It's no secret that Instagram is a mainstay of social media marketing, with over 13% of the world's population reporting they have an account and 80% of those account holders saying they actively follow brands. Instagram also boasts an engagement rate of 4%, which is 10 times higher than Facebook and 84 times higher than Twitter.
As a result, many brands are looking for success on Instagram. But without the right knowledge of the platform, it's easy for brands to fail to hit their stride. This guide will explain how the Instagram app works, why it's important to follow best practices, and how to make sure your content is successful.
What is Instagram?
Instagram is a free photo- and video-sharing app that is available to iOS, Android and Windows Phone users. Those with the app can upload photos or videos, like and share posts, communicate via direct messaging, and comment on photos or videos. You can also create Stories, which live on your profile for 24 hours. Anyone 13 or older can create an Instagram account.
The social media platform also offers the ability to create a business profile, which has different features than a personal account. You can include business information like your phone number and address in your bio, add a "contact" button to your profile, and access Instagram Insights, which provides detailed analytics about your followers and engagement rates.
Instagram was created in 2010 and initially launched on iOS, then became available on Android in 2012. It was purchased by Facebook in 2012.
Why should you use Instagram?
Instagram can help you build an audience, sell products or engage with your customers. It's also quick and easy to use – all you need is your smartphone and a plan. [Read related article: 10 Reasons to Use Instagram for Your Business]
These are some things Instagram can help you do:
- Put a face or personality to your brand
- Increase your audience
- Sell products directly through the app
- Engage with customers
- Partner with influencers in your market
- See what competitors are doing
- Share information, background and personal stories about your business
- Build connections with other businesses
- Stay up to date with consumer trends
- Collect customer data
- Expand your marketing strategy
How does Instagram work?
The key to Instagram is that it is based on visual content. Everything on Instagram revolves around photos or videos, unlike Facebook or Twitter, which support a wide variety of content and media.
When you upload a photo, it shows up on your followers' feeds, where they can like, comment on or share the post. The more likes or comments you get, the more "relevant" your post becomes, and the higher up it is placed on your followers' feeds. This algorithm is a vital part of success on Instagram.
When Instagram released its latest algorithm update in July 2018, it identified three main ranking factors that help inform the algorithm and who sees your posts:
- Relationship with the user: If a particular user has regularly engaged with your past content, they are highly likely to be shown your future content.
- User interest: This signal is based on what other accounts the user has interacted with. If those other accounts are similar to yours, the user is likely to continue seeing your posts.
- Post recency: Although Instagram did away with the chronological timeline, when you post still matters. More recent posts are prioritized at the top of the feed, while older posts show up further down.
Instagram also shared three other considerations for the algorithm:
- The more accounts users follow, the more competition you will have for top spots in their feeds.
- If you are not in the top spots, your chances of being seen seriously decline with users who don't spend a lot of time on Instagram.
- Business accounts and personal accounts have similar opportunities for organic reach – one account type does not have an advantage over the other.
Why is following Instagram best practices important?
Because Instagram and its algorithm can be complicated, there are many guidelines, best practices and tips available for making the absolute most out of your efforts to market on the app. It's important to go through these tips and best practices and find the ones that make sense for you and your business. If you try to go into Instagram blind, you may find it difficult to gain traction.
What are the Instagram best practices?
One of the most important aspects of taking your brand to Instagram is commitment to doing it right. This could be the difference between success and failure, since you need to appease both the algorithm and your followers.
Follow these 15 best practices to set yourself up for success.
1. Post consistently.
You don't want to be an account that shows up on a user's feed and makes them wonder, "Who's that?" To avoid this, set yourself a posting schedule and stick to it.
Studies have shown that a consistent one or two posts per day is best, keeping your feed steadily refreshed and relevant without clogging up people's feeds. As for the golden question of what time of day is best for posting, the answer is whatever works best for you and your followers, which may take some trial and error to find out. Keep a close eye on Instagram Insights or your own analytics for times when your engagement seems highest, and aim for those times.
2. Don't over-post.
A major Instagram faux pas is sharing multiple photos as individual posts one after the other. This reads as out of touch and can be irritating to users, since all those individual photos will show up on their feeds and leave them wondering why you didn't just put them all together in one post.
Limit yourself to one or two posts a day, and think carefully about what you post.
3. Only post quality content that makes sense for your brand.
The name of the game for Instagram is quality over quantity. Carefully consider what you post and why. How does it relate to your brand? Will your followers like and engage with it? What purpose does it serve for your business? You can use your Instagram analytics to see which content performs best with your Instagram audience.
4. Tell stories.
Since Instagram has become so big, it's easy to tell when a user or brand is just "doing it for the 'gram" and not because they have a genuine message to share. Focus on telling your story through images, video and text, and seek connections with your audience. When followers feel an emotional connection to your content, they are much more likely to engage and become faithful followers.
5. Know your brand.
To sell your brand, you have to know it inside and out. Instagram, like any social media app, has its own culture and etiquette, so part of your initial marketing plan should be to figure out how your brand fits into that culture.
