Instagram: It’s not just for pictures of your breakfast anymore. With more than 400 million users worldwide, small businesses are flocking to the photo-centric social media platform—and getting results—it’s no wonder that Instagram has the highest engagement levels of any other channel.
Simone Miller, who owns Zenbelly, a gluten-free catering company in San Francisco, says that her Instagram following grew to 35,000 in the past three years—20,000 of that in just the past year. Her own recipe for Instagram success? ”I share food I’ve made, recipe photos from my blog and cookbooks, food I eat while out, my dogs, and general San Francisco life stuff,” she says.
She was also surprised and delighted to learn that even though she lets followers into her personal life with candid shots, Instagram has been her most successful social media platform. ”I’m trying to monetize it a bit better by driving traffic to my blog with links in my profile,” she says, ”It’s slow but steady.”
Is Instagram for You?
”Instagram is the marketing darling du jour,” says Gretchen Fox, a co-founder of the [made to order] agency and a social media coach for small businesses and entrepreneurs. ”Instagram is great for image-based companies like fashion, sports, food, and retail—or a real personal brand that is able to share a behind-the-scenes look at the day to day of their business.”
You’ll also want to know where your potential customers hang out in cyberspace. Are they where you are? Instagram, for example, is the single most important social media channel for teenagers, according to Hootsuite, the popular social media management tool.
Kat Eves is a book publicist-turned-stylist who has consulted with businesses of all sizes and runs an Instagram fashion blog. She warns against using giveaways to grow your following. ”Many social media pros will tell you that they might gain a big number of followers initially, but as soon as the giveaway ends, your number of followers will drop considerably,” she says.
”That’s not to say that giveaways aren’t valuable. Just know what you’re getting into beforehand, and don’t be surprised if you see a loss after your initial jump.”
Getting Started with Instagram
Starting out on Instagram is as simple as downloading the app and creating an account—which can be done with your Facebook account or through your email address.
Visit Instagram’s business blog, where you can learn about all the ways to boost your visibility through platform features—both paid and unpaid. Create a social media plan that includes what you’ll post, how much you’ll post, and the goals you want the account to achieve. Many brands put up just one to three posts a day so they don’t bombard their followers.
You should also learn how to analyze your results so you know what’s working. Tools like Iconosquare can give you valuable Instagram metrics, such as how many total likes you’ve received and where your followers are from.
Understanding What Works—and What Doesn’t
It pays to learn the platform so you can reach not only to existing followers, but also potential customers. Hashtags—keywords or phrases without spaces denoted by a pound sign (#) that help identify a topic—are a simple but crucial part of Instagram.
”The real key to success on Instagram is great photography and hashtags, hashtags, hashtags,” says Fox. She recommends staying relevant with your hashtags by using a tool like Hashtagify so people can easily find you. And as with any marketing effort, Fox says, ”the key is to test, learn, optimize, and repeat!”
Perhaps the most important thing to remember about Instagram is to be clear about the narrative you want to relate through imagery. That doesn’t mean you can’t post a picture of your lunch if your account is for a graphic design business, but you should understand that everything you post on Instragram is part of your overall image.
”Don’t be the brand that just posts advertisements,” Eves says. “Tell a story. Be useful.”