How many times have you read a "how-to" and wondered, "How do I really use this for my business?"
Hack 1: Start With Your Why
17% of you told us that Instagram is your *most* effective social media channel for getting new customers. Even more folks shared that if Instagram isn't currently #1, it's not far behind.
Connecting with your customers matters, right? But is Instagram the right place for *your* business?
We learned from our members that Instagram provides opportunities for both service-based businesses and product-based businesses to visually share their mission and their perspective with a targeted audience.
In fact, we heard that for many folks it's less about sharing images of your products and more about conveying the bigger picture of who you are and what your company represents.
"Once someone starts following me on Instagram, they start to understand my brand. When they engage with me, that becomes a relationship that could end up in new business." —Eliesa Johnson, Photographer
"Even with an accounting business, you have an opportunity to use Instagram creatively. Try sharing out fun cartoons, quotes or money tips. What images would relay what happens when accounting is done badly?" —Alice Fuller, Marketing Consultant
"It's no secret that our world is aesthetically driven. People aren't even reading emails anymore. I started using Instagram because it's a great way to get our stuff out there and it allows me personally to document life the way my eye sees it." —Caci Grinspan, Owner of CashmereRed
Once you've identified who you want to reach with your product or your message – and why you care about them – you gain the opportunity for your customers to see you (and share with you) in an entirely new way.
Go back to the very beginning and look at the core mission of your business, as well as your main goal. What benefits do you offer your customers or clients? What sets you apart from other businesses in your industry or profession?
Then, quickly identify who your ideal customer is. Who do you want to share your mission with? Who could benefit from seeing your perspective or the big picture of your brand every day on their phone?
These first steps are key to helping you identify who you want to be your followers on Instagram and what you will share with them daily.
"What is your business at its most authentic? What does that look like for you? We're successful on Instagram because what we share is true to who we are. We post pictures of actual floral arrangements and orders going out, right at that moment. It’s not staged at all.
We learned that our customers want to feel something about the company they're relating to. Businesses have to behave like people on Instagram because it's a living, breathing thing." —Christina Stembel, Owner of Farmgirl Flowers
Photographer Steph Grant doesn't just show off the final product on Instagram. Her followers get a taste of what it's like behind the scenes at her photoshoots and stories from her personal life.
Hack 2: Create Killer Posts on Instagram
Think of Instagram as a giant candy store. It's full of visual snacks and treats, which is why 10 million people open up the app on their phones every single day.
If people are going to snack on your brand or your product every day, what would you want them to see? What is *your* eye candy?
Is it the items you sell? Your store? Your town? Your happy customers?
At Barber Streisand, a small barbershop in London, owner Ellie Pamphilon posts a mix of photos each week that represent her customers and her neighborhood. Beyond just photos of fresh haircuts, her feed includes images that show off her clients' quirky style, snapshots of their resident feline friend and photos of her street sign advertising weekly discounts.
In Telluride, Colorado, CashmereRed owner Caci Grinspan started posting photos on Instagram of the world outside of her shop because "life is about so much more than just cashmere sweaters." She learned quickly that people interested in her brand wanted to see more than just the final product – they wanted to feel like a part of the Telluride community.
"I choose to live in Telluride and it's a different lifestyle here, so I put a lot of my life into the photos I share on Instagram. People here really believe the outdoors should be a part of their daily life.
I think about bringing that into Instagram. When I see things that inspire me, I want to capture that feeling, that warmth. A lot of people tell me that they love my feed because even if they don't live here full-time, I bring them a piece of Telluride." —Caci Grinspan, Owner of CashmereRed
The small business owners we talked to all agreed that their number of engaged followers on Instagram increases when they share a mix of lifestyle and product photos. But is there a magic formula for knowing exactly which posts are going to get you the *best* engagement?
Here's the bad news: there isn't a magic formula for knowing what to post.
The good news is that you can learn quickly what your formula is by posting a variety of images and keeping track of the results.
