How to Use Instagram to Build a Community & Tell Your Brand’s Story

By Brian Skarin

Within 10 days of the news that Facebook was investing $1 billion to acquire Instagram, the then iPhone-only photo sharing app announced that it would finally be making itself available to Android users. 6 days later they had amassed over 5 million new downloads, a number that has continued to grow steadily ever since.

Over the course of 2 weeks, Instagram evolved from a basic yet highly effective tool for “making pictures look old” (and upping your hipster cred) into a full-fledged social media channel that is providing us with a look into the future of marketing. If content currently reigns as king, visuals + content is the prince patiently waiting for his turn on the throne.

Truly, Instagram is the first social platform that places major corporations such as Target and Starbucks alongside fledgling food trucks and mom and pop antique shops on an even playing field. Each is challenged with determining how to offer value and a story worth telling to their audience via the lens of their smart phone, and the innovative approaches we’ve seen so far already serve as a testament to the potential to be tapped.

Create a Story Worth Telling

The foundation of a successful Instagram strategy is a good story. Ideally, these stories will be in some way related to the business pushing them out, but we’re quickly entering into a new age of marketing where consumers care less about what a brand is and more about the story the brand tells.

The truth is, simply creating a profile and throwing up a few images won’t be enough.

One example of a company fully harnessing the power of branding via visual storytelling is Red Bull.


However, few businesses have the inherent marketability (or multi-million dollar budget) possessed by a company such as Red Bull, so how can a generally “un-exciting” industry inspire creativity while staying true to who they are and what they do?

Take a Peek Behind the Curtain

Nearly every film released on DVD or Blu-Ray in the last 10 years has come packed with some sort of behind the scenes features or commentary. It’s a huge clue to the the fact that people just love that little bit of extra insight that comes from taking a peek behind the curtain to see the process that goes into creating something they love. This can work for anyone, in any industry, as long as a little bit of thought and creativity go into the process.

A computer screen and coffee mug with the tag #office won’t be exciting anyone, but snapping a unique angle from a meeting that showcases your team working together is a great way to capture a passing moment which can be used to offer an interesting snapshot of your daily life.

Or you can just make people jealous by showing them how much fun you have at work like quirky clothing company, Threadless.

Fashion label Kate Spade takes the spotlight off their beautiful handbags and accessories to show you what’s on their playlist. El Scorcho!

Another company doing an amazing job of this is General Electric…Wait, why would you EVER want to follow GE on Instagram? Well, because they manage to be pretty dang fascinating.

Offering inside looks at manufacturing plants, research labs, and other large, complicated machinery that manages to look awesome when put under the filters has proven extremely effective in attracting almost 87,000 followers. And they make you smarter. The more you know, indeed.

(Re)search & Destroy

Browser-based Instagram tools such as Web.Stagram, Statigram or Search Instagram provide you with a direct link to your audience and what they’re actually saying about your product or industry. Utilize popular #hashtags to your advantage by discovering what’s already been said, and how you might be able to add some value to the conversation.

Build a Sustainable Community

International hotel chain NH Hoteles’ #wakeuppics campaign is a perfect example of a simple challenge that encourages community involvement without forcing a sales pitch on the user. The hotel asked users to take a picture of what they see when they wake up and post it with the hashtag #wakeuppics, and they would be automatically entered to win a travel package at one of their hotels. The tag has grown and grown, and is now associated with over 11,000 images from users spanning the entire globe. The contest is over, but the STORIES continue to unfold. Browsing the tag, one is transported to exotic locations in the tropics as well as corner coffee shops in Albuquerque and everywhere in between.

The underlying message here is that a little creativity and a clever idea can be the launch pad for a global community of visual storytelling.

Hold a Contest, Invite Interaction

Running an Instagram-only contest is simple, effective, and when done well can be an incredible tool for branding and capitalizing on the types of activities customers are already engaged in.

Sak’s 5th Avenue is currently holding an Instagram exclusive contest where shoppers are challenged with snapping a shot of their most desired item or look and posting it with the tag #SeeYouAtSaks for the chance to win $1,000. Each photo is transformed into a free ad for the product in question and participating in the contest requires customers to actually walk into the stores and browse, whether they win or not.

Brooklyn Bowl ran a similar competition where bowlers simply had to tag photos of themselves munching on some grub from their recently revamped brunch menu and tag it #BBrunch for a chance to win a pair of tickets to any of the concerts held at their local venue. Let’s be honest…we all know you’re already posting pictures of what your eating for breakfast anyways, might as well win some tickets for it!

Using your brand account, comment, “heart” and share some of the best submissions. This crowdsourced photo gallery offers the perfect opportunity to create an album of the best submissions to be shared on your Facebook account or website.

