Instagram may seem like a place where only niche businesses like those in the fashion or food industries can succeed, but it's definitely not a network you should rule out, as long as you know what you're doing. Before you take on the visual world of Instagram, make sure you learn about the social network, what it does and how to make it work the best way for your brand.
What is Instagram?
Instagram is a mobile photo-sharing app and social network that was created in 2010 by founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger. In 2012, Facebook purchased the service for $1 billion, and as of September 2015, Instagram had more than 400 million users, according to CNN. And if you're wondering about the name, "Instagram" is a portmanteau of the words "instant" (inspired by instant cameras) and "telegram" according to its FAQ page.
Unlike other social networks, Instagram is completely photo/video-centric, so users can edit and post mages and short videos (up to 15 seconds), but not text updates like they can on Twitter and Facebook, for example.
How does Instagram work?
Creating your account
Because Instagram is primarily a mobile app, you'll have to download it to your mobile device before you can sign up for an account. Instagram is free in both the Apple App Store and the Google Play store. Currently, there is no way to create a business-specific account, so business and personal accounts are created and function in the same way (though how you use it for your brand is up to you).
Once you've downloaded the app, you'll be prompted to either log in or sign up. To sign up, you have two options: You can either connect your Instagram account to Facebook, or you can enter your email if you don't have a Facebook account or prefer to keep your accounts separate. If you sign up with Facebook, your information will be filled in for you, including your name and profile picture, but you'll still be prompted to create a username and password.
If you choose to sign up with your email, you will be prompted to enter a username and password, along with your full name and phone number (both of which are optional). Once you've entered your information, you can select to connect your Instagram to Facebook by choosing "Find Facebook friends to follow," or you can find people to follow based on your phone's contacts. You can also skip both of these options if you'd prefer to set up your account before following others.
Once your account is created, you can go to the Profile tab via the button on the bottom right of your screen to add more information to your profile (and, eventually, to see your own posts). Tap the Edit Your Profile button to change your name, username and profile picture, or to add a website and a short biography (up to 150 characters, so just slightly longer than a tweet).
You can also change your password; update your email address and phone number; and change your gender to male, female or not specified.
To change the app's settings, tap the gear button on the top right corner. From there, you can also view the posts you have liked, find people to follow (this page will allow you to connect to Facebook and your contacts, as well as see suggested accounts), toggle the Private Account option, access Instagram's support options, clear your search history and log out.
Navigating the app
Navigating the Instagram app is fairly simple. Across the bottom of the app, you'll see five buttons that will take you to where you need to go. From left to right, you'll see the Home tab, a Search tab, a camera button (which is where you'll go to create a new post), an Activity tab and your Profile tab.
When you open the app, you'll automatically be taken to the home page. This is where you'll see an endlessly scrolling stream of the most recent posts from all of the users you follow, along with your own posts, if you've added any.
Going to the Search tab opens up a whole new realm of possibilities for finding interesting content and new users to follow. At the top of the Search page, you'll see a search bar, where you can type in whatever it is you're looking for. Once you type in your keyword, you can tap People to see users with that keyword in their names, tap Tags to see hashtags that include that keyword, or tap Places to search for geotags or photos taken near your current location. If you don't tap a category, the app defaults you to Top, which shows the most popular results for that search.
However, if you ignore the search bar at first, you'll see a horizontally scrolling row of photos called Trending Tags, and below that, a feed of posts called Explore Posts.
If you tap See All in the Trending Tags row, you'll be taken to a page with all of the top trending hashtags at the moment, along with photos to scroll through for each tag. Or, you can simply scroll down to see the top posts in Explore Posts, and tap photos you like to see who posted them and to read their captions. These features are great ways to find other people and brands whose interests align with yours, and following people with similar content may even earn you some followers, too.
The activity page also shows you two different streams of content. You'll see two tabs at the top of the page: Following and You. Going to the activity page takes you to the You tab by default, where you can see all of your most recent notifications. This shows you who has liked your photos, comments other users have left on your photos or mentioned you in, and posts you've been tagged in. Switching to the Following tab will show you recent activity from the users you're following — you'll see photos they've liked or commented on and users they've followed.
