2024 Observations and Experiences from a Working Artist
I recently posted this summary of a call I had with a Meta Rep about three things the Instagram algorithm looks for from a growth standpoint. This post expands upon that and explores what art content I’ve seen perform best on Instagram. Artists have been struggling on Instagram for quite a while now. With the pivot to Reels and the never-ending algorithm tweaks, it’s seemingly harder than ever for creators to find their audience or even get shown to their existing audience.
Not everyone should care about Instagram growth. I am coming from the perspective of a full-time professional artist who has focused primarily on e-commerce for years now. E-commerce sales are a large chunk of my income and Instagram has provided the majority of the traffic to my store in that time. One can say I’m emotionally invested in this app.
The TikTok-ification of Instagram:
My Instagram account has been pretty stagnant for the last few years. When I grew my account between 2017 and 2019, I was posting 1 to 3 times a day and focused on video content, but photo posts still did well. I made a lot of timelapse videos of my art process and that contributed to the majority of my growth. It was a tried and true formula. It didn’t really matter what art you were making at this time, if you recorded the process and posted it on IG in an attractive way, you could gain a following.
You didn’t need to care about hooks, captions, or trends. Frankly, you didn’t need to put much thought into the content at all as long as the visuals were somewhat polished. The bar was low and I benefited greatly.
Eventually, Instagram Reels came along.
Instagram had already been focusing on videos before TikTok existed, but it was inevitable they would prioritize them even more once TikTok gained attention. Thus, Reels were born. I resisted Reels at first as I didn’t enjoy using TikTok as an artist. The endless content consumption from scrolling freaked me out and gave way to a different kind of content creator.
Instagram content has shifted from creativity to persona:
When I scroll through Reels these days, the successful videos seem to be focused more on personal brands, influencers, hot-takes from the driver’s seat of a car, opinions, performances, story-tellers, motivational content, consumer trends, wellness topics, mental health, and marketing experts. The artists are struggling as quiet content appears to get lost in the noise.
I will not judge if this is a good or bad thing here. It’s just a thing that is happening. And more and more, I have been seeing artists, in an effort to compete, choose to let their art fall into the background of their content as they step into focus. This includes me.
Does art content really perform worse?
I have seen a lot of great content by artists that pay homage to the purity of old Instagram. Satisfying edits, beautiful works of art, pure process, and creativity on display without any robot voiceover, text, hooks, affiliate links, or performances.
Some artists are gaining large followings with their art being front and center, and I don’t quite know how it can be replicated across all genres yet. I’m still studying that. But I can at least tell you that my art content, and the content from many other artists, is not doing great. Content like this Reel below.
This is the content I prefer making. It tells no story, doesn’t use trending audio, and doesn’t have a hook or message. It’s just pure process and no longer works for me like it used to. Videos like this will still appeal to some, but it seems to appeal to a minority–or at least it doesn’t appeal to the audience Instagram is trying to please at the moment.
At first, I thought my account was just cursed or suddenly my art sucked, but then:
I realized the appetite for content has shifted dramatically. Instead of posting a part of my process, I decided to try making artist-centered content and posted the Reel below. This Reel is about my experience as a creator first and my art comes second:
The reel didn’t blow up or go viral but it finally gave me forward momentum. The content spoke to many artists who have had their art put down in the past. This is a common story for many of us. I didn’t see immediate follower growth with this video, but I at least was getting access to more of my existing audience. It also triggered a prompt on my account to sign up for the Meta call I mentioned.
That’s when I struck accidental gold.
Kickstarting my Instagram Growth
After I got off that phone call with Meta, I immediately posted the Reel below. I have been posting marketing content intermittently over the years. Gaining an audience as an artist is not intuitive, and I have always enjoyed sharing what I learn. I do it for free on this blog and have paid versions of help when people want to dive deeper.
(Disclaimer: Since I’m seeing more and more artists pivoting to being full-time art marketing experts, I feel it important to say: That’s not me. Yes, I make side income teaching and consulting, but that’s because I get bored easily and need to use a different part of my brain between projects, not because I can’t sell my own art. Art sales are my primary source of income. That being said, sign up for my email list because I think I’m going to do some affordable online courses soon in retaliation to all the outrageously priced and scammy masterclasses I’ve been seeing. This blog will always be free.)
Anyway, I posted this Reel and boy did it shake things up a bit. This is literally the most successful content I have ever posted. Unfortunately, it has very little to do with my art.
Here is why I believe this video was successful:
- The text hooked the viewer: Having text overlays can grab your viewer’s attention like process videos used to do on their own. But it needs to be something the audience cares about or relates to.
- The topic has a broad reach: Everyone wants to grow their following these days so speaking about how to grow a following on Instagram is relevant to a large audience.
- The video was saved and shared at an alarming rate because of the relevancy of the content: 14k+ shares and 30k+ bookmarks.
- The video was short: Shorter videos are more likely to be watched all the way through, and even looped over and over again as people hang out in the comments section, showing the algorithm the content was engaging.
- The topic was controversial: Many people did not believe I talked to someone at Meta. This led people straight into the comment section. I hate to say it, but content that strikes an emotional chord, especially anger, makes people linger on the video much longer while they engage in the comments.
