As far as social media marketing channels go, Instagram has been a major power player for a while. And that’s particularly true for ecommerce businesses that get access to a visual-focused platform with enthusiastic followers and high engagement.
In the past few years, Instagram has grown and evolved at a rate similar to Facebook, adopting new features at a lightning-fast rate and becoming even more valuable to merchants and users alike.
In this beginner’s guide, we’ll outline all of the fundamentals for Instagram marketing, including how to optimize your profile, how to create eye-catching content, how to get more results with both feed and Stories content, and how to evaluate your progress on the platform.
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Why use Instagram for marketing?
Instagram is a staple of many small businesses’ marketing campaigns. And for good reason. It has a large and diverse audience of over one billion monthly active users and 500 million daily users on Instagram Stories that are happy to engage with brands, resulting in high engagement overall.
Research and case studies have demonstrated these benefits clearly, finding that they can translate directly into sales and leads.
- Nearly 11% of US social media users shop on Instagram
- 130 million people tap on Instagram Shopping posts every month.
- People are using Instagram earlier in the buying cycle, with 81% using the social media platform to research products and services.
- 80% of Instagram users follow at least one business profile, and 72% of users say they’ve purchased a product they’ve seen on the platform.
- Around 62% of people say they have become more interested in a brand or product after seeing it in Instagram Story.
People are happy to follow brands on Instagram, and they’re actively discovering and purchasing products on the platform. That’s a big win.
Also worth noting is Instagram’s continued efforts to embrace commerce.
Instagram ads see excellent results and offer high engagement. Shopping on Instagram streamlines the Instagram sales process. Business profiles with over 10,000 Instagram followers can add Swipe Up links to Instagram Stories to drive traffic directly to their site, something that was otherwise difficult to do on the platform.
Instagram keeps expanding, making it more valuable to merchants and ecommerce businesses, especially if they have products with a strong visual appeal.
The best part? The Instagram algorithm shows your content to people based on their interests and behaviors in the app. This makes it easier for you to reach people who’ll likely engage with your brand, and get more results from your Instagram marketing efforts.
How to create an Instagram business account
To start using Instagram for marketing, you’ll need an Instagram Business account or an Instagram Creator account. If you already have a personal Instagram account, you’ll just need to switch to a professional one in the Instagram app.
Here’s how to do it:
- Go to your profile and tap the hamburger icon () in the upper right corner.
- Tap Settings.
- Some accounts will have a Switch to Professional Account option here. If you don’t, continue with the following steps.
- Tap Account.
- Tap Switch to Professional Account, then Continue.
- Select a Category for your business, then tap Done.
- Tap Business and follow the prompts.
After setting up your account you’ll want to add an Instagram bio and contact details, which we’ll cover in the following section. If you want to verify your Instagram account, read Want To Get Verified On Instagram? Here's How The Process Works.
Best Instagram marketing tips
Use the following tips to build your Instagram marketing strategy and set your brand up for success.
- Optimize your Instagram profile
- Create your content strategy
- Use Instagram hashtags
- Publish Instagram Stories
- Turn Stories into highlights
- Set up an Instagram shop
- Run an Instagram contest
- Test Instagram Automation
- Use Reels
- Work with Instagram influencers
- Use Instagram ads
Optimize your Instagram profile
Most merchants know the basics about setting up an online profile: you need to fill out your contact information, have a keyword-optimized description (don’t forget emojis!), and choose a profile picture that’s easily identifiable, like a logo. This is a great start.
To get the most out of your limited Instagram profile space, you should include the following:
- Clickable hashtags. These can now be added to your profile description by entering # and then the desired phrase, just as you would on a post. Focusing on your branded hashtag is a good choice for most businesses and can help you work with the Instagram algorithm.
- Clickable profile links. There are several options for how to use this. One way is to set up a “link in bio” page using a tool like Linkpop, so you can curate and display your products and online store, using just one link. You can now also add clickable links to other user profiles in your own Instagram bio. If you have a second profile for a sister company, you can use a clickable link to direct traffic there. If you’re hosting a contest with another merchant, link to them when discussing the contest in your bio. You can also use this feature to send people to your personal profile if that fits with your branding.
