The following is based on a presentation I recently gave to the Biddeford Maine Entrepreneurs Group.

Part 1: What Is Instagram Anyway?

I was recently invited to give a presentation to my local Entrepreneurs group here in Biddeford, Maine on how small business can best use Instagram. To gauge where I needed to spend the most time during my talk (and which bits I could zoom through), I asked the crowd how many people were using Instagram to promote their business. Only about a third of the audience raised their hand, correlating pretty closely to those who raised their hand when asked who used in for their personal social networking.

For small business owners, every new social platform you add can feel overwhelming – one more thing added to the never-ending to-do list. It’s often easier to stick with what you know instead of diving into something new. But before you decide what platforms you need and which ones you can ignore for now, it’s important to have an understanding of what each platform is, how it works, and how you might be able to use it to reach your business marketing and brand goals. 

So. What is Instagram?

Instagram is for making your best moments beautiful. The app enables brands to tell stories through polished, stylish photos and videos that showcase who they are and how they’d like to be perceived. For a brand, Instagram is all about showcasing the best bits. 

Instagram currently has 500 million daily active users – that’s people who go to the app at least one time per day.  The user base skews slightly female (58% female, 42% male) and a little young, which nearly 60% of the user base between the ages of 18 and 29, and 33% between 30 and 49.

On Instagram, people readily follow brands – 80% of accounts on Instagram follow at least one business. Sixty percent of people say they discover new products on the platform. And over 200 million Instagrammers actively visit a business profile every day – that means they click over to your profile to check out what you’re brand and business is all about.

What Kind of Businesses Can Use Instagram? 

Short answer: Any business that wants to reach Instagram users can use Instagram.

While there are some businesses that seem a more natural fit for Instagram - beauty and fashion and travel all do really well here - any brand that wants to tell its story through pictures can and should use Instagram. It’s one of the fastest growing social media platforms – growing from 200 million daily active users in April 2017 to 500 million in December 2017 – and while the current demographic skews a little young, much like Facebook, older people are starting to use it as well.

Instagram is a platform where business can get a little creative, have some fun, and tell their story in a beautiful, visual way.

Part 2: Business Accounts and Why You Need Them

Businesses Need a Business Account. 

A business account helps you separate the personal from the professional. Use your personal Instagram account to give quick snapshots of everyday life, filtered as you like, for Instagram. Use your professional account to provide a consistent look, feel and tone of voice that tells your business’ story at a glance.

A business account has several features that a personal account doesn’t:

Insights: Insights are the analytics that are built into business accounts. This gives you access to insights that can help you fine tune your content and your marketing messaging, as well as suss what time of day and day of the week works best for your brand to post. Insights allow you to see how your account is doing overall, and also allows you to see performance of individual posts and Stories.

Ads and promoted posts: Instagram gives you access to the same powerful targeting tools as Facebook, its parent company. You can create Instagram specific ads or choose to have your Facebook advertising also delivered on Instagram. You can also promote posts from within the app – boosting content that’s performing well to bring more impressions on your content.

Action and contact buttons: With contact buttons, you make it easy for people to get in touch with your business. You’ve got the option to include email, phone numbers and even an address to help customers make their way to you. Action buttons let people shop your posts, make reservations or even purchase tickets to an event through third party services like Atom Tickets, Eventbrite, Resy, OpenTable and more.

Live links in Stories: If you have over 10,000 followers of your account you are able to add clickable URLs to Instagram Stories. Remember, you can’t have live links in copy blocks on your posts, so this is a great way to drive people to your site – especially great if your small business does robust ecommerce sales.

Shoppable posts: Another one that’s great for a business with a big ecommerce play. Shoppable posts let you turn your content into clickable images that can drive sales. To set this up, you must have an account that is synced with a Facebook business page + catalogue - these are reviewed and approved by Facebook so they can take a few days (if you use Shopify or Big Commerce, they have tools for this built in).

Part 3: Five Steps for Awesome Instagram Content

Have a plan

As part of planning, I always do competitive research – looking at brands in the same industry as the one I am working with, but also ones that are trying to reach a similar audience.  This helps me see what kind of content is resonating, and create a smart recommendation for the direction we should go with our own content.  This also helps to set the goals you have for using Instagram to market your own business – and create content that will help you achieve them.

Set yourself up for success by using a social media calendar – an Excel spreadsheet or Google sheet works great – to plan the content you’ll be sharing on your social platforms. Setting aside a couple of hours every week or so to plan and schedule your content ahead of time can help take some of the pressure off small business owners and help ensure a unified message across all the channels they are using.

Create beautiful imagery

While it’s great to have a fancy camera and full suite of editing tools to create content for your business, let’s get real. Not every small business has the means to have an expensive camera or Adobe Creative Cloud. The good news is – that’s totally OK.

Use your smartphone’s camera and take advantage of Instagram’s built in filters and editing tools to create eye-catching photos that represent your brand. Think about cropping your photos to really pop in the square format that will appear on your profile page. Want a little more? There are many third-party apps in the App Store and on Google Play (some free, some paid) that you can use to up-level the look of your photos.