- The audio was trending: I have no idea what impact this had. Honestly, I think it was minimal when looking at the above factors.
This video satisfied the algorithm so much that it has 3 million views and counting.
But all views are not relevant views and not all Instagram growth is good growth:
This topic had very little to do with my art. I still gained 6k and counting followers in two weeks from this one Reel, but who knows if those followers will translate to art sales. Now, if I were selling marketing products, sure, I bet I could have monetized the crap out of that video. But it’s hard to say how much overlap there will be between my niche and the audience I acquired. Basically, don’t just start making marketing content to gain followers if you want to sell your art.
A secondary effect of a Reel going viral:
I have noticed that since that particular Reel blew up, more of my past Reels are being pushed to a larger audience. Even though the Meta call had little to do with my art, it is still leading to more views overall for my work.
I also noticed that the Reels I posted within the week after this Reel did substantially better than my past content, leading me to believe that you should maximize your momentum by producing a bit more content when/if something does go viral. Seize the attention.
Why you can’t trust marketing experts who tell you how to be successful at selling art:
As I mentioned above, the Meta Reel reached a broad audience. When you see marketing accounts telling you how to make successful content like them, they rarely tell you that their niche is not your niche. They want to show off their success and hope you believe it will translate identically to your account regardless of what you’re selling. It’s a con to get you to invest in their product.
A faceless IG account that loops 3-second videos of them stirring coffee while telling you how to hack the IG algorithm can get millions of views because it appeals to everyone. A 3-second loop of you painting will not produce the same results because you are selling different products. You are selling art. They are selling a way to make money. These products fill two very different needs.
Where I’ve seen relevant Instagram Growth:
Back to that idea of a shifting appetite: People want different things than they used to. I think many of us were enamored with art process videos for so long because we craved inspiration. Many of us have wanted to embrace the artist within us and the art process videos provided an abundance of creative fuel. Now, it seems people are burned out from that. They have embraced the artist and now want to monetize the artist. They want to have conversations about the artist’s lifestyle and bond over relatable topics like the first Reel I posted above about my instructor being a dick to me.
Lately, I have been messing around on my main Instagram account because, for the first time in a long time, it sounds fun to me. I miss having conversations with artists, and happily, I have found some things that have worked and still feel authentic to my art brand. Here’s what I’ve been learning from my experiences lately:
1. Produce engaging content that starts a conversation:
If the content facilitates conversation and makes people save it for later or send it to friends, a lack of trending audio or niche hashtags will not stop it from being seen. There is more of an emotional element required lately.
In the Reel below, I used old art process clips, took examples of things people have said to me through my art career that others have experienced, and used text and trending audio to highlight my message in the caption.
The message was the main focus and my art was in the background. Happily, I could be less involved as the artist, proving you don’t need to be a performer.
2. Produce validating content:
Content that makes people feel less alone in their struggles does well. The internet still shows us unrealistic standards of perfection and beauty. If you stand up for imperfection, you can validate others in the process.
In the Reel below, I spoke about aesthetic sketchbooks and my inability to have one. I also tried using voice-over for the first time and kept the video shorter while still using a trending audio track in the background. I also used captions for the voice-over as many people scroll with the audio off.
My experience as an artist pulls focus, and my art is barely even involved, but the primary driver of this content’s success is that it resonates deeply with my audience (it was shared 300+ times and bookmarked 400+ times).
3. Produce genuinely awe-inspiring or novel content:
Content that makes the viewer go “whoa” before they send it to their friends. The content that is so technically skilled and impressive that it makes us go:
This tactic appears to do better with representational artwork (i.e. portraits, landscapes, flowers, etc) as opposed to abstract content unless the video editing or art technique used is especially novel or satisfying. Basically, we as creators can’t get away with the same content as before because the bar keeps rising. It’s not malicious intent from the algorithm but a matter of content saturation and audience preferences.
I wish I had data to show how many art accounts exist today vs 2017, but I’d guess there’s been a massive increase. Even I, an art lover, am burned out from seeing the same art content over and over again. We seek novelty. As content creators, how can we deliver that?
4. Produce content that starts drama *sigh*:
I’m not endorsing this, but I have to acknowledge the power here. Posting a hot-take or something controversial makes people flock to the comments section with similar energy. They are eager to say “actually”, “you’re wrong,” or “you suck”. I urge caution here because of how this kind of content can fall back on you or shade your branding.
As an artist, I find it can be effective to rally against bullies, but in an effort to build up the bullied and not tear down the bully. But at the end of the day I want to feel good about what I’m doing, and starting drama doesn’t make me feel good no matter how many views it gets.
The Fight for Authenticity
There is content that works to grow an Instagram following and there is content that is productive to your goals. Sometimes they overlap, but sometimes one is sacrificed for the other. I encourage you to remain authentic to you as you are trying to grow your audience. Also, be mindful of the product you are trying to sell or the goal you are trying to accomplish when making new content.
Don’t jump on trends just for the sake of growth. If you’re not having fun, exit the app. If you hate trending audio, don’t use it. And if Instagram is hurting your mental health, explore other means of making an income as an artist. The internet is a great tool, but it’s not the only tool.
Also, keep in mind that these are my personal experiences and thoughts. This post could be fleshed out with more examples. Also, I could be full of sh*t.
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