Instagram Collaboration Is Making Social Media Work for Small Businesses

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Big brands have already figured out how to use social media – just dump tons of money into it. Buy followers. Pay a marketing company to post wholesome memes every day, and create your own hashtag.

But less well-known brands, local shops, and small business owners are finding that Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and other apps can be overwhelming. These small businesses are finding the value in collaborating with other local stores to make social media marketing work for them.

“All social media is a funnel,” says Chris Warren, owner of Marjory Warren Boutique in New York City. “You’re trying to get someone to buy something.”

Warren connected with other local shops via Townsquared, hyperlocal networking platform for small businesses, and joined a sort of “Instagram collective” with other store owners who help each other out by boosting the number of likes and comments on each other’s’ posts.

“You need as many people as possible making comments on your Insta feed,” Warren says. “It’s like, I’ll comment on you if you comment on me. It’s strength in numbers, kind of. The technology is constantly changing, and also, if you’re a really small business, you probably don’t have the time or the money. I’m a dinky little business. I’m a one man show here.”

Warren’s goal is to funnel those shoppers through social media to her email signup list, which for a small business is a hugely important marketing tool.

“The whole point of doing Instagram is to get emails,” Warren says. “You have to get their emails, so you put your website in your bio. You don’t do just product shots, you do, ‘Look at my personality behind the scenes. Look at my interests.’ Maybe give something away, get [the customers] involved.”

When Warren took over ownership and operations at Marjory Warren, no one had bothered using social media yet, and the email list was nonexistent.

“When I took over the store, there was nothing,” she says. “There was no social media, there was nothing. And I really didn’t understand it either. I didn’t understand anything, until Hurricane Sandy.”

Warren’s shop almost went out of business, and many other local business owners did call it quits in the aftermath of the 2012 storm.

“I’d sit in my doorway trying to think, ‘What can I do to survive?’” she says. “I realized that when I went to talk to other people, the ones that had this deer in the headlights reaction, a lot of them were not being proactive. They didn’t know what to do, but they weren’t reaching out trying to figure out what to do.”

Technology had taken over even then, she realized. Warren started going to free marketing seminars in the city.

“I thought, ‘OK, what the hell is Pinterest?’” she says. “As I slowly educated myself, I realized I was so behind the times. But now, the online stuff, I truly believe you’re a dinosaur if you don’t keep up.”

The change for Marjory Warren, and its customers, really happened just last year.

“I had an elderly woman come into the store, she had to be 90 years old,” Warren says. “She had a helper and when she was done looking around she got her smartphone out and called herself an Uber. The woman is 90 years old. At first I thought that was phenomenal, but she said, ‘Oh I know all this stuff, I have grandkids and great grandkids.’ And I thought, ‘Holy shit. She can do this, but I’m missing out. I’m dumbing down my customer base.”

Instagram was the fourth most-downloaded iPhone app last year, and Warren uses it because it’s “pretty” – in other words, she just prefers it to Facebook, Twitter, and other options. She does use those, but Instagram is the prettiest.

“You can obviously pay a marketing company to run this stuff for you,” Warren says. “But if you’re on a tight budget, you try to do everything yourself.”

Now, Warren’s email list has grown to almost 1,000 email addresses, and she recently stayed up late into the night to see her Instagram followers change over from 999 to 1,000.

Many other small shops have similarly avoided a dedicated social media marketing strategy – but that is changing.

“Our sales people send customers down [the street to Two Sole Sisters] all the time,” says Kathy King, owner of Barbara & Company clothing boutique in Boulder, Colorado. “We follow each other on Instagram and Facebook, we do a lot of things with them.”

Two Sole Sisters, a shoe and accessory boutique, is about two blocks away from Barbara & Company. King says that the two stores, and others in the neighborhood, have a more informal setup on social media than the one Warren described, and it might seem that the shoe store is inspiring its retail neighbors to use social media more as a marketing tool.

“We get a lot more people who have never been in before,” King says. “Some younger customers. Laurel [Tate of Two Sole Sisters] is a lot better at it than we are.”

An employee, Cora, runs the Barbara & Company social media campaigns, she says.

“Because she’s young,” King says. “And Kelly is the other one who does some of it in the Denver store also. They’re both young. She and Kelly always say, we need to be doing something once a week on Instagram.”

King says that her brand also uses local print ads, and pays to have the local paper boost their posts on Facebook. Beth Hirshman, manager at Barbara & Company, says they are planning to continue expanding their social media marketing to get customers more involved and keep building their email list. Like Marjory Warren Boutique, the email list is an essential. Currently, Barbara & Company’s email list hovers around 3,000 email addresses, and King says the open rate is at about 29%.

Most importantly, the addition of social media marketing gives small business owners a look at a new crop of customers. Warren says she felt she had more control of her business as she began using Instagram to attract customers.

“I felt I was participating, at least making an effort and making my business better,” she says. “I was in control of my own destiny. The more I do, the more I get back.”

April Nowicki is a contributor at Street Fight.