instagram logoFor those who are impatient and don’t want to read through a long article on the subject, the answer to the above question is an unqualified yes, Instagram is most definitely a business tool. Just as much Facebook, which now owns the popular photo sharing service is a business tool even if it is also a social media platform.
Instagram, for those who are not terribly interested in social media (you should be – it’s an integral part of doing SEO) started life as a photo sharing service with a mobile app component. In essence, the idea was that you could take pictures with your mobile phone and then instantly share them to your Instagram account.
For those of a certain age (and yes, I know, I’m dating myself here), the idea was to make a play on the terms Instamatic and telegram. An instamatic camera was a popular model of cameras offered by Kodak.
Telegrams were for years the fastest way to send a message across the globe. Basically, it would be transmitted at a Western Union office in one place and then printed out elsewhere, to be delivered within hours – they aren’t  offered anymore and Western Union now. The company now focuses exclusively on sending money overseas.
Okay, enough of the history lesson (I used to be a teacher and I sometimes get carried away explaining things). Let’s get on to talking about how to use Instagram for business.

Share Photos and Videos

As I said, Instagram started life as strictly a photo sharing site which worked with a mobile app. However, today, it allows you to directly post images as well as videos to the site and share them with your followers. However, you do still need a smartphone (iOS or Android) to actually access and use the service.
One important point to remember by the way is that Instagram videos do have a very tight time limit. You can post just 15 seconds of video on the service meaning that it’s not the same as posting videos to YouTube or even to parent Facebook. Think of it as being kind of like Twitter’s Vine service (6 second time limit) on steroids.
Also, it’s interesting to note that one of the features that made Instagram so popular to begin with, namely, filters, is also available on the video service. Filters on Instagram allow you to take a photo that you created and instantly adjust it to make it look prettier. So for example, you could post a picture on Instagram using a Sepia filter to make it look like an old timey photo:
sepia instagram photo
In addition to the filters, Instagram also has a clever feature which tries to minimize camera shake while you’re taking a video, something I haven’t seen offered elsewhere. How well it works, well that’s another question and you can judge for yourself by some of the videos on the site.

You Can Use it for more than Just Visual Products

One of the common misconceptions about Instagram is that it can only be used for physical or visual products. In other words, if you run a clothing store, it’s a great service and you can easily take pictures of the clothes and send them out, etc. Or if you happen to run a photo studio, that’s a great use for Instagram for business too.
But what if you run a financial consultancy? Can you actually use Instagram to do more than put up a picture of your own smiling mug shot? The answer is a definite yes. Remember that Instagram allows you to post any image that you like.
Now most of us think of Instagram and immediately, we think that it has to be photos. Well first and foremost, even though I mentioned it already, why not put up photos from around the office? People like to deal with other people, not faceless corporations.
In fact, putting in a photo of yourself often can make the difference in getting your product or services sold while others don’t sell. That’s why so many real estate agents have their photo on the lawn signs they put out by properties they represent. Of course, if you don’t photograph well, it might not be such a good idea, but we’ll assume that you do. Or at the very least that you can use the filters on Instagram to make yourself look good.

Consider Outside the Box Photos Too

Did your company participate in a 5K run to help defeat breast cancer? Maybe your employees all got together to do a volunteer day at a senior citizen center. Or maybe you have some cool photos of you and your customers celebrating your company’s first anniversary. All of these are great fodder for Instagram.
Again, any time that you can make yourself and your company feel more like a “member of the family” and a group of people as opposed to a faceless, nameless corporation, you are doing something great. Of course, the catch here is that you need to make sure the images present your company in a professional light. Thus drunken photos of the company Christmas party are out but images of you slicing a cake with a customer on the first company anniversary are in.

Consider Using Instagram In “Out of the Box Ways”

Now, as I mentioned earlier, you don’t have to just photograph merchandise or your artwork in order to use Instagram. Remember that an “image” is not necessarily a photo as far as Instagram is concerned. Thus you can always post images which include graphical versions of pithy and inspirational sayings (the kind that seem to fill up half of everyone’s Facebook timeline these days).
You could also post coupons on Instagram which can be redeemed at your company. In other words, think a bit outside the box and you will find all kinds of great uses for Instagram above and beyond just the basic photos of merchandise or even of people.

