Owning a small business is tough. Regardless of how innovative your product is, how useful your services are, or how much public interest there is in your particular marketing vertical, this statement remains true. It’s a dog eat dog world when it comes to marketing, and unfortunately for those trying to get noticed, there are exciting new breeds popping up to compete every day.
Between SEO, PPC, website development, newspaper advertising, television campaigns, and everything else businesses do to try to promote their brand in its infancy, it can cost just as much to market your work as it does to run your company.
So how are the little guys supposed to succeed when their budget is limited and their competition is extensive? For most companies, the best solution can be found at the tips of your 14-year-old daughter’s fingers: Instagram.
I’ll give you a moment to let your eyerolls settle. And trust me, I agree; using social media as a key player in your marketing strategy and promotional outreach is as tired as people still using the hashtag #winning, but Instagram is actually giving new life to these social brand strategies. In fact, for some small businesses, Instagram isn’t a part of their brand strategy, it is their brand strategy.
In general, social networks give you a platform to reach new users, but people have started using Instagram to employ strategies that create an entire community around their branded image. The key to doing this successfully will heavily depend on the type of audience you’re targeting and how much effort you’re willing to put in to make it work.
Don’t get me wrong, traditional online marketing methods are still important. You’re always going to have more people searching for your brand on Google than you will on Instagram, but SEO is a slow burn and, depending on how competitive your keywords are, PPC can get expensive. Instagram provides a perfect interim solution to gain traction and promote your company while you wait for your website to rank organically.
Let’s take the company, Chalk Full of Love, for example. For all intents and purposes, Chalk Full of Love is as small as small businesses come. A one-woman show who specializes in hand-lettered goods, the company only opened up shop (an Etsy shop, to be exact) in December of 2013.
In the 27 months between the shop opening and this article being written, her company has made 4494 sales. Or, to break it down a little further, an average of 166 sales a month. And this is just based on the public information available from Etsy; it doesn’t include private sales, sales through their Shopify website, or any in-store opportunities they may explore. That’s one woman’s sales on one platform, and a lot of that is thanks, in large part, to Instagram.
How did she do it? By creating a branded image and becoming a part of the Instagram community that directly targets her ideal demographic.
There’s no guarantee that things will be popular online. An idea you spend years on could fall flat, and a spur of the moment thought could resonate with millions. However, there are things you can do to give your small business the best possible chance at Instagram popularity.
Curate an Account that is Targeted Directly Towards your Ideal Demographic
New Instagramers often get it wrong off the bat: Instead of honing in on one target demographic that they know will enjoy their product, they try to make their brand’s reach as wide as possible. As a result, instead of successfully targeting the people most likely to convert to followers and buyers, they’re now doing a poor job at attracting, well, anybody at all.
From your first post, you have to be proactively thinking about how specifically you want to promote your brand. Are you a children’s clothing store that you want new age hipster parents to shop at? Great, then ditch the pictures of cute nurseries with baby blue whale vinyl decals and create a minimalist, monochromatic look with your posts. Are you a wedding photographer who’s looking to target the boho-chic brides who are more interested in their beach attire than they are their bridal outfits? Awesome. Avoid the posed indoor photos in lieu of sun drenched weddings in the woods.
Narrow down your audience to a very specific niche and be diligent in ensuring every single post is in line with what that audience would like. One off-brand image could result in lost likes, unfollows, and overall dispersion of your look.
Once your branded image is defined, populate your page. Before you do any outreach, you want to have at least three rows of photos (or nine posts) before you start your like building. Users are more likely to engage with active pages and, even though you’re new, they’ll still want to see your worth before they follow.
Create a Community Around your Account
Now that you’ve put thought into who your target audience is, you have to do the leg work to get in front of them. Whether you make your own cloth diapers and want to target the mommy bloggers or you’re a low-carb recipe designer who wants to target the all-organic health crowd, there are millions of people on Instagram, some of which are guaranteed to fit your niche.
The bad news is, this takes a little time and effort. The good news? It’s so easy to do.
