As the fastest growing social media platform last year with more than 300 million active users today, more companies are coming to CloudPeeps looking for help finding their unique voice and style. They want to understand what their customers want, how they can add value and how to integrate Instagram into their overall strategy.

We figured they can’t be the only ones, as we’ve been testing and iterating on Instagram, learning what works and what doesn’t for our own brand. Wanting to get down to brass tax, we asked some of our favorite brands, friends and Insta-loving Peeps to share their experiences and tips. Little did we know, we’d stumble upon an Insta-goldmine.

Using Instagram as a testing ground

Bezar, a marketplace connecting designers with people who “desire special things” used Instagram as a research tool for refining their voice and aesthetic as a brand before launching the marketplace.

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Bezar HQ in NY

Co-Founder and Creative Director, PieterJan Mattan told us, “We started our Instagram a couple of months before we launched the marketplace. We teased the voice and aesthetic of the brand through visuals of products and designers we were onboarding for Bezar. It was effective in gathering a small but solid community of both designers/makers and design lovers before we even launched.”

“Bezar’s mission is all about connecting those two groups, so Instagram was (and continues to be) a great platform. From a marketing perspective, there’s not necessarily a link between what works well on Instagram and what sells well on the site. There’s definitely overlap, but there are also a lot of exceptions.”

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Knowing if Instagram is right for your brand

As much we believe in testing #allthethings, every marketing decision should be made strategically. So we asked the pros how they determine if a brand should dip their toe in the colorful Instagram pool.

image05However, Denise Chan, Founder of Gramforacause — a community of nonprofits and Instagram photographers working together to tell stories for social change — said:

“Every brand should be on Instagram! A recent study by Forrester Research showed that Instagram users are 58 times more likely to like, comment or share a brand’s post than Facebook users. It’s clear that visual imagery is a highly effective way to tell a brand’s story. The question isn’t if you should be on Instagram, it’s how you should use Instagram as part of your marketing mix.”

The secrets of a successful Instagram strategy

1) Have a (relevant) goal

As with any other marketing vehicle, it’s important to a) have a goal before getting started; and b) ensure it’s relevant to your audience and brand. A goal will help define the rest of your strategy and determine what to measure when deciding if the platform is returning enough for your invested time and resources.

Bezar’s goal, for example, was for “people to get sucked into our world and keep introducing them to new designs and ideas, to ultimately build a long term relationship with them.”

It’s important to keep your goal realistic. Although converting customers with Instagram is possible (many of our newest Peeps learned about us there!), more platform-appropriate goals include increasing brand awareness, driving engagement, broadening reach, etc.

2) Stay focused

PieterJan said, “It’s all about staying focused and true to your brand. Limit the compromises. We set out to be as inspirational and positive as possible through consistent bold, colorful visuals balancing out content, commerce and inspiration from our creative team. We want people to get sucked into our world and keep introducing them to new designs and ideas, to ultimately build a long term relationship with them.”  

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3) Lead with quality

Professional photographer and Instagram strategist Kirsten Alana says, “Brands, just like individuals, can best benefit from remembering that even when their following is small, it’s still important to maintain a level of quality with what they post and what their account looks like as a whole. Don’t say, “We’ll get serious about this when we have a large following.”

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4) Maintain consistency

Kirsten added, “If you want to reach a bigger audience, you have to give people a reason to tune in. Choose a look for your photos and stick to that, using only a small amount of filters or tools and using them repeatedly.”

5) Share exclusive content

Try sharing photos and content on Instagram that you’re not sharing elsewhere. For example, Instagram is a great place to share inside looks into your company or team to foster deeper relationships with your audience.

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We’re still experimenting with this. 😉

6) Have a story to tell

Peep Tiffiny Costello says that like Snapchat, Instagram started as a storytelling platform. You should have a strategy around what story you’re telling with your posts. Ask yourself: Why is someone going to follow you? 

Tiffiny says think of the story beyond the strategy as a whole, but for each photo: “If you are a travel brand, your audience wants to know the “where” of a photo. If you’re a climbing brand, they probably want to know the difficulty of a climb and it’s rating. Considering the details of what your caption says can help tell the story along with the photo you post.”

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7) Know your audience and their behavior

Use tools like Iconosquare to track best times to post, highest performing photos, most engaged users and tailor your content accordingly.

Denise says, “Follow the same golden rule as you would for written content: put your audience first. Instagram users are very selective with who they follow because confusing or distracting content is that much more obvious in photo form. Take notice of which types of photos your users respond most to, ask questions in your captions and create conversation by replying in the comments section.”

Maximizing engagement

The most exciting thing about Instagram is how willing people are to engage with brands and each other on the platform. We always get pumped when our community members comment on our photos or ask us questions, or better yet, tag us in their own photos! But if you’re new to the platform, you may need some help getting started.

