“Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.” —Steve Jobs
The news broke last week that Instagram will expand its advertising service to all marketers, not just a chosen few (Disney, The Gap, Ben & Jerry’s) it’s been working with since first rolling out ads in the fall of 2013. That means the popular photo-sharing app is opening up to zillions of advertisers, who’ll be flocking there to take advantage of more ad styles and sophisticated targeting tools developed by Instagram’s Facebook sugar daddy.
The marketer in me is psyched: The in-app purchasing features on Instagram’s new ad format is great news for companies that have struggled to convert followers into buyers, or have developed convoluted, inefficient workarounds.
The Insta-Fan (InstagrAnn?) in me is less excited: Well, damn. Here comes everybody. Here comes the push. Here come the product-centric ads and the sponsored posts and the companies I don’t follow offering stuff I don’t care about. Here comes the clutter.
I ask this with love in my heart: But do marketers have to ruin everything?
The Biggest Budget Doesn’t Win
The only way to make your game strong on Instagram (and any other social platform, for that matter) is to not regard Instagram (or any other social platform, for that matter) as a place where the one with the biggest budget wins.
In other words: the most successful companies advertising on Instagram won’t be the ones with the most money to spend.
They’ll be the ones that understand the inherent strengths of the platform, and use it as a place to tell stories that make people feel something.
Companies and their agencies are scrambling now to design ads that blend as seamlessly as possible with photo feeds you and I actually follow because we want to. They are trying to create ads that don’t disrupt the Instagram experience.
So the biggest question for brands even now, in this next era of social, still remains: How do I produce the kind of visual content that inspires? Whether or not you’re paying to get your post seen.
Good content is table stakes.
So, what’s good content and community look like on Instagram?
Here are five of my favorite Instagram accounts of all sizes (listed from smallest to biggest) that nail it, and what you can steal from them.
1. Small Chalk (2,800 followers)
Ashlee Arceneaux Jones is a New Orleans-based illustrator who creates exquisitely stylized, hand-lettered designs for brands, business, publications, and events via her company, Small Chalk.
On Instagram, Ashlee could just share her designs—because they’re amazing. But I love the way Ashlee gives a little bit of the backstory on any image she creates. She lets you inside her world a little more than just a picture would, creating a richer experience for her followers. For example, here’s the full description on the image above:
“Working outside in the quarter is always a juggling act—keeping one eye on your work and the other on your bags and things below the ladder. Checking every 5 minutes to make sure your car doesn’t have a boot on it, trying to be polite to every stranger that walks by with the classic, ‘you spelled that wrong’ joke, general heckling, and the occasional but reliable request from a stranger for your contact information, because they want to hire you to make them a logo. ‘It’s gonna go on the side of my truck, so maybe it can look like the whole thing is moving all the time.’ #great #havingfunoutside”
Idea you can steal: Go beyond the obvious. Instagram is a visual channel, of course. But the description is to the photo as hot fudge and whipped is to your Pinkberry. Ashlee isn’t unlike a beat reporter from a city newspaper, giving you a feel for the neighborhood she’s working in and what it’s like to work there. So, don’t just share WHAT the image is. Share the WHY or the HOW or the WHERE to bring it home—and relay your fuller, richer story. Is what Ashlee sharing a story… or is she marketing? Yep. Who else does this well: The TSA, JClarkWalker the barber, the New York Public Library.
2. Crema (10K followers)
A few weeks ago I was in Memphis, Tennessee, where I visited a coffee place called Tamp & Tap. I went there because my friend Blaine Loyd of archer>malmo told me it was the best coffee in Memphis. He was right; the coffee was pretty perfect. But so was the vibe of the place: All raw wood edges and stonework and recycled materials… and a vibe that gave me the itch to Instagram. I checked out Tamp & Tap’s Instagram account because this is gonna be good! But nope. I was underwhelmed. It’s probably annoying to Memphis when I say that a Nashville coffee shop kicks its Insta-ass. But Nashville’s Crema just does. “Coffee is our one thing,” says Crema on its Instagram feed. (And not (more typically): “Official account of Crema, located….” Or “Founded in 20xx, with shops in…”). Coffee is their one thing. And then they live it. Like this:
“What happens when it’s National Donut Day but you sell out of @utterly_nash donuts and it’s 9 million degrees outside and it’s Friday and you’re tryna celebrate? COFFEE SODA. That’s what happens.”
Idea you can steal: Your product is fantastic. Your brand is top-shelf. Your store makes me want to Instagram the stuffing out of it.
So: Make sure you nail brand voice, too. (This isn’t a knock on Tamp & Tap, by the way. But lack of brand voice is an issue I see all across the social Web.)
What’s brand voice?
It’s not just what you say—but how you sound when you say it.
