Learn how to get followers, build your audience, set goals, and measure success with this free Instagram for Business Kit from HubSpot and Talkwalker.
- Everything you need to get started with Instagram
- 22 free Instagram post and story templates
- What, when, and how to post on Instagram to get followers fast
- Using hashtags: best practices, tips, and a full glossary of common hashtags to use
- Using Instagram Stories vs. posting photos and videos
- Setting goals: different ways Instagram can help grow your business
- Advanced chapter: using contests to grow followers quickly and make a big splash
- Measuring success and proving the value of Instagram to your executives
Doing it for the ‘gram, or is the ‘gram doing it for you?
When you think of Instagram, what comes to mind? Influencers posing with delectably designed food? Sunny beach scenes, nighttime cityscapes, and other wanderlust-inducing photos? Maybe even makeup tutorials, funny memes, and highly stylized fashion shoots.
These common tropes are only scratching the surface of the platform’s potential. Instagram today is a huge social media channel, with an estimated 1.074 billion monthly active users who are each looking for their niche content to engage with. You can guarantee that your customers are following accounts they love on Instagram, and if you want your brand to be seen then you should be there, too.
There’s not one catch-all strategy for every type of business on Instagram – it’s more complex and nuanced than simply “grow your follower count,” and the platform’s algorithm for success is ever-evolving. A good strategy will help achieve real business outcomes like new revenue, and softer accomplishments that are intangible, but perhaps more valuable, like building a fanbase.
In this article, you’ll learn the ins and outs of Instagram and how to harness the power of this intricate social media platform. Find out how each feature can be used effectively to reach your ideal audience, and the best practices to make Instagram work for your business.
Identifying goals & creating a strategy
Your Instagram strategy should include specific ways to use the features of the platform to deliver a great experience. That will differ based on your industry, your objectives, and of course, your bandwidth. Are you trying to increase your brand visibility by driving followers to your company profile? Do you want to use Instagram for community building & connecting with existing customers? Is there a product or service you’re trying to sell through the platform? Each of these goals requires a holistic approach to ensure success.
Your priority when setting up Instagram for your business should be to identify your goals for the platform. Set KPIs to track, and build a strategy to get you there. Then test, improve, and iterate until you come up with a repeatable way of achieving those goals month after month.
Engagement and Followers
Any good social strategy will place a premium on engaging with your followers. That’s the secret sauce to social media: when a brand engages with its followers, it creates an itch for more content that users can’t scratch quickly enough.
As the creator of the content, you might be tempted to tailor your strategy to how your followers are attracted to you. While important, instead think about how anyone can find you on the platform.
Besides actively engaging through comments and likes, there are two places on Instagram your brand can be waiting for people to find you – the search bar and the Explore page.
Treat the Instagram search bar like you would any other search engine, like Google or YouTube. Set up your business profile accordingly with the right keywords in your handle, bio, and post content.
Assuming that people aren’t searching for your brand on Instagram directly, you can meet them in the Search bar by applying SEO principles to your Instagram profile.
- Describe what you do in your Instagram name and bio. This will make your account more likely to appear in searches for similar products & services.
- Be active, following, and creating content around the hashtags that are relevant to your brand. That’s the next best way for your followers to find you in Search.
The Explore page is a big bright shining spotlight on some of the best algorithmically curated content on Instagram. If your brand can crack the Explore page within your niche, it’s akin to going viral. You’ll see a flood of impressions and post saves – and yes, probably a follower bump too.
While the Explore page is a great entry point for your brand to new fans, it shouldn’t be viewed as your main method for reaching new audiences. Getting on the Explore page in a crowded category like make-up tutorials or travel is tough. There’s a lot of competition, and they’re putting out excellent content too. On the other hand, you might make it onto the Explore page for superfans of an obscure micro-niche like knitted toe rings or Tamagotchis and be none the wiser.
If you aim to create incredible content, the Explore page will reward you as you achieve that goal. If you only aim to make the Explore page, you may never make content worthy of it. In short: shoot for excellence, not the Explore page.
Insta Biz Tip: Post saves are a good KPI to benchmark – they’re similar to a “super like” that validates the value of your content. If followers are saving one of your posts for the future, it’s a clear sign that you’re serving up the right Instagram content and can help inform your editorial strategy
From square pix to video: Insta today
Today’s Instagram is a very different animal from the platform Facebook bought back in 2012. It’s a different platform from what it was just a year or two ago. With all sorts of new features, buttons, and ad formats added, it’s clear that Instagram is going to keep evolving in the future. Today’s Instagram places a premium on video content. Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram explains it himself in this video.
