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Instagram for Brands: How To Build A Creative, Engaging, High-Impact Strategy

Instagram hit a massive milestone at the end of 2020: 1 billion users worldwide.

As one of the most rapidly-expanding platforms across all of social media, Instagram is a critical point of connection between brands and consumers. According to Instagram, 90% of users follow a brand, and when compared to other social networks, Instagram is the number one network that consumers use to follow brands.

People also have positive perceptions of brands on Instagram. According to a Facebook survey, people say they recognize brands on Instagram as popular, relevant and committed to building community.

What was once a mobile-based photo and video-sharing network is now a full-service social marketing platform. Instagram continues to roll-out new business features like shopping options, creator tools and content formats, making it increasingly brand-friendly.

Instagram is still a visually-driven social network, but it takes more than publishing attractive images or videos to achieve success. Successful marketing on Instagram is the product of a thoughtful, yet nimble strategy that’s grounded in concrete goals, a clear brand identity, creative content, effective community engagement, customer service and social data.

To help you develop your Instagram marketing strategy, we’ve put together this comprehensive guide that will walk you through:

  • Setting goals
  • Identifying your audience
  • Creating a content plan
  • Engaging with your Instagram community
  • Analyzing and applying data to refine your strategy

Let’s dive in!

Define your goals and objectives for Instagram

Before you start posting for your brand on Instagram, you need a set purpose and goals to guide your strategy.

Begin with big-picture objectives that back up why you’re on Instagram in the first place. For example, a new business might use the platform to build brand awareness and share promotions with local followers to get people in the door. A well-established enterprise company, on the other hand, might intend to boost customer loyalty and expand branded content partnerships. Other goals to consider include but aren’t limited to:

  • Generate leads and sales
  • Increase community engagement
  • Promote products and services
  • Provide customer service
  • Track, understand and take on competitors

Also, consider the unique ways that Instagram works while setting goals. For instance, Instagram doesn’t allow links to be embedded in posts. And alternatively, with a link in bio, users typically bounce from post to profile bio to link, then finally to the website, making it a somewhat clunky user experience. Therefore, rather than prioritizing content that attempts to drive web traffic, you could focus on creating Instagram-specific, interactive content that delivers value to your audience without them ever having to leave the platform.

Once you have your goals in mind, establish which metrics will be key performance indicators (KPIs) that determine if you’re meeting, exceeding or falling short of your goals. Let’s break down a few key metrics you should consider for your Instagram strategy:

  • Awareness: Impressions, reach and follower count
  • Engagement: Likes, comments, shares, clicks and overall engagement rate
  • Conversion: Social traffic, link clicks, product button clicks on shopping content
  • Customer care: Response time, resolution rate, brand sentiment

For a full list of metrics for every stage of the customer journey, download the Social Media Metrics Map.

Research and identify your Instagram audience

Your goals are also dependent on your audience. The interests, hobbies, professional experience and goals of a 20-year-old woman in California are going to differ from that of a 60-year-old man in Dublin, Ireland. The same is true for the brands and content they would engage with on Instagram.

Fortunately, there’s an abundance of Instagram demographic data and social analytics and listening tools like Sprout so that you don’t have to guess.

In general, the Instagram audience looks something like this:

With a tool like Sprout Social though, you can dig deeper. In the Instagram Business Profiles Report, there is a demographics tab that breaks down your followers by age, gender and location.

Image 2021-03-16 at 7.53.26 AM

Once you’ve established your goals and know your target audience, that’s when the fun begins—content creation.

Develop your content and get creative

Content is the foundation of your Instagram presence. The highly visual nature of Instagram gives you a unique opportunity to creatively showcase your brand’s culture, products and services, events and people.

As you brainstorm the direction of your content, ask yourself:

  • How do we want our business profile to look, sound and feel?
  • What stories do we want to tell through Instagram?
  • What kinds of content formats will best support our goals?
  • What can we share that’s visually interesting?
  • What will Instagram allow us to do that other platforms don’t?

