100k Followers: How I Grew My Cat's Instagram
Updated: Mar 21, 2019
On November 6, 2016 I started @chicagoblackcat on Instagram. Eleven months later I had (well, my cat Mikita had) 2,000 followers. Fast forward another year and on November 8, 2018 that number turned into 100,000. Gaining a large following always seemed like a mystery to me. How do you get strangers to care about what you’re putting on Instagram? There are thousands of cats on Instagram, maybe millions? Who knows. How can anyone compete? I will share with you how I grew @chicagoblackcat. Everyone approaches it a little differently and that’s part of the success. There isn’t one exact way to grow your audience but there are definitely some important keys to being an account worth following.
Recently, I let my Instagram audience know that I was going to be working on a new blog post and wanted their input. I asked them, “What do you want to know about growing your Instagram?” They had some great questions. I’ll do my best to answer, and then some!
A GOOD INSTAGRAM IS LIKE A GOOD COCKTAIL
Think of an Instagram page like a cocktail. There are a million cocktails out there that range from absolutely terrible to perfectly balanced and delicious. But, not everyone will agree with what is good. You can’t be the right cocktail for everyone. So don’t try to be. Figure out who you are, what you want to say and be open to refining the recipe as you learn what your audience likes. Although it's your page, it's not entirely about you. Always consider your audience. Just because one cocktail works for one Instagram account doesn’t mean it’ll work for you. Figure out your strengths, your cat’s strengths and work those into your page. Take note of your weaknesses and learn how to work around those. Carve out your own niche in the market and bring something new to the table. A good cocktail will have you saying, “I’ll have another, thank you!” You’re probably going to tell your friends about it too!
BUILDING YOUR INSTAGRAM COCKTAIL
Get to know your own strengths and weaknesses. This will help you gain a more clear direction for your Instagram account. I am not a photographer so I don’t exactly have a “style”, but my photos are clear and focused. This has worked for me because my images appear casual, cute and approachable. Our apartment is a little dark in the evening and we don’t have high end finishes, so the background leaves much to be desired. That’s ok! Mikita is my focus. I’ve worked to incorporate my strengths and work around my weaknesses. Next, decide how you want to present your cat. Will you talk in first person? Will he be funny? Lovable? Stoic? It might take a little while to truly find your groove but once you learn how to best speak to your audience, writing posts and taking photos will become easier.
YOUR INSTAGRAM BIO
You are allowed 150 characters including spaces in your bio. That is pretty limiting so we have to be creative, clear, captivating and concise. I have adjusted my @chicagoblackcat bio numerous times. One of the most important things in my opinion is formatting. If you write one big long sentence about who you are, it gets confusing. Bullet points make it easier to read, most of the time. It will depend on what you are trying to say but remember that your bio should give people a clear idea what your account is about. I like to write my bio in "Notes" in my phone and then copy and paste it into the "Bio" section. This way it keeps the formatting intact. Make sure that the name of your cat is stated. Often times their Instagram handle incorporates something other than their name so it's important to be clear. If there's something extra special about your cat that you will be focusing on, definitely include it.
WHEN IT ALL BEGAN FOR CHICAGO BLACK CAT
I decided to start @chicagoblackcat because I needed a creative outlet. I jumped head first into Instagram cat world and I've been having a blast! It's easier to keep your Instagram account interesting and engaging when it's fun. If you want to improve your content, make sure it's something you enjoy doing. I had a plan from the beginning. Post cute, engaging content in the voice of Mikita (usually) and eventually share about the proactive ways we keep him healthy. How could I offer “outside the box” cat care without being dull? I knew I needed people to get to know Mikita first. Then maybe I'd be able to incorporate helpful tips and tricks to help other cat parents learn healthier ways to care for their cats.
MY INTENTIONS FOR CHICAGO BLACK CAT
Being too focused on gaining followers or trying to make money before the time was right wouldn’t create a sustainable account. I knew in my heart that if I was in it for the money, I’d fail. I was willing to put in the work. Potentially working with companies that I know, like and trust and getting paid by them sounds amazing! But I am very protective of @chicagoblackcat. It was tempting to take every free product that came my way at first, but I didn't. I was selective. Instead, I'd focus on building a good foundation. I wanted to invite people into Mikita's world, have them get to know him. I knew that if I could build a reputable account, I'd be able to put some good into the world. If it continued growing, the right brands might come along. My number one priority has always been and will always be providing content that I feel good about.
