2016 is Instagram’s year. The Facebook-owned app passed the milestone of 500 million accounts just a few months back, with many users now treating it as their ‘second social network’ – ahead of Twitter.
Instagram’s rise is part of a broader trend towards a more image-led internet. Machines are learning to read and tag images, social networks across the board are allowing more rich media onto their feeds, and linguistic theorists are watching in fascination as pictographic emojis enter and alter our long-established, logographic modern languages (that aubergine emoji is a true contemporary hieroglyphic).
Instagram’s luck – or perhaps its genius – is being the best placed app to help businesses ride this aesthetic tsunami. Let’s take a look at some ways in which the app is being used to outstanding effect by businesses in 2016:

Heavy on brand, light on product-led promotion

From global brands to media-savvy independent businesses, you’ll notice that popular Instagram accounts tend to put out a high ratio of brand-enhancing imagery to material intended to promote specific products. To use a high street analogy: an Instagram account is to an ecommerce website as a look-book is to a catalogue.

Belstaff Instagram

This strategy makes abundant sense when you consider the fact that most Instagram users are browsing the app to find aesthetic bliss, rather than retail therapy. Most digital marketing execs are smart enough to realise this, and the result has been an explosion of hyper-real lifestyle imagery, ranging in subject matter from deserts and motorcycles to kids and cats.

Imagery designed to promote brands is used especially heavily by lifestyle businesses like high fashion biker gear designers Belstaff, whose rather swashbuckling Instagram profile is pictured above.

john lewis

That’s not to say Instagram isn’t a suitable platform for advertising products. This marketing masterpiece from John Lewis is a prime example of a product-led Instagram account done right – each image plucked fresh from a typically lush John Lewis photo-shoot.

If you’re going down the lifestyle route with your brand development, Instagram is an ideal channel to focus your efforts upon. Consider the activities, destinations and types of people your brand’s audience would associate with their own idealised lifestyle. These themes, places and people should form the basis of your next shoot – and if you’re a small business you should consider getting your team members involved too. Let your followers feel like you’re offering them a glimpse into a desirable lifestyle that they too can attain by buying into your brand.

Using video

Post a video online and you are almost certain to hold the viewer’s attention for a longer period of time than you would have if you had published a still image instead. There is much to gain from adding videos into your Insta-plan.

Instagram lets you upload videos 3-60 seconds in length, which can be filmed in-app or uploaded from your device memory. You can optimise your videos with captions, locations and, of course, a selection of filters.

A high proportion of commercial Instagrammers post a mix of photos and videos – especially bigger brands who can afford top video editing talent. Coca-Cola are a prime example – the videos on their profile must be almost as numerous as the individual grains of sugar that go into a 330ml can of coke.

Videos are playing an ever greater role in social media marketing. Small businesses face a three-way choice: pass up on the opportunity, hire a specialist, or train up.
Before we move on, a quick note on using videos on Instagram: videos can add depth and dynamism to your profile, but don’t cut out photographs entirely – some users browsing on mobile devices avoid pressing play on videos in a bid to conserve data (and some others simply prefer photos).

Using the platform creatively

SS1 - Not Studio

We love this innovative use of Instagram from London-based design agency Not Studio.

Forming a large image from a number of smaller images is nothing new (for one thing, triptychs have been knocking around for a while), but the use of this technique in a social media context is novel and creative – just the sort of traits you would look for in a design agency.

By treating Instagram itself as a creative medium, Not Studio have succeeded in promoting their best attributes.

If your creative talents lie awkwardly outside of the field of art and design, we would recommend browsing the Instagram profiles of design industry figures and companies – you will almost certainly find some inspiration to take away and use in your own Instagram marketing efforts.

Be bold and play around with different ways of presenting content on your Instagram profile. If you come up with something completely new – or if you perform an old trick particularly well – people are likelier to remember your profile and leave with a good impression.

Catering for diverse tastes within your audience

As far as Instagram marketing is concerned, brands with a niche audience get an easy ride, as their audience will likely exhibit fairly homogenous tastes in photography style, design style and subject matter. The job gets a whole lot trickier when your customers straddle a wide array of stylistic tastes.

It’s a problem guitar brand Fender knows all too well.