- Story Highlights. We’ll talk more about Story Highlights a few sections down, but this relatively new feature lets you add “expired” Stories to different featured categories, which will be listed above your Instagram feed on your profile. This helps your profile look fleshed out and lets you showcase certain key Instagram content, like UGC or posts, that highlight your brand’s story.
- View Shop button. If you choose to turn on Instagram Shopping on your profile, you can also place a call-to-action button that sends followers to your in-app store.
Here’s an example from Fashion Nova that combines all three of these features into a well-optimized profile.
Create your content strategy
Instagram has one of the most active user bases. 63% of Instagram users log in at least once a day, spending an average of 28 minutes on the app. Over 200 million Instagrammers visit a profile at least once a day during these 28 minutes.
If you want to get results on Instagram, you need to know what types of posts perform best. While every demographic is different, there’s fortunately been a lot of data compiled that can give us some insight on where to start.
In terms of the types of Instagram posts users want to see, they’re pretty open. They’re happy to see promotional posts, motivational quotes, product photos, DIY or tutorial content, and images shared from other users (i.e., user-generated content). That being said, they want to see diversity; they’ll get bored or annoyed if you just use one type of post for too long.
Videos can share more information with users, making them valuable, but high-quality photos typically get 36% more engagement on average. If you’re going to use video on Instagram, keep it short, even on IGTV. Instagram users are predominantly mobile users, and they aren’t likely to stick around for more than 10 to 15 seconds at a time.
You should also change up the different camera effects, because you don’t want to give users a headache by using Boomerang for every single post.
In many ways, the aesthetic of the images and videos are a lot more important. Instagram is, after all, a visual-centric platform.
Here’s what we know about the content that performs best on Instagram:
- Lighter images performed better than darker ones.
- More background or white space is preferred.
- Images with bluer dominant colors performed over red dominant colors, and images with a single dominant color did better than those with multiple dominant colors.
- Images that feature contrasting textures tend to generate more likes.
From product carousels to interactive content like Reels, there are many ways to engage with an Instagram audience and spice up your followers’ feed. It just takes a little know-how.
- What Should You Post On Instagram? Here Are 20 Ideas to Spice Up Your Feed
- How to Get More Followers on Instagram: 15 Reliable Ways to Grow Your Audience
Use Instagram hashtags
Hashtags started on Twitter, and while they never took off on Facebook, they’re a staple of Instagram marketing. By adding text after the # symbol in an Instagram caption, bio, or Story, you can turn any word or phrase into a clickable topic.
When users click, they’ll be taken to all the public posts tagged with that hashtag. Perhaps even more significant, users can now also follow hashtags that interest them. This provides them with a stream of content, even if they don’t follow the poster. It’s a great way for users to find quality content they’re interested in—and for merchants to expand the reach of their content.
The different types of hashtags you should be using
In order to fully expand your reach and get the most results from your Instagram marketing, you need to be using the right types of Instagram hashtags.
There are six key types of hashtags that are crucial for ecommerce businesses to incorporate into their marketing strategy.
Branded hashtags. Most brands will (and should) have a unique branded hashtag. They’ll attach this to each post, place it in their profile, and encourage users to attach it to any posts in which they’re sharing user-generated content. It can include your brand name, but it doesn’t have to. Examples include Fashion Nova's #NovaBabe hashtag.
Contest hashtags. These hashtags are a type of branded hashtag created for a specific contest. They are often used to identify contest entries for photo-submission contests and to generate contest awareness overall. In addition to the main branded hashtag contest, you should also incorporate general contest hashtags like #instacontest and #giveaway.
General appeal hashtags. There are certain hashtags that are popular among large, diverse audiences. These can help you get significant reach on your posts, because they’re more likely to be sought out. Examples include #nofilter, #antiques, #ilovemyjob, and #puppylove.
Niche-specific hashtags. Each industry will have phrases and keywords that are relevant only to their target audience. These hashtags won’t get you the same reach as the general-appeal hashtags, but they’ll get you more relevant traffic, such as #harrypotter, if you’re selling jewelry inspired by the Harry Potter series.
Timely hashtags. Current events and seasonal holidays can make great hashtags, especially when you factor in selling-focused holidays, like Valentine’s Day or Christmas. People are likely to be searching for content that’s relevant right now, so take advantage of a few #valentineformyvalentine and #stockingstuffer hashtags.
