In December 2014 Instagram reached 300 million monthly users.
Now with more users than Twitter, Instagram is proving to be the network of choice for small businesses with a talent for visual creativity.
Bought by Facebook for $715 million in 2012, with a team of just 13 employees at the time, Instagram's growth has been swift since its launch in 2010.It's been adopted by brands as another tool to throw into their digital marketing mix, some using it with greater success than others.
Is Instagram suitable for your business?
In autumn 2014, Pew Research Centre reported that 26% of adult internet users have Instagram accounts, up from 17% in late 2013.
As impressive as these numbers may be, it's important to consider whether the network is right for you.
Things to consider
First and foremost, is your business of a visual nature? Instagram is about creating great images on the fly, so you'll need a steady stream of subjects at your fingertips, or the means to get out and about to create great content that represents your brand.
Don't jump onto a social network just because everyone else is doing it, think ahead about what material you would be sharing.As with taking on any new marketing venture, you'll initially need two things: a solid strategy and a strong will. Whether your aim is to increase brand awareness or to boost sales, set yourself clear, obtainable objectives and remain focused on these throughout.
Throw yourself into your work to see the best results. If you're hesitant or not devoting the time needed to make it a success, the results could be disappointing.
The right approach
Keep in mind that Instagram is not a sales platform. Unlike Pinterest, images don't link through to other websites, and there's no 'Buy it Now' button. Instagram doesn't allow live links to be used in posts, and including text links too often is considered spammy, but this doesn't mean you can't utilise the space to increase sales by showcasing your products.
Instead of pushing for the hard-sell, be creative and use your posts to sell the experience. Show your followers how it feels to interact with your company and to own your products, and post pictures of new releases before they're available to purchase to generate pre-launch excitement.
Put the personality of your business in focus. It's the key to building a community of brand advocates.
Download the app and create your account. Choose a name that is representative of your brand - you could use the same name as your Twitter handle to remain consistent across channels.
Add a biography, keep it short and interesting. Include a link to your website (it's the only live link you'll be able to feature) and choose a profile photo that will be recognisable to your customers.
Head to your settings to link your Instagram account to Facebook and other social media sites that you use. This will help your content to reach even further, and help your followers on other networks to find you on Instagram.
Let your customers and followers know that they can now find you on a new network.
Although you can access your Instagram feed on the web (this access was only enabled in 2013), the network is firmly 'mobile first'. You'll need the app to upload, edit and share your images. Why? Because Instagram is about capturing moments on the move.
Once you've shared seven photos, your mosaic will be generated at the top of your profile, serving as a header (as featured at the top of this post, courtesy of Sophie at Saints on a Plane). As you create more content, the photos will change automatically to reflect your most recent, popular posts.
In addition to great photos, you can also use Instagram to post videos up to 15 seconds in length. Give your followers a quick demo of one of your products, take them behind the scenes or share a company ad.
How to use hashtags
Hashtags are a great way to expand your audience and grow your number of followers. By tagging your images you'll be tapping into existing conversations, trends and topics, as well as starting your own.
Within the application, Instagram users can search for the hashtags they are interested in. Make sure you're targeting your audience by using relevant tags descriptive of your content. Avoid being too vague - it may get you a few more likes, but you're unlikely to be targeting the right people.
To reach even more people, join in with popular hashtags that are relevant to your brand. Do your research and see what else is out there. It may turn out that a tag similar to the one you've been using is used more widely.
Reach vs aesthetics
Though the limit on hashtags you can include in a single post is 30 (yes, 30!), it's somewhat excessive. Not only does it look a little messy and spammy, it can rub your followers up the wrong way, especially if the tags aren't relevant or are too sales-driven. Think before you cram your posts chock-full of hashtags - remember, this is a visual network. Your picture will say a thousand words - your hashtags won't need to.
Measure the results
Although Instagram doesn't have its own way to view stats like Twitter and Facebook, there are plenty of great third-party analytics apps you could use to monitor key metrics.
- Iconosquare, formerly named Statigram, measures your most liked posts, provides you with engagement averages and follower growth, amongst many other metrics.
- Piqora features an Instagram Conversation Manager that allows you to view and respond to comments on your posts from your desktop, and provides in-depth hashtag stats to help build your community and engagement.
Who is doing it well?
The best brands on Instagram share great quality content that connects with their customers. Here are three of our favourites.
Purveyors of quirky illustrated gifts and cheeky humour, Ohh Deer use social media to introduce followers to illustrators' work, to ask them questions and give thanks, never failing to raise a smile.
GoPro use their account to show the vast range of adventures their customers are having across the globe. They effectively sell an experience, inspire their followers and regularly include customer images in their 'Photo of the Day' feature.
Focusing on stirring emotions and tapping into happy childhood memories, Disney have vast amounts of existing fans and material at their disposal. But it's the inclusion of their customers, commitment to their brand values and adoption of new functionality that make them front-runners.
Feeling inspired? If you think Instagram is right for your business, get started and give it your best shot.