By Jonathan McFadden The Charlotte Observer.
From fashion mavens to real-estate brokers, small-business owners seeking to boost their brands and reach younger customers are turning to Instagram, the free photo-sharing app with showy images and hashtags.
Like Twitter, which preceded it, and Facebook, which owns it, Instagram lets users upload photos and share, "like" and comment on their favorites. And since it's been called one of the fastest growing apps on the market, it has become the go-to social network for businesses looking to leverage their marketing to millennials.
Digital research firm L2 estimates that 3 million U.S. teens abandoned Facebook between 2011 and 2014 and now consider Instagram their most important social network. Another study, by the Pew Research Center, says more than half the adults age 18 to 29 who use the Internet use Instagram, compared to 37 percent of Twitter users in the same demographic.
Given that data, small businesses using the application should spend 80 percent of their time sharing fun and interesting tidbits and the other 20 percent selling merchandise or services, said Jenifer Daniels, founder of Good+SmartCo, a Charlotte-based public relations and marketing academy.
"By the time that 20 percent creeps up, your potential customers or followers don't feel like you set up an account (just) with sales stuff," Daniels said.
Here's how four Charlotte-area small-business owners use the app to build their business:
CAPTURING EVERY ANGLE When Alejandro Torio, co-owner and marketing director of 5Church restaurant, uses Instagram to advertise lobster and cocktails, he treats each photo like an art form, he said.
For the best lighting, he takes pictures on a table in the restaurant that's next to a large window. He photographs food and drinks from various angles, overhead shots are great for desserts, while shots from the front work best for hamburgers to see the meat, lettuce and garnish, he said.
A handwritten schedule helps Torio map out an Instagram "story" that might include videos and photos of chefs cooking specials for the week.
Like children in a library, Instagram users "are scrolling through pictures, seeing what captures their eye," said Torio, who ran 5Church's Facebook and Twitter accounts when the restaurant opened in 2012.
"Then I saw the new generation of young people ... they're definitely more on Instagram," he said.
Torio's efforts to reach that new generation are working, he said. The restaurant's Instagram page has more than 1,400 followers, whom Torio believes enjoy "the colors and brightness of the food."
"People eat with their eyes," he said.
'MORE EXPOSURE THAN FACEBOOK' Real-estate broker Maureen Roberge uses Instagram to post photos of the houses and commercial properties she sells. The application helps her reach an audience far beyond the Charlotte-metro area.
"I have followers from Canada, Australia, people from everywhere" said Roberge, who owns LKNHomes.com and LKN Commercial. Helping drive much of that traffic, she said, are posts that are different every day.
In addition to collages of her latest homes for sale, Roberge posts photos of a lake, waterlilies, animals and even a picture of her daughter sporting cornrows.
Sometimes she'll take interior and exterior shots of a house or back porch and pair it with a question to her followers: "Who would want to sit out here and have coffee?"
That engagement draws a different crowd than she would get on Facebook and Twitter, mainly, "more millennials," she said. And since users don't have to befriend or follow an account to see a page's photos, Instagram "gives more exposure than Facebook."
OFFERING INCENTIVES Such visibility is a boon to Melt-In Your Mouth Cupcakes, a dessert shop in Charlotte with more followers on Instagram than on Facebook or Twitter.
Michael Chambers, who owns the bakery with his mother and head baker Julie Chambers, has used the app since the venture started three years ago. "It's the easiest way to showcase what we have," he said.
He posts photos of cupcakes fresh out the oven and boasts about their wonky flavors, such as chocolate with bacon and bourbon. Once a month, he hosts an Instagram giveaway in which he gives customers treats if they buy a cupcake he posted on the shop's page.
"We've got people who come in all the time, and they talk about how they've been checking us out (on Instagram)," he said.
COMPETING WITH THE BIG BOYS LeMond Hart, who sells vintage men's clothing and accessories from a micro business incubator in Charlotte, said Instagram is the best social media tool for his business, The House of LeMond.
Hart's page is covered in photos of customers and mannequins modeling outfits, and snapshots of lapel flowers, socks and pocket squares. He piles posts with hashtags (#staydappermyfriends) directing users to a gallery of his apparel.
It helps spur sales. Instead of selling clothes on a website, Hart takes customers to his Instagram, where they can peruse his inventory, then call him with orders. Hart said a client once called him and spent $200 on an ensemble after seeing a photo he posted of camouflage wingtip shoes.
Those results embolden Hart, who said he feels that, online, he competes with Michael Kors, Banana Republic and Prada. Financially, there's no comparison, he said. But on Instagram, "their ... space is the same as mine." ___ HOW TO GET THE MOST OUT OF INSTAGRAM FOR YOUR BUSINESS
Sue Zimmerman, founder of Massachusetts-based Insta-Results, an online Instagram course, offers tips for what small-business owners can do to bolster their business with Instagram.
-Post good-looking photos: Make sure every photo "is fabulous and has great lighting." Third-party applications, like WordSwag, Rhonna Design, Phonto and PicLab, allow you to edit photos to enhance quality.
-Use sensible hashtags: Use hashtags that describe your business, and encourage followers to use them. An easy way to get started is to use the location or surrounding area where the business is located (example: #charlotte).
-Peel back the layers: Use Instagram to show customers what's going on behind the scenes. Customers want to do business with people they know, like and trust.