“People don’t open their Instagram app expecting to be sold to. They want to be engaged with – to be entertained,” stated Penn State Extension’s Miranda Harple during a recent webinar about the use of Instagram to elevate your brand and connect with customers.

In its ongoing evolution as a product and platform, Instagram is still a highly visual format, perfect for retailers and event/hospitality spaces – as long as it’s utilized correctly.

Harple first reviewed Instagram’s features. If one is to use a product, understanding its capabilities is paramount:

• Instagram posts primarily appear in the main feed of the app and can be presented as photographs, a carousel (a set of successive images which users can scroll through, left-to-right) or videos.

• Instagram stories are seen at the top of the main feed and are also accessible via the Instagram biography. Though they can be saved/archived to the bio, ordinarily, stories have a limited life of 24 hours. Harple encouraged users to think of stories like “pages from your website.” The equivalent of internet tabs, they are capable of highlighting a current thought, project or happening at your business.

• Reels and live videos: The Reel was a response to the short-form video trend. Reels are a great way to highlight current company initiatives and offerings or behind-the-scenes content. Live videos are accessible to anyone, regardless of following. Great for event coverage, live videos offer a real-time broadcast through the app, allowing you to connect with followers. Both video formats can be found in the Reels tab of the Instagram app.

• The For You Page allows users to search and be served content relevant to their interests. This function sees a lot of Gen Z user traffic, which might be of interest to businesses looking for a younger crowd.

• Shopping: The Instagram Shop function allows users to incorporate their retail/online stores and sell products, incorporating tags and checkout functions within the app.

Harple emphasized the Instagram bio as a gateway for new customers, serving as their initial impression. To drive social media traffic into website and physical store conversions, she suggested essential bio components, including a product or place photo, contact details and “social proof” like reviews or hooks from other entry points.

She used the example of an Italian winery: “The wine resort that will make you fall in love with Tuscany.” The winery used the byline from a review and transformed it into a perfect tagline. It conjures an image and expectation – you immediately have a concept of what a visit to this Tuscan wine resort will entail.

The bio should inform new customers about why they should follow, educate them on the brand’s value and highlight when and where to access the business.

Any way you can optimize your profile and bio can be helpful. Harple suggested keeping an active Instagram story, saying “it’s a great conversation starter. People love to feel personalized engagement on these apps.”

The usage of links in the bio can also be helpful – either organically or via a third-party application like Linktree. In a given example, a company utilized a Linktree link in their Instagram bio to recruit signups for their email newsletter.

In your business’s profile and in the feed, the app’s algorithm utilizes hashtags to prioritize your content – for example, #farmersmarket. Harple recommended a 3×3 hashtag rule: one to three hashtags for each of the following categories: Who is the audience, what is the product or service and why does it solve a problem for the audience or prospective customer?

She noted that while hashtags are not obsolete, their relevance is decreasing, with keywords becoming more crucial in sorting and prioritizing content in 2024.

With that foundational understanding in place, Harple emphasized the need for a content strategy. Businesses should assess their positioning on Instagram by addressing fundamental questions such as why they exist on the platform, what makes them unique and what problems they solve. Further exploration includes identifying the ideal customer, challenges posed to the industry and how the brand (or farm) stands out from existing options.

There are several “pillars” of content that are necessary when approaching your Instagram:

• “Awareness” – This content generates growth for your brand online. It can teach viewers something new or cement you as an expert on your product or topic. The goal of awareness content is to increase the sharing of your brand and broaden your reach online. Perhaps you teach followers about the types of perennials you sell in your greenhouse during summer or you create a tutorial on how to make the cheese you sell in your dairy store.

• “Action” – This content is promotional in nature. Its goal is ultimately to generate sales. Perhaps you are debuting a new flavor of ice cream in your dairy store – you would want to promote that sale.

• “Advocacy” – This content builds loyalty and familiarity with your following. It might include “behind-the-scenes” content – often less formal, it showcases your brand voice. What makes your operation special? An example might be telling the backstory of your family farm and business, entertaining followers with the story of your grandfather’s adventures delving into farming for the first time.

Your content mix should be something similar to the following: Awareness – 50%; Action – 30%; Advocacy – 20%.

Not sure where to begin when it comes to content ideas? Harple noted the website answerthepublic.com, a “search listening tool” that helps you discover what your prospective customers might be searching for. There are many similar tools available online.

What are some real-world efforts you can make on your property or in your facility that can invite Instagram traffic? Make it “Insta-worthy” – something customers will want to include in their photos. User photos taken at your farm or small business are free publicity if they tag your location, so why not invite that?

Capitalize on elements of your property that might make customers take photos and post about your business – a restored barn, an antique tractor or more seasonal examples like a pumpkin patch or a corn maze.

Prioritize cleanliness as well – have clean spaces that customers can enjoy and feel welcome in.

“Make it feel like an art display,” Harple said. Bring color and composition into play. You could design a photo area or “selfie station.” Ask customers to tag you or to use a specific hashtag if they would like to be featured. Be sure to share their images.

Harple’s final bit of advice is a good reminder for any sector of marketing: Don’t chase trends. Build a strong community to increase your engagement. Highlight your customers’ experiences, collaborate with other businesses and respond to your comments and messages in real time.

by Andy Haman