Why You Don’t Need an Instagram Marketing Guide – Seriously!

When a colleague asked on Twitter who has written a brilliant Instagram marketing guide my willingness to help made me start my favorite search engine – Ecosia – and look for one.

Of course I found like a dozen more or less comprehensive Instagram marketing guides – most of them written by tool makers who make money by helping you market on Instagram. Yet before I clicked and compared those my brain finally started working.

I remembered the odd statistics and reports about Instagram. Sure, it’s still one of the most popular social media services these days. Sadly Instagram generates almost no traffic to publishers even when it comes to Instagram’s favorite topics – think fashion and cosmetics. How come?


What is Instagram and How Does it Work?

In simple terms Instagram is a photo and video publishing service. It’s similar to Flickr but it also has editing features like Canva. The combination of those two approaches made it a success in the first place.

In the early days photographers would make photos look vintage or low quality by adding some of the filters Instagram offered. By now Instagram is more about showing a picturesque lifestyle that is often too good to be true.

People are faking images left and right to show themselves better, stronger, sexier. Others who can’t keep up with the Joneses get depressed while trying or looking at those perfect travel, beauty and fashion photos.

Unlike actual social networking sites Instagram – owned by Facebook’s billionaire founder Mark Zuckerberg – is not about leading visitors astray to other websites. It’s about keeping them on Instagram from day one.

It’s almost impossible to even link out from Instagram. You can do it from your profile description but that’s about it and most people overlook or ignore that link.

As mentioned above Instagram popularity leads to almost no traffic to your own website as Kyle Byers found out:

“Instagram drives very little traffic: under 1% overall across all niches.”


Even compared to other – less popular – sites the traffic is meager. The much smaller Pinterest is far more impactful, especially when it comes to topics like fashion and beauty – the ones that are in the spotlight on Instagram:

One of the main reasons why brands flock to Instagram is because it’s still a cool site among teens and it has like a “billion” of users. Yet these users are not going to visit your site.

You have to create content for Instagram. Ideally you are a photographer who uploads their own photos to the service. That’s who used it when the site started and it’s still their most important use case.

On Instagram you can’t just share things from other people. Instagram is about creating and publishing visual content – think mainly photography. There are other ways to create images for Instagram but most of them won’t suffice by themselves.

Some accounts to indeed take content from other accounts and simply republish it but that’s frowned upon by photographers and copyright holders. You risk a hefty bill for that unauthorized usage later on.


The Best Way to Practice Instagram Marketing – Work with Influencers

The best way to approach Instagram marketing is not to try to create a popular Instagram profile. Instead the only feasible way for most brands is to work with existing Instagram users – some call them influencers and to make them share your products and promote your brand.

How you convince people to spread the word about you – whether involving direct sponsorships – or by trying to become hip among those influencers by others means does not matter as long as you get them to talk about you.

Red Bull is a great example of proper Instagram marketing.

They don’t have to pay Instagram influencers to post something featuring their brand they simply sponsor athletes who are also on Instagram and report about themselves while wearing Red Bull clothing or drinking their drink.

Also Red Bull has a magnificent content creation machine running. They have whole film making teams following extreme sports athletes around the world or staging stunts in attractive locations just to film them.

Most brands that aren’t publishers already do not have something remotely similar. There aren’t even photographers on most teams, even large ones.

Influencers on the other hand literally live for Instagram and treat their whole life as a way to Insta fame. Sometimes they go bankrupt while at it and many influencers are faking follower counts and even engagement but there are still people out there who are indeed successful on the site.


Trying to Be Cool like the Kids?

Many brands are trying hard to become cool on Instagram – often years late – after the service has gone mainstream. I even see visually unattractive industries like Web hosting trying to impress the cool kids and show them that they also belong. Yet it does not work that way.

The coolest kids have moved on from Instagram already.

It’s not just that the site is infamous for spreading unhealthy body images of barely clad teens bordering on pedophilia and among the leading causes of anxiety and depression. Instagram is not that cool anymore for those in the know.

When Instagram became more than just an image sharing or photo manipulation app I considered to start using the service but quickly realized that it’s a futile attempt at trying to howl with the wolves.

Instead I focused on my hitherto established Pinterest presence. There I could reshare content from other people and spread the word about them instead of stroking my ego and trying to make myself a celebrity or something with the proverbial 15 minutes of fame.

When you are young, cool and sexy you still can get popular on Instagram despite the picky algorithm they use now. As a brand you will always be just “also ran”.


How to Decide Whether to Join Instagram

The decision making process about Instagram marketing for brands goes something like this: “why aren’t we on Instagram yet? Everybody else is! Let’s join the bandwagon! How? We don’t have visual content to post! Then create some!” That’s about it.

Then graphic designers try to come up with shareable content that also reflects brand values. It’s rarely cool though as most brands aren’t and they can’t simply show off almost naked bodies or nearly impossible stunts that usually get traction on the site.

Focus on what you do best and stick to it. Do not just waste money on establishing an Instagram presence when other services are much better suited to represent your type of business.

Approach influencers and make them spread the word about you.

