For brands, having a major presence on Instagram is a no-brainer. After all, it’s a free marketing tool on a platform whose growth continues to explode.
It’s also, in many ways, still a safe zone—a happy place to which we retreat to get away from the daily bombardment of frustrating news that clog our Facebook and Twitter feeds. There are only so many insane dispatches from a certain someone we can take in when we could be scrolling through cute pictures of our friends’ babies and beautifully art-directed photoshoots from the brands we love. So it’s no wonder we are spending more and more time on it. Instagram’s most recent stats show that those under 25 now spend a little more than half an hour on the site, while those over 25 spend around 24 minutes a day on it.
Instagram’s growth in both members and time spent on it is the big reason companies are flocking there in impressive numbers: There are currently 25 million companies on it now, up from 15 million just last July. Companies can create a special Instagram business account, which gives them insight into the latest features on the app, like a function that helps users by swiping up.
How To Best Use Instagram
It can be hard for brands to know exactly how to use Instagram strategically to achieve their goals. Morgan Cornelius, Instagram’s small and medium business community lead, says that consumers want two very different things from businesses on Instagram. They want to see gorgeous, inspiring photos, but they also want to get a raw, authentic glimpse into the inner workings of the brand, like hearing directly from employees or the CEO. They want to look at glamorous, idealized images, but they also want to know that the brand is made up of real people. “It’s a tough balance to achieve,” Cornelius says. “These two ways of communicating with customers are, in some ways, totally contradictory.”
But Cornelius has a solution: Instagram Stories. This tool, which launched in late 2016, allows users to post ephemeral videos and slideshows that will exist for 24 hours and then disappear. It has been very effective for brands to offer an unvarnished, real-life look at what goes on at the company. “Stories is the one place where brands are able to actually give people a peek behind the curtain in terms of who they are and what they’re all about,” she says. “This allows them to establish authenticity with their customers.”
The Stories tool is meant to be used to supplement the permanent images that live on a brand’s profile. “Feeds tend to be used for beautifully curated photos that could last a lifetime unless you choose to archive or delete the post,” Cornelius says. “I don’t think that these images and Stories need to necessarily complement each other in terms of the way they look aesthetically. As long as you are staying true to your brand, consumers are savvy enough to understand that you are sharing something that is perhaps more playful or behind the scenes.”
Some 300 million users watch Instagram Stories every day, Cornelius says, so it is crucial for businesses to come up with creative content. And given that it is relatively new, she sees brands experimenting with it in interesting ways. “Stories is where I’m seeing a lot of creativity come out,” Cornelius says. “There’s constantly a new tool or feature within Instagram Stories, so it’s only to your benefit to play around. The worst thing that’s going to happen is that you delete it or let it run for 24 hours: That’s the beauty of it not being permanent.”
Here are things she says brands should consider trying:
Give Behind-The-Scenes Access
One of the most exciting aspects of Stories for customers is being able to go behind the perfectly curated images. Suitcase brand Away, for instance, uses Stories to take viewers to campaign shoots in tourist destinations like Jaipur, Tokyo, and Panama. There are also little videos at the brand’s pop-up hotel, Chez Away, store events, and launch parties.
Away also introduces followers to its staff. Sometimes, a story will take users through a day in the life of someone who works in product development or on the creative team. For fans of Away, this offers a new kind of intimacy, and the inside peeks have been among the brand’s most popular content.
Baby moccasin brand Freshly Picked often shares stories about funny things that happen in the office, like the one time founder Susan Petersen bought a karaoke microphone and started singing in the office for absolutely no reason. The brand even shared a story about something as mundane as moving offices and was surprised by how much positive, congratulatory feedback they received from fans.
Do A Virtual Focus Group
Use Stories to get real-time feedback from customers about possible new product launches. The ephemeral nature of Stories means that customers feel pressure to respond immediately if they have an opinion.
Away, for instance, is constantly coming up with new suitcase colors and stickers that are designed to personalize your luggage. They ask customers directly what colors they would like to see next or what sticker designers they would prefer. The comments section quickly fills up with requests, which the brand carefully studies to decide what to make going forward.
If brands are looking for more open-ended feedback, they might turn on their direct messaging function for 24 hours, in conjunction with an Instagram story, to gather insights. Clothing brand AYR, for instance, put up a story about essential pieces it makes, then asked followers to DM them a description of an item of clothing they’ve always imagined but were never able to find. The brand’s creative director, Jac Cameron, takes these requests very seriously, as she is designs new collections.
AYR also offers sneak peaks of upcoming products. This ends up giving the company a sense of how popular these new releases will be, so they can assess how much to order.
Create Live Tutorials
Instagram Stories is a great place to talk to offer your audience how-tos and advice. Natural beauty retailer Credo Beauty often does in-store sessions with makeup artists. Since Instagram Stories launched, the brand has been opening the store to virtual audiences, giving Instagram users an opportunity to follow along. All of this boosts the sense of community around the brand. “This allows them to open up their doors to more than just the people that live in metro areas where their stores are located,” Cornelius says.
Sometimes tutorials can be as basic as helping customers learn how to better use or care for the product you sell. Away has done stories explaining how to set the lock on its suitcases, or how to clean it after a long trip. If a tutorial happens to be particularly popular, a brand might take the footage and splice it into a video that might live on their profile.
Try An Instagram Takeover
Brands sometimes hand over their account to someone else for a day, to get a different perspective. The activewear brand Outdoor Voices has been doing this for a while now. The brand’s motto “Doing Things” is meant to encourage people to think about physical activity as more than just competitive sports. The brand might hand the over the reins to a surfer, a tennis player, or someone who is just taking a walk in a park. Some of these people are official brand ambassadors, but others are just members of the community.
Sometimes, a brand might have a CEO do a takeover of Stories to give followers a glimpse into this person’s life. Away’s cofounder Jen Rubio is constantly on the road, and she sometimes takes over Stories as she strolls through an airport to see how many Away bags she can spot. It’s a fun little game that also allows customers to feel like they know her.
Collaborate With Other Brands
One trend in business over the last couple of years has been for like-minded brands to collaborate. It exposes the companies to new audiences and promotes each other’s products. Cornelius believes that this trend will continue. In December, home brand Parachute and accessories brand Cuyana created a pop-up. They featured walkthroughs of the event on each other’s’ Stories. “The community of startups and small businesses on Instagram is tight-knit,” Cornelius says. “Stories provides another way for entrepreneurs to collaborate in their storytelling and promotions.”
Offer A Soundtrack
While Instagram is primarily a visual medium, it might come as a surprise that 60% of Stories are viewed with the sound on. So Cornelius encourages brands to think about using sound in their stories. “Make sure you’re adding that creative edge to it,” she says. “If you are listening to some fun music and want to dance, do it. If you want to talk directly into the camera, do it.”
In addition to singing karaoke, Freshly Picked’s Susan Petersen often dances in public; someone in the office will film her with the sound on and share it on Stories. AYR’s Jac Cameron often talks directly to followers on Stories, giving them styling tips and discussing her process as a designer. All these interactions are much more casual in tone than Freshly Picked and AYR’s regular feeds. They read much more like the story of a real friend, rather than a marketing tool.