Your Profile tab is where you can see all of your posts and, as previously mentioned, edit your profile and update your settings. Under your profile's biography section, you'll see four buttons. From left to right, the first is the default view, where you see your photos and videos as a collage. The second allows you to see your posts as a stream, as on the home page. The third button allows you to access your photo map (if you use geotagging on your posts), and the last button shows you all of the photos you've been tagged in by other users. [10 Instagram Marketing Mistakes You Need to Stop Making ]
Instagram allows users to post two different types of content: photos and videos. To post a new photo or video to Instagram, tap the camera button on the bottom of your screen. This will open your phone's camera, and you can choose to either take a new photo or video, or select one from your camera roll. You then tap the Next button, and you can start editing.
When you go to the next tab, you'll see three different options: Filters, Lux and Tools. Opening a new photo in Instagram defaults to the Filters options, where you can horizontally scroll through all of the image filters available to you. Currently, there are 40 filters to choose from. These change things like the coloring and softness of your images; to see what they look like, you can simply tap on the filter you're interested in. This will automatically put the filter on your photo, and if you tap the name of the filter again, it will pull up a slider. You can use this slider to adjust the strength of the filter until the image looks the way you want it to. When you're finished, tap the check mark to update the photo. It's also worth noting that the most popular option on Instagram is to actually not use a filter at all, though filters can add a lot to your images if you use them well.
The Lux feature automatically adjusts things like the exposure and sharpness of the image; simply slide the bar back and forth to find the look you like best. And again, once you've adjusted this to your liking, tap the check mark to add it to the image.
The Tools section gives you several options, all of which can be easily adjusted with sliders, as with the Filters and Lux features. When you scroll through the Tools options horizontally, from left to right, you'll see Adjust, Brightness, Contrast, Structure, Warmth, Saturation, Color, Fade, Highlights, Shadows, Vignette, Tilt Shift and Sharpen. Tools like Brightness, Contrast, Saturation and Highlights are fairly self-explanatory. The Adjust feature allows you to tilt, straighten and rotate your photo. Vignette darkens the edges of your photo, and Tilt Shift allows you to blur the outside edges of your image.
The options for videos are fairly similar, with some slight differences. When you take or upload a video, you'll see four options. The first allows you to add filters, just like when you upload photos; the second allows you to adjust how the video fits the screen. The third allows you to choose a cover frame for the video (the image other users will see before they press Play), and the fourth allows you to mute the sound in the video if you want it to be silent.
Once your photo or video looks the way you want it to, hit Next again. This will take you to a page where you can write a caption, add the post to your photo map and select other social networks to share it to (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Foursquare are all options). You can also choose to post the image or send it as a direct message at the top of the screen. Once you've completed this step, just hit the Share button at the bottom of the screen.
If, upon posting, you realize that you forgot to add a hashtag or to tag someone, or if you spelled something wrong, you can always go to the image on your Profile page or Home page, tap the ellipses button and select Edit to update the caption, or add a location or tags. You can also select to share the post on other social networks, or delete the post if you're unhappy with it. Although you can edit the tags, geotag and caption, you cannot edit the image itself once it's been posted. You can, however, delete the image.
All of these steps and options may seem overwhelming if you're not familiar with the app or with photography. But the good news is that even if you're not a photo-editing expert, Instagram's filters and tools are simple to use and can make you look like you know what you're doing. Of course, having a background in photography and photo editing can't hurt the quality of your posts.
Instagram is accessible on the Web, but it has very limited functions. On the Web, you can log in and view your timeline and profile as well as other users' profiles, and you can like and comment on photos. You can't, however, edit and share photos or use the search function. You can edit your profile and settings, but you can't change your profile photo unless you're on the mobile app. You also cannot view your followers or following list on the Web.
Interacting with other Instagram users
There are many ways to interact with other users on Instagram. Options include everything from the ability to tag other users in your photos, to the ability to privately message people.
- Tagging: Just like you can tag other users in your photos on Facebook, Instagram allows you to add tags before you post an image or video. To do so, tap the Tag People option before sharing your photo, and then tap in the photo where you'd like to add a tag. The app will then prompt you to type in the person's name to search for him or her. Once you've tagged other users in your photo and shared the image, other users can tap on the photo to see the people who are tagged.
- Mentioning: Mentions on Instagram work very similarly to on Twitter, in that you use the @ symbol to tag other users in your comments or photo or video captions. Typing in the @ symbol, followed by the first letter of a person's username, will bring up a list of people you can select from; or, you can simply finish typing out the person's username on your own. It's also important to note that if you want to reply to another user's comment (even on your own photos), you need to tag the person in it with an @mention, or that user won't get a notification.
- Liking: Liking is a simple way to connect with other users. To like a photo, either double-tap the image or tap the heart button under the post. To view photos you've liked, go to your profile, press the gear button on the top-right corner and select Posts You've Liked.
