Instagram, with more than 40 billion images shared and 400 million monthly active users, generates an average of 80 million photos per day. The mobile-based photo- and video-sharing social network powers the sharing of images and creation of community among users around the world. At only six years old, the platform has shown significant growth in its overall user base and in almost every demographic group.
As people join Instagram in droves, brands have a unique opportunity for engagement with their fans: Instagram posts generate a per-follower engagement rate of 4.21%, which is 58 times more engagement per follower than Facebook and 120 times more than Twitter.
Success for brands on Instagram takes more than publishing attractive images—it is the product of thoughtful strategy, a well-defined brand identity grounded in visual creativity and effective community management. As you explore the potential of Instagram for your business, keep in mind the particular strengths of visual media for telling a compelling story about your brand.
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When you put these principles into practice and combine storytelling with stunning images—like Flowers for Dreams, which was recently featured by Instagram for Business—your brand will reap the benefits. To help you develop an Instagram marketing strategy based on clear goals and measurable results, we’ve put together this comprehensive guide.
Determine Your Objectives
Whether you haven’t published a single photo or you want to elevate your existing presence, consider the following when creating your strategy for Instagram:
- What will Instagram allow you to do that other platforms don’t?
- Who is your target audience and which members of your audience are active on Instagram?
- How will Instagram integrate with the other networks in your social media strategy?
Instagram’s focus on visual sharing offers a unique platform to showcase your culture and people in addition to your products and services. The mobile nature of the app lends itself to quickly capturing moments, giving followers a chance to interact with your brand in a way that can feel more casual and instantaneous than on other networks. Depending on your industry, brand and key performance indicators, your Instagram strategy might target several of the following objectives:
- Increase brand awareness.
- Demonstrate company culture.
- Showcase your team and recruit new talent.
- Increase customer engagement and loyalty.
- Showcase products and services.
- Enhance and complement event experiences.
- Incentivize consumer engagement with your brand.
- Share company news.
- Grow your community.
- Connect with influencers.
- Drive sales through a third-party app.
As you continue to develop your strategy, these objectives will guide you in determining the best approach to each part of the process.
Develop a Content Strategy
Content is the foundation of your Instagram presence. Many B2C businesses use Instagram to make their product the star of the show, while B2B companies often focus on company culture and team recruitment—the right approach is one that best showcases your brand. Based on your target audience and objectives, develop a plan to deliver eye-catching content to your community on a consistent basis.
Build Content Themes
Review your objectives and determine what aspects of your brand to showcase in your Instagram content. Products, services, team members and culture all offer rich potential for subject matter over time. Once you have a list of specific content themes, brainstorm possible subjects for your images and videos.
Some companies focus on showcasing their products and services, offering practical tutorials or going the opposite direction and creating whimsical tableaux with their product as the hero. Dunkin Donuts’ colorful feed puts their offerings front and center, showing off both standard and seasonal offerings by tying post content to major holidays and events.
Determine Types of Content & Ratio
Instagram started as a photo-sharing app, but its wide base of creative users publish everything from videos to graphics to animated GIFs. As you plan out your content, consider a balance of content types that will work best for the resources you have and the engagement you want from your audience.
If video enables you to tell a compelling story about your product, work it into your content more often. If you don’t have the resources—time, skills or comfort level—to execute video at the level you want, you may choose not to publish video at all or to reserve it for specific campaigns and promotions. With composition for Instagram, quality matters, and it is worth spending the time to create the best possible content.
Beyond its flagship app, Instagram offers several supplementary apps that help you get even more creative with your posts. The Instagram suite of apps includes Hyperlapse, Layout and Boomerang, which empower users to create time-lapse video, image collages and GIFs, respectively. These additional apps allow brands and consumers alike to create even more unique, Instagram-specific content even without in-house design or video production capabilities.
