What is it?
One of the more popular social media sites among individuals but lesser known among businesses, Instagram is an image-sharing site where users upload visual content from their smartphones to personal accounts. Before being posted, photos and videos can be edited with various photographic filters and effects, tagged with people and locations, and captioned with text. Content is either posted to the user’s account so that all the user’s followers can view it, or it is shared via Instagram Direct, the new direct messaging functionality for sending content to specific users. Users can comment on photos and videos as well as give them “hearts,” the Instagram equivalent of “likes.”

Who can benefit?
While the majority of Instagram users are following their friends and family, many also follow celebrity and brand accounts. It is not difficult for local businesses to break into users’ feeds and maintain a steady following. Any small enterprise could use Instagram to build customer relationships, but those in the retail, food, and cosmetic industries (such as boutiques, restaurants, and salons) could best use Instagram to maximize their social media marketing potential and cultivate a brand experience.

How can businesses use it?
Instagram can be utilized to improve brand image and raise brand awareness through sharing pictures and videos. Businesses should maintain a balance between self-promotion and content marketing relevant to the follower base. Restaurants, for example, could upload photos of unique food dishes or chef specials, while salons could post fantastic client haircuts, makeovers, and manicures. Boutiques could share pictures of their clothing collections, sale items, and mannequin outfits. This sort of content encourages a kind of mobile window-shopping.

 All businesses on Instagram could upload photos detailing their establishment’s ambiance, such as the interior design of a restaurant or the exterior of a storefront. Pictures of staff at work are well-appreciated by followers, who relish behind-the-scenes views of businesses. By celebrating employees for their efforts and acknowledging their skills, businesses show followers how much they value their staff. Followers are also curious about the origins of products and the processes that go into providing a service, and the various stages from planning to delivery can all be shown visually.

Businesses should make sure to include non-self-promotional posts that still pertain to their brand. A French bakery, for instance, could take a break from uploading its own gourmet pastry photos to share interesting pictures of French scenery or useful France-themed products. To entertain and amuse followers, business can occasionally post funny images that have no industry significance.

 It is important for businesses to actively interact with their followers, and inviting user-generated content through a hosted photo contest is an excellent way to do so. Since Instagram is searchable by hashtag, submissions can be organized by creating an exclusive contest-related hashtag that all contestants must add to their entries.  Photo contests can even be promoted on either social media sites to bridge business accounts and connect with more followers.

Videos on Instagram are currently capped at a maximum of 15 seconds, too short for most “how-to” product demonstrations. The length, however, is great for small announcements or news that cannot be shared in pictures, such as anticipatory previews of upcoming events. Additionally, a business can crowdsource short videos made by followers and merge them into a longer video to be posted on other social media sites, which draws attention to the creativity of existing followers while expanding social media reach to gain new ones.