Fender’s customers plainly share an interest in music, but that’s roughly the point where any assumptions about mutual tastes can end. Devoted music fans often identify strongly with specific genres of music, and by extension the art or branding styles associated with those genres. Fender’s challenge is to appeal to as many of these people as possible – from Metallica fans to One Direction lovers – through a single, curated channel.

So how do they manage it?

Take a look at the screenshot above. You’ll notice that there’s no particular theme in terms of the style of the photos and videos used. The images are just as varied as the artists they feature.

Unlike brands with a more homogenous audience, Fender cannot simply paint a picture of a specific, aspirational lifestyle, built for a certain customer profile. Instead, the marketers behind the account appeal to a wide cross-section of their audience by using some of the oldest tricks in the social media marketing book. Take a look at the screenshot above. Here’s what you’ll see:

  • A photo of Jimi Hendrix playing his Fender Stratocaster guitar – in one stroke this image confirms Fender’s cultural clout and highlights an artist whose appeal transcends the genre politics that would generally stratify Fender’s audience.
  • Photos featuring cats and toddlers – because that’s the way to get likes and shares.
  • Photos showing Fender guitars in a diverse array of geographical/cultural contexts (i.e. amongst cacti, on a bus, in a garden, on a neon-lit street) – posting images in a variety of settings is powerful for two reasons above all: 1) when the customer sees the brand taking an interest in a location close to home, they are likely to grow to identify with the brand more strongly; and 2) the brand can appear more glamorous when placed in a setting regarded as ‘exotic’ by the viewer.
  • A video of a gorilla ‘playing a Fender guitar’ – a dead cert for viral sharing.
    At first glance, Fender’s approach to Instagram seems a little scatter-shot. Look a little closer and you’ll see that every move they make is calculated.
    With over one million followers and 5-figure interactions on almost every post, they must be doing something right.

Treating your Instagram profile like a media site

prsuitLifestyle/self-help publishers Prsuit appear to have struck upon a magic formula for herding Instagram users to their website.

The trick to Prsuit’s success is simple: they post links to their on-site content on their Instagram profile, alongside share-baiting, made-for-social content.

Instagrammers share said content with their friends; some of those friends check out Prsuit’s profile as a result; and some of those people click through to the website.
At the risk of sounding mean-spirited, we would have to say there’s nothing particularly special about Prsuit’s social content, most of which consists of trite quotes splashed across serene photographs of smiling, accomplished people. It may not appeal to us, but it certainly works for this brand and its 100k+ followers. We can’t help but wonder why more publishers have yet to pursue a similar Instagram policy to Prsuit.

The ancient art of tagging

Tagging other profiles and adding hashtags into your social media posts is just as important as adding links to your website – they’re your fast route to connectivity with users who lie beyond your existing audience. If you do not habitually tag people and topics in your social posts, you are currently nine years behind the times and counting. Always tag.

Here are just a few of the ways in which businesses are using Instagram hashtags in 2016:

Compartmentalising content

Belstaff Instagram 2
The hashtag we’re focusing on here is #BelstaffXLivTaylor. In this context, the primary purpose of a hashtag of this type is to provide a link to associated content.

Viewers who like the image can simply click on the hashtag to see the rest of the clothing collection. Tagging similar or related content with the same hashtag makes it easier for your followers to find what they’re looking for.

Jumping on-board with emerging hashtags


Whatever you sell, there’s almost certainly a healthy crop of widely followed hashtags that would be a great match for the content you publish. Here are luxury car makers Jaguar getting in on the #CarsofInstagram hashtag.

The participation of a brand with Jaguar’s cache can only add to a hashtag’s momentum. If the hashtag wasn’t worth using when Jaguar made this post, it will be soon.

Reach out to people and brands you admire

molly pukes

Artist Molly Pukes has done well out of tagging in the subject of this pen and pencil portrait. First and foremost, she has received a great response from the subject; and secondly, the interaction has drawn attention from the subject’s followers, thus catalysing a high numbers of interactions. If you’re a freelancer or small business owner, you should never be afraid to tag your heroes – you have nothing to lose and a great deal to gain.

A few bonus tips on tagging content

  • Try to be specific with the tags – doing so will help you to reach the right people
  • Adding a few well-chosen hashtags is a better policy than adding lots of mediocre ones
  • If you notice a trending hashtag that’s a great match for your brand, act fast and post!