Exploring Instagram: A Few Lessons I’ve Learned



I’ve been on Instagram for three years, a long time in the social media world. But I will be the first to admit that while I posted somewhat often, I chose to ignore the platform. I felt overwhelmed by other social outlets where I felt I had to have a presence and decided not to take the time required to learn about Instagram and to understand what makes it tick. Well, I recently realized the error of my ways and have made a determined effort to understand and get to know the massive community there, especially those in the Instagram travel groups. It’s been a few weeks and I’ve learned a lot about the platform and the community of people who love it so much. So, while some of these observations may sound a bit naïve, I thought I’d share with you all what I’ve learned in the hopes that you can improve your own experience on this fun and engaging platform just like I did.

Sant Pere de Rodes Monastery, Spain

1. Not necessarily about great photography

I don’t mean this in a bad way, but as I scour hundreds of travel related accounts every day I realize there are many, many individuals with great photos but only a handful of followers. Then I look at some of the big guys, folks with 20,000 or more followers and while a few of them have nice shots, far too many just aren’t that great. At first I was depressed and I think that was ultimately one reason why I avoided Instagram for so long. Then I started thinking about it as I do other social platforms. That’s the key and something that not as many people do when it comes to Instagram. Twitter and Facebook are easy to navigate and the conversations are easy to follow. Instagram though is all about visual storytelling, with some comments along the way. It’s about creating a collection that represents a message, a story, a theme and those are the accounts that really succeed over there. Sure, great photography is rewarded on Instagram, but I think only when coupled with great storytelling. Also, if you can share engaging thoughts through sub-par photos, then that is usually rewarded as well.

paper dome Taiwan

2. Engagement is key

I forgot all of the social media rules when I joined Instagram and I paid the price. Any social media platform, no matter what it looks like is about being social. Seems obvious, but so many people, myself included, sometimes forget that. I uploaded photos but oftentimes didn’t have time to respond to comments and while I hit the like button on many photos, I didn’t take the time to comment, to let the photographer know what I liked or appreciated about the photo. That is a key aspect to Instagram, in my opinion, and if you don’t engage then 1) why are you on social media in the first place and 2) you become a digital specter, roaming the back halls of Instagram.

Canadian sled dog

3. It’s a special community with special mores

Every social media platform has special rules of the road; actions that over time the members have decided just aren’t cool. On Twitter, sending direct messages with links to your web site is extremely obnoxious. On Facebook, posting your wonderful photos on my page without permission is a bridge too far. What I missed on Instagram for so very long was an understanding of these rules, so needless to say I couldn’t follow them. I’m still learning them so I can’t provide an ultimate primer, but there is an etiquette to behavior on Instagram that doesn’t exist on other platforms. If I like a new account and then proceed to like a dozen of their photos, it leaves the photographer wondering if I really like them or if I’m trolling for more followers. Yeah, I didn’t get that for a long time. Instead it’s best to start slowly, as if approaching a wild animal, liking a few photos and then starting a couple of conversations. Over time, they’ll see you’re friendly and will probably engage back. This sort of empathetic exploration is key in social media and must be sussed out by intuition and honestly by making a few mistakes.

hot air balloon napa valley

4. Have fun but with a purpose

Ultimately, one of the big reasons any of us dabbles with social media is to have fun and to, hopefully, learn something new. Instagram is no different. Don’t be afraid to tell your own personal story through images; assert yourself and your personality and everything else will follow. When I’ve seen photos that look like movie stills or are obviously too produced, they don’t do well. Spontaneity is key, even if it’s a false perception of spontaneity. It may have taken you 20 minutes to set up that shot, but it looks completely natural and that’s where the real beauty comes from. If it takes twenty minutes to set up a photo AND it looks forced, that’s just a recipe for failure. Also, know what you want from Instagram. Know if you want recipe ideas or travel advice or if looking at hot guys without shirts on is all you want, fine. But go in with an agenda, seek it out but at the same time don’t be afraid to deviate from the path. Instagram reminds me a lot of Wikipedia. I go in for one thing and three hours later I leave the site after succumbing to its black hole. That can also be the charm of Instagram, if you let it.

It’s a special privilege in 2014 to be able to travel the world in just seconds through powerful imagery. All the travel experts talk about going local, but Instagram represents the best way to see what life is really like, almost anywhere in the world, from the very eyes of the people who live there. If that’s not powerful, then I don’t know what is.

Are you on Instagram? List your account name below and let’s connect! (I’m Instagram.com/LandLopers)

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

29 thoughts on “Exploring Instagram: A Few Lessons I’ve Learned”

  1. I also like to add some interesting facts or tidbits about the photo. It’s great when you can learn a little something in a quickie.

    I think sharing is important. I use Repost so I can share other people’s photos I like with my own followers. I still like and comment but sharing is a great way to support each other in the community :)

    Excited to follow others! I’m at Instagram.com/travelingjourno

  2. Some great tips! The fact that great photography isn’t always rewarded IS kind of a bummer, but since Evan nor I are professional photographers, I think Instagram is a great platform for us. I think if a photo lacks personality, creativity, or a sense of fun, it won’t come across well in this medium.

    I am also guilty of letting the Instagram comments fall by the wayside, I need to get better about that! You can find us on Instagram.com/evanandrachel


  3. I was surprised to read the phrase ‘…a bridge too far…’ in your post. Is this a common phrase in English? It reminds me of a movie title (Battle of Arnhem). Now I wonder if this phrase had been coined by this movie title or the movie title was chosen after a known phrase?

