(This article originally appeared on The Philadelphia Inquirer)
According to the latest research, Instagram — the video and photo social media platform — has a billion monthly active users around the world, with more than half a billion on the platform daily, making it the sixth biggest social media platform behind WeChat, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, YouTube, and Facebook.
So does that mean that your small business should be using Instagram to promote your brand? Like anything else, that answer depends on your business.
“Instagram has hugely helped my business,” says Hugh E. Dillion, a freelance event photographer who runs the popular (40,000 followers) PhillyChitChat account and a related blog where he shares fun and interesting photos and videos of celebrities in town, events he’s attending or nights out with his friends and family. “Oftentimes I’ll go out and people recognize me just from that. It frequently turns into work for me.”
Kristen McCoy, the owner of Crumb and Cow (16,700 followers), a Philadelphia based provider of local meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables for parties and events, says she uses Instagram as her main source of marketing. “Our posts help raise our brand’s awareness and connect us with customers,” she says. “It’s also a creative outlet for our business.”
Dillon’s on-the-scene photography and McCoy’s colorful food plates make their businesses perfect candidates for Instagram because it’s a platform that relies on the visual. But that doesn’t mean that Instagram is right for every business.
Sure, there are millions of people using the platform to post photos, upload videos, comment on interesting items, and interact with their friends and followers. But are these people going to buy your products?
According to the same research mentioned above, 75% of people aged 18-24 in the United States use Instagram, making up the largest group by age, followed by 57% of 25-30 year-olds. They’re mostly following celebrities, funny accounts, and friends. If you’re selling machine parts, industrial components or thermoplastic injection moldings used in the aerospace industry, it’s quite possible that the audience on Instagram may not exactly be your audience.
“I’m a huge proponent of… not being on every social channel,” says Brian Honigman, a Philadelphia-based marketing consultant. “They all take up time and resources. You should be laser focused.”
Even if you do decide to use Instagram, get ready to invest time and money. Succeeding there takes commitment.
“I run our social media channels and particularly with Instagram I aim to post at least six times a week,” McCoy says. “Our photography driven content can be quite time consuming because I put so much attention to detail into everything while setting up a shot. Due to time constraints, I feel like I’m just scratching the surface of creative potential, especially as we begin to venture more into video.”
Like McCoy and Dillon, the most successful people using Instagram devote a great deal of time to the platform. They’re posting one or even a few times a day and are always consistent. They’re testing and leveraging the right hashtags, those identifiers which make searching easier, to maximize the reach of posts. They’re checking and responding to comments by other users. They’re using Instagram’s features to create longer form video “Reels” (videos posted to the site cannot be more than one minute in length unless the Reels feature is used) or live videos. And they’re not just doing this randomly. It’s all part of a thought out plan which includes specific posts that will be most enticing to fans and followers.
And they’re making sure their posts are made with care. To ensure the best quality and branding placement in our attention deficit world, Dillon, for example, advises businesses to consider hiring a photographer and including the right kind of content.
“It’s key to have good photos and to make sure they’re cropped correctly,” he says. “What I tell my clients, if you’re having a ribbon cutting, or if you’re going to have us at a store opening, insert a banner that says your name on it and all your company’s information so people can look at that picture and see everything that you’re about. This pays when people are scrolling through they don’t have to read your copy and can instead see what your product and your business is about.”
Given all the work involved, it’s not uncommon to employ social media and marketing experts to help. The upside of using an outside expert is that it saves you time and delegates the work to someone who should be intimately familiar with the platform. The downside of course is the cost and the potential loss of authenticity with your audience. Neither McCoy or Dillon do this for those specific reasons.
Some of my clients have dabbled in Instagram ads where you can not only post content but then promote it to a specific demographic of potential customers.
These ads usually include Instagram’s tags that allow users to click on a post and go to their ecommerce sites.
My advice is to be careful doing this. Advertising on Instagram, like any social platform, can start out inexpensively. But ad dollars can be quickly eaten up by clicks that never turn into a sale and what starts as a $500 budget could turn into thousands. Unfortunately, by the time this money is spent, the return on investment may not be what you desire.\
“The ideal scenario is to get enough traction over time where you don’t need to rely on the ad money to boost anything,” says Honigman.
In the end, Instagram may not be for all businesses. But it’s perfect for some. Many freelancers, artists, content creators, restaurateurs, and retailers have used the service to promote their wares, build a reputation, enhance their brand, and engage with audiences – all activities that ultimately turns into being hired for services or selling products. Smart business owners have like Dillon and McCoy have made their presence visual, fun, interesting and even quirky. And they’ve benefited.