Set a Content Calendar, But Be Flexible
To establish and maintain an active presence on Instagram, determine the frequency with which you will post. Then you should develop a content calendar that cycles through your themes and integrates key dates and campaigns. Instagram does not have a scheduling function, and it does not grant third-parties API access to publishing, which means you cannot schedule posts directly on Instagram or through your social media management tool. That said, you can easily prepare content (photos, videos, captions) in advance and create a content calendar so that your team knows when posts should go live.
Some of the best content for Instagram will occur spontaneously, especially if your aim is to highlight company culture or events. By preparing content and setting a general schedule in advance, you can allow the flexibility to take advantage of opportunities when they occur. During events, be ready to publish quickly to take advantage of real-time social engagement.
Consider Curating User-Generated Content
If your Instagram community members are sharing their own content featuring your brand, you have access to a repository of potential content gold. Curating content from your fans allows you to foster audience engagement and create an incentive for your audience to share their own creative ways of interacting with your products, services or company.
As always, the photos you choose to curate should match your brand aesthetic. Make sure to review users’ accounts and other posts before sharing their content in order to judge whether it is appropriate to publicly align your brand with them by sharing their photo. In terms of best practices, it’s courteous to ask someone for permission before sharing (“regramming”) a photo. Always give credit by @mentioning the original photographer in your caption, and provide your fans with insight on how to share more photos that your brand might feature in the future.
You can find user-generated content on Instagram by monitoring your branded hashtags and business’ locations. Sprout Social’s Instagram monitoring tools make it easy to set up brand keywords for Instagram hashtags and locations so that you can both monitor and engage with fans’ posts in the Smart Inbox.
Pottery Barn does an excellent job of increasing brand awareness by encouraging Instagrammers to use the hashtag #mypotterybarn in order to have their photos shared by the brand. When regramming a customer’s photo, Pottery Barn uses the caption to comment on the original, often giving a compliment to the photographer and always referring to the specific Pottery Barn item(s) featured.
Establish Clear Guidelines for Your Team: Style, Publishing & Workflow
A consistent voice on social media is key to building your brand, and on a visual platform such as Instagram, the need for a clearly defined aesthetic adds an additional layer of consideration. Even if one person is responsible for managing your brand’s Instagram account, establishing guidelines for photo and video composition, filter use and captions will ensure that your Instagram content is part of a unified brand experience for your followers.
Create an Instagram Style Guide
When publishing on Instagram, you have more decisions to make than which filter looks best. From visual composition to location tagging to using hashtags in your captions, planning your approach in advance allows you to maximize the potential of each Instagram feature and functionality.
Your style guide should outline your approach to each of the following:
Brand aesthetic: Review the existing visual representations of your brand: your logo, website, graphics, stock photography and other collateral. Do you have an established color palette? A cool or warm tone in pictures? Your Instagram content, and the editing effects and filters you choose, should reflect the same.
Composition: Not every social media marketer is a natural photographer, and shooting for Instagram and for a mobile audience is a learned skill. While you can now publish pictures with a landscape or portrait orientation to your Instagram feed, each piece of content will show up as a square thumbnail in your profile grid. Determine your approach to a few basic elements of composition in order to create a sense of visual harmony when a user looks at your profile.
- White space balance
- Dominant color(s)
MailChimp is one example of a company with a well-defined brand aesthetic and excellent, consistent photo composition. Its photos, videos and GIFs typically use a simple background with one dominant color, allowing the subject to stand out.
Using Filters, Lux & Creative Tools: Instagram offers several ways to edit photos and videos. Review filters and their effects to select a handful that fit your brand’s aesthetic and ensure visually consistent content.
For photo editing, you also have the option to apply Lux or use creative tools. Lux (the sun symbol) adjusts the contrast and saturation of your photo. Tools (the wrench symbol) allows you to individually adjust brightness, contrast, warmth, shadows, color and more. For video editing, you can select a filter, trim content and choose a specific cover image that will show up in the News Feed.
Captions: Approaches to writing Instagram captions vary—captions are limited to 2,200 characters, and captions are truncated with an ellipsis after three lines of text. While some users omit captions altogether, others approach sharing as a form of microblogging and write a short story to accompany every post. Make sure to include the most important part of your message within those first three lines even if you opt for a long-form caption. If you need any inspiration, we rounded up plenty of creative Instagram caption ideas.