 Have a consistent brand style

While big brands have spent a lot of time and money and thousands of man-hours developing their brand, small businesses aren’t always able to prioritize this. For a visual platform like Instagram, however, it’s important that people understand who you are at a glance, and that they come to recognize your content whenever they see it.

Think about what your brand should look like, and keep your images consistent –this might mean using only one or two filters, or limiting your color palette, or making sure you have one color or element that shows up in all of your posts. What you choose to do depends on your brand.

Write engaging copy

Though Instagram can accommodate a copy block of 2200 characters (including hashtags) large copy blocks can be hard to read. Think about how your customers interact with Instagram, and experiment with different length copy blocks to see what works best for you. You may find your followers like a bit of a story below your photos, or you may find that a short sentence with a strong call-to-action – like read more in our profile, or stop by to try the newest flavor – works better in meeting your goals.

For most brands and businesses, I recommend trying to keep copy blocks pithy and to the point to encourage engagement and ensure that it’s the imagery that really shines.

Take advantage of built-in features

Instagram has built in editing tools and filters that can help you up-level your photos and videos, but it also has a feature called Stories (widely considered Instagram’s answer to Snapchat). Stories are stills or videos of up to 15 seconds that last 24 hours - people visiting your profile can click on your profile image to see your latest stories; they also show up in the top of your followers’ feeds. You can save and archive your stories so you can use them later or set up Story Highlights that stay on top of your profile.

Brands who want to think outside the box a bit can use FaceFilters, gifs, superzooms, Boomerangs and more to enhance their Stories and add a bit of of-the-moment fun to them, while still staying on brand.

Part 4: Hashtags on Instagram

In August of 2017, the hashtag as we know it turned 10.

In 2007 a Twitter user name Chris Messina proposed the hashtag as a way to organize groups within the stream of the content on the platform. What started as one user trying to find a better experienced on a fledgling platform has evolved into an international phenomenon – one used by people and business alike. 

But what does that mean for Instagram?

On Instagram, hashtags are used to organize content and make it discoverable by those who may not be following you. Users can click on hashtags to see more content with the same hashtags. On Instagram this is sorted by top posts – those with the most likes and comments – and most recent – which is chronological. Best practice for brands is 5-7 hashtags, though Instagram can accommodate up to thirty.

How do I figure out what hashtags to use for my business?

I like to think about hashtags in the following three buckets:

Trending/Popular Hashtags: These are the hashtags that people tend to use a lot on Instagram and will pop on certain days of the week or times of year – examples include #TBT for Throwback Thursday or #WCW for Women Crush Wednesday. They may also be tied to an event - like #metgala; the website Webstagram tracks them and is a great resource for seeing what is popular on any day of the week.

Social Media Holidays: #NationalBeerDay, #NationalPetDay, #tacoTuesday, Star Wars Day (#maythe4thbewithyou) – practically every day has a social media holiday associated with it. A couple of good resources include Hootesuite and Small Business Trends, who both have pretty comprehensive Hashtag Holiday claendars,

Just make sure the hashtag makes sense for your brand and for the content that you are sharing.

Keywords: #succulents, #coffee, #foodporn – these are natural hashtags that make sense with your images/videos  – and ones that people are already using. A florist, for example, might use hashtags like #rose, #flowers, #bouquet, #callalily, but they might also use #wedding or #bridal to get in front of people looking for wedding inspiration and vendors. Small businesses with a brick and mortar location should think about location-based hashtags – #maine, #nyc, #brooklyn – in addition to hashtags relevant to their products.

Hashtags extend your reach and get more eyes on your content. Using hashtags that are relevant to your business and brand helps your content be seen by people who might not be following you, but are looking through images using a specific hashtag.

Still a little stuck on what you should do to up your hashtag game on Instagram?

You’ve got this. #Hashtags FTW.

Keep it simple: Don’t make things complicated by trying to get clever or creating hashtags that are super long. Remember – hashtags are a way for people to find your content, so make sure the hashtags you choose are simple enough that discovery can happen.

Use ‘em or lose ‘em: Research has should that on Instagram, the more hashtags you use the more engagement you’ll get. And while you can have thirty hashtags as part of your post, you’re probably good with 5-7 smart and super relevant hashtags.

It’s not all about you: Brands love to put their name in a hashtag, and that’s cool. But make sure you’re letting your followers and customers know about it, and asking them to use it in their own content. Always use it in conjunction with more natural hashtags to make sure you extend the reach of your content.

Commandeer the conversation: Take advantage of those popular hashtags and social media holidays to make sure your content shows up organically as part of the broader discourse. As long as the hashtag makes sense with your brand and your content, it’s fair game.

Do your homework: Take a few minutes to type any hashtag you want to use for your business into the search bar of the app. You want to make sure that you’re not using a hashtag that means something unexpected, and that you’re content isn’t popping up alongside a slew of NSFW (not safe for work) images.