6. Be visually consistent.
Users will expect visual consistency when they click on your brand page. This doesn't mean your Instagram needs to look like one big advertisement – especially since today's users gravitate toward more organic content. However, it is something you should think about and determine early on. What kind of look or vibe do you want your profile to give off? Moody? Bright? Organic? Natural? Whatever you choose, it should be consistent with the rest of your company branding and recognizable to your Instagram followers.
7. Be choosy with hashtags.
Hashtags can be the difference between your post rising to the top of a feed or being buried in a sea of other posts, so it's important to learn which ones work for you and your brand. Overly generic or popular hashtags – like #holiday and #fashion – can send your posts into oblivion, competing with millions of other posts. Instead, use industry- or brand-specific hashtags that are easy for users to find and help your content stand out from the crowd. A good number of hashtags to use is seven or eight on any given post. While Instagram allows up to 30, a wall of hashtags under your posts can look desperate and unprofessional.
8. Take advantage of user-generated content.
User-generated content is every marketer's dream. It creates an engagement opportunity for users while reducing costs for your business and shows users that your brand listens to and values customers. Try creating a branded hashtag that followers can use to submit content, then repost applicable and appropriate content to your business page for all to see. Some great examples of user-generated marketing campaigns are Starbucks' #RedCupContest and Coca-Cola's #ShareaCoke campaign.
9. Use Stories for lighter content.
Instagram Stories is a great place for your brand to show a little more personality, day-to-day content or personal tidbits about your business. Stories only live on your profile for 24 hours and can comprise photos or video clips with music, text, GIFs or stickers layered on. Try livestreaming company events or doing employee takeovers for a day.
10. Use Instagram to boost your website traffic.
Instagram allows you to include one clickable link in your profile bio, meaning that anyone who accesses your Instagram page is provided the link to your website. You can also insert a link with a "swipe up" call to action in your Instagram Stories if you have more than 10,000 followers, and any Instagram ads you purchase will also have a link to your website.
11. Apply SEO to your Instagram strategy.
While SEO and Instagram may not typically go together, applying SEO practices to boost your Instagram presence can go a long way, especially as Instagram becomes increasingly competitive.
There are two main SEO-related areas of your Instagram account – your account handle and account name. Your handle is your @, which you should make short, memorable and applicable to your business.
Your account name appears under your profile picture and should reflect your account handle and industry. When people search Instagram for you, it is typically your account name that will show up. Falcon.io provides a more detailed guide on Instagram SEO here.
12. Be selective with micro-influencers.
If you are considering Instagram marketing with influencers, the most important thing is to choose who to work with very carefully. No two influencers are the same, each one coming with their own unique audience and areas of expertise. This is where knowing your brand and how that translates to Instagram comes in handy. Influencer marketing can be highly effective, since a given influencer can reach thousands of users with just one post, relevant hashtag or story highlight.
13. Explore Instagram advertising.
With Instagram's advertising program, you can create campaigns to attract users at all stages of the sales funnel as part of your Instagram marketing strategy. Instagram users have a high engagement rate with ads, and ad recall is 2.8 times higher on Instagram than recall on other social platforms. Learn more about advertising on Instagram here.
14. Maintain your brand's voice across all content.
Make sure that your Instagram posts and stories fall in line with the rest of your business's communication style. Your social media should be an extension of your business's culture and voice, so a drastically different style of communication can be jarring for your customers. To help ensure consistency, develop a set of branding guidelines for all of your promotional materials, including advertisements, internal documents and social media marketing.
15. Engage in the comments.
One of the best ways to build engagement on your posts is to engage yourself. Respond to customers' comments as much as you can – this will help build your credibility by showing that you care what your customers have to say and that you are using social media for a good reason. Stick to your branding guidelines to maintain a consistent voice. Lululemon's Instagram page is a good example of consistent voice in its comment responses.
Instagram success stories
The following companies are doing social media the right way. Their social media marketing is on point, and they have experienced unprecedented growth in a short period of time. Use their strategies as inspiration to create your own Instagram posts that keep your customers engaged and coming back for more.
Freddy's Frozen Custard & Steakburgers
The chain restaurant Freddy's uses a simple strategy to increase its followers and improve brand awareness: posting as many delicious food photos as possible. The company allows the menu to speak for itself while also having fun with the Instagram Stories feature by highlighting interactions with founder Freddy Simon. This grounds the restaurant and makes followers feel like part of the restaurant's family.
A surprising success story on Instagram comes from NASA. The space agency's social media team has utilized the Stories features to interact with visitors. The content is easy to understand and delivered in a fun way to appeal to all ages. Instead of posting complex space news, NASA uses great visuals to draw in the audience.
America's Test Kitchen
America's Test Kitchen has found success on Instagram by using polls to its advantage. One poll asked visitors whether they preferred crispy or non-crispy bacon. The company includes its handle to increase follows after users view the poll. The brand also uses eye-catching food visuals in all its polls and other posts to increase clicks.
This outdoor gear retailer engages users by showing stunning locations within its product placements. The marketing campaign aims to make Instagram users want to share in these experiences. Another great way that Tentsile is making connections with social media users is by sharing user-submitted photos on its Instagram page. Visitors feel a greater impact when they know a photo hasn't been staged by a company.
Another company that uses stunning imagery for its products is GoPro. Its Instagram posts are informative, showing exactly what types of photos you can take with its cameras. It also highlights any special sales going on in its posts.