This article was originally published on Entrepreneur.
One of the earliest forms of marketing was the shop window.
Retailers showed off their merchandise and enticed people to walk into their store, but the best brands did more than this. The windows showcased what they stood for and what kind of lifestyle a purchase could lead to. Often, their captivating windows would send passersby away with a purchase they never intended to make.
Instagram is the modern equivalent of window shopping. Feet strolling through a fashion district has given way to fingers scrolling down a screen. There’s no commitment or pressure to buy — just a window into the world of a brand.
For users, Instagram is an avenue to be amused, inspired and connected. Instagrammers self-select a community of influencers, whether friends or strangers, icons or brands, so they can keep up with what was cooked for last night’s dinner or what Beyoncé wore to the latest award ceremony.
For brands, Instagram is one of the most underused opportunities to intimately engage customers and strategically market without really “marketing.” It’s a less commercial way to tell a story and sell a lifestyle.
Who’s there? 1,688,526,106 Millennials — the age group that will have the most buying power of any generation by 2018.
This bracket of consumers desires to feel connected with companies and values others’ opinions. This trust is so engrained that 84 percent of Millennials consult user-generated content on social media before making purchasing decisions. Instagram meets both of these needs. Companies can engage audiences on their terms, and users can see others’ experiences with brands before deciding to buy.
Sixty-three percent of Millennials keep up with brands via social media. And followers aren’t just looking to browse — they’re open to making convenient purchases on their phones. According to research firm L2, out of all social networks, Instagram turns the most browsers into shoppers.
Am I hip enough to use it effectively?
Not every company needs an Instagram. The reality is that it can be detrimental to prematurely launch a profile. A poorly-managed account can suggest an apathetic or out-of-touch company. Additionally, investing too much effort into a medium that isn’t relevant to your customer base or positively branding your company is just a waste of time.
When deciding if and when your brand should create an account, the most important thing to consider is whether or not your customer base is well-represented on Instagram. Do 18- to 35-year-olds — the Instagram demographic — fall within your target market or do they influence potential buyers in other demographics?
Companies should also assess their ability to use the platform effectively. Brands with visually appealing products — fashion, beauty, entertainment — have a natural advantage. But even seemingly bland brands can draw impressive social followings if they have the ingenuity to get creative and pique curiosity.
Take General Electric, for example. It’s not a company that immediately leaps to mind when you think of trendy brands. And yet, it has a model Instagram account, featuring gorgeous shots of its technology and inspirational material about science. Likewise, companies whose products aren’t hip or easily captured in images can use Instagram to showcase company culture rather than drive product sales.
How does my brand break into Instagram?
With Instagram, the focus is not only selling a product, it’s about integrating product and lifestyle. Approach it with an artistic eye and invest in good imagery. Use captions to spark conversation and give followers a backstage pass to what inspires your company, what sets it apart and what its future holds. Consider featuring sneak-peak visuals, behind-the-scenes photos, follower-only contests and customer snapshots. Remember, it’s about crafting something memorable so people connect with the brand.
And even though it appeals to Millennials, Instagram isn’t just something you can turn over to the 21-year-old intern. As with all marketing channels, it should be the product of a well-thought-out and integrated online marketing strategy. Uniform picture styling, a cohesive voice and consistent posts are elements of a structured plan.
Can I buy ads?
Up until recently, advertising on Instagram looked no different than a regular post. With Instagram’s new carousel feature, brand partners can advertise using multiple scrollable images. Interacting with these miniature storybooks, users can go beyond liking an image — they’re invited to click a “Learn More” button, a link out of the app and onto a web page. For advertisers, it’s a clearer way to track traffic and reduce the steps between a post and a purchase.
Keep in mind that Instagram will likely never be a channel where success can be achieved by throwing around dollars. The best thing you can do is focus on creating engaging content. And make the most of it now because in the future, Instagram could charge businesses to market to their own organic followers like Facebook, its owner.
Instagram today presents a rare opportunity to build a devoted following. With a little creativity and authenticity, casual window shoppers can be turned into customers and even passionate advocates.
For more marketing trends, check out our e-book, the Digital Marketer’s Guide to Success in 2015.