The dramatic rise of the social media site Instagram has been driven by a growing appetite for visual content. Here's how small businesses can make an impact on this popular social media site
Launched in 2010, Instagram already has more than one billion active monthly users. With its emphasis on appealing images rather than lots of text, brands with something to show - from food to fashion - have quickly made their mark on Instagram.
"Everyone wants to be on Instagram because it has had such amazing growth," says Alison Battisby, social media expert and founder of Avocado Social. However, she warns, while it can be a powerful tool for many creative and retail businesses it's not right for everyone.
And for businesses that are familiar with Twitter and Facebook, Instagram can be a learning curve. Apart from the need to have a constant supply of strong images, the main difference, says Battisby, is that "currently you can't link out to websites so you have to engage with people within the app itself. That means you have to find ways to engage without a call to action. Some businesses struggle; they post three images and they give up."
Look before you leap
When it comes to standing out on Instagram, preparation is key, she says. "It can take time to work out a strategy. Check out the images other people in your sector are posting and what is being liked and shared. Look at your target audience and your competitors to find out what is doing well and which hashtags are trending."
Images on Instagram need to have instant appeal; boring or poor quality images are an absolute no-no. "You need to inspire in seconds," says Battisby. "People won't read a long caption, so the image has to speak for itself. Don't over-complicate things; it's best to keep it simple."
Here some guidelines on images and how and why to use them.
- A picture says a thousand words - whether it's a product image, an image of you and your team or images from an event. Attractive images will grab people's attention and help you tell your story.
- Think about the different images you might need. It's useful to have a variety of shots - from your product in action, to cut outs to your product on a plain white background. That way, your shots will be appropriate for most uses.
- It’s always a good idea to invest in a proper photo shoot. Never underestimate what a photographer can do for your brand. Outside of the business of actually taking the photos, a good photographer can advise on the kind of images you need to show your business to its best advantage, provide lighting and professional backdrops and develop creative ideas to really make you stand out from the crowd.
- Avoid amateur Photo-shopping – if you can't afford a proper shoot, it’s best to avoid making the shots up. Badly Photo-shopped images are obvious and won’t do your brand any favours.
If you make a product, Instagram can be a brilliant way to tell your story, show how you source materials and how your products are made. Another effective approach is to get your customers to provide images. Superfood chocolate makers Doisy and Dam have a weekly selfie competition so that customers can send in pictures of themselves eating their chocolate. "It's a simple approach but it has earned them over 16,000 followers," says Battisby.
Images of staff are also popular. In fact, businesses increasingly use Instagram as a recruitment tool, posting behind-the-scenes images that give an insight into their corporate culture. No matter how small your business, posting images of yourself and your team at work can bring you closer to your customers, especially if you have an online business.
Say it with style
The best performers on Instagram don't just post random pictures; they have a recognisable style or approach that they become known for. "You've got to have a theme and stick to it," advises Battisby. "It could be a subject, a background, a colour or even a particular way of taking photos."
If you search Instagram, key photographic trends quickly become apparent. "Bird's eye view images are everywhere at the moment," says Battisby. "In particular, flat-lay images - where you lay out a number of items in a pattern and photograph them from above - are really popular."
But Instagram is not just about following fashion; it's about having a consistent style of your own so you stand out and grow a strong following. Exclusive offers and competitions are also a good way to attract more followers and ensure your Instagram page has something special to offer that visitors can't get elsewhere.
Hashtags are also a vital tool on Instagram and you can find popular hashtags using the search box.
"Hashtags are a great way for people to find your content so it's important to put a few in," says Battisby. "You can use up to 30 hashtags in one post, but I'd recommend a maximum of five otherwise you begin to look a little desperate! Take a look at TagsforLikes for the most popular hashtags to use by category."
Like any social media site, posting images and captions is only half the battle. "The key word is social," says Battisby. "You've got to build relationships and start conversations.
"Those people on Instagram with a decent following are big on engagement," she adds. "They leave comments on other people's pages, not just on their own page, they share images and they follow lots of people. It's about reaching out and making connections. That is just as important as what you post."
Perhaps the most important advice of all is just to keep going, says Battisby. "Being disciplined really does pay off. The people with more than a million followers on Instagram consistently post once or twice a day and have done for a year or more."
Top tips for building a following on Instagram
- Research people in your sector to see what is trending.
- Choose a theme for your Instagram images and stick to it.
- Put together a bank of images so that you can post regularly.
- Post at least once or twice a day.
- Don't advertise that you are on Instagram until you have posted at least nine images - that way your Instagram page will make a strong first impression.
- Follow others and share their images but make sure you credit them in the caption.
- Research the most popular and relevant hashtags for your business and use them in your posts.
- Tag other relevant businesses to get their attention.
Social media content produced in partnership with Luan Wise.