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OPEN for Discussion: Can Instagram Really Drive Sales?

More business owners are using this image-sharing platform to get results. Here's how four have made Instagram one of their most effective sales tools.
July 17, 2015

Instagram is becoming more than just a space for your friend's #blessed sunset and food photos. Small-business owners have turned the image-sharing platform, which has more than 300 million users, into a revenue stream for their products. It's a strategy that has worked out well for many businesses: entire Instagram-only boutiques are cropping up and online-only/brick-and-mortar shops swear by it, using the platform for exclusive flash sales.

Joy Adaeze and Obi Okere of CurlSistas, a company that specializes in hair care for women with natural hair; Nathan Chan, publisher and editor of Foundr Magazine, who recently launched a course on using Instagram as a lead generator tool; and Steven Dyme of Flowers for Dreams, a flower delivery company based in Chicago, reveal how they use Instagram to create more sales and opportunity for their businesses.

Why is Instagram a great sales tool for your company?

Nathan Chan: The number-one reason is because the engagement is extremely powerful. Foundr has been on Instagram for eight months, and I wish we were on it years ago! Engagement on Instagram is 50 times better than Twitter [for us].

Obi Okere: In doing our research, we found that most of our customers who are looking for hair inspiration were on Instagram. It was just natural for us to also be [there] and talk to them in a space they were already looking at. Facebook is great for interactions, but the conversions are pretty low. We haven’t had a lot of success with Pinterest or Google Adwords. We’ve dabbled in Twitter Advertising, but to be honest, it’s quite pricey. So Instagram content marketing and advertising just seems to be the most cost-effective way for us to market our business.

Steven Dyme: We sell a visual product: flowers. If we can make our product visually compelling, it's going to sell better. Being able to feature our product in a pretty environment, out in the wild, on a delivery, being made ... it’s not only an inside look for our customers, but it’s another touch point for them to see and be inspired by our product. For us, it was always natural to be on such a visual platform. 

How do you use Instagram to drive sales to your products?

Okere: We use Instagram to drive sales using different Instagram [influencers] who have over 100,000 followers. We might market our Instagram posts on their account to capture their followers and drive sales to our Instagram page; they review our products and post their pictures and videos on our page. [We also] use large natural hair accounts—more like a Facebook fan page for natural hair—and launch our product on their site.

Dyme: The number-one thing that has helped us grow our business is connecting with other brands and leveraging their audiences to propagate our product. We'll use hyperlocal brands with cult followings that can reach customers right away. We also use national brands: We've been featured on the Free People national blog and Madewell's website; while that doesn't do that much for our actual sales, it creates a tremendous amount of credibility for our brand. Instagram has been an amazing vehicle to connect with those businesses. Free People had a flower crown workshop [with us] that they shared on their national Instagram page. For Madewell, it's handing out free bouquets in their store. Collaborating with brands is the best content for driving sales in our experience.

Chan: Via exposure and spreading the word about our mission and brand. The awareness of Foundr has exploded since growing our Instagram account to 200K+ in the past eight months. Our top priority with Instagram is to post extremely powerful engaging content that resonates with our followers, provides value and is sharable, which in turn leads to more followers.

The other priority is to get as many of our followers as we can to further engage with our content by clicking on our bio link. Our bio link goes to a landing page, which [has] a free guide on how to start a business. Our followers have to leave their email address to opt-in and receive the guide. From there, we can use email marketing to further serve someone who has joined our newsletter, and we can start a sales process and allow that person to be exposed to our products and further interact with our community.

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Nathan Chan, publisher and editor of Foundr Magazine

When you're using Instagram as a sales tool, how does that change the way you use it compared to a personal account?

Joy Adaeze: It's definitely more cohesive and geared toward a certain topic. If you go on our Instagram page, you'll only see photos of the hair—either of the hair itself or on our customers. It shows you how to install the clip-ins and how to achieve a certain style. You won't really find any off-topic posts. Some companies won't do that—they want to share funny meme[s]—and I feel like that really distracts from a company's brand. You want to only talk about your brand so the follower isn't distracted from the reason why they're on your page.

Dyme: I would say the same thing. Instagram is really refined and you want to be very particular, specific and careful. In a personal Instagram, it's all about displaying personality; in an Instagram for your business, you're illustrating your brand.

Chan: Our followers are our number-one concern with everything we post. We post valuable content that is relevant to them. That means we don't do selfies or photos of our pets. We also post content that will encourage our followers to press on our bio. 

