Back in a previous life, I sold annuities for a living.
No, just kidding, that’s a lie. I tried really really hard NOT to sell annuities. Because they’re crap. But I worked for companies that wanted me to sell them because they had high profit margins and in turn, paid out big commissions to the advisors. But come on, we all knew that the only guys that could easily sling that shiz were used car salesmen.
I stand by that.
Annuities often have a feature that is called a High Watermark.
Basically, the client is guaranteed a certain amount of income from their portfolio based on the “high watermark” of the investment performance. So, you invest $100,000. The first year, your investments go up 8%, now you have a high watermark of $108,000. The second year, the investments go up 10%, how you have $118,800. Another high watermark. The third year, your portfolio decreases by 20% (-$23,760). Now, your balance is $95,040. But, if you decided to “use” (layman term) the annuity, your High Watermark is still $118,800. (PLEASE DEAR GOD DO NOT BUY ONE OF THESE THINGS, THEY SOUND GOOD BUT THEY’RE A TOTAL RIP-OFF.)
The watermark – you know what I mean. If you’ve been to the Grand Canyon – those lines where ancient rivers left their marks.
Or, the images of Katrina – the devastating hurricane of 2005. Those homes bore the watermark – where the water level had risen, and stayed for a time, before receding.
What on earth does this have to do with your low engagement???
Because it ain’t low, my dear. It’s how you feel. It’s your emotions playing tricks on you.
Hear me out.
I’ve done studies on 5 very well-known, large instagram accounts. I did this in response to their pleas: “Why is my engagement so low? What did I do? Please look at my account and tell me what’s going on. The algorithm hates me!” I hear this a lot but in certain cases, I’ve looked at the account and it’s just too hard to make heads or tails of.
My friends are telling me what they’re experiencing, and that’s valid. Your feelings are valid.
But I can’t just “look” at an account and have any freakin clue what’s going on, ya know?
So, I did what I always do. I whipped out my spreadsheets. And went to work.
Here’s my method (and this is super simple if you know much about spreadsheets, you can replicate this for yourself. Perhaps I’ll create a Google Sheet that I can share with the world so you can see how this shapes up for you.)
I have two rows – one for comments, one for likes. I pull up your Instagram feed. I will immediately throw out the first 9 images. Why? Too soon, sister, too soon… Instagram is still showing those and people coming to your feed are still engaging with those.
(Side note: A friend of mine who shall go unnamed, who I did this analysis on, DM’d me an image about an hour or so after she posted it, proclaiming that it was totally tanking and she didn’t understand it. Guess what folks? By the time I saw her DM and looked at it, probably the next day, it was clear that it was performing WAY above her average engagement numbers!)
(Moral of the story – slow your rolls. Yes, the first hour is important, but it’s not everything. You need to give your posts time to ripen. Don’t get mad too early!)
Back to spreadsheets. Two rows. Throw out the most recent 9. Start with post 10. Input the number of likes and comments into your spreadsheet, all the way to post 70 (60 posts total.) You can go farther, but ain’t nobody got that kinda time.
For most people, 60 posts (well, back 70) will take you back a good 2-3 months. I ran this analysis for two ladies in the beginning of November, and went all the way back to July and August, respectively.
Now – I use the AVERAGE function to determine the average number of likes and comments that their last 60 posts have received. (Again, discounting the 9 most previous.)
Here are some screenshots from my most recent study:
(AND…You can read more details and my analysis on this data here!)
I also run some graphs just to get a visual of what’s going on.
I will BOLD the posts that receive higher than average likes and comments. (You can see that above.) Then, I’ll go back to their feed and see what was it about those images that garnered so much more love??
I learn a lot by doing that. I’ve also, although not scientifically measured but, glanced at what posts don’t perform as well. Was it a bad picture? Maybe they posted it while suffering from insomnia and no one was awake to see it? (No way to tell after a day…) Was their caption lacking?
What did I conclude from running this analysis on 5 different well-known Instagrammers who insisted that their engagement was way down?
It wasn’t. It just plain was not. In most cases, it was actually up.
Which brings me back to…. The High Watermark.
Each of these artists had several posts that were outstanding – that got a LOT of love. These were their outliers. They jumped off the graphs.
In looking at the images, they were always phenomenal images too. Probably got featured everywhere. Certainly, showed up in Top Posts and the Explore page.
But each of these ladies mistakenly reset their expectations that THIS was the new normal. That they would now always achieve that level of numbers.
It’s the basketball player that has a game of a lifetime and now the coach always expects that performance.
But it’s an outlier.
And those outliers emotionally reset our watermark. We now compare every photo’s likes and comments to THOSE numbers.
And we beat ourselves up over it. We’ll never be good enough….
If we measure our success against the outliers, against the High Watermark…
We’ve instead GOT to look at averages and trends.
And come on, people… I know when I post a good picture and when I post a so-so picture. I know it. I don’t always post winners because ya know what? Instagram is my visual story – it’s where I share my life and my loves with the world.