In terms of that last question, Instagram has a lot to offer. As the platform has expanded, so have the available content options Instagram for brands. Between regular posts, Reels, IGTV, Live, Stories, Shop content and other available content formats, there’s a lot to consider in your Instagram content strategy. It might be tempting to check every single content box, but it’s best to start small, then scale up as you figure out what kind of content gets your followers to double-tap and engage.

As you plan out your content, consider a balance of content formats that will work best for the resources you have and the engagement you want from your audience. If you’re starting from scratch on Instagram, do a competitive analysis to see how other brands in your industry approach Instagram content. Then, use your findings as inspiration for the ways in which you can differentiate your brand and stand out from the competition.

The best brands on Instagram have a healthy mix of still images, video, graphic design and Stories in their content strategy.

Still image posts

Still images are how Instagram got its start and they’re still highly valuable in any content strategy. It’s essential that the images your share are on-brand, diverse, authentic and, ideally, memorable. Capture your products, customers, work environment, behind-the-scenes looks and other moments that demonstrate your brand’s value proposition. 

Steamboat Ski Resort, part of Alterra Mountain Company’s group of world renowned destinations for high-intensity skiing and snowboarding, shares frequent image posts of winter athletes on the slopes alongside beautiful environmental photography. This gives a clear sense of what people can expect if they’re visiting.

Much of their photography is also courtesy of their followers and brand advocates, which enhances the authenticity of their content.

Video

As video platforms like TikTok and YouTube continue to boom, so will your consumers’ craving for video content. Fortunately, Instagram has a ton of options for video content.

Videos on Instagram receive 49% more engagement than still images. If video enables you to tell a compelling story about your product, services, culture or people, work it into your content more often.

A standard video post runs up to 60 seconds, making it a snackable option for your followers. Then, there’s IGTV—long-form, immersive videos. For any user, IGTV videos can run up to 15 minutes, but verified accounts have a whopping 60 minutes available, making it easier to tell your brand’s story. IGTV is great for creating tutorials, Q&As, short webinars, product demos, thought leadership interviews and more. You can also save Live videos and share those on IGTV as well.

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.

However, if this is the case for you, Instagram Reels could be a good option to explore. Baked right into the platform, Instagram Reels enables you to record and edit multi-clip videos up to 30-seconds with audio, visual effects, and other creative tools. Then, when Reels are published to your business profile, they’ll become available to the wider Instagram community through a new space in Explore.

Carousel posts

Another format ripe for storytelling is a carousel post. The swipe to the next slide in the carousel is essentially like turning the page in a magazine or a book. Carousel posts and their captions should encourage people to swipe so they get the full story.

Research from Bannersnack highlights that carousel posts score the highest engagement rate compared to other Instagram format options. If an Instagram user passes by a regular post in their feed without engaging, they won’t see that post again. However, if a user passes a carousel post, Instagram will show them the same post a second time, typically with the second photo or video from the carousel. 

Stories

According to Instagram, more than 500 million people use Stories daily and one-third of the most-viewed stories come from brands. So, if you’re not leveraging Stories, it’s time to start.

The mobile nature of the Instagram app lends itself to quickly capturing moments for Stories, giving followers a chance to interact with your brand in a way that can feel more casual and instantaneous than on other networks.

Although Stories are limited to 15 seconds at a time, the in-app experience is almost like an amalgamation of all the formats we already covered. You can post images, videos, Boomerangs or just straight-up text. You can even post a story about a post in your feed. Then, jazz them up with stickers, polls, music, quizzes and more!

Although Stories typically disappear within 24 hours, you have the option to immortalize them in the form of Highlights on your business profile.

University of Chicago Booth IG Story Highlights

If you’re already thinking about the Instagram algorithm and how to beat it, there’s one tried-and-true answer—create consistently high quality content designed for your audience. Your publishing plan, however, can make a big difference as well.

If you need help with brainstorming what to publish, check out our guide on Instagram post ideas.

Build your content calendar and publishing plan, but stay flexible

Once you have an idea of the kinds of content you’re going to publish on Instagram, determine the frequency with which you will post, and develop a content calendar that cycles through your themes and integrates key dates and campaigns.

