If your small business is in an industry that merits the use of visual brand storytelling - like art, travel and tourism, food and beverage, and many consumer products or retail brands, for example - you may want to consider jumping on the Instagram bandwagon. As of September 2015, Instagram hit 400 million monthly active users (MAUs) and is still climbing; to give you an idea of how that compares, that’s about 85 million more active users than Twitter per month.
What exactly is Instagram?
Instagram is a free visual social media platform that was created in 2010 and acquired by Facebook in 2012. Today, you can use it to post photos as well as 15-second videos, and it integrates seamlessly with other social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Flickr.
Instagram’s functionality is similar to other networks in that you can “Like” and comment on others’ photos, and use hashtags to discover and connect to consumers and other like-minded businesses and thought-leaders in your industry. What makes it special though is that it’s image-based; however, Instagram does allow you up to 2,000 characters to “caption” your photo with though, so it’s encouraged to at least leave a little message that showcases your brand personality and further engages your audience (more on writing great Instagram content in the tips below).
What makes Instagram so popular?
Well, according to Instagram, one could attribute it to “the way that visual communication makes the world feel a little bit smaller to every one of us.” Or maybe it’s the fun nature of being able to engage your audience by telling a visual story and really inviting them to be a part of your brand, rather than just articles and text-based posts. After all, it is commonly held that around 65% of people are visual learners, so what better way to relate to people than through images and short videos?
Additionally, Instagram gives people a way to see into your business in a way that’s different than Facebook and Twitter; instead, it encourages business owners to post “behind the scenes” shots and participate in fun trends like #WorkspaceWednesday (where you invite users to see what your workspace for the day looks like), or #SmallBusinessSaturday (a special day of the week when small businesses are extra-celebrated).
This participation differs from other social media platforms, where it’s more about pushing OUT to your audience, rather than pulling them IN to your business and your brand. It’s as if Instagram invites customers to really be a part of your brand family, not just viewers from the outside, and it combines the more personal feel of Facebook with the ungated, anyone-can-follow attitude of Twitter. To us, this duo is fantastic for reaching new audience members and a new following, engaging with current and potential customers, creating brand awareness, and fostering relationships with visual storytelling and networking.
How should my small business use Instagram?
Again, the first step here is to decide whether or not Instagram would be the best use of your company’s time and effort. To us, this will come down to knowing where your audience is interacting on the internet and whether or not your company will have relevant, engaging and creative photos to post.
Once you decide, you can get started by downloading the app for free, setting up profile by choosing a username, adding a description of your small business, and including your website link in the designated field. Once your profile is set-up, you can start posting relevant photos, following others in your industry or target market, and interacting with them. Consult with an expert to ensure your username and bio are optimized for maximum findability.
To maximize your time and drive Instagram success for your small business, we’re sharing 10 of our favorite Instagram tips and best practices for building your brand and following:
#1 HAVE A PURPOSE
As with everything marketing-related, you need to have a goal and a purpose in mind for using Instagram (IG). What do you hope to accomplish by using Instagram? Who do you hope to reach? What’s the goal - to drive site traffic, to increase brand exposure, to connect with current or potential customers and others within the industry? All the above? Knowing what you’re trying to do will help you to have a solid game plan and foundation before going into the channel so that you can easily accomplish the following tips, such as having consistent image styles, tone of voice and content, and building a following. This will also help you measure Instagram metrics that really matter.
#2 TELL A VISUAL STORY
The first part to telling any story is knowing who your audience is and who you are as a small business. So – what is your niche? Identifying this will help your audience understand the types of photos and stories they are going to get by following you, and if they should follow you at all.
Once you know that, then you need to focus on telling your brand’s story. The main way to do this is by using a cohesive style of images [backgrounds, lighting, angles, types of scenes and shots] and color palette [mainly comes down to what filters and edits you’re using, but can also refer to any graphics you post]. In other words, when someone looks at your IG account, they should be able to quickly glance and understand your style and business personality. One way to test this and see if you’re accomplishing this is to look at what we refer to as the “2.5 pack” on your account: the first 2.5 rows worth of photos shown when you first open up your IG profile. We recommend taking a look at this and asking yourself what these photos are saying about your brand. Does it align with how you want to portray your brand? Are you showcasing your best work and sharing what you intended to? Do you think a potential customer could land on your profile and quickly be able to say, “Oh ok – I get what this business is all about.”? This can help you determine if you’re hitting the mark, or if you need to make some adjustments.