There are many tools that even help you find influencers on social media. Just remember to have a proper budget for influencer marketing and do not contact the same superstars everybody else does. People who have organic reach aren’t into working for you for free and the ones that have lots of reach have no time to deal with you at all in most cases.

For me personally Pinterest is still the best social media site. I get hundreds of visitors from Pinterest while I get a few from Facebook and none from Instagram on my cycling blog that hasn’t been publishing in years. Why? I have lots of evergreen visual content people still share voluntarily.

Pinterest is the second biggest source of social media traffic to publishers’ websites for many years in a row according to Statcounter. It comes right after Facebook.

In the US 30% of social media traffic comes from Pinterest! That’s ten times as much as Instagram yields. Globally it’s still 15%.

Source: StatCounter Global Stats – Social Media Market Share in the US

Instagram is barely a blip. Sure Red Bull has also millions of followers on Instagram yet they don’t do it for traffic. They can rely on brand recognition as a consumer product when you probably can’t.

That’s also how you can decide whether you or your company can effectively build an audience on Instagram without sacrificing much need resources elsewhere.

  • Do you sell to consumers directly?
  • Are you a lifestyle brand or do you offer lifestyle products?
  • Is your business model highly visual and visually attractive?
  • Do you have people already talking about you and your products on Instagram?
  • Is your direct competition really successful on Instagram or are they just there because “everybody” is?
  • Can you allocate enough budget to Instagram content creation without reducing spend on existing channels or minimizing other tasks?

The last company I worked for decided to go after Instagram instead of promoting content that was already created for the blog wrote for. It was a huge distraction and did not really reach the right audience at the right time. The only goal was seemingly brand recognition.

The blog did not get because of lack of audience building measures. Much needed resources were bound on Instagram.

Meanwhile graphic designers barely had enough time to search for free images on Unsplash instead of creating illustrations or infographics for the blog. Why? The desired Instagram fame required a steady flow of “creative” images.


Instagram Alternatives for Marketers Who Dislike Vanity Metrics

When you are a Web-savvy marketer you will probably be careful when allocating resources to Instagram and consider also alternatives that may be more valuable for your business. Just following hypes may be costly.

Vanity metrics like user numbers aren’t helpful to determine the actual outcome of marketing campaigns. A billion wows you but does it really mean revenue?

I mentioned Pinterest above more than once. You get much more traffic there and need a lot less resources to get traction. You can just multiply other people’s content most of the time and only occasionally add yours.

That’s indeed the best way to get recognition on Pinterest. Purely self-promotional accounts do not get much attention. Also the context you appear in is much better. Pinterest is an inspirational site. Instagram is infamous for causing depression among teens.

When you are into B2B you probably won’t have any use for Instagram anyway. Even though they added shopping features in 2019 you rather won’t sell software there.

Your best bet might be LinkedIn instead. The social networking site for business people has become better and better over the years and surprisingly further improved since Microsoft took over.

Mere text ads won’t work well there but genuine engagement driven by content marketing has been proven to show encouraging results for some of the marketing leaders. LinkedIn even favors smaller businesses now.

Just in case you are really after the cool crowd or teens because they are the future literally consider a site or service that is still growing in popularity and hasn’t arrived in the mainstream yet. Snapchat is almost there but it’s still so cool that Instagram frantically attempts to copy their features.

TikTok is an app from China that conquers the West like no other. Even Mark Zuckerberg fails at copying its successful features or formats. Early adopting such services before they are already populated by “everybody” might be a better idea than joining an overcrowded platform late

Always remember that social media are distribution channels and not meant to replace your own publishing outlets.

Imagine the New York Times giving up their website or newspaper and publishing on Instagram instead. Impossible! Why would you do this? Publish on your site first and foremost. Use social media to spread the word about your content right where it belongs – on your own property.


When First Joining Instagram – Where to Start?

Still not convinced? You want to try and invest money into Instagram beyond just working with influencers? You really want to do it yourself, create an publish content on Zuckerberg’s site? Then at least do it right from the start. How?

Hire people who will do it for you instead of tediously learning yourself, several years late! Remember that Zuckerberg bought Instagram back in 2012! It was the next big thing already then.

You will need an experienced social media manager of course but that won’t suffice. As mentioned above you also need content creators who are into visual media – mainly photos and videos. You also consider artists and designers but with photos you will miss the main pillar of Instagram success.

Do not assume that after reading an Instagram marketing guide or two you will become the new kid on the block everybody wants to check out.

As a brand ambassador you can’t just flaunt your body or use irresponsible footage of dangerous stunts. People literally kill themselves while trying to get famous there.

When you arrive late at least acknowledge that fact and act accordingly. Build upon the experience and expertise of those who came before you. Do not start like a newbie. Start with professionals on your side assisting you.

OMG! This article turned into another Instagram marketing guide. Let me summarize my message then: do not join Instagram just because it’s mainstream now. When you need to learn Instagram marketing from scratch in 2020 you are already a decade late. Make an informed decision.

In case you still want to join Instagram and popularize your business there after reading this post at least do it right by getting the right people to implement it. Those unpaid social media interns are probably way better at Instagram than you. You better offer them a real contract.