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A Small-Business Owner's Guide to Using Instagram Effectively

Using Instagram for business paves a visual way for the brands to connect to over 800 million users of Instagram. Learn how business on Instagram can help you reach your prospective clients.
December 11, 2017

In the past few years, Instagram has hit the waves as the next big thing. It was first noted by teenagers and college students as a way to connect quickly with friends through photos.

In fact, Andrew Watts wrote in A Teenager's View on Social Media, "Instagram is by far the most used social media outlet for my age group. Please note the verbiage there—it is the most used social media outlet." And, just like other social media tools, it soon was noticed in professional circles and Instagram for business became the next big thing.

I believe Instagram is, hands down, one of the best ways to humanize an organization. Instagram has 800 million users—and they aren't all teenagers. Nor are they all big brands. On the contrary, self-employed artists, small businesses and even software-as-a-service organizations are having success with the social network.

And, here's the good news: You don't have to have a visual product to have success with your business on Instagram.

Some Fun Instagram for Business Ideas

Instagram can be a great way to promote your brand, connect the physical world with the online world and launch a new product or service. What you use—and how you use it—will depend on your goals and your organization. For instance, if you have employees spread across several countries and in many different time zones, perhaps your goal is to connect them with one another and build morale and culture.

Instagram can be a great way to promote your brand, connect the physical world with the online world and launch a new product or service.

In that case, one of your Instagram for business strategies may include giving the account keys to a new employee every week and have them take photos of a "week in the life" to engage other employees—places they eat, meetings they attend, set-up of their office and more.

On the flip side, if you're a clothing manufacturer, it could be fun to have people post photos of themselves wearing your clothes in their own environments.

Getting Started Using Instagram for Business

If you've been thinking about using Instagram for business, you're in luck!

Instagram started the Instagram for Business blog to provide you with tips, brand spotlights, API examples and news. It's chock full of ideas to help you excel—and it's not just "take photos of your product."

Au contraire!

You can find ideas such as:

  • Balance fun images of the things your organization, employees, or shareholders do outside of work.
  • How to use hashtags to find new followers.
  • Why you should connect your Instagram for business page with Facebook.
  • Test Instagram stories.
  • Follow your followers back—unless they're spam or robots.
  • How to know if your followers are spam or robots.
  • Test Instagram filters.
  • Try a photo campaign.

The challenge, of course, is it's a visual social media, which means you do have to use photos and videos.

But don't despair! It's not as challenging as one might think.

What Kinds of Visuals Can I Use?

Visuals are the main currency of Instagram.

When you decide to have a business Instagram account, you want to consider sharing compelling content your followers won't be able to find anywhere. Think about the kind of visuals you like—subject, quality, backgrounds, ideas—and try to replicate that with the photos you share on your account. Worried you won't have something visually compelling to share? Think about the following business opportunities to snap photos with your phone and upload directly to your Instagram for business page:

  • Your office. You could take photos of the team's offices. Everyone has individual taste when it comes to their workspace. This may be interesting to those who might buy from you. Also consider taking photos in and around your work environment—brick-and-mortar office, manufacturing floor, virtual office, the retail floor or wherever it is you hang out during the day. Think about the behind-the-scenes photos that most people wouldn't otherwise get to see.
  • Community events. Your employees have lives outside of work. Think about encouraging them to take appropriate photos or video for you to use on the business's Instagram page. Likewise, if you and your team participate in community service, you can get visuals from those outings.
  • Celebrations. Many organizations celebrate new babies, birthdays, work anniversaries and more. A few years ago, one of our young professionals didn't believe human beings can't eat more than six saltines in one minute. She took the challenge and we got it on video. Though it was completely silly, our followers loved it—and it drove a level of engagement that eventually brought in some business.

Encourage your team to get involved in submitting images, and your Instagram business page may grow in popularity.

Create Visual Consistency

Using the same filter for every post allow you to establish a style that becomes recognizable to your followers. One of your goals on Instagram is to get users to stop scrolling when they get to your image. You want followers to like or leave a comment, which means your visuals have to be compelling and recognizable.

How Do I Use Instagram Stories?

Instagram Stories let you string together multiple pictures and videos into a “story" that disappears after 24 hours, similar to Snapchat. Though it feels a little intimidating, there are some upsides to using Instagram Stories. First, it does disappear after 24 hours so, if you screw something up or don't like the lighting, it's not permanent. That alone makes it a risk-free endeavor when using Instagram for business. That said, just because Instagram Stories don't stick around forever, doesn't mean they don't require some thought and planning.

While many people will post at random, brands may want to think about their Instagram Story as they would any other content channel: ahead of time. Consider treating your Story like a TV network with scheduled programming for the week, or even recurring “episodes" that happen on certain days. Thinking in advance about what kind of content you'll be sharing and how your Story flows can help you craft a more addictive and consistent experience for your viewers. BarkBox, a monthly subscription box service for dog toys, treats and goodies, has fun with their Instagram Stories. They often post clips from “doggie interviews" between an employee and a pug. Think about how you can program your own Instagram Stories. Is it with interviews between a mascot and an employee? Or by highlighting the activities your employees do outside of work? Or a behind-the-scenes look at how your product is made? Whatever you decide, consider thinking about it as a series that flows together and ends with a season closer.

