Instagram is like a modern-day artsy gallery with fast changing exhibitions, customized and refined to your liking. Many have used it to teach online (i.e. posted pictures with different things and collected likes), but few have been successful at building a tribe on Instagram — a community of people that care about your brand and that will miss it when it’s not there.
In today’s post I’m asking Elfin Waters, one of my clients whose smart online teaching story inspired many, how she managed to build an incredible following and a tight-knit community of All About Italian lovers on Instagram. I hope you find her tips actionable and motivating! Thank you. <3
- What prompted you to choose Instagram over other platforms?
- What do you need to know before you start posting on Instagram?
- How do you make your account memorable?
- How do you get people to find you?
- What are IG stories and how do you use them?
- How can one be less overwhelmed with posting? What’s your smart routine?
- How do you build a thriving community on Instagram?
1. What prompted you to choose Instagram over other platforms?
Two years ago, at an online event, I heard Lindsay from Lindsay Does Languages and Jennifer from English Outside the Box talk about how Instagram was the “ nicest” social media. People were supportive and there was none of the rage and negativity that you find on YouTube and Facebook.
At the time, starting a blog of my own was overwhelming because I was working too many hours and simply didn’t know where to start. Other social media scared me. Instagram sounded like a small thing I could fit into my daily routine.
I knew nothing about it, except for all the usual hype about celebrities. I downloaded the app to my phone and began posting shortly after. It changed every single thing for me and got me started as a small business owner.
2. What do you need to know before you start posting on Instagram?
It’s really important to take some time to understand if your audience spends time there and what you can contribute.
Gone are the days in which you could build an audience overnight by posting very simple content like a phrasal verb on Canva. You have to bring in something unique. A lot depends on what your expertise is and how Instagram can complement it and showcase it.
Another thing teachers often struggle with is hashtags. Adding them to your post is like adding an address to a letter before mailing it. It’s the only way to ensure your post gets to destination. If you’re confused about hashtags, just have a look at what your peers are using and see which could be right for you.
Don’t go with overly popular ones because your work will be drowned by other posts and create 3-4 sets of hashtags to alternate in order to avoid being shadowbanned. I keep my hashtags in Google Keep on my phone and add them in the first comment box right after posting. It’s vital to find the right hashtags for YOUR business.
Wondering how #instagram can help you build your online #teaching business? Read this insightful interview.Click To Tweet
3. How do you make your account memorable?
I see so many beautiful posts on IG with thousands of likes but no comments. That’s because the captions are written really badly or are non-existent. They aren’t thought out with the audience in mind.
Contrary to popular belief, IG isn’t only about beautiful pictures. A lot is in the captions. But, whatever you’re teaching, don’t only talk about that. Forget about numbers. Learn to ignore them altogether. I mean it. Your goal is to spark a conversation.
The only figures you should be concerned about, are the number of comments to your posts. For example, in my account, I’ve been making little videos about Italian idioms. I very rarely choose expressions that don’t lead to a question or something that my audience can relate to and want to talk about. If the idiom can’t generate a conversation, I usually avoid making a video about it.
I also make sure I answer every single comment, even if just with an emoji. It drives your post up for visibility and, most importantly, it generates trust. That’s why I try to schedule my videos for when I know I have time to comment right after.
But your account isn’t the only place where you can have a conversation. Quite the contrary. It ALL starts with other people’s work. Looking for your audience, you’ll find other accounts. Leave comments and talk about everything that matters to you.
Instagram is like a small town. Everybody knows each other and when you go out in the streets, people say hello and discuss the weather and other mundane events. Then, more relevant stuff might come up but you wouldn’t just dive into it immediately, would you?
It will take some time before people will trust you, so just keep at it. And just like in a small town, if you’re not around, you’ll be missed.
Elfin co-teaches our Instagram for Language Teachers Course. Check it out:
4. How do you get people to find you?
Most of my work is outside of my own posts. I engage with students and teachers on their accounts and simply chat. It could be about food, or a book that meant a lot to me. Or a movie that I liked. Speak like you would with people offline. Leave your teacher voice out of this and just be a friendly person.