Crema might’ve said, above, “It’s hot outside, but we’re inside celebrating National Donut Day with coffee soda.” It says essentially the same thing as the post above, right? But that sentence could’ve been posted on a Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks or insert any other coffee shop here feed.
Instead, Crema’s voice tells you who they are and what they’re like to deal with. If you covered up Crema’s logo and just read the description, you’d still know it was Crema speaking.
Who else does this well: Oreo has moments of brilliance with voice, even if its Instagram feed feels uneven to me.
But I do like its occasional clever use of puns. “Don’t forget the suns-crème,” is the description on this photo, introducing their newish blond Oreos. Nice.
A photo posted by OREO (@oreo) on
3. Adam Padilla (18K followers)
Adam, a co-founder and the creative visionary of Brandfire, posts a sketch on Instagram daily, usually accompanied by a motivational quote. But what’s also cool is that he creates the sketch real-time on Periscope, and sometimes captures and posts a Hyperlapsed version of the Periscoped sketch on Instagram as well. (Are you still with me?) Sometimes, he gives an art lesson. Other times, he comments on news events.
Your victory is right around the corner. Never give up. #🏇 #americanpharoah #adampadilla365 A photo posted by ✏ Adam Padilla (@adampadilla) on
He’s a good artist creating art using social tools in interesting ways. But more than that, Adam is the poster child for using social media to two things:
1) Focus what you say, and
2) build audience across channels, by engaging directly with almost everyone who comments on his posts. He uses their feedback to adjust what he creates, and how he creates it.
In an interview with MSN, Padilla describes his approach to social media: “[I]f you’re pretty regularly posting…you are a media outlet yourself. You have to be pretty cognizant of what people like, they’re the rating system. @them back, let them know that you appreciate their comment…. [I]t means a lot.”
Idea you can steal: Who says Instagram is just a photo-sharing app? How might you connect social platforms in new and interesting ways, to build and serve an audience?
The opportunity of social channels is the ability to connect directly with those you want to reach. I don’t know why a directive like “respond to your followers” still needs to be a takeaway, here in 2015. I get that scale is hard. But there are ways to solve that problem.
Who else does this well: PrepObsessed, across Facebook and Instagram.
4. Live From Snack Time! (39.4K followers)
Reporting live from kindergarten in NYC, Live from Snack Time follows a simple formula: Collect funny, wise, or memorable things kids say via a Google doc. Curate the best ones. Create image. Post daily.
Idea you can steal: So much here to steal… where to start?
1) the smart but simple use of user-generated content;
2) the clear and concise quotes;
3) the bright-color branding that matches the “snack time” preschool ethos.
But probably what I love the most is 4) the way Live from Snack Time takes something many of us see or hear every day and turns it into community.
What’s ordinary to you that might be extraordinary to others? What do see or come across every day that is, when seen through another lens, content worth sharing?
Who else does this well: Cheese Curls of Instagram (44k followers). It’s exactly what it sounds like—cheese curls—posed (but not Photoshopped) for Instagram. This account turns the ordinary Cheeto into social commentary: riffing on things erudite, emotional, or (sometimes) off-color. Like this:
5. ToastMeetsWorld (255K followers)
Toast is a Cavalier King Charles spaniel rescued from a Puppy Mill in North Carolina in 2011. She’s now a model and activist in NYC. Which sounds hilarious. But for real. “My mouth used to smell like what I imagine actual hell smells like until all my rotten teeth were removed,” her site reads. “Now I am toothless and I look like a cute hobo.”
Can’t believe I was snubbed from the #MetGala 😕 Way harsh, Anna. A photo posted by TOAST MEETS WORLD™ (@toastmeetsworld) on
There are lots of pet accounts on Instagram, but what I love about Toast is that she built a following on her looks and wits and funny captions. Now, she uses her celebrity to raise awareness of the horror of puppy mills and to promote an Adopt Don’t Shop philosophy.
Her cause doesn’t just feel bolted on—it’s baked right in to who she is and what she promotes.
I also love the way that her feed could feel bleak and hopeless and sad. But it doesn’t: It’s fun and snarky; and while the message is sometimes dark, it feels more like a rallying cry than a tacked-on, do-good message.
It redefines social responsibility with a new approach. In that way, Toast’s message reminds me of the messaging around that wonderful jerk of a Chihuahua, Eddie the Terrible, by the Humane Society Silicon Valley.
I met Scooby today at a @friendsoffinn adoption event and fell in love. He has been in foster for almost 3 months. Scooby is literally the sweetest most mellow dog. A small dog went after him while we were chatting and he just stood there, calm. He is 5-7 years old and his best friend in foster is a dachshund who he lets sleep on his back. If you are looking for a mellow mush to hang out with, Scooby is your guy. For more information please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Also, her sister Muppet’s feed consist of her griping about Toast’s celebrity and generally mocking her in a Suri’s Burn Book kind of way. Which is pretty awesome, too.
