Written by John Allen
Whether you are using Instagram for advertising, for brand-building, or simply to gain greater engagement, the stats speak for themselves. Get things right, and your potential reach is enormous.
However, the flip side of this enormous potential audience is that you have to compete hard in order to grab attention - and to keep it. It’s a bit like trying to grab fish from a fast-moving shoal. Sure, there are loads of them, and they look like they’re right there for the taking - but they’re also moving incredibly fast. Even if you do manage to grab one, there’s a strong chance it might slip away.
You don’t just want one-off views. Instead, the goal should be getting Instagram followers who regularly engage with and share your content. The key to this is understanding (and applying) Instagram etiquette.
We all think we know how to behave online - but do we? You’d be surprised at what some people consider good conduct, and what others hate to see. To help you impress, retain, and charm your Instagram audience, here are our top etiquette rules.
Focus on the image
Instagram is a visual platform - which means that people expect the main content to be the image. To distribute your content successfully, you need to keep this in mind.
💡Suggested read: How to Visually Plan Your Instagram Feed If You're Not a Designer
What do we mean by this? Well, think about the kind of content you post. Are you posting well-crafted, well-designed, Insta-friendly images, or are you posting walls of text and placeholder images designed to grab attention in the hope that your audience will read the caption?
Remember, Instagram has its own unique format - the square image. That means your content needs to be designed with this in mind, as, if you upload something more rectangular, it won’t fill the screen in the same way. Make sure everything you post has been planned with this in mind, in order to create the most aesthetically pleasing (and thus, shareable) content.
If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that spam is frustrating. There are two main ways people spam on Instagram: abusing the hashtag system and posting way too often.
Apart from anything else, the followers you gain with these tactics won’t stick around for long. The second they realise that you’re not providing what they came to you for, they’ll unfollow.
No matter how well planned your marketing campaigns are, it’s easy to fall into the trap. For instance, if you’re promoting something that doesn’t lend itself to a snappy but relevant hashtag - VoIP Plans, say - it can be tempting to try and draw customers in with a hashtag like #smartphone, for example.
Unfortunately, while this might get you a short-term uptick in engagement, as soon as customers realise that you aren’t promoting smartphones per se, but business telephony, they’ll leave, and your brand reputation will suffer.
The same applies to excessive posting. Frequent updates might gain you an initial surge of attention as people encounter you for the first time. However, once your audience realises that most of their feed is dominated by you, they’re likely to unfollow and avoid you in the future.
If you’ve been anywhere near the world of marketing in the past decade, you’ll be very familiar with the term ‘personalise’. But, even though it’s said a lot, it bears repeating: ecommerce personalisation works.
It’s good etiquette to get to know the people you’re interacting with - and social media is all about interaction. To effectively personalise your feed, do the polite thing and get to know your audience. Pay close attention to your followers and their behavior. Learn their likes, dislikes, preferences, and so on.
Instagram has its own analytics system which will give you some useful audience insights - so check it regularly. In addition, there are some great third-party Instagram audience management tools out there that will help you to learn more about your followers.
Use appropriate hashtags
Instagram relies heavily on hashtags to direct users’ attention. We’ve already spoken about avoiding spamming them, but to be a truly great Instagrammer, you can go further.
Make sure that your hashtags are always directly relevant to both your content and your audience. The more specific, the better! For example, if you are promoting virtual telephones software, a hashtag like #Phone is too general to get the kind of audience you need. Something like #InteractiveTelephony is much more relevant.
Use more than one hashtag
When creating an Instagram hashtag, where do you stop? How many words can you cram into a single hashtag?
As a general rule, less is more. Try to keep hashtags as short and distinct as possible. A good rule of thumb is to separate them according to product or theme. If this feels limiting, remember that you don’t have to limit the number of hashtags you can use. Often a group of specific hashtags is more effective than just one or two general ones.
