Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Instagram: A Guide for Business Users

Instagram, what is it? It's a photo sharing service for iOS, Android, and now, web. You can take photos in Instagram or import them easily from about any camera app or your camera roll (and whatever Android calls it). You can apply filters that enhance the look or theme of your photo – caution here, this can easily be overdone. Photos you post to Instagram can be shared to Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Flickr, and FourSquare. That’s what is on the surface.

What is it really? Instagram is a massive community of pros, amateurs, micro-communities, groupies, wannabes, spammers, scammers, selfie takers, attention seekers, and snap happy tweens - that's just the start of it. Instagram has a world-wide user base too. What’s more, millions and millions of those Instagrammers are addicted. TechCrunch recently reported that Instagram has 90m monthly active users. They check their feed multiple times per hour, peruse galleries, scour dozens of popular hashtags, link from profile to profile seeking, finding, ogling, and scrutinizing thousands of images every week. 

Instagram, the company, sponsors weekly projects that engage 20,000+ of their own followers on a regular basis. Let’s ask again, what is it really? It’s hundreds of thousands of impressions just waiting to happen. It is armies of loyal followers waiting to engage with your brand and get what for it? Social capital – that’s the currency on Instagram. Let me clarify, Instagrammers aren’t in it for the money. All it takes is a little ‘instafame’, a ‘feature’ or a request to use his or her image in your ad and give them credit. Why? So they can shine in front of the community, even if just for a moment. It’s all for the glory of a good ‘gram’. 

I’m also implying that you can get people to create great content for you, for cheap or even for free. Ya, it’s possible. Very possible. Here’s an example - Pilgramers:

Instagram isn’t for every business...yet. I won’t name names, but can you imagine a crotchety old tech company, like those with two or three letter acronyms for names, creating a presence on Instagram and involving their followers in ad and branding campaigns? Not likely. But – here I will name names – Pepsi, Coca Cola, Apple, Ford, Chevy, Volkswagon, Toyota, Gap, North Face, Burton, Smith Optics, even small companies like ski resorts, hotels, magazines…ok I’m done listing…you get the point. They can use Instagram. And, if they do it right, they engage their customers like no other medium.

Instagram has a set of unwritten rules just like any community. Here are a few:
  • Take your own photos or in other words, create your own content. 
  • Never use someone else’s photo without permission and without giving credit – common sense copyright stuff right?
  • For the most part, take and edit your images on a mobile phone – there are tons of great apps that do this. 
  • Use the square format – unless you’re really good at another format THEN USE A WHITE BACKGROUND not the black default!
  • It’s a photo app, take good pictures…actually take GREAT PICTURES – hire mobile photography talent if you have to.
  • GIVE BACK TO THE COMMUNITY – find a way to do this!
  • Oh, and this one is important, don’t feed bomb your followers, it’s the fastest way to get ‘unfollowed’ – for business this means a few times per week, unless your content is phenomenal. 
  • Don’t cheat by using bots i.e. genuinely engage with your following – this can get unruly and unmanageable and I honestly don’t see many good solutions for the engagement part of this process yet (see more on this below)
Oh, you want an example? Ok, REDBULL. I don't even need to say anything else. I’m just going to show you some of their 'grams':

These images are sourced from Instagram and belong to RedBull. 
These images are sourced from Instagram and belong to RedBull. 
Ok, I will say something. These are not only creative, they’re engaging. Notice a few key things are happening here: 
  • Creative and appropriate use of ‘branded’ hashtags
  • [decent] Metrics are built-in, e.g. likes and comments
  • Brand building is happening
  • Engagement is happening
  • Campaigns are coordinated, e.g. #FlyingFriday #Allnighter #Summeriscoming

Redbull is phenomenal at creating and reinforcing their brand loyalty here. There are other examples listed as links below. 

