What I’ve Learnt on the Way to 60,000+ Organic Followers on Instagram – Tips for Travel Instagrammers.

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About this post: I feel like I’ve come a long way as a travel blogger on Instagram, keeping my focus on authentic content, organic Instagram followers and organic Instagram growth. Whether you’re looking at Instagram as an extension of your travel blog, or to join the ranks of the best Instagram travel pages, I hope these lessons and tips will help you craft your organic Instagram strategy in 2019.

There’s no doubt I was late to the Instagram party. I resisted it for a long time, thinking it was a channel that made sense only for photographers – and I don’t consider myself a photographer in the conventional sense. I’ve never owned an SLR camera, haven’t quite grasped the nuances of aperture and exposure, and remain conflicted about the ethics of editing photos.

In my early blogging days, I travelled without a camera, choosing to experience the world as fully as I could. My first camera, a gift from my brother, was a talking Sanyo point and shoot. Yes, it told you to smile when it took a photo – and yes, I remember being playfully ragged for it on my first blogging trip!

Then, things changed.

I started taking my blog more seriously and realised the value of visual content. Instagram exploded, and as much as I wanted to stay off it, I had to join to stay professionally relevant in the ever-changing world of travel blogging.

I chose to approach it differently though. Instead of using it only as a visual platform, I started building my voice in words. Slowly, I attracted followers who care as much about what I write as about the photos – a community that indeed reads my lengthy captions and engages meaningfully with them.

Also read: How I’m Funding My Adventures Around the World Through Travel Blogging

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I miss the days we didn’t stare at our smartphone screens just after waking up or just before sleeping. When we stopped to ask people – not Google Maps – directions. When we walked into a cafe and saw people chatting with each other, not buried in their smartphones. When we read instead of scrolling mindlessly. When we tried to learn a bit of the local language instead of relying entirely on google translate. . . Exploring little mountain villages in Thailand is making me so nostalgic of some of my earliest adventures in Southeast Asia. The time a friend and I picked a little blue spot on the map and went with no idea of where we were heading. Asked our way to a local ferry packed with people and animals and landed up on an island where one man seemed to be everyone’s adopted papa! He adopted us too, putting us up at his little abode on the beach, taking us snorkeling for the first time on his rickety fishing boat, teaching us the tricks in sign language and laughing adorably when I got confused and gulped a whole lot of seawater. I had no camera on that trip so all I have are mental shots of the stunning beauty of those waters, beaches and sunsets. I remember trying to understand the dish I was going to try from the ones they offered, going to their kitchen and being pointed to a dead bat hanging on the wall. It was bat fried rice 😲😂 . . I don’t know if Southeast Asia has changed or I have. Technology certainly has. Making us lazy. Making it so much easier to book online, translate online, snap photos, never get lost, post on the go. So starting last week, I’ve limited my social media screen time to 2 hours a day when I’m working, and 1 hour a day when I’m not. Time to reclaim the original joy of travel. . . And you, ever feel like technology is taking away from travel? . . Shot on #iphonexsmax . #theshootingstar #thailandtravel #southeastasia #digitalnomad #lifeisajourney

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I chose not to try to game the system. Not to play the follow-unfollow game. Not to compromise my travel style for likes or collaborations. Not to dilute my focus on sustainable and meaningful travel. Not to shy away from the reality of long term travel.

And I’m excited to share that despite that, my Instagram community has grown to over 67,000 followers, who often engage in meaningful conversations on my posts. I secretly think I have the best Instagram followers – and if you’re one of those who care to read and share your thoughts uninhibitedly on my posts and stories, I thank you from the bottom of my heart! You make all the time and effort  I spend on Instagram worthwhile for me.

As I write this post, I want to reach out to fellow travel bloggers and travel Instagrammers – the ones who similarly choose not to compromise their voice and authenticity – and say that you CAN grow on Instagram organically, without gaming the system, plastering your gallery with perfect bikini shots and editing the hell out of your photos.

Here’s what worked for me, and what I’ve learnt on the way to 60,000+ organic followers on Instagram:

Building a community is more powerful than gaming the system

You’ve probably heard people wax eloquent about the merits of organic engagement, yet been bombarded with DMs and emails promising thousands of followers. You’ve probably been followed and unfollowed yourself a bunch of times. I have to confess that like many others late to the Instagram party, I hit quite a low when I realised how easy it was to buy and lure followers. And how difficult it could be to grow if you weren’t one of the early adopters lucky enough to be featured by Instagram.