As with all aspects of style, consistency is key. Your copy guidelines should include whether sentence fragments are acceptable, if you plan to use emoji and hashtags (and how many to use in a given post), and what your policy is around @mentioning other users.
Hashtags: Hashtags allow Instagrammers to discover content and accounts to follow, so using them is a good way to connect with new followers and increase engagement on your posts. Instagram allows up to 30 hashtags per post or comment, so decide whether your brand will use them, how many to include in a typical post and whether you want to create branded hashtags to align with your content themes. In terms of copy guidelines, you can use hashtags within your copy—“welcome to #NYC”—or at the end of a post. Which looks best to you?
Give yourself time to browse trending hashtags within the Instagram app’s Search and Explore tab to see what people are talking about and find opportunities for your brand to join relevant conversations. While it’s tempting to plan all of your social posts in advance, joining trending conversations is a good way to connect with new audiences and stay true to the “insta” part of this app—even if that means scheduling time for spontaneity every so often.
Add to Photo Map: Location tagging, or geo-tagging, using the Add to Photo Map feature is another way to increase engagement and allow new users to discover your content—posts with a location receive 79% higher engagement than posts without. For organizations that use Instagram during travel and events, at multiple sites or to promote destinations, geo-tagging is a particularly useful feature.
Tag People: If you tag other Instagram members in a post, it will show up on their profile under the Photos of User section. You can use this functionality to tag individuals or brands featured in your posts, and users will be able to tap your photo to view and click tagged handles.
Social Sharing: Instagram allows you to connect your profile to accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Flickr and Swarm and automatically push your photo to those networks. You can also create IFTTT Instagram recipes to automatically share your photos in Slack channels, as Facebook albums or on Twitter.
Determine whether you want to cross-post or promote your Instagram content in this way. If cross-posting is an important part of your strategy, make sure that anyone managing your Instagram account has access to linked accounts in case they need to reauthenticate the connection.
Use Landscape: Having clean, well-cropped and professional Instagram photos is essential to your business. Now you can use Sprout Social’s newest image resizing tool Landscape. This free tool makes it easy to resize, crop and scale your social media images across all platforms.
Identify Team Members & Roles
Your primary social media manager should certainly be part of your Instagram marketing, but other team members may also provide valuable contributions. Depending on your team and objectives, you might divide responsibilities into content creation and publishing, community management, discovery and analytics, and assign them to team members with different strengths.
For organizations that require outbound message approval before publishing, establish a clear process for creating and reviewing content. One caveat, though: Capturing and sharing moments in real time is part of Instagram’s purpose. When posting during live events, make sure your workflow will hold up.
Foster Engagement & Set Guidelines for Community Management
From curating UGC to encouraging dialogue and building a community, Instagram offers huge potential for engagement with followers. If you stick to publishing and skip engagement, you will miss out on an opportunity to organically grow your following by interacting with fans and reaching new audiences.
Optimize Your Bio & Link
With a 150 character limit, your Instagram bio should focus on what’s most important about your brand. Your bio is a good place to educate users too: While users cannot click on hashtags in your bio (on the mobile app) the way they can in captions, including a branded hashtag informs users how to share and find additional content related to your brand. Putting your best foot forward is an art—if you need help writing your Instagram bio, check out these recommendations.
Keep in mind that the only live link you can include on Instagram is in your bio—only advertisers can share live links outside of that space. If one of your objectives is to drive traffic back to your website or blog, include the link in your profile and refer to it in individual posts by using text like “link in profile” in your caption.
What kind of content do you want to keep a pulse on through Instagram? Following influencers in your industry—for example, if you are a clothing retailer, following top fashion bloggers—will help you keep an eye on interesting content and even find inspiration for your own posts. It helps to set basic guidelines around who your brand will and won’t follow, taking into consideration a few things: private accounts (the user must approve your request to follow), employee accounts, relevance to your brand and appropriateness of content (nothing that’s not safe for work, whatever that means in your industry).
