Did you know that Instagram is one of the 10 most popular social media sites in the world? Within the six-month period of October 2013 to March 2014, it grew from about 150 million monthly active users to just about 200 million.
Despite its widespread popularity, many small businesses aren’t utilizing the platform to its fullest business potential.
Retail businesses, for instance, haven't taken advantage of Instagram's visually oriented appeal. While 42 percent of marketers are leveraging social commerce sites like Instagram, Pinterest and Wanelo to drive traffic and sell products, only 1.7 percent of products are actually posted on social commerce properties, according to the Search and Social Commerce Index Report from predictive media company Kenshoo and semantic ad company DataPop. Even in popular product categories such as consumer electronics, fashion, and home and garden, retailers post just 7.2 percent of their products on social commerce sites.
Instagram isn’t only useful for product retailers, however; service-based businesses can benefit, too—if they can devise an effective marketing plan for the platform. The following three strategies can help any business—whether it's product- or service-based—get more value out of Instagram.
1. Tap Into Hashtags to Gain Visibility
Instagram supports hashtags much in the same way that Twitter does, making it possible to associate groups of images or a series of photos related to a central topic. Using popular hashtags that are relevant to your business is a useful tactic for gaining visibility among your target audience, says Sara Kowal, vice president of innovation for HelloWorld, a company that creates interactive promotions and loyalty solutions on digital, mobile and social platforms.
“Companies can also create contests that leverage a specific branded hashtag to grow your followers," Kowal adds. "Even adding popular hashtags like #TBT can help you be seen by a larger audience." (“#TBT” is a popular hashtag that stands for “Throwback Thursday,” an ongoing trend in which users post photos from the past to share memories with their friends and followers.)
2. Seek Out Your Audience, and Research Your Competition
Getting great results from your Instagram efforts means you need to build an audience, but starting from square one can be overwhelming. Shari Theresia, co-owner of Los Angeles-based event staffing company Toast & Flute, took matters into her own hands when she and her sister started their company. Like many businesses, Toast & Flute offers services, not products, so simply posting product images wasn’t an option.
“To start, I researched and followed Los Angeles-based companies and people who I thought could recommend us to their clientele or would be interested in our services themselves,” Theresia says. “This included wedding and event planners, caterers, florists, event rental companies and event design companies. I was active on their Instagram accounts, liking their photos and getting on their radar.” The tactic worked, netting Toast & Flute some initial followers.
Theresia also checked out her competition, researching the hashtags they were using and incorporating them into her own Instagram posts. She also used other hashtags she identified as relevant and of interest to her target audience.
“Before we got any gigs, all of our Instagram posts were funny posts about our business or simply about what we had to offer,” Theresia explains, noting that she initially hesitated to create an Instagram account because of the fact that her company doesn’t sell products. Fortunately, her creative strategy worked. “Caterers and event planners that I've never met," she says, "reach out to us all the time about their events and let us know they found us on Instagram.”
3. Get Your Audience Involved
After you build your initial audience, you must remain active and encourage users to engage with your brand. Instagram is an ideal platform for facilitating user-generated content, or, as Kowal describes it, “developing an insider community.” Encouraging consumers to post photos of themselves using your products or receiving your services at a brick-and-mortar location, or providing sneak peeks of new products or behind-the-scenes views of your business are a few of the approaches Kowal suggests.
“Some businesses share pictures of new fabrics or colors for their products, views of new retail locations under construction, pictures that inspired their designers or product teams,” Kowal explains. “Of course, it's also great to share pictures of your products, too. Just make sure pure selling isn't the only thing you use Instagram for.”
Kowal points to a recent, well-done Instagram campaign by department store Belk, in which the company offered a behind-the-scenes look at a photo shoot for its upcoming, exclusive New Directions clothing line.
“Instagram allows marketers to build connections, not based on words and one-way communications but on the development of visual connections," Kowal says. "[It's] a relationship where engagement is more casual and laid back than a website and one which allows both brands and consumers to quickly share glimpses into who they are. Over time, those glimpses and connections turn into understanding, loyalty and advocacy.”
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