Pro Tip: Neil Patel thought of an awesomely efficient way to manage contest entries with a high number of submissions by creating an Instagram RSS feed. Begin by requiring users to submit their photos with a branded #hashtag that revolves around the theme of the contest in order to be considered for the prize.

“The best way to do this [manage high volume submissions] is to create a RSS feed and point it to a reader using this address:[hashtag name]/feed/recent.rss. Don’t include the hash mark # in this address.” 

He further suggests maximizing the return on your efforts by announcing the winner on the main page of your website, and similarly, directing social media announcements there as well in order to drive links and traffic to your own domain. Good on ya, Neil!

Use Collages to Convey Your Story

MIHO Gastrotruck is one of the most popular mobile food trucks in San Diego, and their Instagram channel is filled with mouth-watering images from their revolving menu. By combining multiple images into a collage using apps like GetLoupe or HoneyGram, they can convey an entire story with one simple post, inviting their followers to “heart” and comment.

Spread the Love and Offer Incentives

Sometimes, it almost seems like Instagram was built with the savvy marketer in mind. Posting across your company’s various social channels is literally as easy as checking the appropriate boxes before you hit “post!” The visual medium translates well to both Facebook and Twitter, allowing you to share across all audience channels.

Consider offering exclusive content or special promotions to your Instagram followers before announcing it elsewhere to help motivate your audience to follow. Despite its growing popularity, people may not assume your brand will have an Instagram account like they might for Facebook or Twitter.

Surfline, the popular wave forcasting and surf media site now offers their 5,000 Instagram followers exclusive video clips before they are released to the general public and promotes it on their Facebook page where they have a more established presence and almost 90,000 fans.

When coffee giant Starbucks wanted to announce their newest drink special, they did it on Instagram. Not only did it alert followers of Frappunccino Happy Hour, but it also encouraged customers to use the hashtag #frappuccinohappyhour while visiting Starbucks.

Get Geeky with the API and Innovate

Some notable artists and companies have already utilized the recently released Instagram API to integrate photo submissions into their own campaigns and websites in order to enhance their fan’s experience.

Electronica DJ Moby built a microsite that placed geo-tagged photos featuring the hashtag #destroyed on a map of the world to help promote his new album.

The main page of the metal band Deftones is a stream of tweets and Instagrammed photos.

Consistently Make the Mundane Magnificent

The key to keeping your Instagram worthy of filling up your audience’s feed and attracting new followers is the same as any other social platform: consistency and quality. Sure, Red Bull has branded helicopters dropping snowboarders on top of 14,000 foot mountains but you’ve got plenty of tools of your own. The most important of those being your own imagination.

The wonderful thing about Instagram is how simple it is to make the minutae of life seem exciting and vibrant. Showcasing a vacancy in your apartment complex? Utilize the collages we mentioned earlier to add a layer of style to your ad. Google some basic photography techniques and try implementing them in your next photo. Your compact smartphone allows you find yourself in unique places where you wouldn’t normally lug a camera around, so use that to your advantage by taking a moment to crouch down and see the world around you in a new way.

Instagram, as basic as it seems, offers a unique opportunity to brands that might otherwise remain faceless entitites behind a logo. It allows you to create your own unique story and invite others to sit around the digital campfire to hear and see it.

Funny how a simple tool that was once only used to remind us of the old manages to represent everything that’s new.

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  • Really great post, Brian! Time for Thunder to start building our own Instagram as well!

    • Thanks Georgia! Monique started one up and I expect nothing but pure awesomeness from @thunderseo <—see what I did there?

  • Brian – this is a great post. My mind is already reeling with ideas for Instagram promotions for Thunder, clients and more! Love the examples and how easy it is to follow. Also greatly appreciate the links to photo and Instagram-related tools.

    • Appreciate the kind words, Max! I’m slowly becoming seriously addicted to Instagram and I can’t wait to see how it shapes the way brands can share and interact in the future. I feel like it won’e be long until we begin to see a lot of new and cool ways people will be showcasing their message and stories.

  • Fantastic post! So much inspiration and so many great tips are in this article. Much appreciated!

    • Thanks Jesse, I really appreciate that! Glad you’re into it and that I could send a little inspiration your way.

  • Travis

    Love the ideas in this article Brian. This helps me a ton with ideas I need for advertising my work in an interesting and fun way. Thank you and please tell more soon!

    • Thanks for the love Travis, really appreciate it and I’m glad the post helped!

  • Royce Rowan

    Awesome info. I love this stuff. Crazy seeing whats happening now and thinking about the future of marketing. Nice work.

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