- Commenting: Another simple way to connect with other users is to comment on photos. Next to the Like button is a Comment button — just tap it, and the app will take you to the Comments page for that photo, with a text box where you can enter in what you want to say and hit Send when it's complete.
- Direct messaging: Users can communicate privately via a feature called Instagram Direct. To access it, go to the app's home page and tap the button on the top right corner. Here, you can send instant messages, photos and videos to other users. To send a new direct message (DM), tap the "+" button on the top right corner. This will pull up two options at the bottom of your screen: Send Photo or Video, and Send Message. If you choose Send Photo or Video, you can either take a photo/video or upload one from your camera roll, edit it just as you would any other post, add filters, write a caption, and then choose a user (or multiple users) to send it to. If you choose Send Message, Instagram will prompt you to select a suggested user or to type in the user you would like to DM. Once you've selected your user or users, simply hit Next and you'll be taken to a chat screen where you can send your message.
Once you've sent the message, you and the recipients can message back and forth. Users who are not already following you will be asked whether they want to allow you to send them photos and videos before they can view your direct message.
Hashtags on Instagram
Hashtags are a great way to help other users find your content on Instagram, just like on Twitter. Since users can both search for hashtags and click on hashtags they see in posts on the app, using relevant hashtags can be a highly effective tool for getting noticed. However, just like on Twitter, you have to make sure you're using the right hashtags for your brand, and that you don't go overboard.
Hashtags like #nofilter (if you're sharing a photo that hasn't been heavily edited with filters added), #selfie (if you're sharing a picture of yourself) and #tbt or #throwbackthursday (if you're sharing an old photo) are all incredibly popular on Instagram, but they may not work for you or your brand. Using popular hashtags just because they're popular might annoy your current and potential new followers, and it will be obvious you're just trying to get more followers and exposure.
It's a good idea to look at other established brands (or even personal users and bloggers) in your industry for examples of what to do, especially when it comes to hashtags. A fashion boutique, for example, would want to use very different hashtags from those used by a bicycle repair shop, so following and paying attention to other successful Instagram users in your field can help you get a feel for what works and what doesn't.
On Instagram, it's not just the hashtags you use that matters, but also how many. Instagram allows a maximum of 30 hashtags in a post or comment, but 30 hashtags is a lot, and using that many would be excessive. The fewer hashtags you can use to get quality responses, the better. Using a large number of popular hashtags might earn you a lot of likes from other users, but it probably won't increase your following all that much, and the interactions you get will likely not be from people who are interested in your brand, but rather those who just saw and liked your image. If you aim to keep your hashtags relevant, interesting and specific, you won't need 20 hashtags to gain exposure.
It's also important to note that hashtags can include letters and numbers, but they can't contain any non-numerical symbols (so #DaveAndBusters might work as a hashtag, but #Dave&Busters does not, for example). Using hashtags that don't work on the app might make you look like you don't know what you're doing, and they won't help you gain followers or likes, either.
Searching hashtags on Instagram is also a good way to find new users to follow and get your account noticed. For example, if you use a certain hashtag on your posts, or if there's a certain hashtag that is relevant to your brand, you can do a search for it and see all of the photos posted with that hashtag. Scroll through and like the ones you find interesting, and follow users with content you like. If those users think your content is relevant to their interests, they'll likely follow back — or at least check out (and maybe interact with) your posts.
Geotagging on Instagram
Instagram allows you to add your location to your photos when you post them, and if you use this feature, the service will create a photo map of your posts. This shows you, on a map, where all of your photos have been taken, so this is especially useful if your business is related to travel or if you travel a lot in relation to your brand.
Adding your location to your photos doesn't just create a map; it also displays that location above your photo in each post that has been geotagged. Since people can click on geotagged locations and see all of the posts in that area, this can be another great way to gain followers and interactions. And if your building or office is a place that is open to customers, you can add your location so they know where to find you. Followers who live or work nearby may be more likely to interact with you or do business with you if they see that you're nearby. You can access your photo map from your profile page, below your biography section, and you can toggle your location on and off before you post an image. This comes in handy if, for example, you want certain posts to be added to your map but want others to be left off. You can also search for nearby locations like restaurants, tourist attractions and other businesses.
Advertising on Instagram
Instagram offers three different formats for advertising on the platform:
- Photo Ads: These look like regular photo posts, but they have a Sponsored label above the photo. They also have a Learn More button on the bottom right corner, under the photo.
