What is Instagram?

At its heart, instagram is an app that allows users to create cool-looking photos taken on a smart phone by overlaying different filters.

So for example, you can transform a snap of your friends into a scratched-up sepia-toned vintage-style picture, or make your beach holiday shots look as though they were taken during the summer of love – all faded sixties colours.

From this simple concept has come exponential growth – in just two years Instagram has grown to over 80m registered users, who generate 5m pictures per day.

Why is Instagram useful/of importance to small businesses?

As with all social networks, what started as a person-to-person tool has interesting applications for businesses and brands too, mostly in the sphere of marketing and CRM.

Perhaps the reason behind Instagram’s success is the fact that pictures are incredibly good at telling stories and stories are proven to be much more effective in engaging people, in generating an emotional response and ensuring recall. No surprise then, that some of the savviest brands are using Instagram as part of their marketing mix.

We’ll look at three ways that you can use Instagram in your business:

  1. to build buzz, in other words get people to notice you, and get people talking about you;
  2. to build loyalty, in other words ensure your customers come back for more, ensure that they want to join a conversation with you;
  3. to build brand, to differentiate yourself in the market, and express and entrench the values, stories and experiences that define your brand.

Broadcast or conversation

There are two ways that you can use Instagram – either as a broadcast tool, taking and socialising pictures for your fans and followers, or as a conversation tool, getting your fans, followers and potential customers to take and share images with you and their friends.

But first: It’s not for everyone

Just as you wouldn’t create a Facebook game to reach pensioners, so you should be sure that your target audience will be reachable through Instagram. If you’re talking about using it as a broadcast tool, your target audience should be at least regular social media users, likely to be fans or followers of brands already.

If you plan to use it as a conversation tool, your market is that much smaller, since your target audience will have to be smartphone owners and users – Instagram is currently only available for iPhone, iPad and Android devices.

Building buzz

With their Polaroid-type quality and instant upload from the location where the picture was taken, Instagram is a great way to give your customers and potential customers exclusive views behind the scenes at an event, or views of new products and prototypes.

Burberry use their Instagram account to show sneak peaks of new fashion lines and post live pictures from their catwalk shows. They currently have half a million followers for their efforts.

Building loyalty

Instagram is an ideal vehicle for photo competitions, encouraging your customers to express themselves to a theme and, by entering, share their passion for your brand with their social networks.

It’s also a great way to start up conversations with your customers. Jamie Oliver is a very savvy Instagram user – posting pictures from his travels, his concept kitchen and his daily life – and he’s particularly good at responding to user comments, creating a sense of community and affinity which no doubt translates into sales and recommendations.

Building brand

Instagram is a great, relatively inexpensive way to express yourself, and the style, values and point of view that differentiates your company. Whether it’s the subject of your pictures, or the creative treatment you apply to them, they all help to give more character to your brand, and make it richer in the eyes of your customers.

One way to do this is to give selected staff members Instagram accounts and getting them to post pictures on your behalf. Oscar de la renta has one of their PR staff posting pictures from the @oscarprgirl account. It’s a fascinating view of the inner workings of the company, and has attracted over 100,000 followers.

Theres no doubt that Instagram can form part of a marketing and communications strategy, ut as with all tools, it’s how well you use it, how genuine you are and how it fits in with the rest of your communications activites that will govern how effective it becomes.

My advice – follow a couple of other brands to see what they’re doing (Instagram has a good list here) start small, experiment, respond to and learn from your customers.

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