How to use Instagram for your business
The past few months more and more clients have been asking me about Instagram. Specifically, do they need it? How do they use it? Can they make money from it? I keep seeing the same questions coming up in Facebook groups too.
As a designer, Instagram is a great platform to showcase my work so, naturally, I’ve looked into it and found out as much as I can on the best ways to use it. I don’t know everything about it (believe it or not, haha!) but I know more than the basics and am happy to share what I’ve learned.
But please do continue with your own research as social media is a huge arena that changes all the time and keeping up with best practices are imperative to making the most of it.
The info I’m going to share here is really just the tip of the iceberg and just a starting point to help you understand how it works and get up and running on the platform.
Here goes …
Firstly, what is Instagram? …
It’s a social media platform similar to Facebook but much simpler in that you can’t share random links, insert images, videos, gifs or links into comments, or create and join groups. That said, it is also a sort-of search engine that uses hashtags in a similar way to Twitter.
Instagram is owned by Facebook so can be connected to and integrated with your Facebook personal and/or business page in regards to cross-sharing posts, paid adverts and online store.
You can only use Instagram via your phone or mobile device (tablet or iPad). You can’t post to Instagram from your PC or laptop.
In a nutshell, Instagram offers the following.
- Graphic strong posts with a good story (description) and an onboard filter/image editing tool.
- Multiple image/video posts of up to 10 images/videos per post. Post videos are limited to 1 minute each.
- The option for followers to like and/or comment on your posts, reshare them in their Stories or as posts using a resharing app.
- The option to create Instagram stories, which can be images or videos (15 secs max) that display for 24 hours at a time when people click on your profile image. Within stories you can create polls, ask questions, add text, draw, apply moving filters, and add fun graphics or moving gifs.
- The option to save your Instagram stories as highlights – those round buttons you see at the top of a person’s Instagram feed. These serve to sort your story content into categories and work in a similar way to website tabs.
- Instagram TV which allows you to build your own video channel of multiple videos of up to 10 mins each. Videos can be recorded live or uploaded.
- Hashtag (#) keywording of your account, posts and stories. Hashtags help you to gain followers and also help your posts become visible in specified categories related to your business or post content.
- Paid advertising is an option either directly within your Insta account or via your linked Facebook page.
- Tagging products is also an option if you have a Facebook or ecommerce shop. When you tag a product in an Instagram post it clicks through to the purchase page for the product. You need to have linked your Facebook biz page to your Insta business account for this to work.
Where to start?
Before considering an Instagram account for your business, first establish if your target audience is actually using the platform. If your potential clients aren’t using Instagram, then don’t waste your time there. How do you find out? Ask them, run a survey, search for your current clients on Instagram.
Certain business niches will perform better on Instagram than others. If your business is visual, ie, some sort of design, art, photography or other creative business, jewellery, fashion or make-up products, foodie and fitness related, lifestyle or travel blogging, or entertainment/music oriented. These are business types that are well supported by good imagery or video. And Instagram is becoming the go-to platform for following and/or searching for these categories.
Other more abstract service-based businesses will generally need to work much harder at building visibility and followers, e.g. accountants, lawyers, IT, brokers, etc. This doesn’t mean they can’t use Instagram but just that they will need to work quite a bit harder to plan and curate their feed – provided their clients are actually using the platform.
Start by setting up a personal Instagram account and follow opposition companies similar to yours. Look at what they’re posting, how often they’re posting, the sort of engagement they’re getting on their posts, their number of followers, etc. Take note of how they’re using stories, highlights and InstaTV. Make notes on what you find, and any ideas you have from their feeds that you can apply in your own business.
Experiment with using the stories tool by capturing moments in your day and sharing them, adding posts and just learning how everything works. If you make a mistake you can delete the post/story and start again. You can edit post descriptions but you can’t edit stories once they are posted. Everything is deletable.
