Managing Instagram is no longer optional — it has become a strategic imperative for any brand or small business, and the urgency grows daily along with the app’s user base. Instagram recently announced it has more than 150 million monthly active users worldwide. Not only is the total number impressive, but it means Instagram is growing at a rate of more than 100 million new users per year, as the social network added 50 million of them in the past six months.
More than anything, Instagram presents an unparalleled opportunity to build and share a brand — to show a different side by leveraging this highly visual medium. Plus, the rate of customer engagement is off the charts compared to other social channels. What most marketers don’t realize, though, is that Instagram is also a local marketing channel. The reason for this knowledge gap is that, unlike Facebook and Twitter, Instagram is very difficult to manage natively. Big brands and SMBs alike require third-party tools to be effective.
The more general question, however, is what does it mean exactly to “manage” Instagram?
Instagram Local: Context & Relevance
Unlike Facebook and Twitter, Instagram is a location-based platform by design. Location is core to both the app and the vision of its founders. One of the long-term goals of Instagram as a company is that you’ll be able to visit any place in the world through Instagram photos and videos… in real time. You’ll be able to click on a map and see what’s happening there in that moment. This requires that a large percentage of the content be anchored to a specific place and time.
Instagram structures content locally through two methods. First, users can activate location through the Photo Map feature. This attaches a lat/long coordinate (geocode) to each piece of content, giving users the ability to view their photos and videos on a map and providing vital context to these precious moments and experiences. Secondly, users can “location tag” content, which attaches the explicit place where the photo or video was taken. For example, one might attach a food photo to a restaurant, a video clip to a music venue, or a fitting room selfie to a clothing retailer. This provides unique context for the user and her followers. It also provides the strongest possible signal of customer engagement for brands i.e. when customers are in the buying moment.
A location-tagged photo or video means that a consumer is present at a specific location and that they are associating (tagging) their Instagram content with that place — the same place where they are having a brand experience and often making a purchase. This opens a channel of communication through which brands can reciprocate engagement and establish authentic connections with their most passionate and loyal customers. And this is just the start.
When consumers location-tag Instagram photos and videos, they infuse that content with local relevance. The content is specific to a place and time — to an individual customer moment. This is vastly different from a Tweet or photo at the brand level. While consumers can tend to feel anonymous among the millions of people in a brand’s global community, the community around individual locations might number in the thousands. It’s a more intimate and meaningful experience for brands and consumers alike. One way to foster and build these local communities is through the curation and sharing of customer-generated content across the social platforms.
When brick-and-mortar brands make the connection between location-tagged photos on Instagram and their corresponding local Facebook Pages, it enables local communities to scale in ways that were never before possible. Consumers are creating and sharing high-quality branded content that is specific to a business location. Instagram becomes the source of relevant photos and videos for that location, and the Facebook Page becomes the distribution channel. In other words, brands can crowdsource much of the content for their local Facebook pages via Instagram. This creates a virtuous cycle of customer engagement and community building at the local level.
For example, the following outlines the key steps for curating and sharing location-specific content:
Step 1: A customer posts a compelling Instagram photo or video of their local brand experience (publicly).
Step 2: The brand shares the customer’s photo or video (with attribution) to the corresponding local Facebook Page, which goes into the News Feed of its fans. The brand is giving the customer additional distribution and exposure for their content. Simultaneously, the brand leaves a comment on the customer’s photo or video with a link to the Facebook Page.
Step 3: The customer goes from Instagram to Facebook and further engages with that local community through liking, commenting, and/or sharing. The page generates more local fans.
Step 4: Customers produce more branded photos and videos of higher quality in the hope of getting additional distribution and acknowledgment from the brand.
Instagram Strategy: Three Principles
Instagram may be a new channel that is just now achieving massive scale, but many of the same marketing principles still apply. Consistent with the new media revolution, Instagram represents the ability to connect directly, authentically, and efficiently with a large number of consumers through a two-way medium. The medium has evolved, however, from text and ads through PCs to photos and videos through mobile devices.