Managing Comments, @Mentions & Direct Messages
If your brand receives a large volume of engagement on Instagram, it can be difficult to ensure that no messages fall through the cracks. Sprout Social’s Instagram management tools can help you monitor, engage and analyze your Instagram efforts. See how it works for yourself with a completely free, 30-day trial today.
For those messages that stand out as requiring a response, your team should have a plan in place for handling certain types of messages:
- Support or customer service inquiries
- Negative or disparaging comments
- Career inquiries
- Sales leads
Certain messages may require a reroute to another platform; for example, it may be easier to handle support issues via live chat, phone or email. Use Bitly or another link-shortening tool to prepare an easy-to-remember shortlink to pages related to common inquiries.
A common practice on Instagram is to @mention other users—sometimes in a descriptive caption, sometimes in a comment—to give credit or draw their attention to a certain photo or video. If you receive notifications that your brand is @mentioned, it might be worth spending a moment to acknowledge an on-brand fan photo with a Like or a comment.
Instagram Direct allows users to send a photo or video directly to anyone rather than publishing it to their feed. If a user sends this type of message to your handle, and you aren’t following them, the post will be in your requests queue, where you can accept their request in order to review and respond to their post.
While some brands have successfully used Instagram Direct to collect user-submitted photos and reward fans, if these messages aren’t a part of your campaign or strategy, decide on a response procedure. In general, keeping interactions to public posts works best for most brands.
Monitoring Hashtags & Location Tags
Another way to see who’s talking about your brand, even if they aren’t mentioning your handle, is to monitor branded hashtags. Those hashtags often include your brand name and any common misspellings; names of products, services or events; and terms related to your organization. For us at Sprout, that means monitoring hashtags like #SproutSocial, #TeamSprout, #SproutLove, #SproutChat and #SproutAndAbout. You can’t control who will use your branded hashtags, so some posts may not be relevant, but monitoring the conversation will allow you to engage with followers who are sharing your brand with their networks.
If certain locations are significant to your organization, such as your headquarters or event spaces, regularly monitoring location tags will also help you identify users posting from those areas. When a location is tagged in a post, users can click on its name to see all photos tagged in that place from public accounts and private accounts that they are following—giving them an overview of all content shared from a certain location. Here’s what this looks like in Sprout’s Smart Inbox:
Search & Explore
Just as you monitor branded hashtags, you can identify popular hashtags in your industry to monitor for engagement and use in your own posts. Join new conversations related to your brand by searching results for the hashtags you use, then examining hashtags used by people sharing similar content.
Analyze Your Results
Tracking how well your content performs and your follower growth will allow you to adapt your Instagram marketing strategy over time. This allows you to deliver more of the content that your audience responds to while optimizing your plans for future campaigns. When looking at your sent messages, analyzing the number of comments and likes received, as well as the engagement rate for each post, will show you how different types of content perform. The engagement rate is a percentage of likes plus comments on the post, divided by followers of the account at the time the post was sent.
Other metrics, such as overall follower count, branded hashtag mentions and location tags can give you an idea of the results of your publishing and engagement efforts. You can also use post performance data to assess other factors, like the best time of day for audience engagement. Many brands also use a link to an Instagram-specific landing page or with a specific UTM tag in order to track the number of clicks on the link in their Instagram profile. Sprout Social’s Instagram analytics can help you track audience engagement, identify your top posts, discover engaged influencers and more.
As you develop and implement your brand’s Instagram marketing strategy, you will find what types of content, workflow and engagement practices work for you. Building your brand and growing a following on Instagram can be challenging, but with the right strategy, you will be able to tell a powerful story and encourage increased engagement on the platform and beyond.
Download a free PDF of “How to Create an Instagram Marketing Strategy” below.
Alicia Johnston: Alicia Johnston is a Brand Marketing Specialist at Sprout Social. When she isn’t writing about social media strategy, she loves to cook, hike and explore Chicago’s street festivals.