How do you track success with your Instagram account?

Dyme: We use different tiny URLs in our profile [and] direct people to [use them]. We also use Iconosquare, which is a great tool to measure engagement. Followers [are] great, but what really matters for us in terms of converting business is how engaged our audience is—likes on a particular photo, if it gets reposted or the comments. Iconosquare helps us measure that.

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Steven Dyme of Flowers for Dreams

Adaeze: We like being able to see what people are more engaged with. Things like PicStitch collages do really well; 15-second video clips do really well—those generate a lot of comments and tags. When we post a video of me going from my natural short hair to shoulder-length hair, that generates a lot of people tagging their friends, saying "see how cool this is," or "you have to try this style." 

Okere: We get a lot of phone calls from women who have further questions before they actually make a purchase. We ask them how they heard about us and many times they will say, "I heard about you on Instagram. I saw this picture, and I was really intrigued," or "I was really inspired by your story so I'd thought I'd give you a call to ask more questions." That's another way we also measure our success.

How do you build an engaged audience that does more than just like?

Dyme: Create your own hashtags—that's the best way to build community outside your own feed. We also engage with people who are relevant to us. We used to spend so much time in the beginning liking and commenting on photos from people we thought were perfect in our demographic. We engaged with them in an authentic way; we would create a conversation and have a back and forth. Inevitably that forces those people to see our feed and decide whether they want to follow. Most of the time, because we had a compelling feed, they would opt in.

Adaeze: The unique thing about Curlsistas is that we spent four to five months just building our brand on Instagram before we even started selling the hair. That's what helped us in the beginning, because people already knew about us before the hair line was launched last year. So it started getting a lot of attention when the hair arrived; we [got press] in Essence, and Huffington Post [named us one of the] top six natural hair extension brands, which for us [drove] huge traffic. 

I didn't want to have a sales pitch-y voice. I think Instagram really provides a girlfriend tone, like, "Hey girl, check out this really great style!" As a woman, I relate to posts like that because I hate to be sold something blatantly. People feel like we're looking out for them because we are.

Chan: Content, content, content. You have to know your audience so extremely well and create content that they love. You have to post content that resonates with your audience, that triggers an emotion. A great way to do this is [to] ask where all your followers are from. Encourage your community to tag their friends and share your content with others. Create damn good content that people just want to share. Make sure the content has great aesthetics, too!

How do you come up with the content you share on Instagram? I can imagine it might be daunting for small-business owners who are just starting out.

Dyme: It definitely requires a considerable and intentional effort to have someone run Instagram. If you can, have a dedicated Instagram person who believes and understands your brand. I run it with the help of our full-time graphic designer, and we both share those responsibilities. You have to have a photographer. It is a concerted effort to create beautiful images. Most of our images are crowdsourced, so that's another way to go: finding influential Instagrammers and leveraging their audiences. We send people free product, they shoot it, and we repurpose that photo on our feed. 

Okere: I think it's really important for business owners to find very cool ways to show how customers are interacting with their products, show how their product is being produced. If it's ethically sourced, show those details. Share more details about the product full circle, from the customer experience to how it's made. It's important that you have a really quality phone. You don't really need to have a photographer if you have a limited budget. You can do a lot of great things with an up-to-date iPhone or Android that has a great camera, taking advantage of the multiple apps out there to not only take pictures, but to edit them and apply filters and text to those pictures, so you can have some great content to post on Instagram.

What are Instagram tips or secrets you think more small-business owners should use?

Adaeze: If you're going to really utilize Instagram as a sales platform, you gotta be consistent. I feel like Instagram more than any social network thrives on consistency. Also, share the best pictures you can. If you have a picture you like but it isn't the best quality, you may just want to leave that out, because it won't do well on [such a] visual platform.

Dyme: Create reason to post photos and reason for people to engage with those photos. For example, we rented out a trolley and had all our customers and social influencers deliver bouquets all around Chicago. We said to everyone, if you want to come on the trolley, apply [on Instagram]. Everyone was tagging their friends, and within 24 hours, we had 230 applications to come on our trolley. That was a reason for people to engage.

Chan: S4S: Shout for Shout. Get other accounts that are similar to you to share your content, and you share theirs. This is one of our biggest secrets to growth and has exploded our business. My top five apps to use on Instagram are Wordswag and Typorama for content creation and branding, Crowdfire for growth, Socialblade for growth analytics of growth and Latergramme for scheduling.

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Photos: iStock, Courtesy of Foundr Magazine; Flowers for Dreams