There are dozens of blogs about Instagram that say the easiest way to gain followers is to follow people. And there is truth to that: In an experiment done by Neil Patel of QuickSprout, he found that for every one hundred likes he gave, he received 21.7 back, and earned 6.1 followers. That’s 6.1 followers for doing nothing more than tapping his phone 200 times.
But in a world where vanity trumps all, it’s only natural that a bit of additional vanity stroking will yield better results. In that same study, Patel noted that people are 401% more likely to follow you if you comment on their photo than if you simply like it.
How can you best take advantage of this? First, do your research. Which hashtags are most popular amongst your target demographic? What time are these users generally the most active? What can you say to get their attention? Once you have a good idea of these answers, the process becomes extremely easy.
First, search for those popular hashtags during peak times. Moms are usually on Instagram most during lunch, while millennials are on it most right before and after traditional office hours. Next, start mass liking and commenting. You can like anything and everything with your chosen hashtags, but your comments should be genuine and strategic. Does the picture somehow relate to your product? Does it have a similar feel to your brand image? Does the user simply look like they’d be an ideal client? If so, comment away.
The more you do this, the more followers you’ll have. The more followers you have, the more you’ll show up in the Explore Posts section of your followers’ followers—i.e. the more followers you get, the more free exposure you get.
Include Strong Calls-to-Action that will Draw People to your Point of Sale Platform
The above two steps alone will generate a strong audience, but it’s not enough to just have a popular Instagram page; you need to drive that traffic towards your point of sale. Whether you’re posting a new product or showcasing an old one, you need to make sure you’re letting your audience know where they can get it.
Unfortunately with Instagram, you only get one clickable link per account, which can be found in your bio description under your profile image. Instead of having this default to your home page, link this section to your website’s shop, your Etsy page, or your eBay store. That way when you post these new items, you can use easy calls-to-action that still sound genuine.
For example, if you’re a home decor designer who is posting a picture of your newly available side table, the photo’s description can say: “Our office is in love with the new oak Tobi table! Check out the specs through the link in our bio.” Simple, not overly sales-y, and moving the interest from your Instagram account to a place where you can actually make a profit.
Utilize Hashtags in your Posts
We’ve already gone over the importance of identifying the popular hashtags in your industry, but it’s not enough to simply know what they are; you have to utilize them.
There’s an ongoing debate online about hashtag use and its effectiveness. Although you do need to use hashtags, you don’t want to abuse them. Seeing a post from a unique breakfast place in Toronto? Awesome! Seeing a description from that post followed by “#cute #love #breakfast #brunch #pancakes #bestpancakes #Torontopancakes #Torontobrunch #the6ix #thesix #Drake #Drakebrunch #Drakepancakes”? Obnoxious.
To avoid this, simply use common sense. First, choose the keywords for that particular post wisely. There will always be some keywords that will better suit a photo than others. Second, don’t use 18 variations of the same keyword when simply doing a quick check of which keyword is used the most will do. And third, don’t attach the hashtags to your description. Instead, post your photo with your description and comment on it with your chosen hashtags. Once three other people comment on your photo, those hashtags will be buried, but will still give you the search benefits of the keyword.
That promotes the question, “Well, how do I get people to comment on my pictures?” Remember that call-to-action we talked about? It doesn’t have to always be sales focused. In fact, it shouldn’t always be sales focused.
If you’re always directing people towards your online store, your posts aren’t going to look genuine. It’s like having a salesperson who is actually helping you find that perfect outfit for your event versus the one who is only encouraging you to try on the most expensive pieces in the store. One is helping you, the other is only serving their own interests.
Instead of being that second salesperson, alternate promoting your website with asking simple questions. Whether that’s posting a picture of your breakfast and saying, “These red velvet pancakes were delicious! What did you have for breakfast?” or a photo of your latest line of kicks that says, “We’re taking our new Road Side Stunner line out for a test run today. What colours would you like to see these released in?”, those simple questions are enough to encourage user interaction.
Small businesses have a great opportunity of not only reaching Instagram communities and gaining attention to their brand, but to expose themselves to millions of prospective customers or consumers.
With diligent community development, strategic outreach, and a strong, consistent brand image, you’ll be leveraging your brand to new and engaging audiences, increasing brand exposure, and overall using Instagram to its full potential.