If you’re a recognizable brand, it won’t be that hard to build a following. You have other challenges like engaging them, giving back somehow, etc. If you’re a startup or trying to build a brand, follow the guidebook; know who you are and what you do best, ‘impute’ your mission on your customers (Steve Jobs would have said that), keep it simple, be consistent, create impressions, back it up with your product or service, etc. To build a following, you’ll have to do a few key things really well:
  • Create great content, i.e. great photographic mini-ads
  • Be consistent
  • Give your customers and potential customers some incentive to follow you 
A note about that last point: what’s the incentive here? Let me repeat, social credibility is currency on Instagram. Chew on that for a while. It’s a really interesting thing to think about in terms of social/engagement marketing and advertising.

There are other ways to engage your following, once you have one, and all of these have a caveat – ‘if appropriate’:
  • Follow them back
  • Like their stuff
  • Comment on their content and feed
  • Run campaigns, discounts, special deals, etc.
  • Make them feel like they are a part of something unique, a movement, a revolution, a club, etc. 

When you create content, and put it out there on Instagram, you now have something to interact with your ‘followers’ over. If you have a few thousand followers, it’s no sweat. You can expect, if you have great content, about 15-20% ‘like’ rate. You can expect 50-100 comments per post. All of this doesn’t require reciprocity, but especially if you’re leveraging ‘key influencers’ in your following, it will require some. If you have 500k followers, like RedBull, there’s no way you can manage interaction with regularity, consistency, etc. For example, there’s Hootsuite for the creation phase and Adobe SocialAnalytics for the analysis phase, but nothing that I can find in the ‘engagement management’ phase. 

To sum it all up, Instagram represents a tremendous opportunity for genuine engagement with your current and potential customers. You can drive sales and brand loyalty, and there's potential to do it without putting the smallest dent in your marketing budget. Happy shooting!

Check these out:

P.S. Private Accounts = #FAIL 


  1. Informative and helpful content.. nicely written too.
    - SR

  2. I like your humor in this post. Sounds like Instragram is a very effective marketing channel.

    1. Thanks. :) I decided to write this one more like a real blog post than a report. So my personality came out quite a bit more.

  3. I found that anytime someone follows me on instagram I follow them back. I think it was good that you pointed that out. By engaging with your followers they in turn will do the same with you. Also, Red Bull seems to do everything right except make a good tasting drink, IMO. I love that they sponsor anything and everything that is cool, but I don't like their drinks.

    1. Ya, interaction isn't just key on Instagram, but almost any social network. Those interactions are commonly, follow-back, like-back, comment-response, etc. Interestingly, when users perceive that it's false, or automated, or disingenuous, they tend to disengage pretty quickly.

      On RB as a drink, taste is in the taster's palate, but no doubt they are a phenomenal marketing company. It begs the question, if they're better at sponsoring, filming and documenting amazing human feats, than making drinks, then are they a beverage company or a totally new business than we've ever seen - some sort of hybrid of a company that does one thing better than anyone else by far, but it's core competency is something totally different?

  4. I also liked your humor. But, what is your opinion on change of policy by Facebook, after buying Instagram, to sell pictures stored in Instagram?

    1. Instagram clarified their stance on 'our' content. They have a content policy similar to almost any company that's in this business, which basically states that when you put it on their platform, they can do what they want with it, but they've committed to never do anything without your explicit consent.

  5. I think selling the pictures that are stored on Instagram is really the only way to monetize it.

    1. I think of it this way, and maybe this is crazy. Owning a social platform is like owning a community center or mall. If you let businesses move in, you make it more like a mall with 'virtual' space to be controlled and monetized by the business. They have 'access' now to the users who visit the space. Access means they can market to them, and hopefully sell to them. How good that medium or channel is for creating revenues determines how much that 'space' is worth, kind of like malls and community centers have high or low quality locations. Instagram is much more like a community center than a mall. So selling to the patrons of the center is kind of a faux pa. They don't frequent the platform expecting to be sold to. So Facebook, the new owner of that virtual space, needs to either change the reason for visiting, and risk losing current and loyal patrons in exchange for new patrons who will expect and even come looking to buy things, or they need tp preserve the patronage and find new and acceptable ways to make money from them.

  6. Great article, I am interested to see how these monitization strategies play out.

    1. I agree. See my note to Todd. I could be totally off there, but it's at least a theory I can try to prove wrong.