Give yourself ample time to acquaint yourself with Instagram – at least a few months – until you have a good handle on how everything works, are sure that your audience is hanging out there, and have built a good collection of great ideas on how you can run your account. A big part of using Instagram is all about educating your audience on what you do in such a way that they don’t actually realise they’re being educated. Your content needs to be interesting and useful.
What’s with the #hashtags?
Hashtags (#) are used to search keywords within Instagram. e.g. if you want to follow people who post specifically about a vegan lifestyle, you’ll search for hashtags like #vegan #veganfood #veganrecipes #veganhealth, etc. There are loads.
When you search a hashtag, Instagram will show you all the posts ever shared that used that hashtag. When you click on those individual posts, you’ll be able to view accounts functioning in that niche and you can either follow those accounts, or you can follow the actual hashtags. When you do this, your feed will display their account posts and the hashtag posts, according to the algorithm.
The more posts a hashtag has, the faster the hashtag feed will move and the less visibility smaller accounts will have. For example, #vegan has 77.7 million posts. Posts of accounts with large followings, or who post most frequently, will appear as the top 9 posts in any hashtag. Because of this, if you’re a small business and just starting out, you don’t want to use hashtags in your posts that have more than about 500 000 followers, otherwise your posts are going to be lost in the hashtag feed.
Instagram posts with hashtags receive 70% more likes than posts without hashtags, according to Agorapulse. Bear in mind that Facebook is the opposite and doesn’t like hashtags. If you’re going to double-post your content to Facebook then you’ll need to edit your Facebook posts to remove the hashtags.
When you use hashtags in your Insta posts, it allows people following or searching those hashtags to find your posts. If you’re not using hashtags in your posts, you’re wasting your time on Instagram.
Before you even set up your Instagram biz account and start posting, build your hashtag lists. You can use up to 30 hashtags per post. That’s a lot of hashtags. I’ve found that the best way to figure out your hashtags is a multi-pronged approach, as follows:
- Look at opposition accounts and/or influencers in your field, make a list of the hashtags they’re using.
- Make a list of words pertaining to your business that people might be searching for in relation to what you offer.
- If you’re going to be specific about different divisions/offers in your business, you can search hashtags for those individual categories. e.g. For my business I could build separate hashtag lists for logo design, product photography, branding, book design, etc.
- Weed out banned and irrelevant hashtags by searching every single one in your compiled lists. Sometimes we think a hashtag means one thing but it turns out to mean something else. Or it just may have too many posts using it so not ideal to use. Banned hashtags can cause your posts to be ‘shadowbanned’ (tagged as spam) and not show up in feeds. You can search for banned hashtags on Google.
- For convenience sake, keep your shortlist/s to between 10-20 hashtags each. These will be the common hashtags that you will use in every post. This leaves you with 10-20 hashtags you can customise for each post. If this sounds confusing, here’s an example…
In keeping with the vegan theme, your common hashtags might be #veganmeals #veganislife #vegansouthafrica #southafricanvegan #veganrecipe, etc – that you’ll use in every post. But if you post something that’s specifically a vegan dessert, then the additional additional unique hashtags you could add could include #vegandessert #vegansweets #veganpudding, etc.
I know, it sounds like a mission and a pain but you only need to compile your common list/s once – and update them every few months. And 3 to 5 unique hashtags per post is ample. The more you search for and follow relevant hashtags, the better you’ll get to know which ones are the best to use for your niche. If you’re not prepared to put in the required time sorting out your hashtags then don’t expect optimal results from Instagram.
Your ultimate aim with hashtags is do dominate the prominent hashtags in your niche, i.e. you want your posts with those hashtags to be in the top 9 hashtag feed because those are the posts that get the most visibility.
In addition to existing hashtags, you can create your own pertaining to your own business. It could be your company name, or a specific service you offer, with your own twist to it. Use it in every post. The idea behind this is to dominate that hashtag feed and get other accounts to start using it in order to draw followers to that hashtag to see your content.