Entertaining hashtags. These won’t help you with reach, but they will serve to entertain your audience and help you establish your brand. They’re meant purely to be funny or clever, and that’s it. Examples could include #iknowitstooearlyforchristmasstuff and #thisiswhyweallhatemonday. In many cases, entertaining hashtags might be grouped together, one after another, to tell a story, like #toobad #itshereanyway.
For best results, do research on each of these hashtags, and use combinations of different hashtags in each category for your posts. This will strengthen your branding while helping you reach the largest and most relevant audience possible.
Hashtag best practices
Hashtag usage is one of the most significant factors that will determine your success on Instagram, and hashtags are unsurprisingly a little difficult to crack. Fortunately, the following best practices will help you maximize your reach and your results:
- List your branded hashtag on your profile.
- Use a limited amount of hashtags. The limit is 30 hashtags per post. However, numerous case studies have found that somewhere between eight to 11 hashtags for each post will be the sweet spot, especially if you diversify the types of hashtags.
- Switch up your hashtags. Don’t use the same hashtags on every post. Create groups of hashtags you can cycle through for different posts. Not only will this increase your visibility to different audiences, it can also keep your account from being flagged as spammy by Instagram.
- Take time to explore each hashtag. This can help you discover new hashtags to target, and ensure that you don’t accidentally use a banned hashtag or jump in on a topic without knowing what it means.
Publish Instagram Stories
Instagram Stories started out as an add-on feature borrowed from Snapchat: a way to share short-lived photos and videos with your followers that disappear in 24 hours. On average, brand Stories have an 86% completion rate, a great number by any standard.
Stories have developed into an essential part of the platform. Stories led to Story ads, and Instagram has also added Highlights so our Stories can live on forever.
Let’s take a look at how to use them.
There are a variety of strategies you can use to get results from Instagram Stories, each of which will benefit your business in different ways.
1. Share content created by your audience
You can use Stories to showcase user-generated content, which is always a crowd pleaser and will help you get more Instagram followers. People love to see that you care enough about them and their content to feature it on your site. It also saves you from having to create the content yourself and acts as powerful social proof.
2. Acquire content from your audience
Stories can also help you obtain UGC in several different ways. You can place calls to action for users to share pictures of their latest purchase. You can also use poll stickers to get feedback and generate immediate social proof.
3. Be authentic
Instagram Stories are quirkier than feed content, so it’s a great place to showcase your fun side. Use images and videos to tell your brand’s story, throwing in some behind-the-scenes content when possible.
4. Go live
Instagram Live Stories let you broadcast live right from your mobile phone, and your followers can engage in real time. You can host Q&As, talk about a specific topic, or interview a featured guest or influencer. Once the livestream is over, you can have it set to be played with the rest of your Stories.
Check out How to Use Instagram Stories for Marketing for a deeper look at what Stories can do for your business. Once you’re familiar with the basics, get inspired with 10 creative tips, tricks, and ideas for making standout Instagram Stories.
Turn Stories into Highlights
Originally, Stories disappeared after 24 hours, just like the Snapchat feature they were emulating. Instagram recognized that this was resulting in lost ROI on that content and provided the ability to create Highlights.
Highlights exist on profile pages, and you can add Stories to them after their 24 hours of glory have passed.
You can create multiple Highlights for the best effect, using one for user-generated content (“What You’ve Said”), one for brand storytelling (“About Us”), and one for events (“Conference 2021”). This makes it easier for users to find content they’re looking for when they first come to your profile, which can help them get to know you and trust you a little faster.
To add Highlights to your profile, click on the icon with the black + above your gallery.
You’ll need to name your Highlight and select the Stories you want to add to it. You can edit them at any time.
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Set up an Instagram shop
Instagram now allows for product tags and product stickers, which are available for business profiles (pending approval) and let users tap on a product in a post or story respectively, get more information, then head to the site to purchase it.
Once you set up an Instagram shop, you can take advantage of features including:
- Shoppable posts
- Shoppable Stories
- Influencer tagging
- In-app checkout
- Explore Shop
Shopify offers merchants the ability to incorporate this seamless shopping experience, allowing brands to tag products in posts and Stories, and potential customers to purchase them without visiting a link in their bio.
