From Levi’s to the local craft foods shop, businesses of all sizes are flocking to Facebook’s free photo-sharing app Instagram, hoping to get noticed by its 80 million active users and expand their reach.

What makes Instagram different from other social media sites such as Facebook, Pinterest or Twitter? It’s almost entirely photo-based and available only on Apple iOS and Android mobile phones and devices. Instagram has emerged as an effective marketing tool because companies can quickly build brand recognition and consumer loyalty through an ongoing stream of photos that help personalize their brand.

That Greek yogurt brand Chobani for example. In just a matter of weeks after joining Instagram a year and a half ago, Chobani (@Chobani) attracted a loyal clique of some 9,000 “Chobaniac” followers, which helped catapult the company from little-known to must-have. Chobani generated buzz about its brand on Instagram by encouraging followers to share their own pictures and holding weekly contests. A recent Chobani Instagram contest showcased Chobani fans’ photos of their favorite yogurt mix-in ingredients. Chobani chose a winning fan picture each week and awarded winners free cases of yogurt.

How can you use Instagram to take your marketing to the next level? Start with these five tips:

Related: How Photos Can Make or Break Your Marketing Campaign

1. Promote your goods and services. Post creative snapshots of your company’s products and services and avoid boring stock photos, infographics or text-heavy images.

Show some flair when you tell your followers — potential clients, customers and business partners — who you are and what you do. Starbucks (@Starbucks) does this right. The coffee powerhouse posts casual, quirky close-ups of Frappuccinos, cake pops and other products for its 858,000-plus Instagram followers daily, as well as images of baristas frothing milk and sampling pumpkin spice lattes.

To avoid brand burnout, don’t show photos of your products more than three to four times a day. And avoid posting the same picture twice. Repeat photos are generally a turn-off in the Instagram community, which thrives on fresh, new imagery.

2. Host photo contests. Photo contests can be a fun, free way to attract, interact with and convert potential customers. Ask your Instagram followers to submit personal photos of your products and then post the best ones on your online store.

To keep followers coming back day after day, launch a photo-of-the-day campaign. Change it up and invite your followers to submit captions for your photos or answer trivia questions about your snapshots. Pick daily or weekly winners and reward them with prizes.

Make Instagram photo contests light and fun, but keep your eye on the marketing prize, as Levi’s (@Levis) recently did with its #iamlevis Instagram photo competition. In a bid to discover its next star model and reach a wider audience, the company asked fans across the globe to post Instagram photos of themselves wearing their favorite Levi’s clothing. During the contest, people shared more than 3,513 Instagram photo entries. Each follower’s image was a reinforcement of Levi’s brand, basically a free ad, and the winner took center stage in Levi’s 2012 “Go Forth” ad campaign.

3. Create images that feature promotional codes. Promoting exclusive discount and coupon codes for new products and services within a single Instagram photo is a fast, low-cost way to attract fans and boost sales. British clothing retailer Topshop (@topshop), which boasts more than 218,000 Instagram followers, uses Twitter and Facebook to drive consumers to Instagram images that reveal “secret” discount codes and sneak peeks at new store locations.

Don’t forget to hashtag your special-offer photos with #promocode. Hashtags on Instagram work exactly as they do on Twitter. They’re an effective way to attract and track deal seekers.

Related: 9 Great Photo and Video Apps

4. Go behind-the-scenes. Show your customers what happens at your company by posting candid snapshots of employees collaborating in their cubicles or kicking back in the break room. Post pictures snapped at company parties, charity dinners, product launches and industry events, too. Such behind-the-scenes glimpses help personalize your company and can create a sense of camaraderie and trust with your followers, making them more likely to do business with you.

Zappos (@Zappos), a relative latecomer to Instagram, is already a standout at posting brand-reinforcing, behind-the-scenes pictures. The online retailer predictably posts many pictures of shoes, but its designers mix up the feed a few times a day with colorful images of models on a fashion shoot or workers’ cubicles decked out with fake mustaches and cute family and pet photos.

5. Make your followers stars. Choose a follower of the day and promote him or her with an @mention. Similar to Facebook and Twitter, an @mention is how Instagram users tag each other in comments. This can fire up powerful word-of-mouth promotion and deliver more followers and potential customers. Many people — Instagram photo buffs included — like to be personally recognized by companies for their loyalty, and they’re more than happy to spread the word about their special status within their Instagram network.

For example, Sharpie (@Sharpie) showcases Instagram images posted by followers who draw impressive doodles and sketches using, of course, Sharpie markers and pens. The result? Sharpie has attracted nearly 39,000 Instagram followers so far.


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