Marketing Bootcamp

How To Grow Your Instagram Followers with User Generated Content

How To Grow Your Instagram Followers with User Generated Content
Image credit: Shutterstock

Have you ever stumbled across a company’s Instagram account and wondered how they have so many followers or where they got all of those amazing images from?

If you’re anything like me, that’s a reoccurring thought!

For social media marketers managing Instagram and other social accounts this is something we all certainly strive for – Gorgeous images, a huge following, and incredible engagement from our audience.

With that in mind, I began studying hundreds of Instagram accounts, researching ways to gain a massive following, chatting with social media managers from different industries, and running a few experiments of my own. What I continually found was one Instagram strategy that brands appeared to be using above all others.

That strategy is the implementation of user generated content (UGC).

I decided to give UGC a try here at Buffer and the results were compelling. In under 3 months since implementing a user generated content campaign on Instagram, our account has grown by 60%  – 5,850 to 9,400 followers and counting.

Here’s our handy guide to user generated content so that you may create a strategy of your own and see big results in Instagram follower growth and engagement.

What Is User Generated Content?

User generated content comes in all shapes and sizes. From simply sharing user’s photos, to photo contests, to product or company reviews, many thriving companies on Instagram are experimenting with user generated content in one form or another.

The easiest way to think about user generated content is this: brands taking the best-of-the-best user content from around the web and featuring it on their own social media or other platforms while giving credit to the original creator (user).

You may have seen UGC before and not even known it – Take this beautiful picture from REI for example:

REI UGC Strategy, user-generated content, UGC, Instagram followers,

All user content! Each one of these photos received more than 20,000 likes on Instagram – showing the enormous potential of UGC to capture the minds and hearts of audiences.

Why UGC is Important for Brands

User generated content is important for brands on two fronts. The first is building a vibrant and engaged community with content that your audience loves and the second is adapting to the new “socially-dependent generations” that we are beginning to see gain major purchasing power.

Building a Vibrant & Engaged Community

Social media is the gateway that allows brands to connect authentically with audience members one-on-one. By utilizing UGC, brands give real users the opportunity to tell real stories – something that may be inherently missing from brand generated content.

In doing so, brands naturally adopt the role of navigator, cleverly guiding the user journey.

According to research from marketing startup Crowdtap and the global research company Ipsos, Millennials and other generations trust UGC 50% more than other types of media. User generated content is genuinely captivating because the creator has no ulterior motive than to simply add to the digital conversation.

Adapting to “Socially-Dependent Generations”

Did you know that by 2017, Millennials – currently in their mid-teens to mid-30s – will have more spending power than any other generation? Two studies showed some fascinating results:

  • 84% of Millennials report that user-generated content on company websites has at least some influence on what they buy and where
  • 43% of people are more likely to purchase a new product when they have learned about it through social channels or from friends and family

The implications of UGC on the power to influence buyers to take certain actions from social media and other digital platforms is huge.

This insightful infographic shows just how important user-generated content is in the scope of your overall marketing strategy:

UGC Inforgraphic, user-generated content, ugc

Image via crowdtap

Guide to Creating a User Generated Content Campaign

Awesome! So you’re convinced that UGC will help grow your Instagram followers, increase product purchases over time, and boost engagement across the board on all social media channels.

Now the question is, where do you start?

Determine Your Social Angle

The great thing about user generated content is that you can take it in so many fun and interesting ways. Which is why you’ll want to first decide what you would like it to reflect on your brand. Of course, this can and will change over time as you discover new things about what your audience loves.

In other words, what do you want every single piece of user content that you post to “say” about your brand, product, or company culture? For example, if you’re a digital marketing agency and post a picture of a beach in Hawaii (though it may be beautiful), consider what that may say about your brand. Fun? Easy going? Unprofessional?

Remember, you as the brand are the navigator – only guiding the user journey.

WorkHardAnywhere is a gorgeous Instagram account with more than 47,000 followers that features 100% user-generated content. Each image captures what life could look like as audience members work hard anywhere – And they happen to make an app that allows you to find the best places to do so!

UGC, User Generated Content, Work Hard Anywhere

quick list of questions to help you decide what kind of content to consider featuring:

  • What makes our brand or product unique?
  • What makes our company culture unique?
  • What is the ideal way that I would like others to see our brand or product?
  • What is something that people may not know about our brand or product?
  • What compelling stories do our users have to tell?
  • What is the most beautiful and engaging way I can showcase my brand or product?

Find the Best Content

Two common misconceptions about user-generated content are that it’s hard to find and that only brands with a large amount of resources are able to successfully utilize UGC campaigns. I’d love to encourage you to experiment with UGC even if you’re a social media team of one.

There are two methods that I suggest using to gather great user content. The first is by hosting social media contests and giveaways and the second is actively seeking out users in your space using hashtags and a few social media tools.

Hashtags and Contests with Giveaways

What we’ve found time after time is that people love to share their own content and they love free stuff from brands. These two things are a powerful combination for curating amazing content from your community.

