How I Grew from 0 to 20k Instagram Followers in 3 Years

A look at how I have grown my Instagram account over the past three years as well as actionable strategies and advice you can use to grow yours.

Spoiler: zero paid advertising and zero followers bought.

Gone are the days where Instagram was reserved for the artistic community.

Now, with over 800 million active users, Instagram has become a place where people will share anything. 

From filtered selfies to latte art and perfectly composed dinner plates, there is a place for anything on the popular photo-sharing platform.

For me, Instagram is a place to showcase my hobby – that being photography.

How (and Why) it Began

I first downloaded Instagram in 2013 while on my way back from my year abroad at University.

Like many, my early use of the platform was a way to show my day-to-day life but make it look a little more interesting by applying the standard in-app filters to my iPhone pictures.

Although I’ve been into photography since school age, my first photos were nothing more than quick snaps of whatever I thought looked good that day.

I had zero plans to be known as a photographer or build any sort of following; I simply enjoyed the creative process of taking a photo.


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Almost home 😀👍

A post shared by Connor Mollison | Scotland (@connormollison) on

That is the very first photo I ever posted on Instagram, dated April 23rd, 2013. Nothing special and nothing different to what any of my non-photographer friends were posting at the time.

It didn’t take me long, however, to begin posting more creative (certainly not skilled) images, which marked the beginning of my photography learning curve and finding my ‘lane’.

My First Instagram Photos
Some of my first photos on Instagram around 2013

Looking back, I do cringe a bit at my questionable editing style. However, that’s how Instagram was back then and I had little understanding of what makes a good quality photo.

I have deliberately left my first images on my account because it’s great to see how my skill has developed over time. It’s also interesting for others, too, to be able to see how it all started for me.

Taking it Seriously

December 2015: Starting to hone my skills and grow an audience

I almost remember the exact moment I decided to take Instagram and my photography more seriously, with the intention of growing an audience around it.

For many, the platform is the ideal place to express creativity. This is largely true for me, too. However, my entrepreneurial mind also loves trying to figure out why people engage with certain content and I have a passion for marketing.

December 2015, just about 3 years ago, was the turning point. At that time, I had 150 followers, most of whom were people I knew or, more likely, fake accounts.

It’s funny, looking back at my shots from this time, I can see hints of my current style.

I began to pay close attention to what other photographers were doing, what hashtags they were using and their posting frequency. Through trial, error, and experimentation, I was finding my place on the platform and developing my style.

Little growth at this stage but a more clear understanding of the direction I wanted to take my account.

Strategies: 150 to 2000 followers

Let’s dive into it. What are the strategies I’ve used to grow to an audience of over 20,000 followers? Or, has it just happened by luck?

Now, I know that I’m not unique in having 20k followers – it seems that every other person these days considers themselves an influencer.

I do, however, get asked often for advice on getting more exposure on the platform and building a bigger audience.

That’s why I’ve decided to share some insights into how I’ve done it…

1.) Seek Out Your Audience (don’t wait for them to find you)

You’re wondering why others are growing at a rapid pace yet you’re struggling to see an upward trend? The chances are, you’re being passive in your attempts.

This has been, without a doubt, one of (maybe even the most) biggest reasons I’ve got any sort of audience at all. I’ve been lazy with this recently but in the early days, it was something I spent a lot of time doing.

Search for the hashtags your audience is using and begin to have meaningful interactions with the people who post pictures with those hashtags.

For me, that’s hashtags like #visitscotland, #edinburgh, #scotland etc.

Avoid insincerity at all costs.

It just doesn’t look good and it’s always obvious when you see these types of copy-paste comments. If you love something about a shot, leave a comment and let them know.

Can’t think of anything sincere to say? Just leave a like or move on to the next picture. Meaningful engagement is the most important for long-term success.

It will always become clear sooner or later if your interactions were only surface level.

If I’m not ‘feeling it’, then I won’t leave an insincere comment. If we’ve had an interaction on Instagram, I’ve meant it.

2.) Seek Out Big Features

Seeing a trend here? Be active, not passive. Here’s an example:

Looking for Features

Recently, I managed to get a shot of the Glenfinnan Viaduct and Jacobite Steam Train. Rather than pasting in the hashtags, tagging accounts and crossing my fingers for a repost, I sought it out.

I sent the image to an account with 600k+ followers with the message “Thought you’d like this shot I managed to snap a few days ago. Stunning place and even the weather behaved itself!”.

No begging for a feature. Nothing over the top. Just a simple “thought you’d like this”.

Guess what? They reposted it and I gained another 200 or so followers from that single interaction.

Now, this isn’t going to be successful every time you try it but for the times it works, it’s certainly worth it.


3.) Reply to Every DM and Every Comment

What’s the point in growing an audience if you’re going to ignore them? If you aren’t replying to people who take the time out of their day to message you and leave a comment, you have to question what it is you’re looking for from Instagram.

Do you just want the ego boost of having followers?

If your answer is no, then start focussing on your audience more.

If your work was in a physical gallery and someone came up to you to ask you a question about it or even compliment it, you’d most certainly reply.

Treat social media the same way. It’s nice to be nice and if your goal is growing an audience, these interactions will help you.

Of course, you might miss the odd comment here and there; it can get hard to keep up with. However, in the long run, you’ll notice a more engaged audience who’s willing to tell their friends about your account.

Just make sure you mean what you say!

4.) Quality or Quantity? (Hint: both)

I’ve been asked which is more important; quality or quantity? I usually reply with “both”.

You never know which image is going to take off. Just be sure to not strive for perfection every time because this will only hold you back.

At the end of 2017, I went to Dunnottar Castle with the drone and snapped away.

I didn’t realise it at the time but I had taken what would be my most widely shared photo of all time.



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King of the Castle 🙃

A post shared by Connor Mollison | Scotland (@connormollison) on

I didn’t actually like this image much at the time but I got an unusually positive reaction from my flatmate when I showed it to him, so I decided to post it.

Well, for some reason, it took off, getting reposts from accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers and a handful of accounts with millions of followers.

Screenshot of Follower Growth

The day before I posted this shot, I had 16.5k followers. A month later, I had 20k followers.

It took me 2 years to grow my first 10k followers and then just three months to grow my next 10k.

You never know which shot is going to take off, so keep snapping and keep posting.

2 Responses
  1. Patrick Fee

    Followed your work for a while Connor, not as active as I should be but as you say being consistent is key. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that this has given me a wake up call to what I’d like to achieve.

    Thanks @padraig_macphais

    1. Connor Mollison

      Thanks, Patrick. Recently I’ve been guilty of this too but whenever I implement some of the strategies, I definitely see a difference. Glad you found this useful.

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