Do a Photo Contest

One of the fun things about Instagram is that it encourages people to share photos of themselves doing all kinds of interesting things. So for example, you might find photos of people enjoying an ice cream cone or eating a stack of waffles. The thing is, the majority of different kinds of businesses can lend themselves to these kinds of photos.
instagram ice cream and waffles
Even if you run something like a dental practice, it’s very easy to use Instagram to promote your business through a contest. You could for example have people submit their pictures of a winning smile and then offer a prize to the best one. It’s simply a matter of being a little creative to show your customers doing something that involves your business.
Run a financial consultancy as we talked about before? How about letting people share pictures of their dream retirement spots and run a contest that way? The possibilities are endless.
In order to set up a contest on Instagram, you would start out by creating a unique hashtag for your contest. So for example, if we were to run an Instagram contest for QuantumSEOLabs, we might use a hashtag like #QuantumContest. This would allow us to identify all the contest entries easily without requiring people to specifically tell us about them (we’re not running such a contest by the way, sorry).
Once you have created your contest (remember when I mentioned above that you can use Instagram to post text using a graphic? You can do this with your contest too), you should then promote it everywhere. Not just on Instagram but also on Facebook, Twitter and more.
Get the word out to as many people as possible and get people to submit photos of themselves enjoying your products or otherwise getting involved. You should also encourage people to share their photos with their friends and ask their friends to go ahead and vote for them on your contest page. This is the best kind of viral advertising you can get.
Once you have all the entries for your contest, consider creating photo galleries of them which can be linked from your own account. You have now created something interesting for people to take a look at which helps you to brand your Instagram account while at the same time getting customers more involved.

Do the Metrics Thing

As with pretty much any other popular social sharing tool out there, Instagram has all kinds of tools available to you for tracking how well your account is doing and how you stack up to the competition. In fact, you can even follow the competition to get ideas and possibly even to get into some nice joint ventures with them.
Some of the more useful apps for this include:
Statigram – One of the nice things about Statigram is that it actually allows you to follow not just your own stats but also those of the competition. You can actually take a look at some popular brands and see how many followers they have, what their most popular photos are and the like.
Nitrogram – What I really like about Nitrogram is that it also allows you to check out how well a particular hash tag is doing. This is great for following a contest or for simply following an industry specific hash tag on Instagram.
Gramgrab – Nice little app which allows you to hover over a photo on your Instagram account and actually see some metrics on it, including the number of likes and views. You can also click on a photo to instantly download it directly to your computer.

Other Useful Instragram Apps

These are not really metrics apps for Instagram. Instead, these are simply useful tools which will allow you to interact more readily with Instagram and do more for your business with the service:
Search Instagram – Pretty much just what it sounds like. This allows you to search through Instagram photos based on keywords and or hash tags.
Instagrille – As I said above, you do need a smartphone (or tablet) to sign up for Instagram and use all of the features native to it. However, if you primarily want to work from your regular desktop computer, you can use Instagrille to do the job very effectively.
In fact, theoretically, with the exception of the fact that you need a phone or tablet to sign up, you could pretty much use Instagram with this app without ever needing to touch the phone or tablet again.
Instagram Downloader – If you created lots of Instagram photos and want an easy way to grab them for use in a printed newsletter or brochure, this is a great little app which lets you grab everything from your account and download to them to your computer in bulk.

Remember to Have Some Fun

One of the biggest mistakes that people running an Instagram account for business make is thinking that the account has to be strictly related to the business. While you don’t want to post images on Instagram which will make your company look unprofessional, there’s no reason that you can’t have a little fun with your instagram account.
So consider posted the random photo perhaps with the label “just for fun.” It will give your followers something to look at which makes it feel as if your account is run by a real person and not just a corporation.
As with anything to do with social media, this is always the key – you want to ensure that you don’t come across as being too push on the sales and branding because people buy from people, not nameless, faceless, corporations.

Fill Out Your Profile

Finally, make sure that your profile is easy to read and includes a number of keywords which will help those interested in what you have to share find your Instagram account. By doing this, you’ll not only show customers that you are a professional but you can also show customers that your company is run by a person who took the time to personalize the account.