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VMI Guide: Optimise your brand’s performance on Instagram

For brands the importance of Instagram for marketing their products is growing all the time. Having a presence there is almost an essential prerequisite for some industries, with an incredible 70.7% of all US brands expected to be on Instagram by the end of 2017.

Here we bring you our comprehensive guide to help your brand fulfil its marketing potential on Instagram. This guide is structured around the Visual Marketing Index (VMI) report, which any brand can request here for free!

The VMI report provides a comprehensive and accurate measure of your brands performance on Instagram. This measurement is based on the 3 core components listed below, each of which we treat separately for the purpose of this guide.

Brand Engagement

Hashtag Power

User Quality

This guide is most informative if accompanied by your own report, but this it is by
no means essential. All the information gathered here will help just about anyone trying to boost their impact on Instagram 🙂


Brand Engagement

Engagement is at the very heart of social network design and purpose. It’s all about community and interaction. In particular, Instagram gives businesses of all sizes the opportunity to reveal a more human side by communicating directly with their audience through images, videos and comments.

Brand engagement is an excellent metric for measuring how much a brand’s audience actively consumes the content that they post. It gives us a strong indication as to how much influence a brand has on its followership. An actively engaged audience is more likely to respond to the marketing efforts of a brand on Instagram, and in turn they are more inclined to increase the brand’s exposure by posting with the brand’s hashtag.


What does engagement mean for your brand?

Before we dive into the detail of how to push the engagement level of your brand, it’s important to understand a little about how engagement levels vary on Instagram.  Engagement is normally measured as the proportion of your followership who like and/or comment on your brand’s posts. An engagement rate of 5% on Likes would mean that 1 in 20 of your total followership are clicking ‘Like’, and thereby engaging with your content. Our VMI aggregates engagement on Likes and Comments to produce an overall Brand Engagement score.

As a brand increases its followership it becomes progressively harder to engage one’s audience. There is no well defined reason for this, but it is likely to do with difficulty communicating to larger groups, and the perception of larger brands. Sustaining a two way communication channel with 10,000 followers is pretty tough, let alone 100,000+, so nurturing this social interaction at scale takes real effort!  This problem is confounded by the users perception of large brands on Instagram. Research suggests there is a tipping point at which account size becomes, in some way, a disadvantage and leads to a perception that the brand will be non-responsive to interaction, which in turn reduces the number of attempted interactions [1] [2] [3].

In other words as followership increases the trend is for engagement to decrease. As a consequence we cannot treat all brands equally without a bit of extra maths. The algorithm of our VMI is specifically designed to compensate for this account size effect allowing us to predict what your brand’s interaction level should be based on your account size. It’s like a benchmark for your engagement rate, and of course if you are doing better than this benchmark, then great!


Define your brand’s style, and be consistent

Most brands have a distinct image, a consistent recognisable style. And of course the Instagram account of your brand should reflect this style. Brands should look to define their personal identity on Instagram, and stick to it. This can be achieved with the use of colour themes, image filtering, image context. It could be minimal, colourful, monotone, black and white, natural, still life, the list goes on. The point is that your brand should not project the random look of a personal account where someone documents their life. This doesn’t mean impersonal, but it does mean consistent and considered.

Below are some excellent examples of Brands with fantastic Insta feeds, and here are some general tips to improve your feed.

Teva, Fjallravenofficial, Lululemon, Oreo, Mochi, Love Stories, NAKD, Victoria Beckham, Gucci, ASOS, For Love & Lemons, Lala Berlin.

 

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Screen shot from ForLoveAndLemons Instagram account


Be active – The conversation works both ways

This point brings us back to the ‘social’ component of social media. The ongoing conversation with your audience should work both ways. Where possible the brand should be an active part of conversations by encouraging positive comments, and replying to questions quickly. And when your audience sees that comments are acknowledged by the brand, they are more likely to engage in conversations themselves. This positive feedback loop can really help to boost engagement overall, especially with the frequency of comments you receive on each post. This type of genuine interaction helps breakdown the psychological barriers between customer and brand, engendering a greater sense of trust which always helps facilitate sales at some level.