Christina from Farmgirl Flowers figured out that photos of her flowers perform way better than photos of people or locations. How? She looked at the numbers. On average, around 1,500 people will like a photo of her flower arrangements, while only 700 will like a photo of a person or of a local farm that she visited.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Josey Orr, the founder of adventure-wear company Dyer & Jenkins, says their Instagram following took off once they learned that sticking to an 80/20 rule was key for keeping their followers engaged. They follow a strict formula where 80% of their photos are lifestyle focused (for example, images from a camping trip or a photo of a jaw-droppingly beautiful remote lake) and only 20% are of the products they sell.
"Over time, as you're testing different images out, your customers and followers will tell you who they are by the types of photos they like and interact with. Then, you can adjust what you're posting and the products you carry to better suit your audience.
When we started, we were only making jeans and t-shirts. We got confirmation that we should expand to making outdoor products because every time we posted an outdoorsy photo, people would interact with those photos much more than they would with just a straight-up product photo." —Josey Orr, Founder of Dyer & Jenkins
The bottom line?
We learned that it all boils down to stocking your candy store (errrr... your Instagram feed!) with the images your target audience will be most excited and entertained by when they open up their phones.
Write down a list of all the different types of photos you want to experiment with on your Instagram feed.
Give yourself permission to try sharing some photos that are obvious (like a photo of your products) and some that aren't (like a well-deserved celebratory cocktail on Friday).
A few ideas to get you started:
“We post pictures of dogs getting cleaned and groomed, but we also post new products we have for sale. The real trick is to create a common look and feel with your photos so you're not just posting random pictures.
If you scroll through our feed, you can see where we really started to take it seriously. We now have a standard look to all of our pictures.” —Keith Miller, Owner of Bubbly Paws
Makeup artist Nikol Elaine doesn't only show off her beautiful clients – she says Instagram helps her get new customers consistently because "it gives people a chance to see my work, my face and learn about me all in a few seconds."
Hack 3: Know When to Post
When it comes to frequency, the small business owners we surveyed all agree: posting once a day (no more, no less) is optimal for building a following.
"At the end of the day, I go through the photos I took on my phone and star the ones I love before choosing one to post. It's always the fun part of my to-do list. You have to think it's fun, or you won't do it!
I also try to post every day. I don't get many likes when I go longer than 48 hours between posts." —Caci Grinspan, Owner of CashmereRed
Christina from Farmgirl Flowers agreed – she only spends 30 seconds a day on Instagram.
Track your daily photos for a month.
After about 30 days of posting every day, some trends should start to emerge.
Is posting daily increasing your follower count? Do certain types of photos get more engagement than others?
"I just got new business cards made and they only have my Instagram handle on them. This way, I don't have to ask new contacts to follow me — they have to!
It's the first place they go to connect with me and they are automatically looped into seeing my daily updates." —Nikol Elaine, Professional Makeup Artist
Hack 4: Make Hashtags Do the Work for You
Hashtags are like Instagram ambassadors that insert your post into other people's conversations. Which hashtags you use determine which conversations you enter.
There are thousands upon thousands of hashtags out there, so how do you narrow down the ones that will put your photos in front of the right people?
One place to start is by using the Instagram Search and Explore tab to see trending places, hashtags and people. Keep in mind, however, that trying to compete with the #1 hashtag on Instagram is the same as competing for the #1 spot on Google when someone types in "dogs."
Christina learned this quickly when she started using the tag #AmericanGrown on images of her Farmgirl Flower arrangements. With hashtags as broad and popular as this one, she quickly becomes a really small fish in a huge pond. It's more likely that her post will be lost in the noise.
She instead decided to experiment with using a range of different hashtags on her photos every day. She started by looking at the hashtags that her most enthusiastic followers were already using. She found that some worked to surface her photos to more people and some didn't.
Now, she focuses only on using the tags that bring her the most followers and she double downs on using the one she created for herself and her customers to use: #fgflove.
Community members have also learned that hashtags are often the secret to getting new customers.
