To reach your customers—current and potential—you need to be where they live. That’s increasingly online, on social networks such as Instagram.
Users of the photo-sharing app now total 500 million and counting, and they are a global audience. It may not be as big a crowd as that of Instagram’s parent company Facebook (with 1.79 billion monthly users). But the platform’s visual nature offers some advantages to marketers who know how to leverage them, and at this point, any business that ignores it is willfully missing an opportunity.
Reaching its user base effectively is more complicated than occasionally posting attractive photos, loading the captions with hashtags, and expecting followers to come rolling in. The network’s image-based language and etiquette can be tough for newcomers to master.
Earlier this month, publishing powerhouse Condé Nast and Dash Hudson, an Instagram analytics company used by several Condé Nast properties, partnered for a panel about how brands small and large can build and maintain an audience on Instagram, and ultimately convert those online followers into customers. Among the speakers were representatives from Condé Nast’s own brands; craft marketplace Etsy; giant online fashion retailer Revolve; and others.
Here are some of the best practices they outlined, most of which you can apply regardless of how big or small your business is. As Rochelle Ballard, Condé Nast’s director of social strategy, explained, “Social strategy really is, in a way, agnostic of size.” What’s more important is that you think about how you can adapt these lessons to match your specific business and goals.
“Post every day, even if you only get one thing up,” said Jeffrey Tousey, social media editor at Vanity Fair, which posts to Instagram at least three times a day. “It’s so important to be consistently delivering content, and content that’s relevant.”
Of Instagram’s 500 million users, about 300 million are on the platform daily. If you want to cut through the noise and reach these users, you need to invest time and energy in doing so, or risk being drowned out by the users who are posting regularly.
What that will likely mean is that you need a content plan. As multiple people on the panel attested, coming up with something creative to post every day isn’t simple.
Many businesses now have at least one person dedicated to maintaining social channels. That person should give sufficient time to generating ideas and executing them, and should understand who the audience is that you’re trying to reach.
Etsy’s senior social media manager, Casey Zhang, said she’s strategic about what she posts, and for whom. Instagram posts aimed at people who shop for crafts on Etsy typically try to surface the best products, while those aimed at the site’s sellers offer tips on how to run their shops.
Everything you post on Instagram is competing for attention with everything else in a user’s feed. It’s imperative that you have a clear brand identity so that when a user sees one of your images they can quickly recognize it as yours, and that identity is formed of the types of images you share, the filters you use, and the captions you write.
Within those paramaters, a lot of creativity is possible. At Condé Nast Traveler, travel is clearly the core of the brand, but that doesn’t mean they want every shot to be taken from a plane or on a faraway beach. “Travel can also be a plate of pasta that you picked up the recipe for three years ago when you were in Rome,” said digital editor Maeve Nicholson.
Many Instagram posts aim to be inspirational, aspirational, and educational—but your brand identity will determine which of these qualities you focus most on. Anna Tran, brand director at Revolve, said it’s important that their users frequently feel “this could be me.”
Don’t forget your feed is just one of many your followers will see every day. While certain types of images may start feeling repetitive to you, your followers are still getting plenty of diversity from everyone else they’re following. It may not feel that way when you look at your Instagram home page, but your followers aren’t visiting that page. Their experience of your brand happens through their feed.
Mary Kate Pagano, the social media manager for high-end headphone brand Master & Dynamic, worried the company’s feed was becoming too repetitive, but when she looked into it, users didn’t feel that way. “You’d think people would get bored of pictures of headphones after headphones, but they don’t,” she said. Headphones are the reason people come to the brand, and they were happy to see pictures of them.
Posts don’t always need to relate directly back to your products. Instead, think more broadly about what your customers would enjoy seeing or learning.
For example, Eddie Simeon, cofounder of Hella Cocktail Company explained that he often puts up posts that teach people about alcohol—by explaining what double-peated Scotch is, or the different between añejo and reposado tequila. The company makes everything you need for a cocktail except the booze, but these posts still work well.
Don’t just guess at what’s working and what isn’t. You can track and analyze how different types of content perform on your own using a free tool, or you could enlist an Instagram analytics company to do the work for you. (There’s a reason Dash Hudson was co-hosting the event with Condé Nast.)
The point either way is to figure out what’s connecting with your audience, and to put that insight to work. Pagano said that before Master & Dynamic does a shoot for new Instagram content, she collects pictures of the posts that did well and those that didn’t. The team doesn’t strictly try to replicate what worked because they want to stay creative, but it’s a useful guide.
When Zhang started at Etsy, she reviewed all the company’s content channels and discovered that photos with animals and miniature items were top performers. While it’s no shock to learn that people love cute things, Zhang had concrete evidence that content would do well, so she incorporated it into the company’s content plan—and it helped them increase their engagement over the past six months.