What’s more, the evidence that we have suggests that Instagram’s algorithm is designed to encourage this type of positive interaction. So, the more active you are the more likely you are to appear higher on people’s Instagram feed, so it’s a win-win for being socially active and taking part in the conversation.

To get a better understanding of how the Instagram algorithm works, this article is a great start, and this audio is well worth a listen.


Post regularly – but not too much!

It can be tricky to know exactly how much to post as there is no defined best practice. There are however, things we can be sure of. If you post too much (more than 5 times a day), it’s likely that you will over saturate your followers. They will become tired of your content and it’s likely that your engagement per post will be low. On the flip side if you post too little (less than 2 times a week), then it’s likely that your audience will forget about you, and engage less.  

So, somewhere there is a happy medium. Most seasoned Instagram ‘experts’ would suggest that for brands posting 1-2 times per day is optimal. But of course most brands have their own unique audience. What works for one brand, won’t necessarily work so well for another. So don’t be afraid to experiment! Try posting with different frequencies, and measure the average engagement rate across these posts each day. The post-rate that gives you the highest engagement is going to be the sweet spot for your brand.

But remember, when all is said and done, only post if you have something worth posting. There is no value in posting junk content, so get organised. To be truly professional in this space it’s important to build a library of quality content that is suitable for your account, then you can choose to post it exactly when you want.

For more on this topic, here is a great place to start reading further.

 

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Post at the right time

Posting at the right time means posting when your audience is most active on Instagram. This of course helps to maximise the number of likes and comments, because your content is simply seen more often. And in a slightly cynical feedback loop, Instagram’s algorithm will push posts with the most engagement further up a user’s feed, leading to even more engagement, and even more exposure. At the end of the day, it’s all about visibility. If you have some amazing content, you want everyone to see it, right?

So, find out when are your optimal posting times based on the timezone of your core followership. You might think 7-9pm, it’s obvious! But this isn’t always the case…here is an excellent guide with some more detail on this topic.


Host a contest

Hosting a contest on Instagram might just be the most effective way of gaining the most followers in the shortest time possible. If humans ever need an excuse to do something, a bit of healthy competition never hurt! So if you want a whole array of people posting on your hashtag, try starting a competition. This will drive the creation of high quality content, and really engage your audience. Of course, running the best possible competitions with real long term benefits for your brand requires careful planning. So here is a helpful guide we wrote to get you well on your way!  


Use Instagram stories

Instagram Stores are of course Instagram’s response to the rise of SnapChat, and with more than 200 million users on Instagram Stories alone it’s definitely here to stay. So, as a brand, what can Instagram Stories offer you? Well, opportunity is the answer!

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Instagram Stories gives brands an opportunity to get a step closer to their audience. The short 24hr life of each story allows brands to post a less curated ‘behind the scenes’ look at their world. Stories can be creative, funny, or surprising without adversely affecting your brand’s image. This is a far cry from the heavily curated branded accounts that we often see on Instagram. They can show the flip side of the coin, and some brands are really doing this well.

Unlike SnapChat, Instagram Stories also offers you the chance to include links and mention users, encouraging a sense of community and inclusion, which makes the brand appear more open and approachable. And for most industries this is only a good thing!

Finally, through Stories brands have an opportunity to appear right at the top of a users feed, which of course maximises exposure and engagement. Brands should look to push themselves on Instagram through both moving image and still image, so don’t wait around, and start recording.

For further reading on brands using Instagram Stories, try these 😉 [1] [2]


Golden rule – don’t use bots!
  

There’s a whole ton of services offering bot systems that claim to increase your followership and engagement, without any effort on your part. However employing this lazy approach is not wise for 2 main reasons.

