By Michael Raine
It can be exhausting trying to keep up with the proliferation of social media platforms. There seems to be a new one every week, to the point that a common reaction is, “Do I really need another social media account? I just don’t have the time and energy for that.” Sure, some platforms can be ignored more than others, but Instagram is not one. It is growing at a mind-blowing pace and businesses large and small need to get onboard.
In 2012, Facebook bought Instagram for approximately $1 billion (yes, billion). With that kind of professional and financial backing, Instagram proceeded to explode at an unprecedented pace. By December 2014, it had surpassed 300 million users, making it larger than Twitter. More importantly for businesses, however, is that the very mobile-centric layout and functionality of Instagram makes it almost perfectly suited for greater user engagement. Users engage with Instagram posts by liking photos and videos, sharing them with friends, tagging friends’ accounts, and commenting. Just look at these numbers that Adweek reported in December 2014 comparing Instagram’s user engagement levels to those of Twitter:
- The average post engagement rate for the 25 most engaging brand profiles was 3.31 per cent for Instagram, versus just 0.07 per cent for Twitter.
- Those brand profiles averaged 19,355,774 interactions on Instagram, compared with just 502,102 on Twitter.
- Total profile actions were over 483.8 million for Instagram compared to 12.5 million for Twitter.
Despite this, the rate at which brands have joined Instagram has been surprisingly slow. Digital marketing firm Yesmail reported in March 2015 that among the 2,000 brands it analyzed, the adoption rate of Instagram was much lower than that of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The company’s president, Michael Fisher, commented at the time that, “With over 300 million users and 70 million photos and videos shared daily, by not investing in a social strategy that includes Instagram, brands are missing a sizeable opportunity to further engage with their customers.”
Musician, audio engineer, and social media expert Will Thompson, the founder of the digital marketing agency Habitual Social, reiterated this point during his NAMM U presentation at this year’s Summer NAMM. “It makes sense for large brands to try and jump on there early, but a lot of smaller brands or brick and mortar retail stores are going, ‘OK, what is in it for me? Who is really on it and is it really worth my time?’ which is pretty much how to approach any new social platform,” he says.
Thompson says he noticed marketers and companies beginning to take Instagram more seriously about a year-and-a-half ago. Not coincidently, this is around the time Facebook changed its algorithms to reduce companies’ “organic reach” (i.e. the number of people they can reach for free by posting on their page).
“Whereas with Instagram, it is completely, 100 per cent – at this time – organic,” emphasizes Thompson, meaning that what you post will show up on the feeds of 100 per cent of your followers. He adds that Instagram is also an easier platform to use and understand than Facebook, “and, especially if you have a brick and mortar store selling products, what better platform than Instagram with a big beautiful picture to help build your audience and tell your story?”
That is really what effective use of Instagram comes down to: tell your story and foster engagement. So how do you do this exactly?
“If you’re a small guitar shop, for example, your content should revolve around a variety of different categories that make your shop unique,” says Thompson. “Not only new products, but what is the character or story? What is it that makes this guitar shop interesting that you can tell through a sequence and cadence of photos and videos to endear your fans to go and shop there?”
As Thompson says, a common mistake music stores make on Instagram is that their posts are all about new products. Product photos should only be a fraction of your content. Gear shots are often static and lifeless and don’t utilize one of Instagram’s greatest attributes, which is that because users can only look at one post at a time, they often spend more time looking at a photo or video than on other platforms. Your followers aren’t just looking at the guitar in the photo; they’re looking at what’s on the wall in the background or how the customer off to the side is dressed. Essentially, they’re taking in the whole store experience through that photo.
Thompson singles out Nashville’s Gruhn Guitars as one MI retailer that uses Instagram very well. As an example, just look at this photo:
Perfect. It showcases one of Gruhn’s specialties, guitar repair, while also demonstrating a warm and welcoming atmosphere.
One of the most important parts of Instagram posting, as in most forms of marketing, is including a call to action. These calls to action are about driving user engagement. They should not, at least most of the time, be attempting to sell people something. “Ask people to engage with the content purely for the sake of engaging and not looking like you’re trying to hack the system and spread reach. But ask an honestly earnest question like, ‘Who are your biggest guitar influences?’ or ‘What artists do you think are doing something amazing right now?’” says Thompson. “I think too many people have calls to action that try to go for a hard sell right away. But don’t be afraid to be very clear about what you want them to do. So if you want them to like the photo, ask them to like the photo, but give them a reason to do so. If you want them to comment, say ‘Comment below if you think that…’ or ‘Tag a friend in a comment below that…’ Be really clear but make sure the spirit in which you’re asking people to do it is pure and it makes sense to your fan base.”
Thompson emphasizes that Instagram engagement is a two-way street. If you want others to engage, you must engage yourself. Respond to comments and comment on your followers’ photos or on those of local musicians and influencers. “As a retailer, you are an account just like everyone else and you’re asking people to like your photos and comment on them and engage. Why on earth would you not be doing the same?”
It is often through commenting on others’ posts that new followers first notice your account. “The more you engage and put yourself out there, it will come back to you 20 fold versus just publishing a photo and not doing anything else,” Thompson says. “It is tough because it takes time, and that’s the most valuable resource of all, but being a part of the community is so important and if you’re going to be on Instagram, it is the cost of doing business.”
The major benefit Facebook has over Instagram currently, as far as marketers and companies are concerned, is targeted advertising. “Right now, targeting on Facebook is absolutely incredible if I want to reach a certain type of person or demographic. Facebook has the most powerful targeting that we’ve ever seen before,” says Thompson, but adds that since Facebook owns Instagram, it is only a matter of time before these targeting capabilities are introduced on the younger platform.
In the meantime, before Instagram introduces such targeted advertising or algorithms that reduce organic reach a la Facebook, it provides one of the few places where small businesses are on a level playing field with their larger competitors.
“There is nothing stopping a small retail store from having half a million Instagram followers and being one of the premier authorities on whatever is in their store. It is just a matter of them wanting to do it. It is an absolutely beautiful and incredible and democratic time for everyone,” says Thompson. “They have the exact same tools as a Guitar Center or a Sweetwater Music. They may not have the same marketing budget, but on Instagram, that doesn’t matter yet. You can build a following just by putting your time in.”
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Instagram, and there is a wealth of easily accessible knowledge online. Do your research and jump in the deep end before it’s too late, because it seems inevitable that Instagram will introduce the kinds of restrictions that have made Facebook more difficult and costly as a promotional platform.
Remember, engagement is what you’re going for and there is no better social media platform for it right now than Instagram. According to a 2014 report by Forrester Research, Instagram’s user engagement levels are 58 times better than Facebook and 120 times better than Twitter. “As someone who purchases and manages a lot of money in media buys for Facebook for different clients,” Thompson says, “I can tell you that reach and impressions are great but engagement is really, really where you can tell that you have something that’s worthwhile, because that is what translates down the line into sales.”