Some experts say it’s better to insert your hashtags at the end of your post description preceded by 7 to 8 page returns, so they sit below the ‘read more’ tab. Others say it’s better to insert them into the first comment of your post. And yet others say it doesn’t matter where you put them. Experiment with both options and see which one works better for your account. If you visit my account @cosmicreations, you can see how I use mine.
Save your hashtag lists into the notes section of your phone for quick copy-and-paste access. Alternatively, if you’re using the Later app, it does allow you to save groups of hashtags.
A quick word on Algorithm
Instagram’s algorithm works the same way as Facebook’s does. If people are liking and engaging with your posts, they will see more of your posts in their feed, and vice versa. If they aren’t liking/engaging with your posts, they won’t see them.
This is the primary reason your content needs to be interesting and engaging to your followers, so they can interact with and keep seeing, and hopefully also sharing, your content.
The more often you post, the higher the chances of your content coming up in feeds. Ideally with Instagram you should be posting around 3 times a day but you can get away with once a day if you’re stuck for time and your content is great.
How to start?
Instagram works to capture attention with scroll-stopping images/videos and a good storyline (description) for posts. If your content isn’t useful to your audience, they aren’t going to like it or engage with it.
Once you’ve built your hashtag lists …
- Start by planning the sort of posts you want to share and gathering or creating images and stories for those posts. You can do this in MS Word or Excel, or preferably use a platform like Later which will also allow you to schedule posts in advance.
- Once you’re ready to launch your Instagram business account, you can either convert your personal account to a business account or set up a new business account to focus on, keeping your personal account separate.
- The first thing you need to do when setting up your business account is make sure you complete your bio. You have 150 characters to let followers know exactly what your business does – keep it relevant, and no grey areas. If emojis will help to reinforce this, then use them. Use your own unique hashtag in your bio and make sure you include a link that people can follow to find out more about you. This could be to your website, your Facebook account, your online shop, or to a subscription landing page. Instagram allows only one link in your bio but you could use linktr.ee to add more.
- Your profile image will depend on how you want to connect with your audience. If you want to connect with them more personally, then use a good, professional photo of yourself. If you want to promote yourself more as a brand, then use your company logo.
Creating post content
The biggest challenge I’ve found when I’m training Instagram newbies is figuring out what to post. Planning is everything. Here’s the method I use to build content.
- Start by making a list of all your services and/or products. Then make sub-lists underneath each of those relating to the why? how? what? when? where? who? of each.e.g. logo design
Why do you need it? How does it work? How can you benefit from it? What does it entail? What does it look like? (project examples) When do you need it? Where do you use it? Who will it help?This exercise will give you content for a good number of posts, especially if you micro-manage your content. ie. ‘Why do you need it?’ could cover multiple reasons, spread over multiple posts.
- Break your posts down into daily themes. ie. on each day you’ll cover a specific aspect of your business but in a way that makes your followers the hero, not you. Every non-personal post needs to explain how or what your product/service can do to solve THEIR problems, not punt how fantastic you are.
- Sprinkled in between those educational posts, you can include interesting info about yourself, your pets, your spare time, etc so that you are also connecting with your audience in a personal way. Stories are the ideal platform for this too.
- Please include a good deal of info about your post image. Don’t just post an image, a couple of words and your hashtags. When I’m scrolling Instagram and I see an image, I want to know all about it. What is it about? Who took it? Why? Where it was? etc. Be generous with sharing details if you want genuine, interested followers.
What about images?
Images are the primary Instagram hook – to get people to read your content and hopefully follow your account. When you start, don’t stress too much about having a beautifully curated graphic feed. Once you’ve aced your content then start building your own personality into your graphics. Too many people just don’t start with Instagram because they’re terrified their feed won’t look amazing.
That said, there are a number of ways to build up a library of images for your posts.
- You can take your own pics with your mobile phone. Read my how-to post on taking great photos with your phone for some tips.
- You can hire a photographer to take custom stock photos of you, your brand and your products. You’ll need to do this seasonally to keep your feed up to date and so you aren’t posting the same images all the time.