Below are the three basic principles to successfully managing the Instagram channel and executing a successful Instagram strategy:
1. Create and Curate – Brands can populate their Instagram feed with content through two methods: creating original brand content and curating customer content.
Original Instagram content strategies can vary widely. We find that authentic, in-the-moment content performs best…as opposed to generic advertising photography being repurposed for Instagram. There are cases like Fab, however, where images shot in a studio feel natural on the Instagram platform. This has a lot to do with the brand and brand category, as we find that authentic food photos do better than studio shots. The top national-local Instagram brands in terms of original content include Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia, Starbucks, and The Gap. The feeds for these brands show originality while staying true to their identities and providing a more intimate and authentic look at what they represent.
Nevertheless, producing a steady stream of authentic, original content can be expensive and time consuming. Which is why brands should consider balancing original content with curated customer photos and videos i.e. “re-gramming” the best brand-related content from customers.
2. Listen – To fully embrace this new channel, brands must see all related photos and videos customers are posting on Instagram. This includes monitoring all brand, sub-brand, and campaign hashtags — positive, negative, misspellings, etc. — as well as photos being tagged to specific locations, known as “location tags.” With brick-and-mortar brands, up to 40% of all brand-tagged Instagram photos are only being location tagged, and these tend to have a stronger brand signal than hashtags. Again, accessing this location-specific content at scale requires specific third-party solutions.
Next, brands need to monitor Instagram comments for critical keywords. These could be related to a campaign or product launch to measure impact. On a daily basis, however, Instagram comments will surface a broad range of customer issues that can often be tied to specific business locations. Indeed, Instagram has become a critical customer service channel alongside Facebook and Twitter.
3. Respond – There are two simple ways to respond to customers via Instagram: liking and commenting on their content.
The Instagram “like” is an easy and efficient way to thank customers for sharing and engaging with a brand. More often than not the customer will receive a mobile push notification indicating that that the brand has liked their photo, thus engaging on a one-to-one basis. This also has the effect of growing a brand’s Instagram following because tapping on the brand’s “like” takes the customer to its profile page. The customer may not have been aware the brand was on Instagram before this.
Commenting can also be a way to thank customers. However, this mechanism is best utilized as a customer service channel to address dissatisfied customers and resolve the issues, either within Instagram or through an offline channel. One of the advantages of Instagram is that the conversation on each photo is discrete. Unlike Twitter they are not part of a brand’s open content stream. So it’s not absolutely necessary to take these conversations offline. Plus, a brand can comment on multiple photos with the same message without coming across as inauthentic.
Digital marketing is now a visual medium. It is driven by photos and videos. Whether being consumed through PCs, tablets, or smartphones, visual content is driving the bulk of consumer engagement, and consumers are playing a vital role in producing and distributing it. At the center of this trend is Instagram, a mobile-first platform built for the creation and consumption of visual content.
Instagram has now achieved significant scale. Growth is accelerating. And the underlying infrastructure that powers Instagram — smartphones — is becoming more robust and dynamic with every new product cycle. The possibilities for innovation are limitless. But first marketers need to become familiar with the medium itself. Early investments will earn huge returns in the form of competitive advantage as the platform matures and integrates new ways to reach and influence a brand’s target audience.
As 2013 comes to a close, marketers should be thinking about 2014 as the year of the Instagram strategy and how this visual medium can drive not only customer engagement but quantifiable business results.
Rob Reed is founder and Chief Innovation Officer of MomentFeed, a social marketing platform built specifically for multilocation brands. The MomentFeed platform provides an integrated solution to manage Facebook, Foursquare, Instagram, and Twitter at the local level as well as Graph Search optimization. Reed’s background is in marketing and journalism, and he is the founder of Max Gladwell, an independent blog on social media, sustainability, and geolocation. He can be reached on Twitter.