Here are 2 time-tested ideas to get started with contests and giveaways to gather UGC:

  • Brand Generated Hashtag: Creating a brand generated hashtag serves two result-driven purposes. First, it gives people an easy way to submit content. Second, it helps to give your brand a unique voice and social angle. Brainstorm hashtags that are relevant to your brand and ones that will allow users to submit engaging images. For example, at Buffer, we started the hashtags #BufferStories and #BufferCommunity to showcase the unique stories of our users. These hashtags have opened up a huge variety of content options from curated stories of digital nomads to social media tips from marketers. Each time we share a new UGC photo on Instagram we are sure to include these hashtags. Every once in a while we include a CTAalong the lines of: “share your story using #BufferStories” to keep the campaign alive.

Buffer, Buffer Instagram, User generated content, UGC, instagram growth, instagram

  • Photo Contests with Giveaways: When done right, Instagram photo contests with giveaways can be a great way to gather and share user-generated content while giving back to active users. Similar to brand generated hashtags, users submit photos by posting entries on their own accounts using a specific hashtag created by your brand. While your audience may be more than happy to share content without any prizes attached, adding a giveaway definitely helps to sweeten the deal and boost engagement. Birchbox, for example, does a great job of using giveaways to drive a huge amount of engagement and growth on Instagram. They ask for three simple things:
    • Follow the Birchbox account
    • Share using the hashtag #birchbox
    • Tag 2 friends in the comments

Birchbox UGC Content Campaign, UGC, user generated content, instagram, instagram growth

BonusFrom what I’ve experienced, getting people to tag their friends in your post’s comment section is what drives the largest Instagram follower growth in the shortest amount of time. Including a CTA in your giveaway helps to facilitate that organic growth in a much more direct way.

Searching for UGC with Social Media Tools

The reality of user generated content campaigns is that they can take a few weeks or even months to gain momentum. Your account may be small or users could be seeing the hashtag or contest for the first time and so will not be as inclined to tag their friends as they would be with a company like Birchbox or WorkHardAnywhere.

That’s where social media tools and good old fashioned outreach can really pay off!

Hashtag Searches: The easiest way to find great user generated content is to use hashtags to search for posts that you may want to share. If you can think of it, it has probably been used in a hashtag before. Once you’ve decided where you want to go with your campaign, brainstorm as many hashtag options as you can think of and search for them on social. Identify potential users and photos to feature and keep track of them in a spreadsheet for use down the road (it comes in handy)!

These are some of my favorite tools for conducting hashtag searches:


Ok, this one’s not so much of a tool as it is a social media channel, but Instagram features a verypowerful search and discover engine. Simply search for the type of content that you are looking for and Instagram automatically sorts the results by “top posts” and “recent posts” making it easy to identify popular accounts that are tagging similar content.


Tagboard is a great social media tool that allows marketers to search and manage hashtags. It uses hashtags to search for and collect public social media posts within seconds of being uploaded to networks like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Google+.


Talkwalker is a robust social media monitoring tool that goes beyond basic hashtag search functions. Talkwalker gives you data for gender distribution, geographic distribution, and sentiment analysis on your own hashtags, as well as peer company’s hashtags.

Sharing User Generated Content

Once you’ve identified potential content using the tools above, it’s as simple as reaching out to the owner and asking them if they would like to take part in your campaign. You can do this via direct message on Instagram, commenting on their post, email, Twitter, Facebook – Whatever gets you in contact with them works.

I’ve found that direct messaging on Instagram or email usually works best to get in contact with users. Here is an example of an outreach message we used recently in our #BufferStories campaign:

“Hey there, _____! We absolutely love your Instagram account and think you are doing amazing things with photography and design. If you’re up for it, we would love to feature one of your photos on our Instagram and share a bit of your story (similar to the photo below). Of course, we will give you full photo credit and tag your account in our post! Thank you so much for your time and we look forward to hearing from you!”

user generated content, instagram followers, instagram growth, instagram marketing, UGC

Image via Hugo

I enjoy going the extra mile to reach out to users directly and requesting that they email me the original photo for sharing. I think it’s beneficial to build relationships with people on an individual level and it allows us to access the HD version of the photo.

But if you’re short on time, you can work much more quickly by using an app like Repost for Instagram, which allows for the quick sharing of photos.

Whichever way you go, I always suggest obtaining the user’s permission before sharing photosthat are not owned by you or your brand.

Examples of Excellent Brand UGC Campaigns

I won’t go into too much detail here as I’ll leave the fun part to you, but I thought I would end by giving a few examples of companies who I think are doing an awesome job with user generated content curation and sharing.

Peruse these profiles and websites and you will be sure to find some inspiration for your next UGC campaign!

Passion Passport

UGC, user-generated content, instagram, passion passport

Square with “Square Stories

UGC, user-generated content, instagram, passion passport

Crew with “Crew Stories

UGC, user-generated content, instagram, passion passport

Over to you! 

Have you had any success with user generated content in the past? What brands are you looking to for inspiration when it comes to user generated content? 

We would absolutely love for you to follow us on Instagram and be a part of our #BufferStories campaign. If you are passionate about what you do we would love to hear from you!