To put it lightly, it's been a big two weeks for Instagram. The photo app, which had previously been available only on Apple phones and tablets, made its way to the Android platform, to the tune of 5 million downloads in just a few days
Oh, and Facebook bought the company for $1 billion.
With all that hubbub, there has to be something more to Instagram than what a lot of people think of it as: a way to make new pictures look old. Though it certainly does that, business owners and public relations experts say it's also a fun, direct way to connect with people.
"This is such a great platform for visually communicating aspects of company culture that allow people to make more personal, emotional connections to brands," says Crystal Rim, digital publicist at excelamktg.
The power of simplicity
For seasoned social media users, there's no major learning curve for Instagram, says Daniel Saynt of the Socialyte.co network for fashion and lifestyle bloggers.
"Rather than creating a new language, they stuck with one people were familiar with from Twitter, incorporating hashtags and @ signs to simplify connecting of themes and users," he says. "Additionally, Instagram seamlessly integrates into so many other social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and FourSquare."
Rim says photos are becoming all the more dominant on Facebook and other social networks, so an app with an understandable language and easy-to-use interface is a big deal.
Another plus, at least for users, is that the app isn't inundated with ads and brands—yet.
"The platform is free of ads and isn't bogged down with every brand on the planet playing in the space," says Sarah Van Heirseele, vice president of digital at Blue Chip Marketing Worldwide.
Heirseele says Facebook's acquisition of Instagram could be worrisome for users who appreciate its simplicity.
"Facebook has stated that there are no plans to change the app itself, but you never know," she says.
Who should use it?
Saynt says fashion and beauty companies need to be active on Instagram.
"We've encouraged all clients to be active on the platform, educating clients like Arrojo Salon to use the service to feature recent work by their stylists," he says. "We've seen over 500 #arrojo hashtags hit the social network since introducing the program and an increase in bookings due to the shares."
In Socialyte's campaign for Rebecca Minkoff, the company got Instagram users involved by making them the photographers for the brand's first-ever print advertisement.
"The promotion produced over 100 entries in 24 hours, and the final winner shot our first campaign for Style.com Magazine," he says. "The hashtag feature makes it so easy to connect to new users and discover great people to follow."
Saynt says his firm is also advising clients to provide Instagram exclusives, with items available only through links in the app.
Rim says any company can use Instagram to good effect, however. The key is to give followers an inside look at your organization and its culture.
"Businesses can optimize their Instagram presence by showing beautifully filtered snapshots of the people that work there, company events, community-related content and the fun details of day-to-day working life," she says.
Heather Whaling of Geben Communication says she promotes her company on Instagram by showing the visual aspects of PR, but also by documenting her everyday life. And, just like Saynt, she does a little mixing of her social media platforms.
"We just started experimenting with the Geben Lounge on Tumblr," she says. "Using ifttt.com, we created a 'recipe' so I can post photos from my personal Instagram account to the group Tumblr, giving us another outlet to share work-related images."
Tips for success
As Heirseele noted, Instagram isn't a promotional hub. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, it's about what people are seeing more than what they're doing, Whaling says.
"It's a nuanced but important difference," she says. "For a brand to succeed on Instagram, they have to figure out how to create content that fits this 'seeing' expectation."
Rim adds, however, that brands should do more than look on Instagram. It's a social app, so be social. "Like" posts, respond to comments, and join conversations.
Also, use filters, she says, even filters that aren't native to the app.
"Don't hesitate to filter your photos through other apps that add things like special effects, captions, and graphics before uploading them to your Instagram account," Rim says. "The more visually engaging your content is, the better."
Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.