What if I told you there’s a treasure trove of user-generated content and consumer insights at your fingertips—all for free?

You can find it on Instagram. And if your brand is in the social media space, Instagram should be part of your daily vocabulary.

The photo-sharing app launched in October 2010, and in April, Facebook bought it for a whopping $1 billion.

If your brand isn’t there yet, you’re in luck. There are several lessons you can take from those that have gone before you. The following is a guide for brands starting out on Instagram—from deciding whether it’s for you to achieving success with your community.

What is Instagram?

Instagram is a photo-sharing application that can be downloaded for iPhones, iPads, and Android devices. You can upload a photo from your phone or take one while using the program and then apply a filter to it to make it look weathered, faded, vintage, or enhanced in some way. Photos are confined to Instagram’s signature square shape (Think: The Web’s answer to the Polaroid).

Instagram isn’t like traditional social media platforms, although you can follow friends as you would on Twitter. But people don’t generally talk about the banal moments of their day: They photograph them and give them a hashtag.

You can search for topics (including your brand) through these hashtags. It easiest to perform these searches on the app, but you can also use Statigr.am, which is easily the most popular Web-based third party Instagram management site. This is a great site for tracking down statistics on your Instagram photos. While you can see Instagram photos on the Web, the Instagr.am website doesn’t let you do much managing.

How to get started

The first step is to do a hashtag search of your brand on Instagram. If your product is used on a daily basis, you’ll likely find that people are already taking photos of it and talking about it on Instagram.

And the answer is yes, you should be participating in these discussions—even if it just means you’re listening at first.

Instagram isn’t a place to push product nonstop. It’s a venue to help bolster your lifestyle brand. Starbucks is perhaps the most recognized brand that uses Instagram as a social channel with more than 500,000 followers. Their posts tend to be product-heavy, but they also reveal an opportunity to show a bit of personality by featuring baristas and some behind-the-scenes action as well.

But less recognizable brands have also achieved surprising success on the platform. The clothing company Vans is one example. That’s because it’s not taking pictures of shoes and T-shirts and telling people to go buy its product. The brand is posting photos of people using the products in their natural environment: skateboarding events, surfing, BMX events. And then, of course, there’s the occasional product-related post.

Even Whole Foods, which has built its following on Instagram to nearly 50,000, doesn’t post what you might expect. The first page of photos for the brand doesn’t feature a bite of food—rather a collection of nature and outdoorsy photos. As is the rule with any new social media venture, remember that this isn’t a billboard—it’s a conversation.

[READ: 17 brands and individual Instagram users worth following]

How do I decide if my brand should be using Instagram?

For one of the consumer brands with which I work, we recognized an opportunity rather quickly on Instagram. We saw that people were tagging the name of the brand in their Instagram photos, which showed us exactly how people were using it in real time.

Our strategy isn’t sophisticated. We launched an account just to watch and listen for a while. With absolutely no interaction or use of the service beyond creating an account, we grew an organic following of 100 people over the first month. This showed us that people were actually seeking our brand on the platform.

We then reached out to our client, who said they didn’t have the dollars to put to the extra hours to launch an Instagram social strategy. We viewed this as a highly valuable place for them, with a ton of potential for getting user-generated content to post to our Facebook community and beyond. In other words: It just made sense.

We compromised with the client: We would fold the Instagram strategy into our ongoing Twitter strategy. We would dedicate part of the hours we set aside for Twitter to act essentially as the photo arm for Twitter. If we were going to put out photo-based Tweets they would come from Instagram.

Meanwhile, we would dedicate less than a half hour a day to monitoring hashtags surrounding our brand. It looks like this:

  • If we like how people are talking about and photographing our product, we “like” the post. When users see that the brand has taken the time to connect with them, they tend to follow our brand.
  • If we think our broader community will like the photo that a user posts, we reach out to them directly through Instagram and ask for permission to re-use the image. We offer them coupons for free product as a thank you. We’ve never run into a situation where someone wasn’t elated to let us use the photo. Some of the Instagram photos we’ve posted on Facebook have been some of our most engaging posts of the past couple months.
  • If the Instagram user is posting a photo because they found something wrong with our product, we reach out to them directly and offer them further assistance through our customer service team.

Beware the custom hashtag

I’ve stressed this before in previous columns regarding Twitter, and it bears repeating for Instagram. Your community will determine what hashtags it uses to talk about your product. When you try to force them to use certain hashtags it can backfire on your brand because users can potentially hijack it to negatively discuss your products.

We haven’t seen any highly publicized instances of this on Instagram, which hopefully means that brands are learning their lesson. In fact, some brands have found success with the customized hashtag.

For example, if you take a look at the Instagram feed for Chobani, purveyors of low-fat Greek yogurt, you’ll see an example of how a custom hashtag has worked to a brand’s advantage. They ask their fans to tag photos of their product #chobanitime on their profile (“Tag your cup, bowl, or other creation with #chobanitime”).

[Related: Read about Chobani’s Pinterest efforts]

With only a tiny exception, you see positive comments about how people are using the brand—namely, for breakfast and snacks throughout the day.

Grow your presence

Success on individual posts is contingent on strong imagery. Luckily, the brand I’m working with is associated with the outdoors, so there are plenty of photos of people who take our product on their adventures and post about it on Instagram. Find out how people are talking about your product and use that to your advantage.

A prime example of a company that has done this well is marker makers Sharpie. It saw early in Instagram’s existence that people were using the products artfully and tagging those creations on Instagram. The company has followed suit, posting its own examples of impressive creations made with the product, and people have responded well. The company has more than 16,000 followers and routinely gets more than 300 likes per post. That’s more than decent engagement.

Bottom line

But the true value of Instagram for brands is, hands down, the ability to see not only how people are using your brand but also as a copywriter, how people talk about your brand. We’re constantly discussing voice and tone in regards to brand presence in the social space.

A search of the hashtag #burberry tells you everything you need to know about the lifestyle of one of a typical brand advocate for the high-end clothier. For that brand it’s an invaluable resource for seeing how people wear their product and how people discuss and perceive their product.

This is marketing gold.

(Image via & via )

by (author unknown)