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Even if you’re aware that Instagram has more than 800-million monthly and 500-million DAILY active users, as a small business owner or entrepreneur you might have assumed that it’s just a social media channel that’s not worth your valuable time.

You might think it’s a social media network that builds audiences based on personal photos, and you wouldn’t be totally wrong. However, Instagram is becoming much more than the sum of its parts and can be a great place to build your brand awareness and audience – even if you’re not making or selling food, fashion, graphic design or travel packages (it’s even stronger for those)

First Things First

Before you dive into learning about Instagram – and trust me, it’s a bit of a learning curve – let’s consider if it fits the strategic plans you have for your business marketing.

By now, if you’ve read any of our posts on the Grow the Dream site, you know that the first thing you need to consider is your strategic work. This is true before we even start exploring Instagram and it will become more important if you decide that Instagram is a place to build your business.

Knowing who your ideal customer is, their specific demographics as well as the pain they feel and the questions they’re asking, is key to making any online marketing plan a success and that’s heightened when you’re building your community on Instagram – more on that in a moment.

31% percent of all women online use Instagram and 24% of men who go online use it as well. More than half of the Instagram user base is 18-29 years old. Teenagers in particular consider Instagram to be their most important social networking outlet, especially since it was bought by Facebook. And 80% of users follow at least one business, so if your product or service hits that sweet spot of 18-29 or younger, Instagram is probably something you should seriously consider.

But Is It Worth It?

Here’s where I’m going to veer off my usual, follow the strategic work plan. Because as valuable as building an Instagram community can be for a business, it takes a lot of work.

Instagram, more than just about any other social media network, is very hands-on. It requires a bit of attention, at the minimum, once a day. That can cut into your other marketing efforts. You only have so much time in a day – especially if you’re a solopreneur right now.

I’m not going to lie to you and tell you if you follow these 6 or 13 or even 89 steps, that you’ll quickly dominate Instagram. Anything worth doing well takes some time to get right. And if you have the time and hit the demographic, it can be extremely valuable to your business to build your community on Instagram.

So take a look at your strategic work, check out the rest of this article to get some idea on how much effort it will take, and decide if it fits your overall business strategy to invest in Instagram.

So What Does it Take?

Start with the basics. As I explained in an earlier post, you’ll want to have a name and icon that are consistent across all of the social media you use as well as within your website. On Instagram, the visual representation of your company is called the DP (display picture). Instagram recommends that it’s good and eye-catching.

If Instagram is not the first social media platform you’ve targeted, use the one you’ve established elsewhere, unless you realize that it’s not working perfectly. If that’s the case, use this as an opportunity to visually rebrand across your social media platforms, and even point it out, so the new logo becomes synonymous with your brand.

Incidentally, even if you stick with your current logo/image, post an announcement on your other social media profiles that you’ve launched on Instagram and would appreciate support there. That’s sure to garner you a few followers and likes right off the bat.

Just like on Twitter, you have minimal space for a bio, so make it count. Provide your soon to be community with a positive first impression in the 150 characters allowed. Mention your vision, your overall products and services and contact details.

You get one, and only one link on your Instagram profile. For starters, make that link your website. However, as you build your community, you can swap out that link for one that sends people to, say, a specific promo on your site. Then mention in your appropriate post captions that the link is in your bio.

Begin Building Your Community

Now, before you post anything, stop and take a look around. Take a look at your competitors’ pages and see what their engagement looks like. You don’t want to copy them, but you can learn from what they’re doing right and wrong.

While we often refer to following someone on Instagram, the platform itself defines things differently. On Instagram, you build a community made up of engaged fans who will act as brand advocates. In addition to liking and commenting on your photos, these people will engage in conversations. They might even @mention your brand and help build excitement. Their own community will see that post and may join yours as well.

With your strategic work in hand, search for 15-30 profiles that fit the criteria of your ideal customer. Look at their pages. Like and comment on a few of their photos – or at least one.  And be human – this is not the time to advertise or try to offer solutions. This is admiring the picture of their dog or fancy dinner – right now it’s about making a connection, not selling anything. Follow their account and it’s likely that they’ll follow back, at least initially.

Next, find and follow influencers in your industry, as well as past and current clients. Follow the same steps of commenting and liking – and it doesn’t have to be on their most popular posts. In fact, often times engaging the less popular posts will make you stand out, especially if you add something to the conversation.

Typically some of them will follow you back as well. And you might find yourself collaborating with influencers down the line, so it’s good to build rapport and relationships now.

Positioning Your Posts

Just like your content blog, if you want to build your Instagram community, you need to be posting consistently and every day. And, yes, I mean EVERY day. Tailwind recently did a comprehensive study of Instagram practices that found, among other things, profiles that posted at least once a day, or seven or more times a week, got more likes and gained more followers faster than those that posted less frequently.