This option isn't just extremely convenient for users, increasing the likelihood they’ll actually convert, but it solves Instagram’s biggest marketing challenge of attaching links to a post that would make it easy for users to click and buy.
To make the deal even sweeter, it’s easy to set up the Instagram sales channel for your Shopify store. You can see exactly how to do this here.
Merchants also have the option to embed an Instagram gallery directly on their site, creating a full integration. This can encourage users to visit their Instagram, where they’ll see social proof and rave reviews, and be encouraged to purchase more through product tags.
Run an Instagram contest
Instagram contests are a particularly popular strategy on the social network, and for good reason. They can yield great results because everyone loves the chance to win something.
Instagram contest rules to remember
Before you get started on your Instagram contest, it’s a good idea to do a quick refresher course on Instagram’s contest rules.In summary, they state that:
- You can’t imply that Instagram is affiliated with the contest in any way.
- You can’t ask users to tag themselves or others in pictures they aren’t in.
- You must follow local laws and requirements, including restrictions about age, eligibility, or prize offerings.
- You must clearly state the rules for entering and participating.
Types of contests you can run
There are numerous different types of contests you can run on Instagram. Each offers its own unique benefits, and many merchants will overlap different contest concepts for maximized results and ROI.
Different types of contests you can run include:
- Tag a friend in the comments. This is designed to have your new followers draw in their friends who may theoretically be interested in your business. It's not for every brand, but it’s easy for users and requires little effort. It will also give you a huge bump in engagement.
- Follow us. This is often just a part of contest participation instead of it being the sole requirement of users, but it’s often an underlying goal for a lot of merchants. A one-time comment isn’t bad, after all, but long-term following is better.
- Leave a comment. These contests may take the form of caption contests, or simply asking users to leave their opinion or share their experience. These contests are exceptionally easy to track, and because the barrier to entry is low, you’re likely to get plenty of participation.
- Photo contests. Perhaps the most demanding of users’ time, these contests also yield the highest rewards (and consequently require the most appealing prizes). They require users to submit an original photo or video, either natively attached to a contest hashtag or through contest software. They provide the most valuable UGC, which you can then use on your own profile later.
Contest software: Should merchants use it?
Before you get started on your contest, decide whether or not you want to use contest software, which has both pros and cons.
Using contest software will cost money (typically somewhere around $30–$50 per month), and it will take more time to put together because you need to create landing pages. This often means your contest won’t “live” natively on Instagram. Users can’t comment directly on a single post—they’ll need to click on the link in your profile and engage there.
That being said, there are big advantages to using contest software. It’s significantly easier to track participants and their entries, making it much simpler to choose a winner. Some contest software can even choose a random winner for you, if you’d like. You can also get excellent analytics, often in real-time, to see how your contest is measuring up to goals.
There’s a lot more flexibility if you’re using contest software. Do you want to add a voting component to the contest? Now you can. You can also obtain actual lead information, like users’ phone numbers or email addresses, thanks to the secure contest landing page. This gives you real, quantifiable lead information that can be used to nurture leads or retarget them with ads later.
If you decide contest software is right for you, I recommend the following services:
Test Instagram Automation
Facebook opened up the Messenger API for Instagram in June 2021 to make it possible for brands to provide messaging experiences on Instagram. As we’ve discussed so far, Instagram has come a long way from being just a photo-sharing app. It’s a place where people discover and connect with brands.
90% of people on Instagram today follow at least one business, and messaging is a part of it. Whether it’s a direct message, a mention, or a Story reply, interacting with brands is appealing to customers and important for your business.
Instagram Automation by ManyChat is a tool that can help manage conversations from one place. Brands that use it can interact with potential customers across different entry points like the Instagram feed, Stories, mentions, and DMs to follow up with people and respond to sales leads, all in one place.
One popular automation feature is the Story Mention Trigger. When an Instagram user tags your business in a Story, you can automatically follow up with them in an Instagram DMs. This makes customers feel valued, leads to higher retention rates, and helps you make money on Instagram.
Check out more by reading How OlimpiaHome Boosted Leads by 30% Using Instagram Automation.