1) Many bots designed to increase your followership will do so by automatically following, and unfollowing specific types of accounts. The problem here is that the type of followers you gain from this strategy tend to be largely disinterested in your account, and as such not engaged at all with your content. As a result they in fact lower your engagement rate by increasing your followership, but then not engaging at all with your content. Followers of this type are fake, and no brand is founded on a fake audience. As a general rule, your followers on social media should all be potential customers, who at the very least aspire to buy your products.

2) Instagram is constantly updating its algorithm, improving its ability to detect the activity of bots. You might ask, sure – but what does it matter if Instagram finds out? Well, this year they have started to act. You may remember all the fuss as the beginning of 2017 about Shadowbans. Although still unconfirmed by Instagram, the consensus is that Shadowbans occur when accounts (especially business accounts) are found to behaving in a ‘spammy’ way. This includes the use of bots for gaining likes, comments, or followers. So, its simple, don’t do it.

Find out how Photoslurp can help you increase your brand’s engagement rate by allowing you to curate your user-generated content, thank your loyal customers, and credit their efforts on your ecommerce website.


Hashtag Power

On Instagram hashtags are the single most effective tool at your disposal for pushing your brand to a wider audience. At a basic level they provide a system of organisation that allows users to find the content they want to see through organic searches. And for your brand, hashtags provide a means of labelling content so that it’s discoverable by the right kind of people. And with an impressive 7 out of 10 Instagram hashtags now being branded, if you are not using them effectively for your brand you had better get on board.

Using the right combination of hashtags can really help expose your brand to a large, targeted audience. And, if you doubt the importance of the humble hashtag then you’ll be reassured to know that Instagram posts with at least 1 hashtag receive an average of 12.6% more engagement than those with no hashtag, so they really do work!

Our measure of Hashtag Power within the VMI gives us a snapshot of how much your brand’s hashtag is used and to what extend it exposes your brand to a wider audience on Instagram. Like Brand Engagement, Hashtag Power varies according to the number of followers on your brand. A larger followership tends to create more awareness of your hashtag, and hence more people posting on it.

Here we provide an overview of things to consider in order to maximise the effectiveness of your brand’s hashtag(s) on Instagram.

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How many hashtags should you promote?

There are no restrictions on the number of different Hashtags a brand can promote, however there is a limit to the number of different hashtags your audience is going to actively engage with. Most brands will promote a primary (or branded) hashtag, which is either their brand name, or something similar. In addition some brands will also promote community hashtags, designed to connect like-minded uses around a particular topic which is related to the brand.  

We recommend using no more than two hashtags at one time. This means one primary hashtag, which never changes, and one community hashtag which you can change whenever appropriate, perhaps for a new season or special promotion, for example.  

The crucial point is not to over saturate your audience with different messages from the brand. Your message should be clearly defined, much like the style and image of your account. Clarity and consistency are key to distinguishing you as a brand, relative to any ordinary user, so we apply this to our hashtag(s) as well.

The current version of the VMI analyses the activity of one hashtag. For brands with multiple hashtags we recommend using the hashtag which is posted on most frequently. For most brands this will be their primary or branded hashtag. However, where this primary hashtag is not sufficiently unique, we suggest using community hashtags instead.


How many hashtags for each photo?

Whilst you should be careful not to promote lots of hashtags simultaneously, this doesn’t mean you have to use just these hashtags on your posts. The categorising function of the hashtag can be extremely useful to get your images in front of the right audience. Unlike twitter there is very little evidence of any ‘hashtag saturation’ on Instagram, so there is no overt downside to using many hashtags. However, this doesn’t mean that more is always better.

If you are actively trying to promote and grow a smaller brand through Instagram, by all means use numerous hashtags that are related to your brand and/or the particular image, but tread with caution. As a general rule we recommend not using more than 10 Hashtags in a single post, otherwise there can be a perception that your posts are spammy, and this is an absolute no no for any brand.