HOW TO BE AUTHENTIC AND WHY IT’S SO IMPORTANT
Authenticity will mean something different to each person. To me, it means showing Mikita's cute poses, tricks, meows and raw nutrition information. To a photographer, authentic might mean showcasing beautiful photos of their cats. To a comedian, it could be writing hilarious captions or making their cat a character. What makes your cat unique? Maybe they have an unusual skill or YOU have an unusual skill. Does your cat go on bike rides with you or walk on a leash? Just throwing ideas out there. Regardless of which direction you want to take your Instagram account, make sure it is something you will be able to sustain on a daily basis. We can’t show everything on social media so picking a focus is a great way to become recognizable to your audience, especially in the rising sea of Instagram cats. When they see your photo or video pop up, you want them to know pretty quickly that it’s you! Use your strengths (I say this a lot). Combine a few components to give your account depth, mixing up a perfectly balanced cocktail.
POSTING ABOUT PRODUCTS
Believe it or not, getting free products and getting paid by companies to share their products was the furthest thing from my mind in the beginning. It wasn’t until I started to see some growth in @chicagoblackcat that I realized I could potentially collaborate with companies. But this also came with a level of responsibility. Where would I draw the line? How would I begin to collaborate? How can I ensure it doesn't affect my authenticity? I have been talking about the food brands he eats, his favorite toys and more for a long time… for free. Brands are part of Mikita’s life and ours. If an opportunity comes up to work with a brand that I align with, you bet I’ll take that opportunity! Having a growing Instagram account with a following presents me with a unique advantage. I have the potential to use and share products that I like and trust and say, “no, thank you,” when it’s not the right fit for me.
As you grow, brands will likely approach you. For me, this started happening around 4,000 followers. They’ll typically offer a free product for post. Most companies will ask for an honest review, a wall post, story etc showing their product. As you grow, you can approach brands too. Part of protecting your account and your own brand is accepting those free products only when you truly feel it's a fit. Product for post is a great way to get your foot in the door and start building a relationship with a brand, especially when you're first starting out. Of course, everyone wants to be paid to post but many companies aren’t willing to shell out money to influencers that they don’t have a relationship with. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to being an influencer. But remember, this is business. In a sea of influencers, show them that you are a player in the game. Chances are, if they like the way you showed the free product they sent you, they’ll want to work with you again.
YEAH BUT WHEN DO I GET PAID?
There are several ways to get paid as an influencer. The easiest way is through affiliate links. But, it's often not the most lucrative. For instance, I have an Amazon shop with our recommended cat items. When I share this link, someone can click on it to purchase. If they do, I’ll make a small percentage of the sale. It works the same way with direct product links. The Sheer Fun cat toy is one of Mikita's favorite toys. If you follow him, you've probably seen him playing with it. Then there's the Litter-Robot. This link actually saves you $25. Best litter box ever. Similar to an affiliate link, there are some companies that will offer you a discount code to share with your audience. Most of these codes are no benefit to me, but Basepaws for instance does give a commission each time someone uses my code. They send the commission to the shelter where we adopted Mikita from.
Another way to get paid is by setting up your own shop. With an Instagram platform, you can send people to your website. We have a Chicago Black Cat Shop. Check it out!
A more lucrative way to get paid is by either working on a single post collaboration with a company or a campaign. This is where you and a brand would come to an agreement on how you'll be showcasing their product. Rather than an affiliate link, they'll pay you directly for your post. As you start to gain a larger audience, companies will likely approach you. But you can approach brands too. Paid opportunities sometimes start out as "product for post" so don't be surprised if a brand would like to send you a free product first. Sometimes a free product is worth the time it takes to put together a good post. Sometimes it's not. Be selective. Before you approach any company, gather your stats, do a little research on the brand, work on composing a pitch email and make sure to present yourself in a professional manner. Remember that your job as an influencer is to tell the brand how you can help them.
DOES IT REALLY PAY TO HAVE A LARGE FOLLOWING?
It can! I have focused mostly on providing engaging, helpful and super cute content so my main focus hasn’t been on monetizing @chicagoblackcat, thus far. I’ve built my account on trust and because of that, I’ve moved very slowly when it comes to working with companies. I want to make the right decisions. Many people with a following my size can make decent money on sponsored posts. Currently, I am in the process of considering paid collaborations with brands. When the right opportunities come along, I’ll be ready to negotiate and say, “yes!”
