Instagram for Brands: Increase Customer Engagement One Photo at a Time

Instagram is growing—fast. The platform boasts more than 300 million monthly active users who spend an average of 20 minutes on the app each day. In fact, if you printed all of the Instagram photos uploaded during an average 12-hour span, your stack would be taller than Mount Everest. You'd even reach the International Space Station in less than one month.

Clearly, Instagram is essential for reaching audiences near and far. Heed the following best practices and the platform can quickly become your brand's most effective customer engagement tool:

Know your objectives. Why does your brand want to be on Instagram? Is it to attract a new audience through visual storytelling? To engage more with an existing audience? The foundation for Instagram success is understanding how the platform will fit into your overall customer engagement strategy, and then setting up measurable objectives to keep your efforts on track.

Create compelling content. A recent survey from Iconosquare found that 62 percent of people follow a brand on Instagram because they love it, 54 percent to discover new things, and 47 percent because they find the brand's content interesting or funny. Infuse creativity and experiment with different ideas. Learn what resonates with your audience and then shift your strategy accordingly. Additionally, look for opportunities to humanize your content and show off the people behind your company—not just your products.

Reward the behaviors you want customers to repeat. As with any other network, posting your own content is just the first step. Always respond to comments and questions posted about your content. Even better, take things a step further by liking your fans' photos and leaving personalized comments. Iconosquare's study says that 65 perfect of respondents feel flattered or honored if a brand likes ones of their posts, and flattered Instagrammers tend to respond in kind.

Leverage real-time. Monitoring real-time news has gotten infinitely easier with Instagram's improved Search and Explore features that allow users to search across hashtags, people, and places at the same time. (Cofounder and CEO Kevin Systrom has even said the company is aiming to take on Twitter as the go-to source for information as it happens.) Look for the trends and news relevant to your brand and then leverage them to engage potential new customers.

Get employees to engage. Employees often are your company's best advocates. Find out which team members are already active on Instagram and give them the resources they need—for example, official hashtags, sample captions, or best practices for tagging, geolocation, and social media policies. Then step back and let them do what they do best: Tell your story.

Use only the best photos. If you're going to invest in Instagram, don't do it half-heartedly. Your brand's photos should look professional, whether or not the person posting them has a photography background. If you have the resources, consider investing in a tripod to get rid of shaky-photo syndrome or a clip-on lens to improve photo quality. If you don't have the budget to invest in professional equipment, hundreds of free and low-cost apps and tools are available to help you produce professional-quality photos.

Hashtag your heart out. How exactly do you find opportunities to identify and engage with potential customers? Hashtags remain one of the most common and efficient ways to both search for and tie your brand to certain subjects (and therefore people) on social networks.

Approach this in two ways: First, add relevant hashtags to your own content. A QuickSprout infographic points out that posts with 11 or more hashtags receive nearly 80 percent interaction. And multiple studies have shown that posts including hashtags receive more engagement than those without. Second, build an ongoing list of relevant hashtags to monitor to connect with new fans.

Location, location, location. Instagram's recent updates emphasize location. Plus, geotagging is another tactic proven to boost engagement on photos. The location tag is free real estate, so use it to your brand's advantage.

Infuse creativity. Last but not least, think beyond the obvious photo/video uploads. For example, try using filters to create story lines, offering a choose-your-own-adventure experience, demonstrating products, or featuring user-generated content.

Stacey Miller is the senior social and media relations manager at Cision. Her writing has appeared in top business publications and more than 500 blogs, and she is frequently quoted in online publications and published books. 

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