Your story can also come down to your tone of voice and the content that you’re sharing (more on that below). The goal is to establish who you are as an Instagrammer, what you’re sharing and how you’re sharing it, and that you’re being consistent.
#3 TAKE GOOD PHOTOS
Photos that perform the best on IG are those that are creative and show people something interesting about an event, place or product so that they are engaged and feel as if they are a part of the experience with you. Our recommendation is that you think “out of the box.” For instance, if you’re trying to sell a particular product, how can you showcase that product without just snapping a photo of it in your dim-lit office or warehouse? If it’s a new deodorant, maybe consider holding it up against a white wall to make it pop; if it’s a new energy bar, try snapping a photo of it next to some running shoes and an iPod. Remember - you’re trying to let consumers know that you’re more than a business; you’re a brand, a lifestyle and a companion, too, so you want to showcase all different aspects of your small business and products or services, not just storefronts and product labels.
Another tip we recommend for taking photos is to “think like an editor” and take pics in bulk, even if you don’t plan on using all of them right then; you never know when you might be able to use them, so this could save you time in the future. Finally, consider which “mode” you’re shooting in. iPhones let you do a 1:1 square ratio photo which is already set up for Instagram; however, if you like the look of a white canvas background for your photos, you should shoot in regular “photo” mode and then transfer to a white canvas background using an app like PhotoGrid. (PS - Instagram no longer requires your photos to be square!)
#4 EDIT PHOTOS TO MATCH YOUR STORY
One of the most important ways to tell a cohesive visual story that represents your brand is by using consistent photo styling. You’ll want to play around with a few different filters and manual photo edits to see what works best to capture your brand essence. We encourage businesses to play around with manual edits in IG because we find that you can have more control over your imaging; however, many business owners do just fine using the pre-made filters, or even a combination of both; just play around with it to find what works best for you.
#5 HASH[TAG] EVERYTHING
Besides having consistent photo style, we’d argue that the proper use of hashtags and geo-tagging are the most important factors of achieving Instagram success, especially for a small business. Instagram allows you to use up to 30 hashtags; our suggestion is that you take advantage of this. That said, we recommend only using hashtags that are RELEVANT (this is the most important thing) to your post and your brand. It’s also a great time to show some local love. For example, if you are a local coffee roaster in Kansas City, you may tag things like: #kansascity #kclocal #kcmo #kc #kansascitylife #buylocal #madeinkc #coffee #coffeebreak and #coffeeroasters.
Another strategy you can play around with is splitting your hashtags up. With this, you’d put a couple hashtags in the initial post (usually three to five of the most relevant hashtags), and then comment on your own photo with the rest of the hashtags you want to use. This is really common and still considered a “best practice,” and it can help your photo captions look a little more tidy. However, if you’re only going to be using about 10 hashtags anyways, go ahead and add them all to the initial photo caption as this can help people quickly understand more about your photo and brand, rather than having to scroll down to the comments to view your relevant hashtags.
The other thing you’ll want to consider is geo-tagging your photos. You’re able to do this in the “share” area of Instagram, when you’re adding your comment and hashtags and such. Just use the “Add Location” feature and tag where the photo was taken. An example of this would be if you are a performance auto parts company and you attend a local racing event, taking a photo and tagging the race location would let people know where you find you and what types of places/events they can associate with your brand. This can help increase the reach of your photo and allow people to see the area in which your business is located, what’s around you, and the places and events you’ve been as a team, or those that you’re “endorsing” or partnering with as a brand.
#6 BE DELIBERATE
Avoid irritating your followers by ensuring every post is deliberate and intentional. It’s always important to post with a purpose so that you’re not just randomly posting photos that may or may not be in alignment with your brand or relevant to your audience. The primary way to do this is, of course, by following the above tips so that you understand your audience and what they’re interested in seeing, and knowing what images and content align with your brand and which detract from its image and purpose.
TallulahBelle's is a great Instagram example in the retail space! Follow them at @TallulahBellesKC
Other ways to be purposeful in your posting are to: pay attention to holidays, participate in current events and local trends (i.e. participate in #kclocalweek or post about timely local events you’re attending like the Plaza Art Fair), be mindful of time of day you post (you can experiment with posting at different times in the day to see which times garner the highest level of engagement, as this varies by audience segment), be mindful of the number of posts you’re posting per day (on IG we typically aim for one to two posts per day, depending on your brand), and always think about whether what you’re posting is relevant to your brand story and your audience.