Instagram’s big 2020 release was the introduction of Reels. Reels are 10-to-60-second videos that are in vertical format. They can be posted to your Instagram feed and have the chance to show up on the Explore page, where they can be seen by thousands of potential new followers.
Reels offer a unique opportunity to get your brand in front of an audience that isn’t following you yet. The more engaging your Reels are, the more likely the algorithm will show it to a wider group of people. This can help you grow organically on Instagram versus traditional formats, like feed posts or Story posts.
Reels are also a fun and personal way to get your audience to know you. It can be an opportunity to show off your personality and get creative. People don’t expect overstyled or professionally produced content when watching Reels.
Ecommerce brands can use Reels to:
- Show product how-tos
- Inspire viewers
- Show behind-the-scene content
- Launch product teasers
- Curate user-generated content
The possibilities are endless. The best part? Reels take you five minutes to set up.
For more tips on using Reels, read Why and How to Use Instagram Reels to Market Your Shopify Store.
Work with Instagram influencers
An Instagram influencer is someone who has a reputation around a specific niche on Instagram. Think of them as brand ambassadors for your business.
Instagram influencers have built highly engaged audiences that trust what they promote. Influencers will share your product with their audience in exchange for free products, experiences, or money.
A recent report by HypeAuditor found that, on average, you will get $4.87 in earned media value for each dollar you pay for influencer promotion on Instagram, which means you can get more return on investment from influencer marketing than traditional advertising.
Reaching out to influencers is really important for every new up-and-coming business that somebody wants to create. We realized really early on that micro-influencers were such an awesome way to create potential customers.
Influencers come in many different follower counts, from nano-influencers (between 1K–10K followers) to mega-influencers (over one million followers). You can find influencers who charge $25 per post, all the way up to six-figures. It depends on your budget.
Learn how to set up your first Instagram influencer campaign by reading How to Find and Work With Instagram Influencers in 2021.
Use Instagram ads
Did you know that one-third of people buy directly from Instagram ads? Nearly eight in 10 of these shoppers have purchased from brands they are not even familiar with on the platform.
Instagram offers many types of shoppable ads that let people browse and buy right in the app. It also offers creators and entrepreneurs:
- Scalable pricing
- Easy to use self-service ad creation
- Refined audience targeting
- Detailed reporting
Much like Facebook ads, getting started with Instagram is easy. Set up your first ad today by reading A Complete Guide to Instagram Advertising in 2021.
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Instagram analytics tools
Instagram has its own native analytics tools that can give you an abundance of information about your on-platform performance. Note that analytics are available only for Instagram for business.
To access your analytics, go to your profile page and then click on the graph symbol in the top right-hand corner.
Under your Instagram Insights, you’ll be able to see important performance metrics like:
- Total number of profile visits
- Total number of website clicks
- Total reach (the number of unique accounts who saw your posts)
- Total impressions (the total number of times your posts were viewed)
- The performance of every post, including engagement and impressions
- Total number of views on your Stories
You’ll also be able to see key information about your audience, including:
- Number of followers and recent growth trends
- Gender and age breakdown
- Where your followers live
- Follower activity, broken down into days and times, which can help you determine peak posting times
With Insights, you can see how your impressions, reach, and engagement are increasing or decreasing month to month, and how those stats hold up against a growing or shrinking follower count.
By comparing this information against top performing posts and analyzing their performance, you can detect trends and patterns that will help you make your marketing more effective long term.
In early 2021, Instagram also released Professional Dashboard for creators and businesses to track performance, discover different sales and marketing tools, and access educational materials curated by Instagram.
Building a complete Instagram marketing strategy
Instagram is a must-use platform that ecommerce businesses and marketers should add to their marketing roster if they haven’t already. Embrace it fully by diving into its different features enthusiastically, posting different types of content regularly, and engaging with your audience. You may even be surprised by how quickly you see results come pouring in.
Illustration by Eugenia Mello
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Instagram marketing FAQ
What is Instagram marketing?
How do I start Instagram marketing?
How do I promote my business on Instagram?
- Use hashtags for discoverability
- Launch giveaways and contests
- Respond to messages and comments with automation
- Publish Reels and Stories
- Work with Instagram influencers
- Launch Instagram ads
What is the best way to use Instagram for marketing?