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

With more than 300 million users, Instagram has become a visual way for businesses and brands to connect with people. This primer can help get you started.
Chief Executive Officer, Arment Dietrich, Inc.
February 18, 2015

Instagram is most noted by teenagers and college students as a way to connect quickly with friends through photos.

In fact, Andrew Watts recently 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. "

That said, there is a huge opportunity for small businesses to use Instagram to create a humanness to the brand.

Instagram has 300 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 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 on Instagram. 

Use Instagram for Business

Instagram is a great way to promote your brand, connect the physical world with the online world and launch a new product or service, just to name a few. 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. In that case, one of your Instagram 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.

What Kinds of Visuals Can I Use?

Visuals are the main currency of Instagram. Small businesses should share compelling content that their followers won't be able to find anywhere, Instagram advises in its own best practices guide. Think about the kind of visuals you like—subject, quality, etc.—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 Instagram:

  • Your office. Take photos of the team's offices. Everyone has individual taste when it comes to their workspace. This is interesting to those who might buy from you. Also take 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. Encourage 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, 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 us some business.

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

What Is an Instagram Hashtag?

Like Facebook or Twitter, you can use a hashtag on Instagram that will 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 broad 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 one of the easiest ways for them to find you.

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. As per Instagram's promotion guidelines, "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, so will your sales.

Measure Instagram 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 deep (and free!) set of Instagram tools that provides data about your account and interactions—growth charts, engagement rates, best times to post and much more.
  • Totems is an analytics suite for Instagram that includes an analytics dashboard, hashtag monitoring and a social CRM. It may be a little pricey for small businesses (pricing begins at $149 per month), but if you spend a lot of time on Instagram and think it's generating qualified leads for you, it could be worth the price.
  • 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.

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Photo: iStockphoto