#7 WRITE GREAT CONTENT
Instagram allows you more than 2,000 characters in your photo caption, so make good use of it! Allow your brand’s personality to come through so your posts are engaging, and use it as a space to offer followers a cool sampling of your brand and your product or service offerings. Try to strike a balance between brevity and engagement. Your followers will happily engage in a clear, concise, exciting post, but you may lose them with posts that drag on.
Another aspect of posting quality Instagram content is to focus on injecting a healthy dose of variety into your posts; this helps keep your audience members engaged and excited to see what content might be coming next. So, if you plan to post five times per week, maybe try to do one post about your product or service, one about a local event your small business is participating in, two shots highlighting your company culture, and one graphic post that you make to promote an intriguing fact or quote (we recommend the app called Studio for help with this, although there are several out there that are great). Consider creating a content calendar each week to hold yourself accountable and plan ahead for that variety.
One of the best ways to build a following on Instagram (and on any social platform) is to interact with the community - after all, it is called a SOCIAL channel for a reason. It’s a multi-way conversation. We recommend that you follow and engage with others in your niche, respond to comments you receive on your photos, repost others’ relevant content that is relevant and you enjoy (for example, use the Repost app to repost a product review by a loyal customer), and build your tribe by using and following relevant hashtags (click on others’ hashtags to find similar brands and thought leaders, and begin to follow and engage with them).
Another important way to interact on IG is to shout out to others in the industry and thought leaders. An example would be if you were inspired by a post that a local or niche blogger did, you could do a video or photo post that said, “We were so inspired by @imacoolblogger’s post about [this new local test track] that we decided to take our performance racers for a spin. Check out what happened next!” This sets the location and shows your own brand personality, but also shows that you aren’t just doing your thing in a bubble - you’re interacting and playing nice with others, too.
Cross-promoting your brand elements is an important way to keep your following engaged, build new followers, and drive site traffic and brand exposure. Simple ways to do this are to have your business website address, email address, or phone number (if you’re customer service-based) in your profile description, and to use call to actions in your posts (i.e. “Check out our new hot product!”, “Follow us on Facebook for more information!”, “Have you signed up to receive special deals via our monthly e-newsletter yet? Hurry! Great deals are on your way to your inbox.”)
Also, don’t be afraid to change the URL displayed in your profile since that’s the only working link (one that people can click on and follow) in your profile, as hyperlinks in posts are not clickable. You could link it to your newest blog post and in an image, tell people to “Follow the link in profile!” so that they can easily access your content. Another way to cross-promote is if you’re doing a Periscope live cast or Tweeting live from an event, let people know when and where to find you by posting a cool graphic announcing your presence and plans.
Santa Ynez Vacation Rentals is a great Instagram example in the travel and tourism space! Follow them at @SantaYnezVR
The last way to cross-promote could be to host a giveaway or a content through your account - just be sure that you’re being smart about this, because Instagram followers are very sensitive to seeing promotional material in their feeds. We would recommend waiting until you build up a small organic following and solid relationships with people before introducing any contests or giveaways. If you do run a giveaway for your small business though, a best practice and good way to cross-promote is by teaming up with another IGer and doing the giveaway together (this helps with trustworthiness and networking), and ask people to “tag a friend who they think would like the giveaway’s product or service in the comments section below.” This will get the conversation started and the crowd buzzing about your brand, which can lead people to your website, other social platforms, and happy future customers. We can’t emphasize this enough, though - tread carefully with social media contests, and be sure you fully understand the Terms & Conditions of the site.
#10 BE CONSISTENT
The last tip is a simple one that reinforces all previous tips: be consistent in brand voice, tone and messaging. This is an important message for any brand activity in general, but it’s especially important for Instagram, where it’s a close-knit community of followers who are excited about engaging with your brand. The fastest way to lose followers is to randomly disrupt their feed or their image of your brand by posting irrelevant, unengaging or out-of-style images and content.
The other way is by not posting regularly. So, just like keeping your images’ tone and style relevant and consistent, be sure to post regularly throughout the week so people know that you are present and engaged. Consistency can help increase your small business’s trustworthiness, and reassures people that they’re not only going to get great content and beautiful photos from following your small business on Instagram, but that they’re going to get friendly, responsive feedback on a regular basis from a brand they can trust and care about. And that makes it all worth it.