Choosing the right hashtag(s) for your brand

The right hashtag for your brand isn’t always the most obvious. As your primary hashtag it might seem ideal to use the brand’s name, but this doesn’t always hold true. When a brand’s main hashtag has a common meaning, users searching on the hashtag will see many images which will be unrelated to the brand. For example, if you type ‘#Apple’ into Instagram, you don’t just see shots of shiny computers and related Apple products, you’ll also see a lot of fruit! This problem of hashtag crossover highlights the importance of selecting a unique hashtag for any brand, so as to avoid being confused and/or diluted by the activity of other brands and topics on Instagram.

An excellent example is the watch brand Fossil. Their name has a generic meaning which is unrelated to their product, so they promote #FossilFirsts as their primary hashtag on their Instagram page, minimising any confusion between images of their watches with images of ancient preserved remains.

Choosing a community hashtag can be a little more complex. However, it’s not something to lose any sleep over. Some brands have a permanent message that they promote alongside their brand, such as Nike with their famous ‘Just Do It’ slogan. Whilst other brand’s will change their community tag frequently for different promotions.

An excellent starting point when creating a community hashtag is to look at your audience and any related accounts. See what themes they frequently post on, and use this as a basis for creating your own. But, don’t be afraid to get creative, try things out, push the boundaries a little. This is an area where you can express a bit of the brands personality, and find the messages that your audience connect with best. You never know, you might stumble on something unexpected that really takes hold with your audience.

At Photoslurp we take a keen interest in hashtags as they form the filters that allow us to collect all the user generated content (UGC) for any brand. And because we know it’s not an easy task to make a hashtag from scratch, here is a handy guide we wrote to help you get these crucial little phrases just right for your brand.

Whatever hashtag(s) you decide upon for your brand, it’s important to stick to the message of your brand. During 2017 there has been more speculation than ever before about the logic behind Instagram’s algorithms. And in response Instagram have been typically cryptic.

However, as the mini statement below suggests, it’s best to stay ‘on topic’. Use your own unique hashtags as much as you like, this is your personal message. However, avoid overusing the same generic hashtags over and over. These might gain you extra likes in the short term, but many people now believe that this strategy can in fact lead to posts being hidden from users who do not follow our account. This ’shadowban’ as it has become known renders hashtags useless as it prevents your posts from being searchable by a wider audience beyond your own followership.

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Actively promote your hashtag

Whatever type of hashtag you choose, the bottom line is that you want people to use it. The more it gets used, the more your brand and its associated images will be spread organically throughout Instagram. So, there is no point having a hashtag if you don’t let anybody know about it.  

First things first, mention your hashtag(s) in your bio! You would be amazed at how many brands completely ignore this, and assume the their followers know exactly how you would like to be tagged. So, don’t leave any room for doubt. Spell it out, loud and clear, making sure all your content easily discoverable through accurate hashtags.

If you are really serious about embracing social media this means including your hashtag on more than just your Instagram page. Think about including it on the homepage of your website, or integrate it into your digital advertising campaigns. You could even go a step further and print it on your branded packaging, reminding your customer of exactly what hashtag to use when they get that product home. Social media is most effective when your audience is interactive, so don’t be afraid to promote this interactivity in the real world.

And finally, of course, running competitions is always an effective way to get people posting. Here is a great example from Herschel Bags, who managed to gain 1.8 million hashtags on their #WellTravelled campaign.   


Organise and monitor the content on your hashtags

Once you have nailed the creation of hashtags and successfully encouraged your audience to post amazing images of your products, what are you going to do with all that content? Well, ‘nothing’ is not the answer… to really take advantage of the content your audience has diligently produced, you need to collect it, and use it.

As a brand you want to make sales, right? So let’s use this content to maximise your online conversion rates and increase sales, by positioning this user generated content (UGC) on your ecommerce site, right in front of your would be customers. These real-life images provide an element of social proof, which can give the extra confidence needed to turn a browser into a buyer.

