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5 Ways the Smartest Businesses Use Instagram Marketing

Ready to kick your Instagram marketing up a notch? These clever small businesses offer ideas.

There are a million and one Instagram marketing posts out there, and 99 percent of them offer the same solid, sensible advice. But what if you've mastered the basics -- you've nailed down your goals, started posting regularly, fine-tuned your profile, and begun tracking your progress -- and now you're looking to kick things up a notch? Here are 5 ways smart businesses use Instagram.

1. They create brand ambassadors.

Love Your Melon is the sort of company people can get excited about. An apparel brand that donates 50 percent of its profits to fighting pediatric cancer, the company decided to multiply the impact of its Instagram marketing efforts by leveraging its inspirational mission and creating a brand-ambassador program.

"In addition to posting images and customer-sourced images on Instagram, ambassadors help promote their products on college campuses across the U.S. There are ambassador crews of approximately 20 students each at more than 1,000 college campuses. Each crew runs their own local Instagram channel, so they have more than 1,000 Instagram accounts that are pushing one message at a time," explains Cornelius.

Better yet, "it turns into a competition, because each team can see how their follower count stacks up across the country -- the students learn from each other and also help the overarching teams refine their own practices on Instagram." The results? "On Instagram they have seen an upward of 6-7X on ad spend and a ton of engagement," she reports, and the company is expected to double its revenue to $45 million this year. (That translates to $2.5 million for pediatric cancer research.)

2. They listen and branch out.

Bay Area fiber artist Meghan Shimek originally used Instagram simply as a means of promoting her creations. Her biggest success was a huge commission by retailer Splendid, who found her via Instagram. So far, hers is a pretty typical success story. But it's what she did when a follower asked if she also did workshops that sets her apart as a particularly clever marketer, according to Cornelius.

From that small spark, a whole new (and very successful) branch of the business was born. "She hadn't thought about teaching a workshop until an Instagram follower asked. Now she teaches workshops all over the world," notes Cornelius. Other small businesses would do well to follow her lead, not just looking to Instagram as a channel to promote their existing projects, but also as a potential source of inspiration for future ones.

3. They mix in video (but skip the sound).

"Video is becoming a favorite medium for marketers -- third-party research predicts that 75 percent of all data will be video by 2020," reports Cornelius. The smartest marketers are putting that into action by mixing plenty of video into their feeds. (Cornelius points to L.A.-based paper goods company Swell Press as an example of a small firm doing this well.)

Instagram offers several tools to help cash-strapped small businesses create professional-looking video content -- Boomerang, Hyperlapse, and Stories. But a word to the wise: Just because people love videos doesn't mean they love sound to go with them. "Remember, many people aren't able to consume sound when on mobile, so ensure your video will be engaging with or without sound," Cornelius reminds marketers.

4. They dig deep into follower demographics.

Average small businesses are happy to glance at which posts attract the most likes and comments. The best of the best dig deeper. For instance, Nashville-based purveyor of peaches The Peach Truck used Instagram Insights to really drill down into who was following and engaging with his content, unearthing some surprises. More than 80 percent of his followers turned out to be women, and he was shocked to learn he was reaching a national audience.

These insights changed the way be created and posted content, which is turn increased sales. And "while social metrics such as 'likes' and comments are an indicator of marketing success, the real metric that matters is sales," comments Cornelius.

5. They tell a personal (but consistent) story.

"People want to find out so much more about your business than just product or service information," insists Cornelius. Don't be shy about telling more of your personal story. "Customers want to understand who you are, what you stand for, what you're passionate about, and what makes you special," she says.

That being said, you shouldn't just throw up any old thing that pops to mind (though Instagram Stories -- the Snapchat-like feature that makes videos disappear after 24 hours -- allows you more freedom to experiment without regret). Instead, "have a clear, consistent visual message," Cornelius instructs. "If you tell a different story every time, others will struggle to understand what you're trying to communicate. Make sure that you're thoughtful about what you want people to know and that you're consistently reinforcing this over time."

To do that, "think about the three to five most important aspects of what your business is all about and try to find a way to weave at least one of those items into each post," she suggests.

Interested in even more ninja-level Instagram marketing tips? Instagram is co-hosting a free, day-long event called School of Hustle on August 14 aimed at helping entrepreneurs better use social media to grow their businesses. You can apply by July 28 to attend in person in L.A. or just check out the live stream on the day.

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