“We are no longer a square photo-sharing app,” he says. According to Mosseri, the number one reason people use Instagram is to “be entertained.”
This philosophy should inform your content creation strategy for Instagram. Entertainment can come from viewing something beautiful or funny, something incredible or educational. Your brand must figure out how to entertain your audiences while achieving your business goals.
And of course, nothing online captivates people’s attention like video.
|Video type||Aspect ratio||Best size (pixels)||Other accepted sizes (pixels)||Note|
|This dimension gives you max screen space|
|Pay extra attention to the thumbnail on your first video of the carousel|
|Stories||9:16||1080×1920||1920×1080||Good for linking, and always consider – will this play in your Highlights section?|
|This is your home for longform content|
|Reels||9:16||1080×1920||–||Made to be shared, so think big for engagement outside your community|
|Live||9:16||1080×1920||–||In-the-moment content; broadcasts from phone only & must be vertical|
Instagram: The Platform In-depth
Let’s take a deep dive into all the different things you can do on this wide-ranging social media platform. It’s worth your time to experiment with each format and see what your audience responds to. Play with the different stickers and widgets in Stories, and share your results. Make Guides out of your best content. Get loose and post a Reel. Test & repeat to find the formats that work best for your business objectives.
Grid & Newsfeed
Anything you post to your newsfeed will appear on your profile grid, which shows your nine most recent posts on top. This is the screen equivalent of above the newspaper “fold” – no scroll needed.
Your followers will see this content in their newsfeeds, so keep that positioning in mind when choosing what to post to your account’s grid. We are long past the days of the 3×3 curated profile grid – while artistically appealing, the reality is that the individual pieces of those posts looked awful in the newsfeed. Attention should be paid to the overall look and feel of each post and how it will affect the fluidity of your profile.
What your brand should aim for is a cohesive look and feel that is recognizable to your audience, while also making sure each post is eye-catching enough that someone scrolling on your profile or in their newsfeed would be so interested they’d stop to look, think, and maybe even share your content.
- Sizes: 1080×1080, 1080×608, 1080×1350, Aspect ratio 4:5
- Videos: Up to 1 minute long, up to 10 per post (Carousel)
- Images: Up to 10 per post
Your followers – as well as people who find your content out in the wild – will give you feedback on it in the form of likes, comments, saves, and shares.
When to post?
The answer varies based on your business (is your audience busy from 9-5 or living online?), your location (does seasonality play a role?), and your followers’ locations (when are they spending leisure time scrolling?). But a good North Star is in the morning. This gives your followers just about the whole day to encounter your post, instead of getting crowded in with a flood of posts about peoples’ evening plans.
Insta Biz Tip: Consider what time zone your core customers live in when scheduling posts. An international audience will be looking at your content at very different times of day, so plan what you’re promoting accordingly.
Hashtags – where to put them?
There are three general ways to place hashtags – the first is in a comment right after the post. The next is at the bottom of the caption of the post itself. The final method is to incorporate the hashtags into your caption copy.
Each of these methods will allow you to tag relevant topics and products in your posts. However, there are limits to how many characters you can use in captions – choose hashtags wisely if you opt to add them here, and make sure that they represent the message you want to get across with your image. You don’t want to appear to be keyword stuffing with hashtags in your posts. Adding hashtags in Instagram post comments gives you the flexibility to add more descriptive tags and text. Comments are hidden under posts, so this method means you also run less of a risk of seeming spammy in people’s newsfeeds.
Instagram’s algorithm favors hashtags in chronological order, meaning that comments coming after a post that contains a hashtag will get more visibility in search pages. Because of this, you may find that commenting on your hashtags immediately after posting draws in the newest users. However, there are no guarantees when it comes to social media.
Again, experimenting here is worth your time. Use your Insights Analysis in the post to see which hashtag method draws the most users to your post.
Stories are one of the most popular features of Instagram, and often the first place your followers will go to seek out your content. They provide an opportunity to promote your brand with quick-hit content, get customer feedback, and provide external links to your products or services.