At Photoslurp this is exactly our area of expertise. Our advanced platform allows you to collect, filter, and curate any content posted on your brands hashtags. From here you can label products and send the images directly to your ecommerce site, giving your audience a different, truly authentic angel on your brand! What’s more, you can credit your contributors by direct message and link to their original images from your own site, helping to make your audience a real part of the brand.


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If you want to explore how Photoslurp can help you harness UGC for your brand, come visit us here. We firmly believe that in order to market your brand effectively through Instagram, you need a way of measuring your performance. So, if you haven’t got one already, click here to request a VMI report for your brand now. And if you would like to share this guide, you can tweet about it here, or share through other channels using the buttons on the right.

 

User Quality

User Quality is a metric derived from data that we have gathered on all the Instagram users who have posted on your brand’s hashtag. These are users who have not just Liked one of your brand’s images, but they have actually gone to the effort of posting a photo and tagging your brand. For simplicity, we could call this group the audience of your hashtag.

In the previous section of our VMI guide we talked about our measure of Hashtag Power, which gives us an indication of your hashtag’s reach, and propensity to spread your brand across Instagram. However, this metric falls short of giving us any information about the quality of who is posting on your hashtag and how much they evangelise your brand. This measure of your audience quality is important.  Much like the real world, within the image conscious space that is Instagram, who you associate with, and how this audience views your brand, reflects strongly on your image. And image, like it or not, really matters!

Our VMI User Quality score provides an overall measure of your audience quality, and here we give you a general guide to help you to understand and improve this metric for your brand.


What does User ‘Quality’ really mean?

First of all, we need to explain what we mean by ‘quality’ in the context of Instagram Users. Whenever we look at an Instagram account we are given a whole array of information and, when organised properly, this information can be used to infer the ‘quality’ of the user. In other words we want to know what their overall level of likability and influence is over their audience. Then by associating with your brand, do these users have a positive effect on your overall image. If the answer is yes, that’s great! And of course, the more high quality users you have posting on your brand’s hashtag(s) the better.

In short a high quality user will have very positive follower/followee ratio, and a comparatively high engagement rate. Plus, in the interest of your brand, they will post frequently using your hashtag, making them a type of evangelist.  

As a general rule, if you have lots of active, well liked, engaged, users on your hashtag, then User Quality will be high. If you have lots of inactive, disengaged users then User Quality will be low.

To have low quality users posting your brand’s hashtag is not overtly detrimental. However, they do not provide much added value through your association with them. By contrast high quality users, can reflect well on your brand, and actively improve your brand’s image and boost growth. Therefore, you want to employ a strategy that actively encourages high quality users to post frequently with your brand’s hashtag(s).

 

Encourage high quality users

As a brand you should try to maintain an overview of the content that is being posted on your hashtag(s). Who is posting, what images are posted, what hashtags are used alongside yours, what’s the general sentiment towards your product? This monitoring process might seem a little over the top to some, but this is the professional and smart way to take care of your brand on an social network like Instagram.  

Within this monitoring process there is the opportunity to identify high quality users. When you see that great picture, which makes you think; wow they look great with our product! Don’t just flick past it. Instead take the time to look through the user’s account, see how many followers they have, find out what other brands they like. A couple of minutes looking through someone’s profile will give you enough information to make a judgement call as to whether you want to open a conversation with this user.

Firstly, if their content on your brand is great, then of course credit them, say thanks at the very least. But, if they are someone who you think can add some value to your brand, then why not start a dialogue. If the user in question has a good followership and posts great content on your brand, then they could really help you, perhaps more than you think.

