Instagram is the currently the fastest growing major social media network on the web. All around the world, users disillusioned with the ads of Facebook and the noise of Twitter are switching over to the more aesthetically-oriented interaction of Instagram content - 300 million monthly active users and counting, to be exact. Make no mistake, Instagram is a big deal, and as audience attention shifts, so too does the focus for brands and businesses. And with Facebook reach declining further with every update, Instagram is being hailed by many as the saviour, the next big social network to concentrate on.
Instagram, you see, while owned by Facebook, has not yet taken up its stablemate's approach to reducing organic reach for brands. In fact, outside of verification ticks, Instragram doesn't have any specific business platform. Instagram is much like social media was when things started out - raw, open. All your posts have the potential to reach all your followers, all the time. Add to this the fact that Instagram has just announced major expansions of both its advertising and ad targeting options and you have a network ripe with potential - when social media heavyweights like Gary Vaynerchuck are proclaiming things like 'Instragram is Facebook in 2017', you best believe it's time to take notice.
But just as people are switching to Instragram, it's important to recognise that Instagram isn't like other social platforms. Social media platforms find success through individuality, by offering a unique experience not catered for by the other providers on the market. This is why it's important for brands to take a focussed approach to each network - what you pin on Pinterest should not be the same as what you post on Instagram, no matter how closely aligned the two might seem on the surface. Would you post your tweets as Facebook updates?
No, to win at Instragram, you need a focussed approach, to hone in on what your Instagram audience is looking for. Anyone can post cat pictures and quotes and get a few likes, but the brands that are seeing true success, and real business results, are doing so by utilising very clear and defined strategies.
Here's a few things the best Instagrammers are doing well:
1. Image quality is everything
This almost goes without saying, but when talking about image quality on an image-focussed site, we're talking about more than just a 'pretty good' photo. People's Instagram feeds are all photos, they're all pretty good, all somewhat interesting - there's a heap of things for them to look at. Because of this, your images have to be better than good. You need to show the granular detail, the specific elements of each picture. You need to hone your aesthetic eye and take the opportunity to capture the best shot in the best light - I heard a successful Instragrammer recently talking about how she'd get up at sunrise if it meant getting the best light. This is the sort of approach you need to take, looking at Instragram photography from a real photographer's perspective. Your images should be magazine quality, should be taken from unique and interesting angles, and should, ideally, be designed to stand out amongst the noise.
The easiest way to describe this is your images should be 'good enough to eat'. Now, if your products are edible, all the better, but even if they're not, you need to be constructing pictures that people are compelled to touch, to taste. You're seeking to inspire a response through association, something people can feel and sense as soon as they view it.
Nike do a great job of this - rather than just images of their products, their Instragram posts are art within themselves. For example, this image of a woman running through a grove of flowering trees:
It's more than just the image itself, you can almost smell the flowers, you can feel the ground. I love the extra element of the pink runners matching with the pink flowers - this sort of attention to detail is what takes an image from 'good' to 'great', elevating it to that level of 'good enough to eat'.
Here's another great one from Nike:
The angle, from behind the goal net, creates a unique, honeycomb aesthetic that immediately gets your attention, and the bright yellow and green, again brilliantly matched between the ball and the outfit, stands out against the looming cold trees that blur into the distance. Both these images tell a story, but both also convey a sensory response. You can feel the cold, you're lured in by the lushness of the image.
2. Consistency is key
I've seen and heard various Instagram tutorials that have advised people to post inspiring quotes and the like to increase engagement. That might work for some, but oftentimes it can disrupt another element in your overall Instagram strategy - your overall consistency. This is an element many miss, but it can be a powerful draw when used right. A consistent approach to your images can mean the difference between a interesting Instagram profile and an amazing one.
When talking about image consistency, what we're really looking at is colour themes and styles. The best Instagram brands will have a definitive palette for their images. When you look at their image thumbnails on screen, you'll see a distinct pattern and order to the pictures they present.
ThreeBirdNest do a great job on this front, with a definite consistency in the look and feel of the images they post.
While the products presented here are all different, there's a theme that runs through each image, which is helped by the colour palette and filtering options they use. For users, this is great, as once they've clicked through on one image they like, they'll also be shown a range of other, similarly themed posts to draw them in and keep them looking around longer.
Oreo is another that's really good at image consistency.
Again, while the images are all very different, there's a distinct tone to what they post. Viewed in isolation, these images look pretty good, but viewed as a set, you get this more immersive, captivating user experience, all linked by their distinctive pallette choice. Notice that there's nothing too bright, too shiny, it's all soft colours, pastel tones. Make no mistake, that consistency is very deliberate, and is an important part of Oreo's overall brand strategy.
Some are even taking this a step further, with images that stretch over several posts. Using an app like PicSlit, you can create picture grids of a single image, making it appear as one big picture.
This looks great when viewed on mobile, but it does come with a level of risk - the image pieces effectively form a sliding panel-type puzzle, whereby your next post can push them out of alignment, and the images may not show up in the same configuration on every device. If your audience is largely mobile, however, it can be a good way to showcase specific items.
3. Photography is aspirational
One of the key things to remember in your images is that photography appeals to people's aspirations - the things we want to do, the places we want to be. In the earlier examples shown from Nike, we're inspired to go outside and smell the flowers, to get out into the elements. This is based on Nike's in-depth knowledge of their audience - they know that these images will resonate with their followers, because they're people who're into running and the outdoors. How do they know this? Because they've done the research, they've built the audience personas, and they've tested over time. So how can you do the same?
You can get to know your audience by researching their presences on other platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Most businesses aren't on Instagram alone, so start by researching the people who've liked your brand on Facebook - in Facebook's search bar, type in 'Favourite interests of people who like [your brand]'. This will bring up a list of associated interests amongst your audience - going through this, you can put together a collection of the most popular interests among your audience. From this, you can find visual inspirations based on common threads - if a large proportion of your audience is interested in 'Hawaii', you can safely assume that beach-style photo-shoots will resonate amongst them. If 'bushwalking' is a common theme, you can use that - Facebook is the largest audience insights tool ever created, sorting through the data available will help guide you on your path to finding visual inspiration.
For Twitter, you can analyse the profiles of top followers by using All My Tweets and Wordle - you can extract Twitter data via All My Tweets, then enter that text into Wordle to find commonly tweeted words and themes. You can also analyse your audience using Simply Measured's 'Free Twitter Followers' report, which will show you the most common words used in the profiles of your followers. Providing content in line with the favourite interests of your audience is a great way to maximise engagement in a targeted way.
The key thing to remember, in an aspiration sense, is that your images should represent something your audience wants. Whether that's somewhere they want to be, something they want to touch, something they want to eat - triggering an emotional reaction is key to generating audience response. Image association can be a strong lure - try to think of what your product makes you think of, what you'd like people to associate you with.
Instagram marketing is on the rise, and more marketers jumping on board means more competition for you and your brand. The key to Instagram success is standing out - don't compromise on image quality, learn about the photography and images that spark an emotional response in you, and work out your own visual style to best represent your brand. As with all things social media, there's no 'one-size-fits-all' approach that will see you conquer Instagram, it all comes down to what you want to do, what works for your audience, and how you harness your brand in your posts. Hopefully these notes will help you as you formulate your own Instagram strategy.
Main image via Tanuha2001 / Shutterstock