Users consume stories passively because they are auto-served in a stream – people don’t even need to scroll. Much like with hashtags and posts, the Instagram algorithm places a premium on new, engaging Story content. So keep your story posts current and use the many features provided to ensure your audience is staying engaged.
Sizes: 1080x1920px, 1920x1080px, Aspect ratio: 9:16
It’s imperative to your Instagram strategy to determine what your brand plans to use Stories for. This ephemeral space deletes the content after 24 hours, so you might feel that your hard work gets wasted by not existing in perpetuity.
Instead, consider approaching your Stories content from a lens of exclusivity, timeliness, and behind-the-scenes access. Stories can be less dressed up than standard posts. They can have some of the raw, unvarnished looks that are hard to come by in the newsfeed.
Once you know how your brand will act in Stories, set about creating your content.
Insta Biz Tip: Save your most important Stories in your highlights – this allows you to preserve them publicly and add them to your brand’s profile to be seen by anyone at any time. It’s also a great way to build your brand story further through your Instagram presence.
There are 5 layouts you can add to your Stories, depending on how many images you want to share in one image. Because each Story post plays before the following one, you may be best served by creating multiple stories to tell your story instead of cramming too much into a single frame.
Story videos can last up to 15 seconds, and if they’re any longer they’ll play as a subsequent story. If you are posting multiple Story videos at a time, make sure you apply any stickers and widgets to as many Story segments as relevant.
You can also create videos for your Stories using static images. A photobooth is an editing tool within the platform that creates a short clip from multiple shots, like a digital photobooth. It’s an easy way to get video mixed in from photo stills. Select it from your options on the left side of your Story canvas, along with other tools like Boomerang, Multi-capture, and Hands-free modes that can add dynamic elements to your photo and video Stories.
Within the Instagram app, you can curate and create a list of “close friends,” for whom you can create exclusive Story content that is visible only to them. It’s up to you, and your brand, how to use this tool. Think of it like a less programmable dark post.
For today’s creators, “close friends” lists provide a space for even more exclusive content for the most rabid fans. Some use it to enact a paywall and create a new revenue stream. Other brands use the “close friends” list to create an employees-only space on the platform. Consider who would value that exclusive content the most amongst your brand’s followers.
Insta Biz Tip: Place followers on your brand’s “close friend” list as a prize in contests and promotions. It’s a great way to encourage continued engagement after your campaign has gotten them through the door so that you can continue to provide value.
Stickers and widgets
From Giphy™ stickers to location and hashtag buttons, there’s a variety of ways to express and show off your brand in Stories. Using these features will place your Story amongst the others with similar tags. For example, if you tag your location as the Eiffel Tower your content will appear amongst other people in the area, on Instagram’s map. There are other widgets to encourage charitable giving or to support a cause, too. You can even use stickers to add music and countdowns to build hype. All of these widgets will help boost your user engagement through interactions with them.
Amongst the widgets that encourage interaction are:
Questions – which provide a free answer box you can then share the results of.
Polls – everyone can see the results, and it’s a great way to take the pulse of your community.
Sliding Emoji Scale – light the engagement rate on fire by asking a great question.
Quizzes – Do it for trivia night, share a fun fact, or just do it for the meme. Quizzes ask your audience for brainpower but not the same physical commitment that leaving a comment does.
Filters and backgrounds
The final embellishment on Instagram Stories is the filter and backgrounds. Choose these from the Story “home,” your camera, before capturing your shot. You can download custom filters or see what’s new seasonally. If your brand’s design team has the bandwidth, you can even design and upload your filter to share with the world.
Use the filters and backgrounds sparingly, unless they enhance your brand. Filters can certainly enhance a photo that might otherwise be plain or boring, but they can also turn off your audience – distracting from your message and blending in with other content using that same filter.
Instagram Reels is the home for short-form videos on the platform. While videos can be shared in many formats on Instagram, Reels flips the script by making the content easily discoverable through recommendations that are tailored to each user. If you want a video to go viral with your target audience on Instagram, Reels is where you should start. It doesn’t hurt that the Instagram algorithm seems to favor Reels content for the first few days after it’s been posted – testing out the format could give you a quick follower boost.
Reels allow for remixing audio content, which essentially splits your post into two pieces of content. There’s the video itself – including the hashtags and comments it generates. Any performance data you collect around this asset will be straightforward video metrics and tell you about the overall post engagement.