Not least of all, what you learn on Instagram can guide you elsewhere. Simeon says that Hella Cocktail Company uses what it learns about what works for it on Instagram, which it doesn’t spend money on, to focus the marketing efforts it does invest cash in.
Instagram may be first and foremost about sharing images, but the captions on those images also matter. They create a conversation with your followers, which is why it’s important to know your audience and how to speak to them.
After a good deal of testing early on, Revolve ultimately developed a voice that was essentially Tran’s. In addition to being an employee, she happens to represent Revolve’s target customer—a young woman who communicates in lots of hashtags, rap lyrics, and pop-culture references.
For Pagano, also a young woman, getting the hang of the right voice for Master & Dynamic wasn’t as easy, since the audience is 75% male. She read a lot of men’s lifestyle magazines to get the tone right. “Men use fewer exclamation points,” she said. “They don’t use as many emojis.”
If you’re not speaking to people who aren’t already following you, you aren’t building your audience. “You could post every single day, but if you don’t have new people on your feed, you’re not reaching anyone,” said Mariana Rittenhouse, director of brand strategy at Dash Hudson.
There are a few different methods for building this “earned” reach on Instagram. One way is to get your audience talking, tagging their friends, and sharing your content. Etsy, for instance, makes sure to tag the seller of each product in its feed by their Instagram handle in the caption, which makes it more likely that person will jump into the conversation.
The beauty products company Glossier, which has been hugely successful on Instagram, does things like regram and tag users to get them talking. Doing so has not only helped spread its distinctive aesthetic—it has also made its customers into its most powerful sales force.
Businesses can also connect with new audiences through partnerships. “The biggest driver for new engagement for us has definitely been partnerships,” Simeon said. Hella Cocktail Company attracted new followers after partnering on separate projects with Tanqueray and American Express.
Look for brands with a “similar DNA,” as Pagano put it, and whose audience crosses over with yours. If you make small-batch, artisanal products, for instance, consider seeking out a partner that makes a different type of small-batch, artisanal product.
Hiring influencers who have already established social followings is another powerful tool for earned reach, as they provide direct access to a new audience. But don’t just throw money at anyone with lots of followers and expect to see results.
Dash Hudson’s Rittenhouse says it’s not just essential for the influencers themselves be on-brand for your business; their followers need to be on-brand too. If you like an influencer but their following skews toward college kids on a budget and you’re peddling high-end products for the professional set, you’re better off spending your money elsewhere.
Rittenhouse also suggests seeking out influencers who have high engagement and organic reach. That doesn’t necessarily mean the person with the most followers. In fact, so-called microinfluencers, who can have audiences as small as a few thousand people, may have more sway and offer a more authentic voice than the Insta-celebrity who’s already shilling for a dozen brands.
Revolve relies heavily on influencers to reach people on Instagram, but Tran says they always makes sure any event or partnership it does with one relates back to something on its site. “The goal for everything we do is to convert our followers into customers,” she says, “and then repeat customers.”
If you do go the influencer route, pay close attention to the results they deliver so you can know who is working for you and who isn’t. The goal is to create an efficient program where your money is being spent with purpose.
It can start to feel like Instagram is constantly rolling out new features, and some people on the panel expressed a little exasperation over trying to keep up. But they also all said that experimenting with these features is vital.
For one thing, Zhang pointed out, Instagram is promoting these features, and giving the brands using them more reach.
But beyond that, they’re important for engaging your audience, which is hungry for new forms of storytelling and more likely to take notice of your brand when you stand out from their usual feed.
That requires thought and creativity on your part, but leveraging your current audience is likely to become ever-more crucial as Instagram moves further toward an algorithmic timeline and away from a linear one. As has become the case with Facebook, which owns Instagram, brands may have to begin spending money to make sure their posts reach their followers, but brands that know how to keep their audiences engaged will see the greatest rewards.
The purpose of all the time, thought, and money brands spend on Instagram is, of course, to drive sales. But as useful as the platform is, it’s not a magic bullet. And the first step to get to sales is to build engagement. “Without investing in the influencers and the day-to-day content, you’re not going to get conversion,” Rittenhouse said. “You can’t go to the end goal first.”
To capitalize on your Instagram audience first requires building trust, which means engaging followers in a conversation that they enjoy, and not just trying to convince them to buy something at every turn. It’s fine to show the item or service you want to sell, but it’s crucial to do it in a manner that pulls the audience in.
Tran says of Revolve, for instance, ”We do push product, but not in the most obvious way.” The company focuses on creating a world their audience can relate to and imagine themselves part of, and it happens to center on fashion.
Determine what that means for your business, and develop a plan. Once you’ve got that, be consistent, be creative, and be mindful that Instagram is a community, not a pool of money you can simply dip into. But if you can connect with it in an authentic way, it’s a community that will richly reward you.