And not every picture is a damn work of art and it doesn’t need to be.
Sometimes I post a crummy picture because I have something more I want to say…in my caption. (I’m a big believer in captions, y’all. If you’re not writing thoughtful captions, you should not expect stellar engagement.)
But some people just scroll Insta – and that’s their right. I’m a caption reader. I love to read what people have to say. I want to hear them.
If you went to my feed and simply looked at the grid, you might go, “meh…. just ok.” But some of my “just ok” images perform much better than I think they will, simply because I wrote the caption from my heart.
Look at trends. Is your average trending up or down?
I’ve used this example a lot in the past, but it’s a good one, so here we go again. If I go to the beach for a week in the summer and take the most amazing backlit golden hour images, YES – those are going to get great engagement. Because they’re really pretty pictures. And then I return home. I start taking more “regular” pictures. It’s summer, so I’m taking more full sun images, which although can be awesome, aren’t going to ever be as beloved as golden hour at the beach.
Should I look at my numbers and conclude I better move to the beach? Maybe…
But you should be seeing an overall trend in your averages too.
One thing I do with my spreadsheet is that I also run the average of the oldest 30 posts versus the most recent 30. In each case, averages for the ladies I analyzed increased.
Their average likes/comments on the most recent 30 were higher than the older posts. Meaning…wait for it….their engagement is going UP. Yup. Up.
In the case of the analysis I ran today, one thing I noticed in her outliers – the images that got far greater engagement than average, was that they were not only outstanding images – like Voice-winning images, I’m talking here…. But they also reflected this particular photographer’s unique skill. They were images that ONLY SHE COULD CREATE. They were WOW images, for sure. But they were wow in a way that was….THIS is her THANG. The thing that only she can do. And in the case of the photographer I looked at today, she has actually taught TWO classes on that very element!!
What’s also interesting is that I asked her what she thought her average number of likes and comments were.
She told me: 300 likes and 15 comments.
She averaged 731 likes and 58 comments over the last 60 posts (excluding the most recent 9.)
She UNDERESTIMATED HER ENGAGEMENT by 143% for likes and 286% for comments. How is this even possible?
And this is SO not uncommon. Do not read this and think that she must be nuts. She’s not. I hear this and see this all the time! This is how we ALL feel about our engagement.
She had a post that got glitchy and didn’t show up in hashtag search for some odd reason. It resolved the next post, no big deal, but she told me she was concerned that something went wrong after that post glitch.
Now, know that these are VERY recent posts. But here’s what I found:
What I found was that since that post, her likes are down by only 3% and her comments down by 34%.
First – these are super recent – in fact, those numbers are literally going back to today (11/8/18.) I expect that they will increase.
Also, you have to understand that the AVERAGE includes the outliers! The posts that she got like 3000 likes and over 200 comments.
If she doesn’t post an outlier-crazy-ass amazing image within the last 6 posts… yes, those numbers would be down. But… I do not see an alarming trend at all.
In fact…I bet if I go back and check these within a week….it’ll all revert to the mean.
I used to trade stocks, people. It’s always the reversion to the mean 😉
In closing… If you feel like your engagement is down, first know that you are not alone. The best, most talented, most incredible humans on Instagram FEEL THE SAME WAY.
But know that maybe…just maybe…it’s not…? Maybe your benchmark, your high watermark is based on your very best work. Instagram is not the place for your very best work every single day. It’s for sharing your work every day. And sometimes you get lucky. And sometimes you take an image that will win awards and get published. But not every image does. And THAT IS OK.
Hey – if you’re feeling down on your luck, I beg you to read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert or The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield or check out Stephen’s interview with Oprah online or on her podcast, Super Soul Conversations. Read “Hold Still” by Sally Mann. Watch her documentary, “What Remains.”
Create Art for YOU. And sometimes it will resonate with other people in a big way. And sometimes it won’t. I think Sally thinks her engagement is down since the 90’s!
Keep creating. Keep showing up. Come on, your favorite instagram accounts don’t post amazing art every single time. They add value. They teach, they entertain, they share a bit of their lives. They inspire. They make you smile and say, “Yeah, me too.”
We are more alike than different. If you knew who these people are, the people that ask me to run these numbers, you’d be really surprised.
But I’m here to tell you that you don’t need to set the bar at your high watermark. How about just aiming for above average?
And sometimes the app is glitchy. And sometimes the theme tags don’t match up. And sometimes….sometimes, it just doesn’t go your way. But show up tomorrow and post anyway.
That is all.
Just kidding – now click over and read the follow up to this article where I go even further in depth to the Instagram account of @NicoleKristinPhoto – who’s numbers are shown above. She allowed me to share EVERYTHING.
Thank you SO much for being a great sport, Nicole! I hope others will learn and benefit from your willingness to put yourself out there.
Nicole is a family photographer in Sarasota, FL.