Idea you can steal: We see a lot of spokes-creatures: spokesdogs, spokescats, spokesllamas. But very few have a unique voice and persona that covers the full range of the human condition, as do Toast’s and Muppet’s.
Who else does this well: I don’t know of others who do this well. Do you? Let me know.
David O'Gorman says
A good page is http://www.instagram.com/lovelybeards all about beards and won an award last week for it’s use of Instagram.
Ann Handley says
Thanks, David! Will check it out.
Marsha Keeffer says
You’very got me thinking of creative ways to communicate. Using wit, an unusual viewpoint, or something totally unexpected. Thought before posting can haverify big rewards.
Ann Handley says
So true! Thanks for swinging by, Marsha.
Instagram felt like the last refuge of relatively ad-free space on the internet. I’m now super bummed. I have an independent business, I understand the need for marketing, I just hate the pervasiveness of advertising and how we don’t get to choose what we see. I liked being able to follow people whose content I wanted to see. I’m never going to want to follow Oreos or cheese curls, no matter how clever their ads, and I hate the idea that their content will be figuratively shoved down our throats.
Ann Handley says
Right… I understand that perspective, Alicia. But at the same time, if you aren’t paying it, you are the product being sold, as the saying goes. Even if intellectually I get that… But emotionally…? Right there with you.
This is so timely. I just posted a picture and felt so tangled up worrying about if I should filter or not to filter and how many hashtags is too many hashtags – wouldn’t dog cover dogs? That by the time I reached the caption I was all clevered out. You covered instagram in your book EveryBody Writes – so maybe it is time to review! In the meantime these examples were helpful. (I would have said “so very, very helpful” but you know…) And lastly…. come on! It’s impossible to take a bad picture of a Cavalier with or without teeth! Unfair advantage! As always Thank YOU.
Ann Handley says
HAHA!!!! So. True. <3 (you're the best!)
Jennifer St. James says
While I agree with Alicia, advertising on Instagram was inevitable. So thank you, as always, for helping us navigate the new territory! (And for introducing me to a few new feeds to follow.)
Ann Handley says
Thanks, Jennifer. And yes.. it was. (As I said above.)
That said — ads don’t have to be disruptive, do they? Fingers crossed.
I agree with what you said. I m from Poland and i analyse the instagram fenomene. I saw many instagram page but one of the must atractive for me is
simple, clear, she speake about each post and coment everything. I think i could be on your list.
Laurel Rutherford says
I definitely agree that marketers have a reputation for cluttering social media with ads. I liked how you are proactive in showing how to avoid clutter and have quality content on Insta. I also really enjoyed your examples and ideas to steal. Great advice for navigating this new opportunity!
Jodi Cruz says
This was such great and useful pieces of advice! All of your examples make me want to follow these accounts on Instagram. They provided such great content, and I was really surprised that they didn’t have more followers. It is very true that you don’t need a lot of money to be successful with creating content. I hope a lot of companies heed your advice so their ads don’t become disruptive.
This is a great post! I think that it is important for marketers to only post important content on Instagram as to not scare away users. I agree finding ways to not be disruptive to the Instagram community is vital. People don’t open their Instagram app to be advertised to! They use Instagram to check on the people and brands that they love…we don’t want to scare them away with forced blatant and forced-upon marketing. Thank you for this!
Edward Sun says
These are some great insights you’ve shared in your blog post. Very few people, especially students, take the time to examine these tactics in the context of an actual business—let alone several of them!
Ava Toro says
Your article gave a lot of insightful points that many users don’t think about when posting that can make a drastic difference in their Instgram usage. I love that you noted that one does not have to be disruptive in order to be noticed.
Anne Wallace says
Lots of great advice that every business attempting to advertise on Instagram should read. Creating content for the sake of creating content never works. You need to know the platform and the platforms rules of engagement so that the ads presence is seamless and not disruptive. Companies that do it right can generate a loyal and lucrative following.
Brittany Arnold says
I really liked this blog post. I had the most fun going through your top 5 instagrams and seeing how they do their job well. Thanks for sharing!
Umar Raheman says
Hey Ann I really loved your post.I often visited your sites and as always you provide some interesting informative content.That’s always attract me.Now instagram ad will also help some start-up company also.Now also they can spent money on that social platform also because it lesser budget than televison.And now days mostly people passing out their time on internet.Now it will be interesting how much company used instagram as their marketing campaign.
Manish Gupta says
Ypu are right, i think that it is important for marketers to only post important content on Instagram as to not scare away users. I agree finding ways to not be disruptive to the Instagram community is vital. People don’t open their Instagram app to be advertised to! They use Instagram to check on the people and brands that they love…we don’t want to scare them away with forced blatant and forced-upon marketing. Thank you for this!
Thanks for your information.
Aer Mohamed says
Oh lovely dogs. Thanks for sharing this post. Love it.