The other piece of a Reel is the audio you used, and that audio can have its own separate viral life. Many brands have hopped on the latest audio meme trend, and seen great success with their social videos. If you invest the time in creating great sounds or an expressive lyric that is easily relatable, you might find that your audio is used time and again, even if the video originally attached to it is long forgotten.
Insta Biz Tip: You have the choice as to whether a Reel appears in your followers’ newsfeeds, or only in the Reels tab of your profile. Choose where you want your Reel to live based on how far you want to spread the word.
Instagram Live is for in-the-moment content. When you go live, you start a vertical stream that anyone can join into and watch. You act as moderator, and can even share your live space with others following the stream. Live sessions can last up to one hour, during which you can engage directly with your followers by soliciting reactions from the audience, responding to comments, and more.
By scheduling a time to go live, you can share your session with other audiences off of the Instagram platform to encourage them to join. Maybe you use it as a way to create a less formal webinar, or maybe it’s just time for a big company announcement. Either way, you should make it clear when you are going live by posting about it across your social channels, emailing your clients, and spreading the word about your programming schedule. You’ll have a better opportunity to attract more people who might find the content valuable.
One of the biggest benefits of going live is that many of your followers will get a push notification on their phones that you are live streaming. It’s a guaranteed boost to your brand visibility – even if few people join the live stream.
While going live and sustaining a stream requires an abundance of creativity and topics to discuss, you also need a savvy host who can think on their feet, have quick comebacks and quips, or at least has an interesting and dynamic background. If you have the skills to ride a bike, skateboard, ski, or captain a boat while also going live, you will gain an audience that’s drawn to the moving scenery even if what you’re saying doesn’t apply to them.
In short: a solid live stream on Instagram not only requires interesting and engaging topics to discuss, but it has to capture both the eyes and the ears of your target audience.
Insta Biz Tip: Use widgets & features in story posts to boost visibility and engagement for your next Instagram Live. Add a countdown sticker or a poll to get your audience and customers excited about the event.
If you’re ready to make an Instagram Guide, that means you must have created some successful content that engages people and keeps them coming back again and again. Compiling a Guide with these posts makes that content easy to find for your potential customers.
Guides are a compilation of your best newsfeed content. Instead of having your followers scroll through all your content to find the best-performing posts or what’s most relevant to them, Guides give you the option to title various posts and compile them in one section on your profile. It’s a curated view of thematic Instagram content.
Insta Biz Tip: Create Guides that highlight both your offering and your customers’ experience to give audiences a 360- view of your business. Make a Guide on how to use your product. Generate another consisting of customer reviews. Make one for FAQs or UGC (user-generated content), and curate a Guide about new and creative ways people are using your products. Each presents an opportunity to showcase your brand and its impact.
IGTV is a video space where you can schedule and share programmatic content. From a mobile device, you can upload 15-minute “episodes”. Using a desktop browser, that limit increases to 60 minutes.
If the on-the-fly, free-wheeling creativity needed for going live is too much to bear, a scripted performance can be shared with Instagram on IGTV. It also plays an important role in shopping on Instagram because it allows you to tag products in your brand’s Facebook Shop within your IGTV episode
Shopping on Instagram
Instagram has turned itself, in some regards, into the glossy and beautiful magazine it always was compared to – now featuring products you can buy without leaving the platform. The addition of two stylized arrows >> in the Instagram brand colors on posts now indicates to users that products being pictured can be purchased right there. By integrating shoppable posts into your Instagram strategy, you’ll give followers a way to buy your products inspired by your content.
In July 2020, Instagram reformatted their UI and moved the Notifications icon to the top right of the platform. In the space formerly occupied by notifications on the bottom of the screen – a spot still seared into users’ muscle memory – Instagram added a Shop icon, and their e-commerce plans became clear. In this new tab, users can equally find products from brands whose accounts they follow and scroll through suggested shoppable posts to discover new favorites.
There are three key components to how shopping works on Instagram; if you plan to use the platform for e-commerce, take them all into account when creating shoppable posts:
This is a personal list where users can add the products of interest to them. It makes it easy for them to come back and select products from their wishlist to buy immediately. Like the “Save” feature on a newsfeed post, adding a product to a wishlist keeps the purchase link easily available for when someone is ready to buy from you. Items that are removed from the store they’re sold in are also removed from a personal wishlist, so they can help followers keep track of your inventory.
