Michael Levine on Growing Instagram

This story was originally published on Michael Levine's website

Instagram is like a drug. You get some action on an image and you keep checking back every 30 seconds to hopefully watch your engagement grow, and to read comments on how great your image is. It’s a huge rush when an image gets a little traction and you think, Finally, this is the one that is going to grow my following.

And then it starts to dwindle because every second there are 10,000 new images being posted that are just as good or better than yours—come on, be objective, it’s the only way to improve—and in 24 hours your image is almost meaningless. And, you need that hit again. It’s exactly like smoking rocks—or so I’ve heard.

Then you see certain accounts taking off and you wonder WTF? Why them? My wife just started an Instagram account a few weeks ago and gets as many or more likes per picture on average with 250 followers than I get with 8000. I have several employees with less than 2000 followers who get way more likes than I do, and all my followers are legit. Full disclosure, I bought 1000 followers about 4 years ago but I lost them in the Great Instagram Purge of 2014.

Now if you’re old like me, you might be wondering, Is it worth it? Will it really help my bottom line?

Yes it will. In fact, if you don’t use it, it will hurt your bottom line. Here’s why:

People under 25 use Instagram as their search engine for a lot of things. Google to them is almost like the Yellow Pages to us. They search for things they are interested in via Instagram hashtags. If you don’t have a strong Instagram presence—not necessarily in following numbers, but in the quality of your page and your images—you are losing not just potential clients but your current clientele to the competition. Have you ever had a client show you what they want on Instagram? I just had someone send me an image from another local stylist’s Instagram page. Thankfully she might not have known that the stylist was local and a friend of mine.

Still not convinced, because you have a loyal clientele that loves you and your book is full? You think you don’t need to use Instagram to build your business because you are already where you want to be?

Consider this: Your clientele is getting older every day, just like you are. You can become an old hairdresser with an old clientele, and watch your career slowly shift into 8/0 and 20 volume grey coverages all day long, or you can become an old hairdresser with a more varied and youthful clientele. Where do you want to be?

Last month we spent a day in the studio with Monika Quatrano, shooting a how-to video for our school the Vancouver Hairdressing Academy. We knew she was an amazing colorist and finisher, but it was incredible watching her in action, seeing how much attention and time she spent on the hair and her imagery. The whole experience was a revelation. She spent 45 minutes finishing her model, and then another 45 minutes shooting it, restyling as she went along.

What Monika taught us is that every image you put out has to best exemplify you, your work, the work you are an expert in, and most importantly, your brand. There are no shortcuts, it’s hard work. And, if you want to stand out in a crowd, you have to put everything you can into each image.

Another thing Monika taught us about is engagement. Monika grew her account not just with incredible work and a signature look, but by working her social media, and by being an active and involved member of a community. She started growing her page by becoming a "1000orBust" member, and then eventually becoming a mentor to them. By being actively involved in supporting and helping others, you will build a community around your own page.

I’ve learned a few things along the way to mediocrity in my own Instagram account as well:

