How to Use Instagram as a Small Business

Author: Briana Morgaine

Briana Morgaine

Briana Morgaine

12 min. read

Updated October 25, 2023

Instagram is arguably growing up to be the most powerful social media platform around. By 2019, Instagram’s audience is projected to make up 55.8 percent of social network use in the United States.

It is especially popular with teens and the coveted millennial demographic; Instagram is considered the most important social network by American teens, and is second only to Facebook for overall usage amongst Americans ages 12-24. Instagram isn’t just wildly popular in the United States, however, as 80 percent of Instagram use happens outside of the U.S.

While it’s clear that Instagram is an important social media platform to capitalize on, many businesses feel that, unless they have a highly visual product, the picture-centric nature of Instagram makes it a bad fit for their business. However, this isn’t strictly true—in fact, this is one of the biggest misconceptions about Instagram.

In this article, I’ll go over what you need to do to make Instagram work for your small business, and show you how to develop a content strategy that highlights your business and helps build your brand. I’ve also included plenty of examples from a variety of brands who get it right.

1. Set up your business Instagram account

Create a short, snappy bio

Your bio should quickly tell your followers what you are about in a succinct, catchy way.

This means summarizing what your business is about in a way that reflects the image you hope to present.

For an example, look to popular activewear brand Lululemon: their bio contains a brief opening sentence that shows their brand philosophy, their hashtag (more on creating your own hashtag in a moment), their handle on Snapchat, and a link to their site. Simple, succinct, and imparts all necessary information.

If you have a physical location, be sure to include necessary information on your location and hours here, too.

Instagram is a little bit of an anomaly, in the sense that links don’t really “work” within the app. This means that you can’t include hyperlinks in your posts, but you can include a link back to your site in your bio.

So, make sure to include your most important link in your biography, so that users can open up a new link and access your site. This could be a link back to your main page, your newest product, or your latest blog post.

Choose a username and photo that clearly illustrates who you are

When you picked your business name, hopefully you checked that you’d be able to use that name on as many social profiles as possible.

Ideally, you should be able to pick an Instagram handle that matches your business name. However, if an exact match isn’t available, pick a handle that matches your business name as closely as possible. This may mean making use of underscores, abbreviations, or slight variations—but keep it as close as possible to the actual name of your business.

In terms of your photo, this can be your logo, your storefront, your products, or even some of your employees. The type of photo matters less, just make sure it exemplifies your brand and the brand image you hope to convey.

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2. Create great Instagram posts

Focus on top-quality visuals

Instagram is arguably the most visual social media platform out there.

This means that to make your Instagram successful and engaging, you need to make it stand out visually. This doesn’t necessarily mean your products themselves need to be beautiful (though it helps if they are), but it does mean that your Instagram should be cohesive, and that the photos you share should be well-lit and of the highest quality possible.

Some basic rules for excellent Instagram visuals, as compiled in this great infographic from Buffer:

  • Images that are lighter are more successful, receiving 24 percent more likes than darker photos.
  • The more background space, the better, as photos that are less busy receive 29 percent more likes.
  • One color should dominate, as images with a dominant color or tone get 17 percent more likes.

For an example of an Instagram page that checks all these boxes, look to The Glitter Guide:

This Instagram presents a candy-colored dream, awash in pastel pinks, mints, and blues. Photos are taken in good light, and further lightened during editing, and backdrops are light and sparse. Together, this Instagram page reads as a cohesive, attractive set of photos.

Use editing tools to make your photos more appealing

By this point, you’ve hopefully given some thought to your brand’s color scheme, which will help you determine what the overall “look” of your Instagram feed should be.

Maybe this means your Instagram will be muted pastels, vivid brights, or desaturated neutrals. Whatever color palette suits your brand, making use of editing tools will help you make your images work together cohesively.

For example, look to photographer and “social media person” Kari Young’s Instagram, Meatballssmama, which relies on bright, vivid colors against stark black and white backdrops.

Instagram’s built-in filters are a good place to start, but make sure you play around with the “editing” function as well, in order to have more manual control over editing your images.

Follow the 20/80 rule of selling

Your Instagram should, ideally, help drive traffic back to your website, or into your store.

That being said, your focus should not be on selling your product.

It’s counterintuitive, but the general rule of marketing on social media suggests that only 20 percent of your posts should “sell” your products. The other 80 percent should focus on quality content that engages followers and does not directly focus on your product or service. I’ll go over how to create this type of content in the next few sections.

So, in terms of that 20 percent rule, how exactly can you sell effectively in the context of Instagram?

For one thing, even when you are showcasing your products or offerings, avoid blatant advertising and an overly promotional tone, as this is sure to turn off followers. However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t subtly highlight your products or services.

Take a look at this post from Portland-based coffee roaster Stumptown’s Instagram:

This past August, Portland was hit with a sudden heatwave, with the mercury threatening triple digits.

Rather than captioning this photo with something more aggressive, urging customers to come in and buy drinks, Stumptown’s subtle suggestion of “cold brews” to combat the heat, along with a picture of two desperately refreshing-looking iced coffees, serves as a soft sell that isn’t overly pushy, but still gets the message across (and bonus points for featuring a customer’s photo—I’ll get to that in more detail later on!).

Focus on “lifestyle” content rather than simply the product itself

Let’s get this out of the way right from the beginning:

Pop quiz—does online retailer Modcloth sell doughnuts?

No, they don’t. So what on earth are doughnuts doing on their Instagram feed?