Instagram debuted product tags in 2016. These helpful links create mini-profiles for business accounts’ products. These profiles can then be tagged by the business across the spectrum of Instagram post choices (Stories, Posts, IGTV, Live, Reels).
This makes it seamless to purchase the tagged product in-app, creating a one-click buying experience for customers and streamlining payments through Instagram. It also makes it easy for a business profile to create content around their products.
Insta Biz Tip: To generate a product tag, the product must first exist in your Facebook Store and be configured to receive sales via Facebook Pay. Make sure that your Facebook Store is fully set up before rolling out an Instagram shopping experience to ensure a great user experience.
The checkout line is where Instagram has innovated the purchasing experience in the platform. Users have the option to add a tagged product to their cart or check out immediately. Payment information can be stored so check-out is even quicker next time around. Payments are handled through Facebook Pay and some can even qualify for a purchase protection agreement.
Insta Biz Tip: While the checkout feature makes purchasing through the platform easy for users, it also makes Instagram a middleman between a merchant and their end customer with them holding valuable first-party data. If you do plan to use Instagram Shop, make sure to have a strategy in place for follow-up messaging with customers so that you establish communication with them and can get their details in your CRM.
There’s one last place your brand can interact with followers, strangers, potential customers, and soon-to-be fans on Instagram, and that is through Direct Messages.
Some brand accounts set up an auto-message to send to new followers explaining what their page is about and how they can benefit from it. If that’s actually what your message contains, it might work. But some users may think of these “you followed me, learn more” messages as simply spam, and links to other websites or products will be a turn-off to audiences. A brand that starts a DM conversation must truly have something valuable to say to the recipient.
Wait for your audience to come to you with their questions, concerns, and problems. Then you are given a one-on-one forum where your customer service and brand excellence can shine. It’s an opportunity for you to show off the brand personality and deliver dedicated support. It also allows you to establish a personal connection with your followers and can improve their perception of your products and services.
Find metrics and performance data on your Instagram posts in the Insights tab. Here you’ll get info on post engagement to understand whether your audience prefers things like the video to static images, the times of day that see the most successful posts, or if people are clicking on your hashtags. While metrics provided by Instagram can be limited, any amount of data and reporting you can generate around your business’ social media presence can help you strategize your next campaign or product launch.
You have two ways to access insights:
- From your profile: This will give you a 7- and 30-day view on all of your content, outlining overall engagement trends, follower increases & decreases, and your profile reach.
- On an individual post: Find out how many engagements, saves, DMs, and comments your post generated. You can see if the post is driving people to your profile, or if they’re clicking through on the link to your website embedded in your profile. You can also see the accounts reached by this post and whether they were following you or not beforehand. You can even find out where the audience is finding your content from.
Your ad budget, reputation, or follower count don’t entitle you to any more information in Insights than a business account that was created yesterday with four followers. So do what the data shows you will deliver success, and you can optimize the resources that you have available.
For example, many B2B brands on Instagram find that the weekends are not a good time to post. It makes sense, logically, since many businesses are closed on the weekends. Don’t fight against your audience’s tendencies to post every day – if you don’t think you’ll get engagement on a Saturday post, then skip it. Conversely, consumer-facing brands on Instagram might find the weekends are when a majority of their sales are happening via the platform because that’s when their audience has free time to go shopping.
Either way, there’s data in the platform that can make your decisions feel easier – so seek out that data, distill it into actionable insights, and then execute according to your goals.
Insta Biz Tip: Supplement the narrow data structures given to you in the Insights tab with an open-data consumer intelligence platform like Talkwalker. Taking the same commoditized metrics from the Instagram insights tab, a good consumer intelligence platform can “squeeze” out and then visualize much more information than what’s available in Instagram insights. Find out how frequently groups of words are clustered together in a comment thread, what the main themes of a post are in commenters’ eyes, or maybe you just want a comparison of your most recent post’s engagement rate to the brand’s historical average.
Instagram is a big platform, and there are many different ways that brands can use it to go about making their mark on the app.
If you make it your goal to deliver excellence, value, and entertainment in your Instagram content, audiences will reward you by engaging with the content, returning to it, and asking for more. They’ll share your content in DMs and Stories, in screenshots and reactions. Reward these kinds of engagements by lifting your audience, making them the hero of the story, and your business will reap the rewards.