    1. Yup, it is a common phrase, or at least it’s one I use a lot. Funnily enough though the idiom came about from Operation Market Garden, which inspired the film.

      1. A Bridge Too Far is both a book by Cornelius Ryan and a film based on the same. I understood your reference though…it has taken on an idiomatic usage over the last decades!

  4. Really good article. I have never really played with instagram and have missed some real basics that you have discussed here. Thanks for getting me on track, so much more than just putting a few rambled sentences online in the social media world.
    Will pop over and follow you all, your images are great. I’m at http://instagram.com/somersetgarden

  5. #1 is what discourages me the most about Instagram, but ultimately I have a love-hate relationship with it. It’s quite fun, my feed is 70% wanderlust and 30% eye candy ;) I already follow you and it turns out you follow me as well, I love your pictures!

  6. Instagram is one social media tool that I would like to use more effectively. I really enjoy it–every morning, I scroll through the feed and feel that it takes me away to places around the globe. I also agree with Cristina’s comment above. The photos that have an interesting description are nice because we can learn a little about the place while seeing the image.

  7. I’ve always wondered about point #1 as well. I like to engage and connect with other travelers on Instagram, although I have been curious as to why some accounts have many followers but their photos are not very good. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said “engagement is key”. I find this to be very true. Thanks for the post!

    Just started following you by the way. Feel free to follow me too if you wish: http://instagram.com/mintnotion

  8. I read this with interest. I am about to retire and will immerse myself in several social media where I have an account but really don’t understand the “social rules”. I guess it is easy to offend

  9. Yes, instagram is not just a platform to post impressive photos. I’d like to follow people who post stories behind the photos. Thanks for this post, I will leave a comment rather than just double tapping.

    I am @sandierpastures on Instagram :)

  10. I love Instagram and often get sucked into the black hole, flipping through feeds for way too long. But because I sometimes so passively scroll myself, trying to get people to pause on our photos and engage is something I’m trying to get better at. Engagement is totally key!

    We already follow each other ;)

  11. I’ve slept under the Arnhem bridge, and my father was in that battle (US Airborne). Oops, I digress. Anyway, I like what you said here, and I need to engage a bit more. But I do like the Instagrammers who have at least a basic understanding of a good photo…with a few selfies thrown in for personality. BTW, we’re at @travelpast50.

  12. Matt, I’ve found that my pics with more than a 1 liner caption gain more popularity. Good points in all, thank you! instagram.com/starfishtravel (we already follow but just in case you don’t recognize the name :) )

  13. Interesting to read your thoughts about this platform, which I adore and spend way too many hours scrolling through. Like you said, there are some unwritten rules, but if I find an account I love, I immediately follow and like all the photos that touch me, inspire me, or that I find visually stunning. Too bad if they think I’m trolling… I sincerely hadn’t thought about that! o_O
    On Instagram, I find it more rewarding to give than to expect anything to be given to me. That said, would love for you to follow me! ;P I’m http://www.instagram.com/thegofever

  14. Lots of great tips here, Matt – thanks for sharing! And thanks for the follow on igram – hope we meet up again soon at a DC travel event.

  15. Thanks, Matt. This squares with a lot that I’ve been learning about Instagram in the few months I’ve been on it. It still frustrates me that I’ll see a picture of a cup of yogurt with a caption “My breakfast”and see that it has hundreds or thousands of likes, while other, really inventive photos I see have a few dozen. If there’s one thing that I could get people to refrain from, though, it would be begging for likes and follows (e.g., “Follow for follow?”and #tagsforlikes). If you engage with other users, those likes will follow without your having to ask. http://instagram.com/time_and_destination

  16. I just violated 1 of your social rules by liking the links you all gave but without commenting on your pictures (or even liking them). Oops

  17. I love Instagram, being a very visual person.
    It is indeed very dangerous in the sense that I can easily get ‘lost’ and spend hours there, exploring, liking and commenting.

    Recently I made business cards from my IG pictures, in a square format; super cool! I even made an iPad cover and fridge magnets from my IG pics. Fun!

    I am @curlytraveller on Instagram.

    Gonna check out your account there now;-)

  18. Nice tips, and I have to say that I fully agree with all of them.
    There’s one thing, though, that was not mentioned regarding quantity. Like on any social media platform, also on instagram people can buy followers. So in the end what really counts, in my opinion, is the quality (and quantity, but again, numbers can be bought…) of the engagement.

  19. I should start experimenting more with Instagram. When I started it was mostly because I read about complaints from Apple users that allowing Android users to have the app would ruin it, so I mostly posted photos of beer. Not sure why I wasn’t already following you there, but I fixed that problem.

  20. Thanks for the info. Helps me understand Instagram some more since its a little different from other social media. Been puzzled about the pictures versus followers thing too and the tit for tat nature. Thanks again for your good and timely blogs.

  21. I’m a total newbie to Instagram, so you your insight and advice is really useful. I like Instagram for the eye candy and I like having an excuse to play with filters (something I don’t usually do on my blog). I find Instagram frustrating because good photography really matters to me and I really hate selfies, so there are a lot of popular sites I’ll never follow. (I suppose that means @ExplorationVacation will never be a popular site either! Oh well.) I gave you a follow – love your images — you have a nice mix that I’ll enjoy seeing in my feed.

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