Just by posting 5 days a week instead of once can double your community size. Adding those extra weekend posts doubles it again. Only 5% of Instagram accounts post at least once per day. This is how you stand out.

The more you post, the more likes and followers you will get, and the more they will engage with you.

Unlike some social media platforms, there is no set time that is perfect to post to Instagram. To get started, since you have to do the posting yourself – third party scheduling apps get booted out of Instagram all the time – it’s probably best to schedule yourself to do 2 posts a day – one when you first get to the office and one right before you leave.

As you build your community, you can look deeper into the statistics Instagram provides to see when your ideal customers are most active on Instagram, and you can begin to post within those windows.

Much like Facebook’s latest algorithms, the more engagement your post on Instagram has, the more people will see it organically. And if you unite the two platforms, BuzzSumo found that images posted on Instagram that get shared through the app to a Facebook feed have 23% higher engagement on both platforms.

Also, schedule a few minutes each day to respond to comments on your posts and continue building engagement and relationship through the conversation.

What’s In a Post?

Here’s where we get down to the nitty gritty of what a post looks like:

  1. Visual Images

What you post on Instagram has a clear effect on how people see your company. So it is essential to make sure you’re posting quality, accessible images that offer a positive impression of what you offer your clients.

To do that, you’ll need strong photos – but not necessarily professionally staged ones. In fact, the more ‘casual’ or creative you can be with your images on Instagram, the better, as long as they enhance and connect with your brand.

Keep your images similar-looking in terms of color and composition. Make your feed a collection, or curated gallery of sorts, that works together to tell your brand story. In fact, since you can upload up to 10 photos or videos in one post, some businesses do just that – use visual language to tell a complete story in one post.

One big mistake that a lot of new businesses make is to immediately push the serious business with promotional, sales-driven posts. There’s almost nothing that will send your audience packing than making it clear to them you’re just there for one reason.

That isn’t to say you can’t do promotional posts or ones showing off your product or service. You just have to be more creative about it. If you’re selling a product, showcase it in an unusual way. I’ll talk more about influencers and customers/fans of your item in a moment, but it’s also something to consider. And if you do decide to take a more serious approach for a few posts, be sure to stagger them. Be sure to focus on the problem they solve or the pain they heal.

In addition to promotional posts, this is your opportunity to get personal with the Instagram audience – remember, you’re building a community. So show the people in your company, post about social events, charity contributions, the annual Christmas gala or Santa surprise. Show the creative side and culture of your business, highlight your vision, or the reasons you were inspired to start the business. Build relationships.

  1. Filters

One great way to keep your images similar-looking and build a distinctive visual brand is by using the same filter on every image. In fact, 60 percent of the top brands on Instagram already do this. By using the same filters over and over, you can establish a style that will become recognizable to your community.

Since your goal is to stand out, maintaining a consistent visual pattern in your posts allows your community to instantly spot your posts as they’re scrolling through their feed, which leads to more engagement.

  1. Captions

One of the fun things you can do with Instagram that stands out is using the captions feature. And for a small business, it’s a great way to throw in a “Call to Action”.

Remember, Instagram is about engagement. So you can use captions to have people to tag a friend, ask a question, or answer the question you’ve posed in the caption. Anything that gets them more closely tied to you.

You can also create contests and drive people back to your business platform. You can’t put links in captions, but, as I mentioned earlier, you can change the link in your bio to a specific landing page and mention in the caption “Link in the Bio.”

  1. #Hashtags

Hashtags make your photos searchable, plain and simple. Tagging your photos with relevant keywords means that you will show up when someone searches for photos related to that keyword. You can also tag your photos with popular general hashtags to reach an even larger audience, but this is less productive.

You can add up to 30 Hashtags per post, but the ideal number is 9-11 per post. You can put them in the caption, but I’ve spotted some savvy business people that load the hashtags into the first comment. Not sure why it works, but it does all the same

Take advantage of your strategic work – if there is a phrase that connects to your brand, or a search string that you routinely land on the front page for, use it as a custom hashtag in all your posts – and in your bio. This also works great if you have a slogan or short vision statement for your business. Your community members will use the hashtags, and that will increase your Instagram presence.

You can also use Instagram search the same way you use Google for your strategic work – see what images come up when you search the hashtags you’re considering.

Also, if you’re a local business, use the appropriate location hashtag to make sure people can find you. We would use #Sarasota or #SRQ (airport code) most often. Even if your prospective clients aren’t all local, location tagging builds more engagement.