When I made up my mind to seek only organic growth on Instagram, I decided to stop obsessing over who follows – or unfollows – me, and started obsessing over engagement. Were enough people compelled to comment on my posts? Did the comments go beyond “Nice pic” and “amazing capture”, to something more meaningful? Those were the rewards I began to seek, and without quite realising it, began to build an engaged community as opposed to a shallow following. When you really begin to scan the big accounts, only a small percentage of them seem to offer real engagement – some of them have 5-10 times my followers yet less than half my engagement.

If you ask me, a real, engaged community is what can set you apart in the competitive world of travel Instagrammers – and slowly but certainly lead to greater reach too. It’s how I crawled my way to 67k over 3 years.

Also read: Why Long Term Travel is More Like Real Life and Less Like Instagram

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On the outset, they looked like ordinary Himalayan villages. But as I hiked up, the distinct smell of weed (cannabis) invaded my nostrils. Mountain women walked past me carrying big bags of dried weed tied to their foreheads. Up in their fields, some harvested the crop, some sat in the warm winter sun and rubbed it relentlessly to make hash. Men who looked like goons, suited up, came to negotiate rates. It sells upto 25k a kilo, fetching a much better price than apples or potatoes or other crops they could grow. It’s illegal though, so their fields could be seized anytime, yet the money is worth the risk. A missed opportunity to draw legal revenue from a plant that is now legal in many parts of the world – and proven to be far less harmful than alcohol. . . On the outset, they looked like ordinary Himalayan villages. Corn drying on their rooftops, massive pumpkins in their balcony. But as I spoke to women basking in the sun outside their doorstep, I learnt that they own smartphones and are savvy enough to run Facebook. Yet rumour has it that the internet is evil, it gets women into trouble, even picked up by goons. We spoke about how YouTube could be used to learn new recipes, get creative with stitching, even solve everyday problems at home. . . On the outset, they looked like ordinary Himalayan villages. Surrounded by pristine forests, protected by the mighty mountains, close to nature. But speaking to locals, I learnt that in the name of development, the plan is to cut much of the primary forest to build a road right through it (instead of an alternative route with less forest cover). The elders lament that since their childhood, the forest has shrunken – so snowfall is less, water is drying up, wildlife is disappearing – and what good will be a road if you don’t have the means to live? . . On the outset, they looked like ordinary Himalayan villages. But turned out, there is nothing ordinary about the way they think, make a living, embrace solitude, battle hardships and bond with nature. . . Shot on #iphonexsmax . #theshootingstar #himachalpradesh #storiesofindia #himalayangeographic #incredibleindia

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We can’t do what everyone else is doing and expect to stand out

There was a time when merely having decent content on Instagram was enough to stand out – and Instagram rewarded you as a featured account that would get huge following. Some of those early adopters (smart folks) are making their entire living with Instagram now! The rest of us, though, need to innovate. Travelling is not novel. Great photos are not enough. Introspective quotes have become cliche.

Thinking about this made me realise that I have to offer my audience something different to stand out. And that’s when I started to put all my energy into writing – the one thing I genuinely enjoy too. My captions are way too lengthy, so much that sometimes I have to trim them to Instagram’s word limit. And yet, on a visual platform, my captions are what my readers repeatedly tell me they follow me for.

Some of my friends and fellow bloggers have unleashed their creativity in different ways on Instagram. Siddhartha Joshi (@siddharthajoshi) ran a portrait photography series for 365 days, featuring the dreams of ordinary Indians. Lola Akinmade (@lolaakinmade) started by posting a six post puzzle to tell a story through her incredible photographs. And Abhinav Chandel (@abhiandnow) keeps his followers coming back by mixing travel with stories of a fictional (or not) lover.

What I mean to say is, the possibilities are endless. Taking the time to find your voice and create a niche is the only way to stand out on Instagram.

Also read: Advice for the Young and Penniless Who Want to Travel

Content still makes all the difference

As with most things online and some things in real life, we only have one chance to make a good impression. When someone visits your profile, are they inspired enough – by your bio and gallery – to hit follow? The rare time they see a post by you, for Instagram algorithm makes it pretty rare, are they inspired to stop, like and comment, so they are shown posts from you more often?

There are thousands, maybe millions, of us competing for the attention of the same audience. And I say competing because the Instagram algorithm makes it so.

I often try to put myself in the shoes of someone leisurely scrolling through Instagram. Will my photo make them sit up, will my caption spring them to some sort of response?

Over the years, I’ve realised that it’s only when I put out really meaningful content that I’m growing my followers and my engagement. There’s no easy way around it, despite what those spammy “get more followers” apps promise.