That’s when you’ll notice a shift.
Many people think that their audience will show up and ask them how to solve their problems. Maybe it used to be that way. I’ve learned about my audience indirectly. I know a whole lot about what triggers their dreams and fears but I got it from unrelated bits and pieces I picked up along the way. Learn to pay attention and listen.
You can get all that with very few students.
I see accounts with 200 followers that are having amazing conversations with their audience because they’re prioritizing the right things and aren’t getting caught up in the time-consuming game of creating beautiful posts and having the perfect looking feed.
5. What are IG stories and how do you use them?
IG stories is your chance to have a private conversation with your followers. You upload photos or short clips, no more than ten seconds. They disappear after 24 hours. IG stole the idea from Snapchat but added many new features to it.
People find IG stories very compelling because they disappear but also because they get to see raw footage and can get the feeling of being closer to you. The content doesn’t have to be as polished and beautiful as in the classic feed. Just show things from your perspective.
I share pictures of what I eat, my walks, my daily routine and short clips of what I do during the day. I try to be consistent and show up at least 3 times a week because the audience is a different one from classic IG and needs building up.
It’s all quite informal and there’s this sense of intimacy that leads followers to send in quick messages. It’s amazing to see how much of a connection builds up by watching Stories regularly. For my followers, it’s like catching up with a friend.
You can promote your work but it has to be very casual, almost an afterthought. Stories shouldn’t be time-consuming. Don’t make it about creating more content. Speak as a friend, not as a teacher.
ESL teachers don’t seem to get great results on Instagram because they’re so taken up with teaching all the time. They forget to sell the most important thing: the dream.
As a fellow ESL teacher, I can assure you that my students are working very hard on their skills every day because they dream of sipping coffee on a porch in Ohio, of surfing in Perth or getting stuck in rush hour in the Tube in London. Your life, no matter how normal it seems to you, has some glamour in it for someone who’s making $50 a month and wants a better life.
IG Stories are the perfect opportunity to nourish that dream and show the behind the scenes of your business.
And you know what the best part is? By posting bits and pieces from your day, you start realizing how interesting and beautiful it actually is and you appreciate it more.
6. How can one be less overwhelmed with posting? What’s your smart routine?
I take notes of things that come up and then, once a week, I write out my schedule, make the videos and write out the captions. I decide the days I’m going to post in and then, stick to my schedule. Of course, if there’s some special celebration or some event coming up, I’ll change my posts on the spot. The whole process takes me one hour at most. If you’re intentional, you’ll learn to see opportunities all the time and scribble them down so that all you have to do, once a week, is get your ideas organized.
It’s alright to take breaks in your posts now and then. Just try to be present by commenting and supporting other people’s work.
If you’re doing things well, when you’re not online, people will write to inquire if everything is alright. Because you will be missed. That’s what Instagram is all about.
7. How do you build a thriving community on Instagram?
It’s important to spark a conversation and, while waiting for that to happen, be an active part of it on other accounts.
Look for other learners and teachers or people that relate with what you’re doing at some level. I think that the hardest part for me was getting other teachers to connect. It takes time but if you insist and show your passion, it’s really worth it.
I can’t imagine doing this without the incredible support I got from the teaching community.
Pay attention to what other people are saying and doing. Not in order to copycat but so that you can help and better understand problems, challenges and joys. Once you start making friends, involve them by hosting takeovers and or tagging people to share something you know they really would like.
There’s nothing that creates a community more than watching other people connect and chat. It makes you want to be a part of it.
The post was updated in March, 2021.
I have been teaching English and Italian online since 2014 at Italki. I focus on listening training and help my students overcome their fear of speaking by focusing on the conversational aspects of the language. I give daily lessons of Italian aimed at an English speaking audience on Instagram. Sign up for her newsletter and join our course if you want to use Instagram for your business.