For example, if promoting an internet phone system for business, you could attract a relevant audience with a group of hashtags like #PhoneSystem #BusinessPhone #BusinessTelephony #TelephoneServices, and so on.
It’s rude to ignore people, so make sure you respond to comments and messages.
This is not just good etiquette. Instagram rewards brands that are responsive. As a social network, Instagram wants people and brands to be active and engaged on their platform. The more you respond to messages, comments, and so on, the more Instagram will boost your posts.
What’s more, when followers visit your profile, Instagram tells them if you frequently respond to comments. This immediately lets followers know how engaged you are with your audience.
Even something as simple as ‘liking’ a comment shows customers that you are paying attention to them. However, for best results, it is worth going the extra mile and responding thoughtfully to customer interactions.
Optimise for mobile
Instagram’s success is partly due to its mobile-friendly nature. So, you need to make sure that everything you design takes account of the fact that Instagram is a mobile app. Don’t try to force content designed for other formats (desktop, for example) into Instagram.
Remember - the point of mobile devices is that they are - well - mobile. This means that people will be using them on the go. If your content can’t be easily consumed on the go, your audience will get frustrated and move on. That means videos should be short, images should be attention-grabbing, and the captions should be snappy and to the point.
The more people that can engage with your content, the better. Make your posts as accessible as possible.
Think about things like the size and clarity of your image. Is it easy to make out on small screens? Can people with visual impairments see and read your content? Then there are videos - lots of people watch Instagram videos with the sound off (for example, if they’re sneaking a quick peek while at work), so make sure to include subtitles on all your content.
Test out your content on a variety of devices before posting it. You could even look into mobile application testing services, to make sure that your stuff really is compatible with your audience’s needs.
We live in an age of social responsibility. To build a great brand reputation, you need to show that you, too, are responsible and accountable.
The simplest way to avoid offending your audience is to be thorough. Research your posts, your audience, and how your stuff is likely to be received. Be kind and respectful in all your interactions.
However, even the most responsible poster in the world is not perfect. Everyone slips up now and again. If you’ve got a big enough social media presence, it’s inevitable that you will, at some point, post something that doesn’t hit as you intended.
In this case, take responsibility for your mistake. Be accountable. Ignoring the problem or (worse!) doubling down will make people angry. A sincere and well-thought-out apology, on the other hand, can win audiences back and even grow your following.
Whether it’s content or audiences, if you want it, you should get it ethically. Stealing or poaching isn’t good etiquette anywhere else in the world, so why should it be acceptable on Instagram?
If you want to use someone else’s content in your posts, go about it the right way. Ask them for permission (many people will be thrilled to have their content shared more widely!) If they grant it, make sure to tag them in the picture and properly credit them in the caption. Who knows, you might even find that this collaboration wins you an even larger audience!
The same goes for followers. Followers you buy in or poach from elsewhere might give your vanity metrics a quick boost, but it’s not worth it in the long run. There are plenty of tools that can help you determine follower quality - and these will quickly tell you that poached or bought followers are not worth your time. They won’t actually engage with your posts, or buy your product, or even (in all likelihood) stick around that long.
Growing audiences and producing content the right way can feel like a slog - but it’s worth it to gain quality, engaged, and loyal followers.
Manners maketh the brand
Social media etiquette can be difficult to follow. There isn’t an established rulebook, and the boundaries of what is acceptable are constantly changing.
Despite this, it’s worth making an effort to be as respectful and well-behaved as possible. Courting controversy might bring traffic, but it won’t gain you the kind of loyal and engaged following you need.
Following basic etiquette rules, like not stealing content, being accountable, and serving up relevant (non-spammy) content will help you to develop a solid, respectable reputation. It will show audiences that you care about them, that you care about your impact, and that you can be trusted. And they will reward you by clicking that ‘follow’ button.
John Allen is a driven marketing professional with over 14 years of experience, an extensive background in building and optimizing digital marketing programs across SEM, SEO, paid media, mobile, social, and email, with an eye to new customer acquisition and increasing revenue.