Also read: 6 Tips to Break Into Freelance Travel Writing

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My favorite “home” and “office” on the Cuban countryside, found on @airbnb 💚 . . This August will mark 7 years of quitting my full time job in Singapore and rebuilding life as a freelancer, entrepreneur and travel blogger! For the longest time, this digital nomad life didn’t allow me to go out of connectivity for longer than a couple of days without having a near panic attack – thinking about emails that needed my attention, projects I could be missing out on, deadlines that needed to be met and staying active on social media. I knew I had to be working from everywhere, latching on to wifi everywhere, if I wanted to make this life work. . . But in Cuba, I realised things have finally changed. That I didn’t hesitate to book flight tickets knowing that it meant 2 weeks of no connectivity. That when I realised wifi works pretty fast in public parks, I wasn’t tempted to use it everyday. That I was ready for a digital detox without any panic attacks. That I’m no longer a complete slave to the internet 😉 . . And in Cuba, I took to writing furiously. The vibrant streets, the gorgeous countryside, conversations with locals, I found inspiration everywhere. And writing for the sake of writing – not for Instagram, not for the blog, not for an assignment – sure felt therapeutic. Now I feel strangely nostalgic about the good old days of little technology – even though I never quite experienced them in my adult life. And now I must pledge to not become a slave to the online world again 🤥 . . And you, how do you balance your online-real life time? . . #theshootingstar #digitalnomad #vinales #cubatravel #writersofig #livethere #shotoniphone

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It’s not worth selling ourselves for brand collaborations we don’t truly believe in

There was a week when my entire Instagram timeline was filled with people going nuts over their free watch from one particular company! Surely many people noticed that. And surely, it left me wondering how many people actually wear those kinds of watches while hiking, or in the wilderness, or on the beach, where many of those photos were shot.

Don’t get me wrong. I do my fair share of paid collaborations – but sometimes you just have to get yourself to say no because the product doesn’t go with your personal brand. Or because your morals don’t allow it. Or because some promotions outright feel like selling out.

On my part, I like to think that no matter how desperate I am for the money, I’ll never promote products that use cruelly-derived animal ingredients or test on animals, or travel attractions that abuse animals. That you’ll never see leather bags, animal riding or milk products on my gallery.

Also read: Why I Turned Vegan – and What it Means For My Travel Lifestyle

Interacting and collaborating with fellow Instagrammers can help grow engagement and reach

Posting on Instagram is just not enough. I’ve found that in order to grow my following and engagement, interacting with the active community on Instagram is essential. Answering comments on your own posts is a no-brainer, but starting conversations on posts by others is important too.

When I was a small fish in the big Instagram sea, nothing delighted me more than seeing personal comments from Instagrammers I looked upto. Now that I’m a slightly bigger fish, I try to give back – by complementing photos and accounts that I see high potential in, and by occasionally featuring Instagrammers who use my hashtag #theshootingstar. I’ve also done a couple of cross-promotional collaborations with fellow Instagrammers, for example with Turkish solo travellers Tugce (@bilinmeyenrota) and Melke (@melkeontheroad), which helped me reach out to a new audience.

I think the good thing about Instagram is that virtually, we are all on a level platform. We need to keep supporting and encouraging each other to do better, to create more inspiring content, to have more impactful conversations.

Also read: A Himalayan Village Where Locals Runs Marathons and Their Own Instagram Channel!

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“The Shooting Star by Shivya Nath is a travel book of rare insight and depth… Her travels and her writings are filled with a deeply felt humanism, driven by her own “hero’s quest,” and her thirst for adventure, knowledge, and self-awareness.” ~ Travel blogger Mariellen Ward @breathedreamgo (you’re following all her India adventures, aren’t you?) . . I haven’t had a breakthrough with the international publishing of my book yet, but excited to share that this month, it has been featured on @lonelyplanetmagazineindia (thanks @ra_ra_raasta for the heads up); in the inflight magazine of @spicejetairlines (a 5 page spread!) ; and in an exclusive interview on @livemintlounge ☺️ Swipe right to see the features 👉🏼 . . But truth be told, what got me really excited was to come back after my little end of the year digital detox to an inbox full of stories and DMs from you guys about reading my book, travelling with it around the world, identifying with it and gifting it to your friends/siblings! . . These photos really made my day: 👆🏼by @sumathi_s while hiking in Coorg; 👉🏼 by @atoolfoo at -13 degrees in Arunachal Pradesh; by @shrutibookfairysharma in Lakshadweep; and by @lets.capture.the.world in Rajasthan 👣 . . I know I’ve said it before, but I’m really so grateful to the universe for helping my book find its way to the right readers, to fellow bloggers and friends for their support, and to all you guys for your love and encouragement ☺️ . . If you’re yet to get a copy, Amazon has a special offer today! Link in my profile @shivya . . #theshootingstar

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Don’t forget to have fun, especially while instagramming your travels

I can’t speak for other industries like fashion and food, but I’ve hung out with travel Instagrammers who’ve spent sleepless nights and mornings looking for the perfect Instagram shot – and even gone to the extent of photoshopping stars in their skies when they couldn’t get a really wide angle shot. I appreciate the perseverance to create exceptional content and understand the need to do what it takes to stay competitive… but hey, don’t forget to take some moments away from your lens and take in the surreal beauty of the places you Instagram.