  1. Videos

Video posts on Instagram are constantly evolving. Just a year ago, videos on Instagram could only be 4-11 seconds long. That made it challenging for some people to make the best use of them. If you have the means to do it, I’d recommend it. The average engagement for videos is growing faster than the average engagement for images, and some businesses focus their Instagram posts solely on videos. There’s too much to go into in the midst of this article (look for a follow-up post later this year), but just to give you an idea of the options now available:

      • Instagram Feed Video: 3 seconds – 1 minute
      • Instagram Story Video: 15 seconds max per Story
      • IGTV Video: 15 seconds – 10 minutes
      • Instagram Live Video: Up to 60 minutes
  1. Curate Customer Posts

The images you post on Instagram don’t have to be just your own. Take advantage of happy customers and encourage them to post on their personal Instagram with your branded hashtag. Just like getting positive feedback of your product and services on review sites, your customers become ambassadors for your product or service.

Unlike the review sites, you can pick and choose the best uses and images of your products and services and repost them on your Instagram page, crediting the original poster. There are also a few WordPress plug-ins you can add to your site to add an Instagram widget to your page.

  1. Collaborate with influencers

Another great way to extend your Instagram reach and grow your following is to collaborate with others. You can develop partnerships, sponsorships, account take-overs or you can get influencers to post about or be a fan of your product or service.

Identify influencers on Instagram that your ideal clients like or are relevant to your brand or industry. You can build a relationship with them, getting to take advantage of their “reach” on the platform.

The easiest and cheapest way to do that is to get them as a fan. This doesn’t mean they endorse or even post about your business, but are willing to have pictures of them with your product, staged or otherwise, posted on your feed with their @profile tagged.

Going one step further and getting an endorsement, or having the influencer post about your product, can get expensive quickly, depending on the size of their reach. This writer worked with some of the Real Housewives and The Kardashians for a short time, and they charge between $15,000, all the way upwards to $1-million for their official stamp of approval.

  1. Instagram Stories

One of the hottest new features of Instagram, that Facebook is also experimenting with on their site, is Instagram Stories. These are short-term slides that disappear after 24 hours of being live.

While this may seem counterintuitive at first, Instagram Stories has the added advantage of popping to the top of your community’s feed, cutting through the 80-million images per hour posted on the site.

And more than 250 million people use see Instagram Stories every day.

You’ll Need an Instagram-Specific Strategy

In addition to your regular marketing strategy, you’ll need to have a specific plan of action for your Instagram marketing as well.

Measurable Goals

Just as you do with all of your marketing, you should know what you hope to achieve with your Instagram postings. And, just like any strategic work, the goals need to be specific and measurable. Hopefully, you’ve already done some of the work in your initial strategic assessment. You just need to apply those business and marketing goals to how they can be achieved on Instagram.

Style guidelines

The key here is a consistent, visually appealing and instantly noticeable style and image as your branded content. Do you use emojis or not? Which #hashtags are always used? What is the visual style most of your posts should emulate? Do you add a key logo – also known as a brand bug – to each image so if they’re shared widely, they always lead back to you?

Content themes

This can vary, or run in cycles, but what is the central intent of the content you are posting? How does it tell your story best? Make sure everything reflects that, even if you’re running a contest or choosing which of your customers’ posts to redistribute.

Engagement guidelines

Again, Instagram is all about building communities and relationships. It’s fine when you’re a solopreneur, but once you start delegating responsibility, everyone who touches your Instagram profile needs to be on the same page. Are there certain posts or businesses we don’t like or comment on? Are there specific words and phrases that are always used? Do we engage with negative comments as well as positive ones? How much do we engage (More than a simple “Thank you!”)?

One of the disadvantages of Instagram that you should also consider is, as I mentioned earlier, that it is very difficult to automate (one of the top strategies we recommend for small business owners). There are several programs out there that claim to be able to automate your Instagram posting and engagement. However, more often than not, they backfire, knocking your Instagram engagement into the cellar. Either take the time to do it yourself, or just don’t bother.

But Then There’s This…

Ultimately, Instagram can actually enhance your strategic work. Yes, you read that right. The same collation of data that’s recently been the subject of congressional hearings and the like means that if you take the time, you can learn a LOT about your Instagram community as a whole.

Instagram Insights can show you which posts your followers like the most, and even which posts see the most engagement from people outside of your community. And you can get specific with time frames and other variables to help pinpoint what to focus on in Instagram, as well as adding that information into the profile of your ideal customer.

To get to Instagram Insights, tap on your profile photo in the app. Tap on the Instagram Insights (bar chart) icon, then scroll down to the “Posts” section and tap on “See more.” After you’ve perused your top posts sorted by impressions, select a post and tap on “View Insights.” You’ll find a wealth of information.

So is Instagram marketing worth it? You’ll have to decide for yourself. If you already have a strong visual component to your products or services, if your ideal customer is 18-29 or in their teens, and you have the time to invest, it’s a no-brainer. If you lack any of those components, you may want to carefully consider whether you have the time to spare to properly manage everything, or if your time would be better spent on other efforts.

Either way, to answer the question in our title, ‘Can Instagram help build your business?’ Yes, it definitely can, if it fits in your marketing strategy.