- Look at stock image sites like Unsplash and Pixabay and take time to curate a folder of images that will be relevant to your business.
- Create your own graphics using a free design platform like Canva. If you want to get fancy, you can use image filters to adjust the colours of photos so they match your brand palette.
How to get followers
This is a process and doesn’t happen overnight. You need to post consistently, share relevant content and use relevant, effective hashtags to start. I’ve been asked about ‘buying’ followers. Don’t do it. It’s better to have fewer genuinely interested followers than thousands who are never going to buy from you.
To build an organic following, like you did with hashtags, do this:
- Stalk your opposition, and stalk their followers. Interact with their followers by liking and commenting on their posts and stories. It’s sounds rude but it’s part of business and completely okay to do. Their followers don’t have to follow you back if they don’t want to. This is an exercise you need to do as often as possible, at least once a week.
- Connect with influencers in your niche by tagging them in relevant posts, interacting with their posts and inviting some sort of collaboration with them.
- The most obvious way to get followers is to let your existing clients know you’re on Instagram and invite them to follow you. Include your Instagram handle in all your marketing material.
- Then there’s paid advertising where you can reach a wider, custom audience to create awareness of your business.
- Regularly weed your followers. You’re going to get irrelevant followers, people who are just following you so that you can follow them back. If they don’t appeal to you and they don’t look like a potential client then don’t follow them back. Go through your followers list once a month and weed out spam followers by deleting them from your account. They won’t be notified when you remove them. You’re diluting your own potential visibility by having loads of followers who aren’t interacting with your posts.
- Use the Insights tool in your business account to get to know your followers and see which of your posts are performing best. Then try to duplicate the formula you used in those posts regarding hashtags, posting time, description format and graphic style.
Can you make money with Instagram?
The burning, million-dollar question. You can make money using Instagram but it doesn’t happen overnight and is not effortless for every business niche. You can make money on Instagram either directly (by linking posts directly to your shop), or indirectly (by educating followers on your product/service or getting them onto your mailing list).
At the end of the day making money boils down to …
- supply and demand (are you supplying something that people need?)
- relevant target audience (are your followers potential clients?)
- how well you’re educating your followers on the problems your product/service is solving for them (are you supplying useful, educational and fascinating content?)
- how readily they remember your business (is your brand and content unique, memorable and relevant?), and
- how easy your buying process is (can they buy from you effortlessly?)
What about hiring a social-media manager?
If you struggle with time to manage your social media accounts, you could hire someone to do this for you. But bear in mind that ‘social media managers’ are a dime a dozen. There are many who don’t really know what they’re doing and don’t know how to curate content that is properly relevant to your business and your target audience. It may seem like they know a lot because they know a bit more than you do, but they will need to post in a way that connects with your clients, and accurately mimics your personality and your voice.
Before you hire a social media manager for Instagram, visit their Instagram account and look at their bio, their followers and post engagement. If they have thousands of followers but not many likes, or minimal engagement on their posts, or if they don’t use ample post descriptions and frequent, relevant hashtags, they may not be the right person to manage YOUR account.
Unless you run a large company and can afford to employ a full-time, in-house, hands-on social media manager, I personally wouldn’t recommend it. The person who manages your account needs to know what’s happening in your business on a daily basis and, frankly, the time it will take you to educate them properly on your target audience, for you to compile and send them relevant information to post, and for them to learn to mimic your company personality, could be more effectively used in actually posting that content yourself.
Help is at hand
Finally, don’t be afraid to try something new. Change has to happen if you want to grow your business. If Instagram sounds like something that could do this for you, then set up an account and give it a try. If you’re really stuck for time, start with posting once a week, then increase that to 3 or 4 times a week, up to once a day or more often when you can. Something is better than nothing at all as long as your content is carefully thought out and relevant.
There are loads of free instructional videos on YouTube on how to use Instagram so look them up and watch them.
If you need hands-on help managing Instagram using your own phone I do offer one-on-one personalised training in my studio – at your own pace and from where you’re at so drop me an email and we can talk.
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