When you look back at life, only your actual experiences will matter, not the photoshopped perfection of your Instagram shots.

Also read: The Joy of Slow Travel

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For 400 rupees a day, they carry stones, mix cement and literally build the extension of the majestic Ki Monastery in Spiti. When we see a grand site like Ki, we’re wowed by the monks who call it home. But the real “wow” happens behind the scenes – by guys who work their asses off for 400 rupees a day. . . Quite aptly, I met them when I wandered down a little path behind the monastery, where they live in tiny makeshift homes and were washing up at the public tap after a long day’s work. They were shy at first, as was I, but when we got talking, they told me that Spiti isn’t like their home in Jharkhand. It’s nothing, they said, barren, brown, no trees. Unlike our Jharkhand, they said, with greenery, fields and pure water. . . Two years ago, when they began visiting Spiti over the summer to help build the new extension of Ki Monastery, their mistry (contractor) told them he was the one who had built the original monastery! How old is he, I asked amused. 40 or 50 years, they said. Well my friends, the monastery was built in the 14th century, then almost rebuilt in the 19th century, I doubt your mistry was alive at either of those times 😂 . . At that moment, surprised and then amused, they looked at each other and laughed heartily at their innocence and how they were going to call out the mistry’s bragging – and I clicked this 📷 . . This is part of my #voicesofruralIndia series where I hope to challenge myself to take more portrait photos and share stories of people I meet on my travels. . . Shot on #iphone8plus . . #theshootingstar #incredibleindia #storiesofindia #spiti #portraitphotography

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We need to think beyond money – what else can we use our influence for?

Many of us are hell bent on proving our Instagram influence for paid brand collaborations – but as we do that, we also need to remind ourselves that money can’t be the only thing we use our influence for. Can we use it to challenge societal conventions? To promote responsible tourism? To spread the word about ethical photography? To encourage more people to travel solo and seek meaningful experiences? To promote compassion towards animals? To raise awareness against plastic consumption?

Whatever the causes close to your heart, make them your mission. After all, life is too short to create perfect Instagram posts just for the followers, money or likes.

Also read: Simple Steps to Reduce Single-Use Plastic – On Our Travels and in Everyday Life

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It’s one thing to know that the plastic trash we generate lands up in our oceans, kills marine life and destroys the underwater ecosystem. Quite another to go snorkelling over a virgin coral reef off the coast of a remote island in Cuba, see the sea bed littered with plastic bags and soda cans and shampoo bottles, and tediously help collect that trash through free-style diving… . . It’s one thing to snorkel to lose yourself in the surreal beauty of the underwater world, spot lobsters and angler fish and see purple-hued corals swaying beneath you. Quite another to see broken corals collected from the seabed and hung on crafted wooden pillars to increase their likelihood of survival so they can be planted among living corals… so this virgin coral reef doesn’t end up dying like others around the world 😌 . . It is one thing to pledge, as you take off your snorkel mask, to be one less person to add to that endless plastic trash in the sea. Quite another to get home to take a shower, and realise that everything from your shower gel to hair serum is plastic… . . The days I spent at the @ioiadventures coral reef conservation project in Cocodrilo have convinced me that I need to do so much more than saying no to plastic bags and bottles. I need to reassess all my belongings and buys. . . Because even though it’s one thing to fill our bags, houses and trash cans with all kinds of single-use plastic… it’s NOT quite another to fill our oceans with them too; it’s one and the same 🐬 . . If you’re keen to start your anti-plastic commitment too, I have a handy post with alternatives (and where to get them) – link in my profile. And if you have ideas for other alternatives, please share! . . Photo shot on @gopro by fellow traveller Anna Berestova, who spent 5 weeks volunteering there! . . #theshootingstar #cubatravel #saveouroceans #planetorplastic #ioiadventures

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PIN it to review these organic Instagram growth ideas later.

Do you love or hate Instagram? What creative ways have you found to use it and grow organically?

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