- Video Ads: Like the photo ads, these look like regular video posts, but with a Sponsored label on top.
- Carousel Ads: These ads look identical to photo ads, but feature multiple photos that users can swipe through.
All three ad formats appear in users' home feeds while they scroll through the app. These ads support four different objectives: video views, clicks through to your website, mobile-app installs and raising mass awareness.
For more information on advertising on Instagram, go here.
Cool uses for Instagram
Not sure how you can use Instagram for your business? Try some of these cool strategies:
- Show off your products or services. Is your brand a retail business? Take pictures of cool new products as you get them in, or share pictures of your most popular products. Or, if you run a service business like a hair salon or a restaurant, take the time to take photos of your work. Sharing photos of cool haircuts (even before-and-after shots are great!) or your latest dessert specials is a great way to get people interested.
- Go behind the scenes. Take pictures and videos to show how your products or goods are made, especially if the process is unique or interesting, or something your customers ask about often. This will not only provide interesting content for your Instagram account, but will also show your customers and followers exactly what goes on in the background. Plus, putting your office on display, especially if it's decked out in cool decor, will show your followers how interesting your company really is.
- Include your employees. Make your brand's Instagram page more personal by including your employees in your posts. Share pictures of your team members hard at work or having fun at company outings. Doing so will show your customers and followers that you care about and appreciate your employees, and it will make them feel like they can really get to know your brand and relate to it.
- Ask your customers to show off their photos. Own a restaurant? Put your Instagram handle and custom hashtags on the menu so that when your customers inevitably take a picture of their new favorite dish, they tag you in it. This way, other users who want to know where it came from can easily find you. This works with any type of product or service — let your customers know you're on Instagram and which hashtags they can use to show off their photos.Just make sure you're checking them out, liking them and commenting on them, so they continue to do so.
- Post exclusive deals on your Instagram. Give back to your Instagram followers by offering them discounts for following you. Share an image with instructions on how to use the deal — for example, you can create a coupon code for use at your business online, or ask users to show they follow you at the register when they're paying for a product or service. This will make your followers feel special, and likely get them telling their friends about your business, too.
Instagram tips and tricks
To get the most out of your Instagram account, keep these tips in mind:
- Links don't work on Instagram. The only place you will be able to share a working link that actually takes users to your website is in your profile. Links don't work in captions or photo comments, so if you're trying to direct people to a specific Web page, you won't have any luck writing it out under your pictures or videos because users won't be able to click on it. You can, however, note in the caption that the link is on your profile, so if you're promoting a specific page or running some sort of promotion, you can change the default link in your biography to the link of that particular page. For this reason, Instagram isn't the best place to promote Web content, but it can help you get brand exposure, leading to more traffic later on.
- You can share photos that aren't square with the help of outside apps. Want to add a photo, but cropping it to fit the iconic Instagram square would cut out key parts of the image? There are tons of free and paid third-party apps, like InstaSize, that allow you to edit your photos to fit into the square without cropping them, by adding white space (or patterns, different colors, etc.) to the sides of your image.
- Keep your posts about your brand. It can be tempting to share photos of food, fashion and animals because they're so popular on the platform, but if your business has nothing to do with those things or if you usually only post pictures of your products, this could make your social marketing look disjointed and could confuse your followers. Keep things relevant to your business, and the followers you gain will be there because they support your brand — not just because your dinner looked delicious. However, it's also important to find balance. If you can find a way to incorporate pictures like these while still making them relevant to your business, it could make your social marketing strategy more successful.
- Run giveaways and promotions. You can do entirely Instagram-based promotions by posting an image advertising your giveaway, sale or contest and asking users to repost that image with a specific, custom hashtag in order to enter. You can then search that hashtag to see who has reposted it and pick a winner. Promotions like this allow your customers and followers to market your brand for you by talking about your promotion on their personal pages, and it'll drive more people to visit your profile.
- Respond to other users' comments. When people comment on your photos, make sure you reply to them. Interacting with your customers and followers will show them that you are paying attention and that you care about whether they see your photos and what they have to say. They'll be more likely to continue following you and interacting with your pictures if they feel like they matter.
- Embed your Instagram posts on your website. From the desktop Web version of Instagram, you can get an embed code to add specific images and videos to your company's website. This can help you show your current visitors that you're active on Instagram and, as a result, help you gain more followers. Just select the photo you want to embed, click the ellipses button on the bottom-right corner and select Embed. This will pull up a box with the embed code and give you the option of whether to show the caption. From there, just copy and paste the code where you want it to go on your website.