HOW OFTEN SHOULD YOU POST
WALL POSTS: On average I post once a day.
STORIES: I post 5-10 stories per day. Sometimes more. I use Stories to show more of Mikita’s personality and our relationship with him. I try to keep them short and to the point so they’re interesting!
HOW TO TAKE A GOOD PHOTO OF A CAT
We've taught Mikita some simple commands like "sit" and "paw". This has been extremely helpful when taking photos of him. He's learned to be a little patient as well as make eye contact. Check out Mikita's IGTV video where I demonstrate how to teach your cat some simple commands!
Clean your lens. I am constantly wiping my iPhone lens when I take photos of Mikita. The last thing I want is to capture a good photo that is hazy because my lens wasn't clean. Use natural light whenever possible or at least a few lamps in your home. Don't use the flash unless your angle is creating a demonic looking Instagram. Tap your screen to focus. This will help your photos look sharper. Learn your angles and areas in your home that catch the light. Practice, practice, practice! Treats and toys are a good way to get your cat to look at you, allowing a few seconds to snap several clear photos. Always keep photo time stress free. Photographing a black cat can be a little challenging, but with the right lighting and keeping that camera phone steady, you'll be able to capture some great photos.
HOW TO STAND OUT
If you want people to stop and take a few seconds to appreciate the photo you posted, there are a few things that will help. It doesn’t have to be a professional photo to stand out but it should sparkle a little!
Post your best photos, not all your photos. Show your pet in the best light. We have short attention spans on Instagram. It’s easy to scroll to the next.
Edit your photos. Use the Instagram editor. It’s sooo easy. Crop, brighten, adjust highlights in a darker photo, etc. Don’t over-edit. It’ll look unnatural.
What can you offer your audience? Ask yourself, “why would someone want to follow my cat?” Think about the types of photos and videos you can post. Is it sustainable? Will you get sick of it? Will your followers get sick of it? Finding a way to showcase your cat along with their personality is important for establishing a solid account.
Be yourself! It’s great to take inspiration from other accounts but make sure you are bringing something new to the table. Don’t be a copy cat.
Use your skills. If you are a photographer or designer, use your talents to create the aesthetic you want. It's your page. Make it your own!
Speak to your audience. Be inclusive. Remember, it's not really about you even though it kinda is.
TWO MOST IMPORTANT THINGS YOU NEED TO DO
Be consistent with good quality content. That means posting quality content daily or several times a week. This is the best way to keep momentum going. Instagram wants you to be on their platform. The more regularly you post, the more you’ll show up in people’s feeds… usually. It’s an algorithm that no one fully understands. Some days you'll have better engagement than others. But consistent, quality content does seem to be favored.
Listen to your followers. Nurture your audience and don’t always be on the lookout for more followers. Connect with the ones you have. Building a strong Instagram account is like being in a relationship. It can be superficial, always looking for the next best thing. Or you can connect with your followers, get to know them and understand what you can do for them. I’ve chosen the latter and so far @chicagoblackcat has been growing. Slow and steady wins the race!
HOW TO KEEP FOLLOWERS
Be consistent, but not boring. Sounds easy but it does require some strategy. Some photos and videos are going to do better than others. That’s just reality. But staying focused with a bit of surprise will keep your audience engaged. Take note of what gets the most likes and comments. Always make sure you have some variety to keep it interesting. Engage, engage, engage. "Like", follow and comment on other posts. Be genuine. Respond to comments and questions on your own page. Engage with your current audience. Having a strong core of interested people is much more valuable than having tons of followers who don’t care about what you’re doing. If your audience isn’t engaged, they’ll leave. If your posts are too random or if you start changing direction, people may not stick around. Be inclusive. Be helpful and approachable. If you build a strong foundation, you can go up from there. In addition to posting, use Instagram stories! Stories have become one of the most successful parts of @chicagoblackcat.
WHAT IF YOU’RE LOSING FOLLOWERS?