Users like this are genuine fans of your brand, ready made evangelists who are already helping you out even before you make contact. So encourage these people to post more on your brand. Comment on their images. Send them private messages to say thanks. Send free products enticing them to post more images. Your goal is to maximise their potential as a vehicle for promoting your brand. What’s more, nobody minds getting their photos praised or receiving free products, so you create a win-win situation for both parties!

This strategy of recruiting these ‘super-micro’ influencers is effective for brands of all sizes. For larger brands it provides a more personal and/or local touch point with your customer, something which is impossible through other forms of marketing. And for smaller brands it provides cost effective means of growing your audience, by taking advantage of Instagram’s networking power.

Of course, to do this properly takes time and effort. However, here at Photoslurp we have found that many customers use our platform to facilitate this whole process.  At its most fundamental level, our software allows brands to monitor and organise all the content that’s posted on their hashtag(s). We can then filter this data in various different ways, helping to quickly identify those users of interest who could help your brand. For more information on how the Photoslurp platform can help you get the most out user generated content (UGC) for your brand, drop us a line here.

 

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Employ Influencers

Without a doubt the most direct way to enhance your brand’s image and boost your User Quality, is to use real Influencers. However, this is not cheap; Influencers with over 100,000 followers can easily charge $900 for a single post while those with over 1 million followers can change over $10,000.

So, unless you have an unlimited budget (which we guess you don’t), it’s important to plan your influencer campaigns carefully. This means picking the right influencers for your brand and organising the timing of each post carefully.

Selecting influencers for your brand can be an intimidating process. With so many people now claiming influencer status, it’s important that you pick authentic people who work professionally. A lot of the selection process is largely subjective, based on the image that you want your brand to convey. But authenticity is a little more objective. As a general rule, if a person has more than 500,000 followers, an engagement rate of less than 1.0% is low. 1.5%-2.5% is fairly normal, above 2.5% is good, and anything higher than 5% is excellent.

Check how much people comment on their posts, and whether they are prepared to interact themselves. Many ‘real’ influencers will have an online presence elsewhere, such as their own blog. And don’t be afraid to ask questions of their credibility. A good influencer is more than just a photo album.

For the full low-down on marketing your brand through influencers sign up to our free email course, where you’ll find all you need to know about running your own influencer campaigns.

 

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Influencer size, does it matter?

Well, yes is the short answer. But it all depends on what message you would like your brand to convey. Research suggests that the perception of influencers on Instagram varies according to the size of their followership.

As a general rule smaller influencers (otherwise known as micro-influencers) are seen as more unique by virtue of their more ‘exclusive’ followership. Meanwhile, larger influencers are seen as more generic and conforming, even if their image appears somewhat alternative. The collective brain of the average Instagram user makes strong assumptions about the person behind the profile, based on the numbers they can see. Someone with 3 million followers is just never going to appear very unique, as they are just too popular.

To put these ideas into context, brands should think about whether their overall image is one of conformity or uniqueness. Then with this in mind, they should take into account an Influencer’s followership when planning out any form of influencer campaign. For example, a large generic brand like Gap will have little concern for appealing to a sense of exclusivity or uniqueness, and hence they will fit comfortably with some of the biggest influencers, without compromising their brand image. Conversely a brand like American Apparel, known for their controversial advertising campaigns, might want the strongest possible sense of exclusivity, and focus their attention on smaller scale, less well-known influencers.

To some, this might seem like an excruciating level of detail for an Instagram marketing campaign. However, with brands investing more and more into this form of marketing, the pressure to get things just right is rising all the time.

For more detail on the issue of Micro vs Macro Influencers we wrote our own research piece, which you can find here.

Finally, we hope this guide has given you real actionable advise, so that your brand can reach it’s full potential on Instagram.  In order to grow we firmly believe you need to measure first. So, if you haven’t got one already, click here to request a VMI report for your brand now. And if you would like to share this guide, you can tweet about it here, or share through other channels using the buttons on the right.

 

About the Author

Jack Hesketh - Research, Marketing, and Product Development - Photoslurp