In 2013, singer Beyoncé proved to the world that Instagram is more than just another social media platform. On Dec. 12, just before the stroke of midnight, the superstar released a surprise album by announcing it on the photo-sharing website. In three days, she sold a record-breaking 617,000 copies on iTunes and nabbed the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts. If you're not using Instagram for marketing yet, now is the time.
But you don't have to be a superstar to leverage the power of Instagram. Brands, retailers, tech companies and other organizations use Instagram every day to reach consumers, sell online and grow a following. Here are 10 ways they're doing it, and how small businesses can do it, too.
1. Show, not tell
Have a great new product or service? Show followers what it does or how it works by posting photos of it in action. Cosmetics chain store Sephora often posts eye-catching color swatches of lip gloss, nail polish and eye-shadow shades, while San Francisco-based Benefit Cosmetics shares visual beauty tutorials and before-and-after shots of its products being used in real life. Shoe company Vans also posts photos of its shoes in action on the ground, in the air and everywhere Vans fans take them. [6 Innovative Social Media Tools for Small Business]
2. Run an Instagram contest
Need a boost in follower engagement? Hold a contest. Have followers post photos using a fun hashtag, and then pick the best ones that will win a prize. One of the most popular Instagram contests was held by Mercedes-Benz USA, which partnered with five of the most influential Instagram users by giving each of them a Mercedes-Benz CLA to drive for five days. They posted photos of their adventures with the car and the Instagrammer with the most likes won his or her own CLA. Followers could also send their own photos by hashtagging #CLATakeTheWheel for a chance to win a CLA. But contests don't have to be so extravagant. Using the hashtag #dresseDD,Dunkin' Donuts had followers "dress" their Dunkin' Donuts coffee cups during Halloween for a chance to win a $100 gift card.
3. Go behind the scenes
Everyone loves to see what happens behind closed doors. Get personal with followers by giving them exclusive sneak peeks at new products, events and other happenings. Fashion brand Burberry has mastered this art: The company posted real-time photo feeds of fashion shows and behind-the-scenes looks at photo shoots and commercial film shoots. Similarly, Louis Vuitton treated followers with live backstage shots at the luxury house's Women's Spring/Summer 2014 Fashion Show.
4. Humanize your brand
People want to know about more than just your products and services; consumers also care about a company's people, culture and values. Humanize your brand by sharing photos of your staff, office and extracurricular activities. Tech companies — such as eBay, Tumblr and Facebook — do an excellent job of this by sharing images of team members in action, as well as their desk and meeting areas, office art, company events, candid moments, and community outreach or charity work.
5. Give followers an adventure
Consumers also want to know the ins and outs of your operations. You can give them an inside look by sharing photos of trade shows, conferences and other industry events. For instance, YouTube successfully employed this tactic by giving followers an inside look at its visit to the SXSW (South by Southwest) conference. If you travel a lot or have affiliates around the world, take followers along for the ride. Whole Foods Market shares everything from on-location store photos to the Whole Planet Foundation's microentrepreneurs at work in places like Tanzania, Turkey, Chile, Bangladesh and Indonesia.
6. Post videos
In 2013, Instagram gave short-form video platform Vine a run for its money with 15-second Instagram videos. Get creative, mix things up and take advantage of this new feature by posting videos in between images. General Electric (GE) shares time-lapse videos of its technology in action, giving followers an inside look at things like 3D printing from start to finish, 24-hour operations at one of the company's facilities, airline installations and more. Fashion brand Kate Spade advertised its Madison Avenue location in New York City by showing how it constructed its window display. And fast-food chain Wendy's used Instagram to promote a contest and its new menu items.
7. Use Instagram Direct
Instagram Direct, the company's new direct-messaging feature, is a great way to personally reach out to followers. Messaging is limited to 15 people, so it will require some creativity and strategy. Gap was the first brand to use the feature: The company held an exclusive #WIWT (What I Wore Today) contest. The first 15 people that commented on the Instagram announcement were sent contest invitations via Instagram Direct, and one of those Instagrammers won Gap merchandise. Public relations news site PR Daily also recommends using the feature to send photos of new products to the very biggest fans, live Instagramming an event for key members of the media and creating exclusivity with insider clubs made of superfans.
8. Launch an online store
If you're ready to sell, but not ready to set up an e-commerce website, Instagram makes a great instant virtual storefront. Merchants like RuralReclaim, ThriftArchaeology and PrepObsesssed use Instagram to both showcase their products and make sales without the investment of creating an online store. Set up your Instagram storefront by posting photos of your items and describing them in captions. Engage with customers by answering questions in the comments area, and use direct messaging when necessary. Finalize sales with PayPal and other payment processors. Services such as Soldsie, Chirpify and Hashbags also help merchants sell on Instagram.
9. Deliver an experience
If you own a store, restaurant or other brick-and-mortar establishment, use Instagram to make people want to visit by showcasing your facility. This is a great strategy if you sell online, too. Seattle-based consignment store Sell Your Sole frequently uses its boutique as a background for product images, making followers feel as though they were really there. New York City café and restaurant Jack's Wife and Freda shares photos of not only its drinks and menu items, but its dining area, patio, bar, kitchen and surrounding areas as well.
10. Inspire followers
For businesses, Instagram is about connecting with followers on level beyond just trying to make a sale. Brands shouldn't just engage; they should also inspire. Learn from Nike and Lululemon, whose feeds are filled with motivational images and people doing extraordinary things, and Starbucks, whose photos of lattes and other caffeinated concoctions in everyday life tell stories that hit close to home.