With 600 million monthly users and a focus on visuals, Instagram is a great marketing tool for small businesses. Some brands use it to trade in place of a website or physical store, while others use it to boost their profile and reach consumers in distant markets.
Clothing brand Lazy Oaf has just one shop in London, but over 500,000 followers around the world on Instagram. Stationery store Present and Correct, meanwhile, has gained over 100,000 followers with images of artfully arranged office supplies and rare printed ephemera. Fiona and Bobby Burrage of Norfolk design consultancy The Click launched their lifestyle brand Nor-Folk through Instagram before setting up a website, and now have 11,000 followers, while northern brand Ley Clothing takes orders for handmade clothing and bags.
With so many people (and brands) on the platform, it can be difficult to make your voice heard – but post the right content to the right people, and it can lead to orders, commissions and collaborations, as well as a global fanbase.
“One of the first things anyone should do if they are thinking about setting up an Instagram account for their business is to spend some time on the platform to understand how the community connect with each other and get some inspiration,” says Jen Ronan, head of small and medium businesses at Instagram. “Find businesses like yours and see how they’re expressing themselves, using different creative approaches and how they’re engaging with the community.”
“A business I really enjoy following is @matchaeologist who sell premium-quality matcha. It’s quite a quirky concept but using Instagram, and in particular video, they’re able to reach and educate people from all over the world about their products in a visually compelling way.”
Make sure that you’re thoughtful about what you want people to know, and that you’re consistently reinforcing this over time
Ronan says it’s important to have a consistent visual message as well as a focus on telling the story behind your business. “If every time you post on Instagram, you’re telling a different story, it’s going to be really hard for people to understand the message you’re trying to convey. Instead, make sure that you’re thoughtful about what you want people to know, and that you’re consistently reinforcing this over time.”
She also recommends converting your account to a business profile. Instagram has been rolling out a range of new features for brands of late: users with business accounts can now add a contact button to their page and use Instagram Insights to measure post reach, impressions and engagement.
When analysing posts, Ronan recommends setting some clear objectives to avoid getting too hung up on stats. “With so many different ways to measure online activity, it’s easy to get distracted from what really matters. Focus on the efforts that will have the most impact on your business. Are you trying to make people aware of your business, or looking to drive more sales on your website? It’s important to focus clear business goals when creating your posts, stories or ads to ensure you get the best results.”
She also recommends experimenting with different tools, techniques and post formats. “Instagram is easy to update, so don’t worry too much about being perfect first time around. If something doesn’t resonate with your customers, just change it until you find something that does work. Changes can be made quickly, so don’t be afraid to take risks.”
Instagram’s new Stories feature, for example, allows users to create content that sits outside of the main feed and disappears after 24 hours, and can be a useful testing ground for working out what type of content resonates with followers. “One third of the most viewed Stories are from businesses, who use it to share everything ranging from tutorials to behind-the-scenes shots,” explains Ronan.
Botanical stylist Sophie Lee launched her business, Geo Fleur, in 2014. She now sells plants and homeware products and provides styling services for business and events (clients include Liberty and ASOS). She is also releasing a book, Living With Plants, in May this year.
Lee uses Instagram to promote new products and her plant subscription service, Plant Post Club. She posts behind the scenes shots of her workshop and terrarium making workshops, as well as colourful illustrations and art directed images of products. She has now amassed 84,000 followers and received commissions from people who have spotted her work on the platform.
“I started geo-fleur in October 2014, as a side project, when I was working full time at MOO.com, and then in May 2015, I was made redundant – totally out of the blue – and thought, ‘right, what do I really want to do?… My mum’s a florist, and always loved having a house full of flowers, but plants were something different that had always interested me. I started by making a terrarium for a friend who got married, but didn’t want flowers, and then friends of friends saw it and wanted one.”
We always encourage customers to tag us in a photo … it’s a great way to get our brand out there
Lee reckons that around three quarters of her business comes through Instagram: “We have a form on our Squarespace site asking customers where they heard about us, and 75% of the time they write Instagram…. [It] has been totally amazing for me as it’s enabled me to test the market with different products, and it helps to reach foreign markets – I have a big following in Australia and the US.”
“It’s great to tap into different customer client basis by using different hashtags,” she continues. “Most of the followers are organic, friends of friends tagging us in posts, and we always encourage customers once they’ve bought our product to tag us in a photo, as it’s a great way to get our brand out there.”
She also received a commission from the Tate through Instagram – “the curator from the Turner Prize got in touch to ask to do an installation … one of our biggest clients to date.”
Offering advice for others looking to launch a creative project on the site, Lee says: “Start with a content plan if that would help, [then] keep active on Instagram, and like other people’s photos. Work out what you want to portray as your brand, and keep to a regular frequency – for example, I post in the morning before 9am, then again at 11am, 2pm, 5pm and 8pm. For some people that’s too much, but I like to keep our followers updated with new plants we’ve got in stock, or an exclusive new product that’s coming out soon.”
If that sounds a little daunting or difficult to manage, you could follow Luke Hope’s example. Hope studied design before working in sales and marketing for 20 years, but recently gave up his job to rediscover his creative side. He now makes wooden spoons by hand and sells them via his website.
Hope doesn’t post each day – instead, he posts a handful of new pictures each week, sometimes taking a break to focus on making. His feed includes images of finished products and pieces being made. He also posts pictures of stunning views and sunsets from his rural workshop. He now has 62,000 followers on the site and says a large proportion of his business comes through the platform.
Hope never set out with a clear business plan. He left his job in search of something more rewarding – but wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do. “I was in a good job working in a tech and marketing firm with good people, but I just wasn’t feeling fulfilled. I wanted something else, but didn’t know what it was,” he says.
He tried out various pursuits to find his passion, attending workshops, lectures and talks before he began whittling wood, something he used to do on camping holidays with his sons. “I ended up making a spoon, and it all sort of snowballed from there.”
Hope set up an Instagram account with help from his partner, a photographer and filmmaker, before launching a website: “In the beginning I was just getting likes, then four or five months after setting up an Instagram feed, I was getting orders through my Instagram account … so I put together a site.
I’m extremely grateful that I now do something I love, and it’s grown into a business
“At that time, I was still doing some consultancy work to make money, and I was enjoying the making, but I didn’t necessarily think it was going to grow – setting up the site was a way of seeing if I could [turn it into a full-time business],” he explains. “I suppose I haven’t done any marketing beyond [posting on Instagram] every day or few days. By posting every now and then it’s grown and grown, and it’s very rewarding.”
As well as bringing in customers, it has led to collaborations with other makers, orders from suppliers and commissions for restaurants. He isn’t yet earning “great money”, but says it’s enough to pay the bills – impressive considering he made his first spoon just over two years ago.
Hope, like Lee, has developed a distinct aesthetic on the platform, offering a behind the scenes look at his creative process as well as showcasing products. He warns against chasing trends and followers and instead recommends finding your own style and sticking to it.
“[Instagram] is a visual thing, so having your own personality and some continuity in what you’re doing is really important…. posting in a real way, and tone of voice, all that stuff is really important. You really have to think, who are you posting for? Also, learn how to take nice pictures, and pictures you like looking at – find the light and composition and filters you like to use and be consistent.”
It’s wise advice – the most successful accounts on Instagram are those who have developed a clear voice, something unique and recognisable. And for Hope, it’s a strategy that has helped him turn his passion into a full-time job.
“I’ve found myself in a place where I’m extremely grateful that I now do something I love, and it’s grown into a business,” he says.