything with my Twitter account! Now I’m playing catch-up because I personally don’t like the huge discrepancies between my followings.

  • I seriously first saw this title and thought “Wow, another article about social media. Nice 💀”

    And then I actually clicked and read this and loved it. Loved your perspective and your voice and you’re right on all accounts. Sincerely, thank you for writing this!

    • Haha thank you so much :) I’m glad you enjoyed! And yeah, those articles about social media kind of make me eye roll too. I’ve read through so many that ultimately don’t tell me anything I can practice right away, it’s mind boggling.

  • Great post! I totally agree with your comment that at the core of it all your photos need to actually be good. I get asked all the time how to get more followers on IG from people who’s photos are blurry, of irrelevant things etc. It starts with awesome content!

    • Right? And good photography is a LOT harder than most people realize. There’s a reason photographers invest in all the equipment and editing software. A quick iphone photo and VSCO filter is not always the answer.