Modcloth, purveyor of saccharine-sweet dresses and other women’s clothing, is employing a lifestyle-based content strategy. Posting a picture of a sweet treat makes up part of the other 80 percent of their content, which focuses on curating a holistic brand image.

To determine what type of “lifestyle” content your followers would enjoy, it might be helpful to create a user persona at this stage, as well as conduct some market research into your customer base.

Create a story around your ideal customer. Who are they? What are their hobbies, their interests, their dreams? Where do they like to eat, to drink, to shop, to play? What kind of music do they listen to, what books do they read, what are their favorite TV shows?

To go back to the Modcloth example, “cute” is a huge part of their brand image. Cute and sweet permeates the brand, so lifestyle content that also fits this cute, sweet image is bound to resonate with their audience.

Feature images taken by your customers and fans

You may have noticed in both previous examples that the brands featured images taken, not by staff members, but repurposed from fans.

Encouraging your fans to use hashtags specific to your brand (again, more on that in a minute) or suggesting that they tag your business is a great way to see what customers are saying about you, and you can feature this content on your Instagram as well. Talk about creating brand loyalty and sourcing great content at the same time! Not only will this help make your followers feel appreciated and special, but it feels more authentic.

Use Instagram Stories for a behind-the-scenes look at your business

Instagram’s new video feature created quite a stir earlier this summer, as it serves as a direct competition to Snapchat’s Stories feature.

Controversial as it may be, it serves as an added feature through which you can create a personal connection with your audience.

Successful brands are using Instagram’s Stories to offer a peek into their brand’s behind-the-scenes routine; just look at this image from Lorna Jane’s recent video, featuring a sneak peek at the “essentials” from a brand photo shoot.

3. Make liberal use of hashtags

Know that more is, in fact, more

When it comes to hashtags on Instagram, don’t tread sparingly. While four or five hashtags might seem impossibly annoying on Twitter, on Instagram, that amount (or more) has been shown to increase interactions substantially, and interactions are actually highest on posts with 11 or more hashtags.

It is worth noting that 30 is the maximum number of hashtags you can use per post or comment (and Instagram rules aside, too many hashtags may make you appear spammy or desperate).

To find the best hashtags, spend some time doing a bit of research.

Hashtag-finding tools like Hashtagify and RiteTag are a great place to find popular related hashtags, so spend some time coming up with a set of hashtags that are relevant to your business.

For more information, Convince and Convert’s article on finding hashtags for your business is worth a read, as is Buffer’s hashtag guide.

Place them in a comment, not in the text of your post

Everything I’ve said thus far about hashtags comes with one important caveat:

Your hashtags should, ideally, not occur within the text of your post.

Now, if you’re using one or two brand-specific hashtags in the caption under your image, that’s fine (see the example from BlackMilk Clothing above). However, if you want to include more than one or two hashtags, start by creating your post, and then leaving a comment containing these hashtags directly under your posted image. This way, you’re visually separating your hashtags from your post, but still allowing your post to be found.

Consider creating your own hashtags

As I mentioned earlier, sourcing content from users and urging them to tag their posts with your brand hashtag can be a great way to bring authenticity to your brand, and help create loyal followers.

To do this, you need a branded hashtag. This can be as simple as #yourbrand, similar to Birchbox’s cue for users to tag their posts with #birchbox, or it can be more unique, depending on what you want your users to share.

For a deep-dive into creating a brand hashtag, check out Adspresso’s 7 Techniques to Create a Hashtag That Boosts Your Brand.

4. Offer promotions to your followers

Share sales and discounts

Beyond curating content that both subtly promotes your products and builds a lifestyle story around your brand, your Instagram is also a great place to share current sales, discounts, and promotions that you are running.

You can mention your sale or promotion in the caption of your photo, or even create an image in Canva or similar with text overlayed that describes the promotion. Don’t forget to put a direct link in your bio if your promotion is available online!

Use contests to drive engagement

Instagram is a perfect platform to host contests; by creating a hashtag specific to your contest, you can encourage fans of your brand to participate by taking photos and using your hashtag for a chance to win (photos which you can later share on your own page).

For an example, take a look at this contest run by Quest Nutrition. The hashtag #MyQuest is simple and easy to remember, it gives Quest a chance to repurpose users’ photos on their Instagram page, and directions for participation are straightforward.

Contests also serve the function of allowing your followers to do some promotional work for you: by mentioning your brand name in their photos, your business’s Instagram will be exposed to a whole new audience. Your contest can feature a free gift, discounts on your products, and so on—the sky really is the limit here.

5. Measure and track key metrics

I’ve spent a lot of time detailing some potential directions you could take your Instagram strategy.

But, the reality is that all your efforts will be a bit wasted if you aren’t tracking their efficacy. As you go about coming up with an Instagram strategy, you want to pay attention to what your goals for building your Instagram presence actually are.

This will likely mean picking a few key metrics to monitor. If your goal is to grow your Instagram presence overall, you might focus on growing your following, increasing the number of likes you get per post, or another key Instagram metric. Or, you may be focusing more on increasing sales, in which case you’d want to measure clicks back to your site, increases in overall sales, and so on.

The world of social analytics is vast, and definitely more than I can cover here today. Spend some time thinking about what your goals are, and focus your research on what you can track that will determine if you are meeting those goals.

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Content Author: Briana Morgaine

Bri Morgaine is a seasoned content marketing leader with a decade of experience in copy editing, social media operations, and content strategy— having honed her skills at industry giants like Palo Alto Software and Andreessen Horowitz.