  • Learn from other successful Instagram accounts, and learn from other stylists that put out imagery and content that resonates with your brand. Copy them until you develop your own voice. It’s totally okay to copy people, just credit them as an inspiration. And there are a lot of genres and ideas out there. Look at Dominick Serna’s page as an example of someone who has created a unique niche that stylists and consumers are loving.
  • Make your page public and viewable. Yes, it’s super cool to be exclusive and mysterious. But guess what, Nobody gives a shit about your account unless you are famous or they can see your content. And even if they can see your content, most people still don’t give a shit. So at least make it easy for the few people that are interested in you. If Guy Tang is public, you should be as well.
  • I personally refuse to follow anyone who is private, and there are a lot of you.
  • Keep consistently putting out great imagery, and delete anything bad or with no action. Remember what I wrote above about being objective? Clean up your page, nobody is going back six months on your page. So get rid of the duds, but absolutely repost the cool older stuff as you grow.
  • Do free work in order to grow your business in a new direction. Do you wish you could do more vivids in the salon, but you don’t have any in your current clientele? Do you wish you could do more barbering but you don’t have a male clientele? Offer your work for free in order to create imagery to attract the clients you want. Better yet, do a model call, get your co-workers together, and do a little jam session with a photographer friend to shoot it for you.
  • And, take the time to style your model multiple ways so you can get multiple images. One good model can get you four or five strong images if you change angles, crops and styles.
  • Never shoot in Instagram. That means always use your phone’s camera rather than shooting in the Instagram app itself. When you shoot in Instagram, you are limiting your image to a square determined by the width of the device the viewer has. That means for longer hair, you will need to be further away from your subject, leaving empty space on the sides of the subject and forcing you to frame your subject from further away.
  • If you shoot on your camera app and then add it to Instagram, there is a handy arrow on the lower left that allows you to toggle between square and roughly 5 x 6.5, allowing you a traditional style image, which means you can fill the frame with about 20 percent more. It is like night and day in it’s impact.
  • Shoot Tight. It’s a much bigger impact to fill the screen with your hair image, but don’t use your camera’s zoom to frame your shot, use your feet and arms and move the camera closer. Digital zooming or cropping in tighter after the shot degrade your image substantially. So get awkwardly close to your subject and try to frame the work as closely as possible to what you want during the actual shoot. If you are shooting an SLR camera, this is less important as you are generally working with more pixels.
  • To receive, you need to give. Tag the pages that share people’s images and engage with them. Comment on other people’s work. Become a positive and contributing member to the Instagram community. These people/accounts will engage back with you and the return can be good. You have to have other people sharing your stuff and engaging with you. It’s hugely important.
  • Repost other people’s work. This is also about engaging with others but it helps you to constantly be adding new content to your page even if you haven’t got anything of your own to post.
  • But make it very clear that you are inspired by the other artist. It’s a total douche move to imply to your following that it’s your work. Most people quickly scan their feeds so you need to make it super obvious it’s not yours.
  • Get a ring light, and finish your clients flawlessly in the salon. A ringlight can look generic in the result, but it creates even and contrasty lighting and generally doesn’t impact the white balance on your phone because they are usually fluorescent, which cools down your blondes. Also, vivid work looks incredible when lit with a ring light. If you don’t want a ring light, see below.
  • If you are shooting with available light, always have your back to the window or light source. Never shoot across or into the light, the light must be behind you, facing what you are shooting. It’s the first rule of shooting with natural light. Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule but master the rule first. Monika Quatrano always shoots with available light and her stuff is amazing. Light is everything to showcasing your work.
  • Get a new phone, or better yet, get a real camera. If your phone takes bad pictures, even after trying to improve your shots with light and positioning, it's time for an upgrade. I personally like my LG G5. But the newest iPhone takes amazing shots, nearly SLR quality. It’s the first phone to be able to achieve a true bokeh effect, which gives your images a much more dimensional look. Personally, I am a photographer, and a bit of a purist, so I prefer an actual camera. I shoot on a Sony, and you can get their entry level mirrorless camera with a great lens for under $800.
  • Use filters. Most of them look crap, but you can touch the filter a second time and dial it down. I like Clarendon and then I’ll dial it back to between 10-20 percent. It will give your image a bit more pop. And, if your image is looking a bit yellow, lower the warmth or desaturate it a little. Play around with things, but less is more.
  • Follow the formula for success in the genre you like to work in. Do what everyone else does on Instagram, but with your own slant. There is a huge amount of noise out there but the formula is clear: vivids, waves, sexy hair. And cute girls and boys.
  • Include a few selfies. There are a lot of people who want to look at your face, not just your work. People want to see a bit of personality. Me? I honestly hate anything with oversized eyes and some ears on your head, I truly think there is nothing that shows a lack of creativity more than your Snapchat pics, but I’m probably not your audience so ignore my opinion. But even an ugly old chunk of coal like me gets a decent amount of love on the selfies I post.
  • Tag what locals will be looking for in finding a new stylist. Remember what the entire point of it is: to position yourself as an expert in your niche, which is hopefully in high demand, fill your chair, your book, create a situation where demand exceeds supply and then raise your prices. You can do this with a relatively small following, provided you are putting out the type of work people want to wear.

It’s a non-stop grind. In the last month I’ve had some very big accounts sharing my work and trying to push me. And I still only gained about 500 followers. I’m on some big stages and I’m also somewhat well known in the hairdressing community, and it’s still a struggle for me. But I’ll leave you with this:

My wife and I were out to dinner with this crowd a few weeks ago. Throughout the dinner, phones were out constantly, as a lot of what we were doing and saying was becoming a part of their Instagram stories. In fact, I was asking @hairbykaseyoh something Instagram related while Jenny Strebe was quietly recording me and turning it into her story. It was fun, very social and it taught us that becoming truly big on Instagram is a full-time job in itself, and that these guys never stop creating new content for their pages and their stories.

It’s tireless and endless. For many of us, we just aren’t dedicated to it enough to see the results that these people enjoy. And that’s okay, there is nothing wrong with that. Having 10K, 20K or 50K followers is not going to make you a whole lot happier than you are now, unless that number is your goal. And if a number is your goal, then just buy your following, because pursuit of a number for the sake of a number is empty and soulless and won’t make you happy.

But if you want to increase your brand awareness and show people what you are capable of, start creating content and putting it out there. It feels good to see people experiencing and appreciating your work outside of the salon, and it absolutely will help bring new people to your chair.

About: Michael Levine has been a hairdresser since 1993. Having had the luxury of being trained by incredible mentors and learning from some of hairdressing's icons from very early on, Michael has been featured on stages across North America almost from the beginning of his career. Opening his first salon, called Statik in 1998 with his wife and no other staff, Michael Levine has built a multi-award winning salon company through developing new talent and rather than by hiring stylists with a clientele. Michael currently has 50 employees, a product company, 3 salon locations and 2 academies in Vancouver British Columbia.