"I photographed the New York Coffee Festival a couple weeks ago and put a few photos on Instagram with hashtags that baristas and coffee shops are looking at. It made my number of followers go up by about 15-20 people in the matter of a couple of days. I also got more likes on those photos compared to the ones that didn't have hashtags.
The key is to start posting with hashtags you think will work and see what happens. Then, refine from there. That's what I'm doing and so far it seems like a step in the right direction." —Rodney Bedsole, Photographer
So, what else should you keep in mind on your search for the perfect hashtag?
Instagram limits you to using 30 hashtags per post, but we found that most small business owners like to keep it under five per photo. Using ten or more hashtags at a time not only dilutes the message you're trying to get across — it also looks spammy.
Finally, don't be afraid to create your own hashtag! Josey from Dyer & Jenkins turned their tagline into a trending hashtag by using #ForgeYourOwnPath on every single photo they shared.
Not only does their custom hashtag reinforce the mission of their brand each time they use it on a post, it also inspires their followers and the influencers they partner with (more on that below!) to use the #ForgeYourOwnPath hashtag on their own photos.
To find relevant hashtags that will reach a more niche audience, start by using a site like IconoSquare or Webstagram. Search for hashtags that relate closely to your brand or your industry and you'll automatically get a list of many more that people are currently using.
Next, look beyond the numbers and find the hashtags that influencers in your industry or in your location are using on Instagram. Are there common phrases that other folks like you are using to be found?
Then, have some fun with it! Create your own brand hashtag or occasionally jump on a trendy one like #TBT (a.k.a. Throwback Thursday) or #dogsofinstagram.
Make a list of the 10 hashtags you want to test out first.
Christina experiments with using hashtags and tagging other Instagram users each time she posts for Farmgirl Flowers so that she can learn which phrases will get her the most likes, comments and followers.
Hack 5: The Art of Asking for Some Instagram Love
It's important to invest in yourself when you're starting out, but once you hit a tipping point, you actually want to invest in other people's photos of you.
Beyond following, tagging and commenting, how can you leverage Instagram to create lasting relationships with other partners or vendors?
Josey from Dyer & Jenkins recommends being creative – and bold – with your outreach. He says they got their biggest source of new followers by partnering with the popular website The Art of Manliness.
"I really liked the visual guides they do on The Art of Manliness, so I created one with the same people who do theirs and posted it on Instagram. I said they could use it if they liked it, but I really didn't think anything would come of it.
Well, the owner saw it and he responded a week later. That ended up being a huge partnership for us." —Josey Orr, Founder of Dyer & Jenkins
Additionally, if you've reached the point when your customers are posting images of your product or tagging you in photos, don't miss this opportunity to give them a shoutout on your own feed.
When Christina started re-gramming photos that lucky recipients of her flowers were posting, word caught on and her customers started putting
more effort into the quality of photos they were posting on Instagram.
The best part? When her customers are competing to be featured on her feed, Christina doesn't have to snap a new photo to share every day – she simply has to re-post one.
If your customers aren't yet sharing photos of your amazing products on Instagram, ask them to!
Start thinking about Instagram as a potential referral channel and treat it the same way you would a Yelp review or a testimonial for your website.
So, now what?
It's time to start figuring out what *your* formula is for getting new customers and strengthening your brand on Instagram.
If you're just getting set up, check out Instagram's content strategy tips and use their guidelines to make sure your account name, profile photo, description and website link are consistent with your brand.
Then, it's time to dig in. Just like "location location location" works for real estate, "measure measure measure" works for Instagram.
There are a few resources out there for tracking your stats (we've tried Iconosquare and like its at-a-glance analytics interface), but for the most part we learned from the small business owners in the community that they're just tracking everything manually and not using any fancy tools.
The only way you'll learn what works and what doesn't for your business is by trying something new every day.
Have a few more fresh ideas to share?
Tell us below what you're trying every day on Instagram and what you've learned so far. Who knows, you might find a few more followers, too! ;-)