What Is an Instagram Hashtag?

Like Facebook or Twitter, you can use hashtags on Instagram that can help you attract new followers. A hashtag provides an easy way to search similar topics for people who are interested in what you're posting. You should familiarize yourself with a few popular hashtags—#throwbackthursday or #TBT, #ootd (Outfit of the Day) or #selfie—and category-specific ones that apply to your business. #TBT, of course, has evolved from Instagram to the other social networks, and millions of people participate every Thursday. You can piggyback on something like that or create your own and let others use yours. The goal is to gain new followers who might eventually buy from you. Using a hashtag is an easy way for them to find you via your Instagram business page.

What Are the Rules for an Instagram Contest?

Contests can be a fabulous way to gain more followers and engagement on Instagram, provided you follow the rules and terms of service. It can be pretty scary to set up a contest only to have your page removed for not following the rules. Note that it should be stated that contests are not sponsored by Instagram and that the platform does not help brands and businesses administer contests.

To execute a law-abiding Instagram contest, you should do the following:

  • Set your goal(s) for the contest.
  • Determine your key metrics.
  • Choose the hashtag you'll be using. This is required so you can track users. The Instagram promotion guidelines state, "You must not inaccurately tag content or encourage users to inaccurately tag content (ex: don't encourage people to tag themselves in photos if they aren't in the photo)."
  • Choose a selection method for winners.
  • Set up the rules, terms and conditions. And make sure your users follow them to the T.
  • Launch and promote the contest. Figure out how you'll support the contest (other social networks, a news release and/or advertising).
  • Notify winners and follow up with everyone else.

Though that list seems a little daunting, it won't take you long to write down your expectations. It could be worth the time because your followers, impressions and engagement may increase. And, if done well, your sales might increase as well.

Host an Instagram Takeover

Perhaps there is an influencer in your industry who is willing to do an Instagram takeover with you. This means they will run your Instagram business page for a day—or a couple of hours.

If you decide you want to do that, there are a few things to consider:

  • Who will facilitate the takeover from your team? The person should be well-organized, have a deep knowledge of Instagram (including community management and culture) and excellent account management skills.
  • Work out a loose script. Consider charting a loose script so your influencer stays on message and helps—not hinders—your brand. It's fun to include an Instagram Story if it makes sense for your guest Instagrammer, too.
  • Prepare your guest. Email your guest influencer to share high-level details of the event plan and include to-dos at least two weeks in advance. Then schedule a meeting to confirm processes, manage expectations and answer any questions about the day of the event one to two weeks before the event. You can follow-up a day or two before takeover day to make sure your guest is prepared.
  • Decide on content in advance. The guest is typically responsible for creating the photos/graphics and copy and publishing times for posts (and Story). Always be sure to have a clear beginning and a clear ending for your takeover so people aren't wondering when it starts and ends.
  • Promote. Have your promotional plan ready to begin two weeks in advance on all your social media accounts, on the guest's accounts and on your blog (assuming you have one). You can prepare content for you and your guest in advance, along with high-level instructions. Be sure to continue promoting the event throughout the day and cross-promote with your guest.
  • Takeover day. Now it's time for the takeover! Make sure you have an open line of communication with your guest, that you publish content and that someone from your team monitors and responds to posts. Most of all, have fun!
  • Analyze and measure results. You can run your first Instagram takeover as both a learning experience and a test to confirm whether or not it's the right approach. It's also an important opportunity to set benchmarks and expectations for future events.

Measure Your Instagram Business Effectiveness

Of course, increased followers, engagement and impressions are nice, but where the real pedal meets the metal is whether your efforts drive business results. So how do you know if Instagram is actually affecting your sales?

There are several platforms to help you track effectiveness.

  • Iconosquare is a set of Instagram tools that provides data about your account and interactions—growth charts, engagement rates, best times to post and much more.
  • SumAll provides analytics for more than just Instagram. You can track social media, commerce and Web analytics all in one daily email. It's free and as easy to set up as signing in with one of your social networks.
  • SimplyMeasured adds an extra level of help: strategy development. As you plan your Instagram campaigns, SimplyMeasured will help you determine the audiences you can reach, what kinds of visuals to use and what your competitors are doing. Then it tracks your activities, the audience engagement and your business results. It starts at $500 per month, but does have a free trial.
  • SproutSocial centralizes all of your social media efforts. Though you can use it for more than your Instagram for business results, it's nice to have everything in one spot.

And there you have it!

The complete guide to using Instagram for business. Now go forth and prosper.

A version of this article was originally published on February 18, 2015.

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Photo: Getty Images