4 Steps to Grow Your Instagram Following from 1000 to 5000 in 90 Days

Our Goal: Grow to Give

This article offers a case study of how Storyware grew the philanthropic project CvilleShops through social media. In Part I, I describe in four steps how I organically launched @CvilleShops on Instagram and gained our first thousand followers in under three months between May and August 2020.

Storyware created CvilleShops to support local businesses impacted by the then-emerging COVID-19 pandemic in our backyard of Charlottesville, Albemarle, and surrounding areas. We built an online store that enabled customers to purchase gift cards from multiple businesses at once instead of wasting time on a variety of different sites. All the businesses on CvilleShops received 100% of the value of any gift card purchase. This was an entirely charitable endeavor for Storyware.

Step One: Partnerships

The first step to executing a successful paid digital campaign is to gain meaningful partnerships. In the CvilleShops project, Storyware was fortunate to partner with several impactful organizations that shared our commitment to helping local businesses weather the pandemic.

The Charlottesville Office of Economic Development was a crucial partner from the outset, underwriting an initial giveaway of gift cards that provided immediate cash to participating businesses while building the project’s brand awareness.

Storyware then partnered with one of our longest-standing clients, The Scout Guide, itself a champion of small business that celebrates the entrepreneurial culture and style of dozens of American communities through its franchise of locally-curated magazines. Building on the success of our initial giveaway campaign, The Scout Guide also sponsored a giveaway. In addition, they later hosted a “Shop Local” contest during the holiday season, which challenged their highly aligned audience in Central Virginia to keep dollars local.

In connection with that “Shop Local” campaign, Storyware also partnered with The Charlottesville Insider, a recently launched lifestyle blog that documents happenings around town. We placed a “Shop Local” holiday banner advertisement next to their live downtown mall webcam, ran another joint giveaway with them, and utilized their curated influencer base to highlight various CvilleShops locations through vlogs on The Charlottesville Insider’s Instagram Stories.

These partnerships were pivotal in growing CvilleShops’ following. ​​Networking with partners and their social media directors should be the first step in building a cross-promotional strategy. Make sure that your partners understand the importance of tagging your account in every post related to your product or service. If the same is done for them in return, the reach of your messages will be multiplied by drawing on their following.

Another easy way to cross-promote between partners or sponsors is to promote them via links in the footer of your website and ask them to do the same. This will help both parties with their SEO and enhance the professionalism of your effort. Many small businesses are willing to trade exposure in this way for free.

We made a commitment to interact with our sponsors’ Instagram content on a daily basis, budgeting 15 to 30 minutes for listening, commenting, and liking. Additionally, it was important to spend another 15 minutes each day looking through the accounts of competitors, followers, and CvilleShops’ own Instagram feed to catch onto any trends, interact with the community, and create a presence for ourselves. This engagement ensured that CvilleShops would show up more often and more visibly on a followers’ feed.

Step 2: Utilize Paid/Promoted Content







The second step in the CvilleShops paid digital campaign was to promote content related to our mission. We tried to avoid spamming people with “buy our stuff” ads. Instead, we got down to the nitty-gritty of WHY they should purchase gift cards from our eCommerce platform. Messaging emphasized our mission and how “100% of profits are paid directly out to the businesses” to grab the attention of our audience.

Our goal in promoting content on Instagram was reach, rather than growing followers or directing people to our profile. We wanted as many people as possible to hear about CvilleShops in order to ultimately get them to make a purchase. Additionally, we segmented the budget to account for population variations in the different regions we were targeted, so that we did not end up oversaturating or underinvesting in an important geographical region.

Step 3: Host Instagram Giveaways

As I mentioned above, working with partners to host gift card giveaways on Instagram was hugely successful in helping us reach our goals.

Here’s the nitty-gritty of how I ran our “30 Days of Giving” Instagram campaign in ten steps:

  1. Design social media post template for giveaways.
  2. Use a program like Later to manage a content calendar to enable auto-publish and schedule all posts for the entire month in advance. Later and Preview can also help you maintain the aesthetic of your Instagram feed by planning out your grid.
  3. Decide on a streamlined giveaway caption & make sure to keep this consistent
    – (EX. Caption) G I V E A W A Y !⁠ For our final giveaway in November, we will be picking 5 lucky winners to each receive a $50 gift card to CVILLE COFFEE! @cvillecoffeeandwine (Giveaway closes 12/7)⁠ The giveaway rules are listed below!⁠ ⁠ How To Enter: ⁠Follow @cvilleshops⁠ & @cvillecoffeeandwine, Like this post!, Tag 3 friends in the comments (the more the merrier)⁠. For an additional entry, share this post to your story and tag us!⁠ ⁠ #365daysofgiving⁠ . . . Photo from @cvillecoffeeandwine
    – Make sure you tag or mention (Photo By: ___ ) the person or account to give photo credit to as well as the company whose gift you are giving away.
  4. After each post is posted, add/repost it to a Giveaway story highlight with a “giveaway” gif to draw attention. Continue to do this whenever the post engagement/commenting starts to die down on any given post.
  5. Make sure you write down the usernames or accounts of those who re-posted the giveaway to their story in order to give them an extra entry in the drawing.
  6. After the giveaway has been posted for at least 4 days, it is time to select a winner.
  7. Use a free Comment Picker like this to select the winner!
    – Add extra entries.
    – Exclude previous winners.
    – Exclude duplicate entries.
  8. After the winner has been selected make sure to update the caption to say C L O S E D ! instead of G I V E A W A Y !⁠ so that people don’t continue to enter.
  9. Once again, repost the desired giveaway to the story with “And the winner is…”, and the @mention of the winner/giveaway recipient.
  10. Follow up by DMing this message to them immediately and working out how they can receive their prize!

Step 4: Audit Your Insights

Make sure to keep track of everything! You should figure out how many people saw your message, where they were located, and who was interacting with your brand. It is great to be able to know that you’ve reached people. You should feel fulfilled knowing that you made an impact, no matter how small, in your local community.

The CvilleShops Instagram account was able to grow from around 1,000 followers on November 1st to roughly 5,000 followers at the end of January. This was an amazing leap made possible by the 4 steps mentioned above. Instagram drove thousands of impressions with every post and created a palpable buzz in the Charlottesville community leading up to our first COVID holiday season. Personally, I remember seeing friends and family post about CvilleShops on their own accounts without my prompting, and I found it so cool that they discovered our project independently through the wide reach that our giveaway campaigns achieved.

In 2020, CvilleShops.com sold over $3,500 in gift cards, money that directly aided local businesses. In November, we introduced our 30 days of giving campaign that was met with an explosive response from the community. From November 1st to 30th, sponsors gave away a gift card each day. Just one month of giveaways culminated in 14,748 entries to win 30 prizes, an average reach of 4,387 unique accounts per post, 158,846 total impressions, 3,517 followers, and $3,500 given directly to local businesses through the purchase of gift cards. After November, we were able to repeat the 30 days of giving campaign again in January, bringing our total following to just over 5,000.