If you start to lose followers, take a step back, scroll through your page and try to address what did well and what didn’t. Re-group and aim to learn from what’s working and what’s not. We can’t control the Instagram algorithm, but we can control the content we post. If it’s immediately cute, high quality, funny, interesting or all of the above, it’ll do better than a blurry photo of your cat’s back. If you’re looking to retain followers, be selective when posting. Did I mention that you should post consistently?
ARE HASHTAGS HELPFUL?
I think so! They can help you reach new potential followers. It's a piece to the puzzle, especially early on. Instagram allows you to use up to 30 hashtags. I typically use around 25-30. I keep a list of hashtags in my notes and then copy and paste them into my post. I always add or delete a few, just to switch things up. Take a look at successful accounts hashtags. See if you can find any trends or inspiration. I always include core hashtags like #cat #blackcat as well as #chicagoblackcat. Definitely use more specific ones that pertain to your post, like #catloaf if your cat is sitting loaf style. Don't use hashtags that don't make sense. This may start to hurt you because Instagram may see you as spam. I think. I don't really know, but it sounds like a bad idea. Hashtags are also good for being considered by feature accounts. More on that later!
HOW TO GAIN REAL FOLLOWERS
Don’t ever buy followers. These are robot followers. They are like fake friends that make you look cool for 5 minutes but then they become a pain in the ass and haunt you forever because they won’t go away! Fake followers don't provide any value. They destroy your engagement and credibility. Another popular way to gain followers is by joining a follow train. I'm not a fan of these. It is a way to get real followers, but not necessarily "engaged" followers. Engagement rate (average likes and comments compared to number of followers) is more important than the actual number of followers you have. Focus on learning from your current audience. This will truly help you put out the best content for your page, which will ultimately allow you to grow, get shared, i.e. gain more followers.
Remember that cocktail I was talking about? The good ones that are so amazing you want to tell your friends? Great photos and videos are shared like a delicious cocktail. So how can you get your content featured? Time, patience, research and hashtags! There are many accounts out there that feature cat photos and videos on their page. @cats_of_instagram is the biggest cat feature account out there. The one that we all want to be featured on! Although, there are many other cat feature accounts so don't forget about the smaller ones. Some of these pages feature black cats or Maine Coons, some feature guys with cats or cat loafs. Search for these accounts and look at their feed. Would your content fit in? If so, follow their rules to be considered. They often require a specific hashtag. Getting featured may take a little while but use it as a way to work hard and improve your content. Whatever you do, don't spam these accounts. Don't ask them to give you a shoutout. Follow their rules. Getting featured is a good way to gain followers but if you're not an account worth following, you likely won't gain very many. So make your account look good!
MIKITA'S FIRST FEATURES
Full disclosure, the first time @chicagoblackcat was shared on a true feature account, I immediately started seeing an increase in followers. @happycatclub shared this photo on February 17, 2018. It wasn't even a new photo. It came out of nowhere! Prior to this feature I had pretty much organically grown to about 6,400 followers. Not bad, but this feature helped me gain a few hundred new followers in a day! Then something happened. Several more feature accounts (some large, some small) shared that same photo over the next few weeks. Once you start getting shares, it snowballs. If you keep creating good content, shares will turn into followers. So, I listened to the types of photos and videos that were doing well and streamlined my content. On March 16, 2018 I had 16,000 followers. Two different videos I posted started getting shares as well. Then something even more amazing happened! I received my first @cats_of_instagram feature with this video. I gained at least 2,500 followers in a day! I couldn't believe it! This was Mikita's first big video. I think it's still his biggest! Eventually I started watermarking his videos because the one downside of gaining a large audience on Instagram is that your content gets shared and often isn't credited back. So, Mikita becomes an anonymous cute cat on the internet. I'll take the bad with the good though. It's all a learning experience. It makes me work smarter so I can reach my ideal audience.
LET'S WRAP IT UP!
Phew! Thanks for sticking with me, guys! The main takeaways here are that it's imperative that your account be interesting, unique in some way, engaging, approachable and overall a good account to follow. Instagram pages grow because posts are "liked" and shared. They continue to grow because of how you nurture your account. Don't spam people with requests to be shared or followed. Have patience, put in the work and you will grow. Instagram is like a video game. You can't "set it and forget it", but the cheat code is creating quality content, leading to shares. You have to constantly be working on your craft, finding your edge, refining your voice. You must listen to your audience and find ways to showcase your greatest photos and videos so you can serve up the best darn cocktail humanly possible!