To consistently reach your audience, you’ll need to post to Instagram frequently. Each brand will be different, so keep testing what works for you, but a good rule of thumb is to share a feed post 1-3 times per day and Stories 2-5 times per day.

Since there are many moving parts in your overall strategy, creating a calendar that acts as a single source of truth for your Instagram content will help you keep track and visualize your plan.

Sprout Social’s intuitive social media content calendar streamlines content planning, saves time and includes features that boost engagement.

As you build your content calendar, there are a couple of things you should keep in mind for each post:

  • Add relevant hashtags so even non-followers can discover your content.
  • Tag any collaborators or content contributors in your posts.
  • Include a location tag if you have one.
  • Assign Tags to posts so you can later report on content themes and formats that your audience engage with most.
  • Evaluate the best time to post or use Sprout’s patented ViralPost® technology which automatically detects the most active times for authentic engagement among your audience.

Want to learn more about scheduling Instagram posts in Sprout? We break it down into six simple steps here.

Foster engagement and provide customer care

If you stick to publishing and skip community engagement and customer care, you will miss out on an opportunity to organically grow your following and enhance the relationships you have with your Instagram audience.

One of the best ways to get people to start engaging with your brand more is to engage with them as well. Engage with posts, Reels and IGTV comments, respond to story replies, ask your followers questions and make them feel heard.

Direct Messaging on Instagram is one aspect of the platform that marketers should get comfortable with using. Instagram DMs enable one-on-one communication between brands and their fans, customers, influencers and more. Not to mention, responding to Instagram DMs is an important part of any Instagram customer service strategy.

If your brand is one of the many that’s turned your business profile into a digital storefront with Instagram Shopping, it’s particularly important to provide customer service where the customer journey begins and ends. Instagram DMs enable you to do just that while affording customers the privacy they desire.

Once you connect an Instagram business profile in Sprout Social, the Smart Inbox streamlines those engagement efforts by collecting comments, mentions, media tags and direct messages in a single stream. On top of that, Smart Inbox capabilities like Tasks facilitate collaborative workflows and message tagging ensures that your whole team is on the same page about customer FAQs.

Analyze your results and refine your strategy based on data

Tracking how your content performs and how your following grows will allow you to adapt your Instagram marketing strategy over time, delivering more of the content that your audience responds to and optimizing your plans for future campaigns. This is why it’s so critical to kick off an Instagram marketing strategy with your goals and KPIs.

Sprout’s Instagram analytics reports span across profile, post, paid, Tag, competitor and team data. So, no matter what your goals are, you’ll find the metrics and KPIs you need to measure success.

Sprout’s Post Performance Report in particular can help you discern if your content is on point, falling flat or just needs a boost. You can also select your other networks in that report, so you can compare content performance and apply insights across your social networks.

Let’s say you’ve decided to host a contest on Instagram that requires people to like your post, follow your brand and tag two friends to enter. Then, when you look at your data, the likes are rolling in, but comments are few and far between and your follower growth has remained stagnant. Go back and review the content of your competition post. Were the directions clear? Was the content visually engaging? If you used a video in your post, did people actually watch it? Is there a clear value to following your brand beyond this contest?

Once you assess, you can then go back and try again, but with a new approach. Perhaps you remove the requirement to follow your brand and cross-promote the contest on your Stories throughout the entry period. Maybe you spice up the copy or make the rules more prominent. Or if you have the resources, you might explore a new creative approach that’s a bit more eye-catching. However you choose to move forward, you can test the new approach against past performance to determine what’s best for your specific audience.

This is just one example of how you might think through your data analysis to figure out what happened, why it happened and how you can adjust. And if at first you don’t succeed, be patient and try again.

Take full advantage of Instagram for your brand

Instagram opens up a world of possibilities to connect with your audience, build your brand identity, promote your products and so much 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.

To reap even more benefits for your brand, develop a customer service strategy specifically designed for Instagram. To help with the planning process, we’ve created a checklist that will help set you up to successfully deliver customer care that drives your business forward. Download the checklist here.