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How to use Instagram to build your business

Tuesday, 1 July 2014 | By Michael Walsh

Instagram is the new kid on the block when it comes to social media marketing and very soon there is going to be a whole lot more advertising on the platform no matter which profiles users choose to follow.


So what can you do to get your business’s message across to Instagram’s more than 200 million active monthly users? SmartCompany spoke to a handful of small business owners with successful social media accounts to glean their top ‘gramming tips.


Content is king at Showpo


Hot 30 Under 30 whizz Jane Lu, the founder of Sydney-based online fashion retailer Showpo, says Instagram is just like any other form of social media – you are what you post. As such, brands which post obvious advertisements will find it difficult to attract new followers.


Instead, Lu suggests businesses looking to use Instagram should focus on connecting with their audience by sharing content they will genuinely enjoy and using a “voice” they can connect with.


“I think when you know who your customer is, you need to give yourself a voice. That will lead you to finding the right content,” Lu says. “Big companies don’t give themselves a voice because they don’t want to alienate certain sections of their customer base – but then [the customers] can’t relate to anyone.”


“My rule of thumb is that if [the content] is something I would want to share on my wall or on my friend’s wall, then it’s good,” she says.


And if you want the new breed of Instagram-obsessed young people to get behind your products – and then help you extend your brand’s reach by tagging your products in their posts – you need to come up with some high quality content.


“Instagram’s definitely not a place for you to directly sell – you don’t want [your posts] to look like advertising – you just want to give good content,” Lu says.


According to Lu, once you start Instagramming you need to stay committed to the platform, otherwise your followers might quickly forget all about you.


“We’ve got 355,000 followers and we post frequently – you need to post frequently. I think sometimes the longer you leave it, the less engagement you get,” she says.


However, Lu is quick to point out that Instagram ‘likes’ do not necessarily translate to sales, no matter how popular your brand’s profile.


“The thing about Instagram is that you get more engagement, but Facebook still converts [to sales] better… I think with our Instagram compared to similar accounts, our sales conversion is relatively low, but our engagement is significantly higher,” she says.


Mind you, Showpo’s sales conversion across social media platforms in general is through the roof – the company recently celebrated its first ever seven-digit month, after making more than $1 million from sales in May alone. Not bad for a company that turned over $2.6 million last year and does approximately 80% of its marketing on social media.


For I Quit Sugar’s Sarah Wilson, it’s all about community


Sarah Wilson, founder of the I Quit Sugar empire of e-books, blogs and physical book publications says Instagram is perfect for building strong connections between a brand and its customers.


“Basically, it’s a brand developer – a community connector, and it’s really good for promotions,” she told SmartCompany.


“It’s actually the most naïve and therefore kind of genuine form of social media because it’s all about giving out information, and sharing the love around.”


I Quit Sugar employs 13 people and is turning over $1.8 million annually – and although Instagram doesn’t drive much of those sales, Wilson still says it’s an indispensable business tool.


“It has limitations because it doesn’t allow you to link directly through to a sales site. So when you’re dealing with people who want instant results, it has limitations.”


“The way I see social media working is that it’s all about exactly that – social and connecting. And not getting too caught up in whether it’s profitable and drives sales,” she says.


“I prefer to operate in a way where you share a message – ‘I Quit Sugar’, not ‘you should quit sugar’ – so on Instagram we post pictures that kind of show what we’re up to and then people can make their own decisions in their own time.”


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Wilson says as Instagram is a visual medium it works perfectly for I Quit Sugar, as users can post and share photos of sugar-free meals they cooked using the company’s recipes.


“[Instagram] has amazing benefits because food is so visual and so community-based – people want to see what other people have done,” she says.


“When there’s some Instagrammer out there who’s taken some amazing shots and tagged your stuff in there, then you can ‘like’ that and really share the love around.”


For Wilson, Instagram is all about open communication with followers first and selling products a distant last.


“We don’t want to be sold to, we don’t want to be told what to do – Instagram is an invitation to dive in and see what a brand is about and then you decide whether you’re going to grab your credit card out or press the PayPal button,” she says.


Build your global business from anywhere


Sisters Elizabeth and Isabella Briedis started their fashion label Spell and the Gypsy Collective seven years ago in Byron Bay, mainly selling jewellery at the local markets. The girls have since found their niche selling vintage and bohemian-inspired clothing, home wares and accessories.


Although the girls have set up a boutique store in Byron Bay’s town centre, they attracted most of their success from blogging and later Instagram, where their account has over 200,000 followers.


Elizabeth Briedis told SmartCompany her brand’s ability to convert sales from Instagram has been “incredible”, allowing her boutique coastal town label to market itself on a global scale.


“It’s funny. At one point I realised the biggest risk to our business would be someone hacking into our Instagram account. It’s an absolute flow on – most of ours sales come from click-throughs from Instagram,” she says.


“Obviously our mail-outs and Facebook play a part, but there’s something about Instagram… It’s how you discover new things.”


Although there are huge benefits in using a free application like Instagram to push sales, the lack of control businesses have over certain aspects of the app can be a cause for concern.


“It’s a bit scary. Recently I found out that there’s a copy-cat version of our account... [Instagram] haven’t been very helpful. They have something set in place if you are a person who’s being impersonated, but not if you’re a business, even though it could result in fraud,” she says.


Although the copy-cat account currently links out to the authentic Spell and the Gypsy Collective web shop, Briedis says the fake account may trick would-be customers into entering their details on a fraudulent site.


“It’s only a matter of time until they change their link to a different one,” she says.


In terms of using Instagram as a business tool, Briedis agrees that the app is all about the quality of a user’s uploads – your image feed should “look like a visual diary”.


“One of the first tips would be to make sure you’ve got the latest phone. We follow a lot of our wholesalers [on Instagram] and we’d love to shout out to them, but if their photos look blurry or crap we can’t repost that,” she says.


“Have the feed that you follow inspire you every day, so that you naturally want to interact with it. And be really diligent with what you post. There shouldn’t be any weak links in a chain, even if you think it’s nice or funny or whatever, it represents the whole brand.”


So what does Instagram itself have to say about business?


Instagram has posted its own tips online for prospective social media entrepreneurs, as well as established SMEs looking to get their brand established on the platform.


For starters, the social media company suggests businesses “start with clear goals”, which includes answering the question of where you see Instagram fitting in with the overall marketing strategy of your brand. Questions to ask include whether you are looking to reach a new audience or increase brand awareness and how you plan on using visuals to achieve these goals.


Secondly, make sure your stream of content tells the story of the brand. For example, Spell and the Gypsy Collective never post food pictures, photos taken in low light, or images with excessive editing in order to maintain the overall aesthetic ‘feel’ of the brand.


Thirdly, Instagram suggests businesses take it slowly, making sure the content they are uploading is of a professional standard. Instagram suggests working with a creative team to produce media that meshes with the platform, or to do some background research by looking at what other popular ‘Grammers in your industry are doing.


Lastly, Instagram suggests using hashtags to expand your reach to target audiences. This might include tailoring certain design elements in your media in order to suit hashtag trends, such as a perfectly symmetrical image for #notfakesymmetry, or an aesthetically pleasing arrangement of your goods for the #thingsorganizedneatly and #onthetable streams.


This story first appeared on SmartCompany.