1) Give credit where credit is due

For Bezar, engagement means giving their designers the credit they deserve for their work. PieterJan said, “We feel very strong about personally highlighting the designers, makers and brands that are selling on Bezar, and tagging them in the posts while promoting their Pop-Up Shops. A lot of growth comes through encouraging our designer network to share.”

2) Contribute to the community

Tiffiniy says, if you want to engagement, you have to engage yourself. “I think not just pushing content out, but commenting and liking other accounts shows you’re wanting to be involved in the community, which builds brand trust. Reposting other people’s images and tagging them is also huge for audience building and engagement.”

3) Exercise end-to-end quality control

Quality plays a role in engagement too. Tiffiny says, “If you post a super crisp image, but the photo is not framed right, it won’t get as much as if you post a crisp image, framed well with great lightning. A rule of thumb I used to keep with an Instagram account I helped manage (@outdoorwomen) was, “would National Geographic repost this?” I think setting the bar for the quality is crucial.”  

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4) Involve your community in your content with take-overs

Denise says, “Identify who your audience is on Instagram and engage super-users or influencers by inviting them to take over your feed for a few days or attend an exclusive event.”

I personally love it when brands and festivals do artist or band take-overs on their Instagram accounts. It may sound goofy, but it’s cool to learn more about the personalities of the people you respect or look up to!

The big no-nos of Instagram

Just as there are strategies you can implement for success on Instagram, there are others that should be avoided. Tiffiny says that among the big “no-nos of Instagram” is posting photos back to back within minutes of each other, because it just adds to the noise.

Another is posting low quality photos. People visit Instagram for high-quality, beautiful images. Be selective about what you share on Instagram. Create standards and guidelines for anyone who is posting to your account. This will also ensure that your photos are consistency on-brand.

Use hashtags sparingly and properly. Hashtag abuse is a real epidemic and we would like to see it come to an end. Try to limit your hashtags to specific campaigns and events. 

Parting thoughts

Putting together this post got us even more jazzed up about Instagram. People get so excited about conversing with each other on the platform, that it leaves consumers and brands with a “feel good vibe.” Give Instagram a try – test out your voice and see what your audience engages with. Most importantly, have a little fun with it!

Other useful resources from our friends:

If you’re looking for some help getting your Instagram strategy off the ground, hire a Peep to get you started.

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Shannon Byrne

Shannon Byrne

Content Chief at CloudPeeps
As CloudPeeps' content lead, Shannon crafts words, creates strategies and engages our audience through content contributions, newsletters and more.
  • Katie Alllred

    I agree about hashtag abuse, but it does work to create a following quickly. Catch-22 really. Don’t want to be spammy, but also want to grow quickly. I’m usually one to test those things out first and then stop doing them later.

    • Ditto! Was just listening to Pat Flynn’s recent podcast interview with the creator of Foundr magazine, and they’ve done most of their social media marketing via Instagram (last week they claim to have gotten *2700 email signups* through Instagram!!!). He sort of sheepishly said that hashtags come off as spammy, but they work and were key to quickly growing their audience on the platform.

      • All fair points! Its definitely a catch 22. I totally should’ve included Foundr in this post! Pretty impressive what they’ve done. I feel like 3 really relevant hashtags per post is a nice happy medium, then maybe just post more often, like 2-3 times per day? Just some thoughts…I think we’re all learning as we go with these things.

        • Thought you ladies might be interested in this relevant post we just published… 🙂 http://blog.cloudpeeps.com/how-to-use-hashtags-properly/

          • Katie Alllred

            Awesome! I listened to the same podcast too! I think that’s why I said all that. I do think it’s better to put a regular caption first and follow up with hashtags after.

  • LOVED THIS! very well researched, thank you! A sidenote: I don’t mind others using hashtags and I’ve had good things coming from me using them.

    • Thanks Maria! That’s a totally fair point. I know they can be effective, I think it’s a total personal preference thing. I do just ask that they’re relevant to the post – and I’m sure yours are!

  • Great post! On the hashtag note, definitely all about moderation and using the right ones!

  • It’s so hard for me to think about my Instagram strategy because I’m not a very visual person. I am, however, thinking more and more about this. This post was wonderful and well-researched!

    • Thank you, Amber! Appreciate the kind words. I’m not really a visual person either – I just know what looks good. lol. However, I’ve become obsessed with my personal Instagram. I’ve found it to be a great testing ground! Once you start getting likes and such, you learn what people like and can drive then apply that to your brand. Just a thought!

  • Great post – got me fired up about taking a more strategic approach to Instagram. Curious about your thoughts on how we can use Instagram well for service-based businesses (mine’s Negotiation Consulting) that don’t have an obvious visual component.

  • There was so much good advice in this post.. in makes me realize what an Insta-Novice I truly am. I love the platform for personal use but have found it hard to use professionally. Thank you for these actionable tips!