It’s time to lay out a few hot strategies that any small business can use to get the most out of Instagram. But first, let’s get one question out of the way: Why Instagram at all?

Here’s one very good reason: There are more than ONE BILLION people on Instagram. A number like that means your audience is on there too.

And here’s another: Instagram is owned by Facebook. So if you’re running social media ad campaigns (and you should be), you can easily leverage both of these critical platforms. 

But while Facebook and Instagram are both important to factor into your marketing strategy, Instagram will still get you just a little bit further in terms of reaching more fans with a smaller budget. So, with the “why do it” out of the way, let’s get to the real stuff—and that’s how to do it better.

Tip 1: Have a “Visual First” Strategy

No matter what the size of your business, you have to find a way to get creative visuals out to your audience—we live in a world where people scan more than they read, and visuals are the best way to grab their attention. 

How do you get started? Here are the three simplest ways you can get your hands on compelling, beautiful and effective images to use on Instagram: 

  1. First, the obvious: take your own photos! If your small business has a limited budget and you don’t have the time or money for fancy equipment, don’t worry. These days, it’s very likely that your iPhone or Android has an amazing camera that can take excellent shots—and even great video. And your camera app also has some incredibly powerful photo editing tools that can help you tweak, crop and punch up those photos, and even add text or graphic elements.
  2. Use stock images. You can find plenty of free images on sites like Unsplash, Flickr, Pexels and more—just read up a bit on copyright and fair use rules, and read the usage rights info on the images you choose to make sure they’re free to use and to find out what kind of credit is required. You may want to be sparing in your use of stock images on social media, but they do have their place. 
  3. Hold a brand photo shoot. If you’re struggling to get started, it might be worth the investment to hire a photographer to get things rolling for you. The key for a successful and truly time- and mind-saving brand photo shoot is to make sure you’re working with a photographer who will provide you with “social media ready” images that are already cropped, filtered, formatted for Instagram and ready to go. Another thing to keep in mind as you plan your photo shoot is to create plenty of both “evergreen” and “seasonal” photos and content. Evergreen means it can be used any time of the year. Seasonal would be a photo that represents a particular time of year—you don’t want to only have photos of beaches and flip flops when it’s the middle of winter!

Whether you take the photos yourself, go with stock or hire a pro, there’s one more thing you need to keep in the front of your mind, and that’s your brand story. The photos you share on social media need to be fun and engaging, yes, but they also need to stay on brand, and to tell a compelling story about what you offer. 

So how do you create a beautiful photo that tells a story? It starts by asking yourself three questions: 

  • What makes your brand unique?
  • What problem is your customer trying to solve? (This is called their “pain point.”)
  • How do you help your customer solve that problem?

Keep the answers in mind as you plan or choose your photos. This is the story you are trying to tell.

Want to learn how to create excellent visuals for Instagram?

Elevate Marketing Summit is happening March 10 & 11 and it’s all about content marketing: how to create it, curate it, and collaborate on it for exponential results. We have over 15 speakers and topics lined up over these two days with a mix of pre-recorded and live sessions to teach you how to create content that grabs attention.

The best part is, it’s completely FREE to attend.

Sign up to our mailing list and we’ll let you know when registration is open.

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Tip 2: Share User Generated Content

There’s a fourth way to get fantastic images for your Instagram feed, and it’s worth giving it a topic all its own. It’s the three magic words that lead to a river of free images and an ocean of positive community sentiment: User. Generated. Content.

What is user generated content?

Put simply, user generated content is any photo, image or video that other people (typically your fans and followers) have put out into the world that involves your product or service.

You can openly ask your followers for them, run hashtag or photo submission contests, or even message a person directly to ask them if you can share their photo on your feeds. There are also many tools and apps out there to help you collect user generated content.

Elevate Marketing Summit Speaker - Jennifer Kolbuc

Images from your own customers can actually be more powerful than photos you produce yourself.


It’s so important to gather authentic photos of what you deliver.

What your products or services look like in the real world, from the perspective of a real person. What someone actually sees during one of your events. Your office, store, neighbourhood, from the viewpoint of someone who is really there, reacting to it in their own way. What your product really looks like when it’s being tested.

These types of photos look more authentic on your Instagram feed, because they are coming from an authentic experience.

What does your brand really look like when its users are using it?

The user generated content “Golden Rule”: Give shoutouts!

The important thing to keep in mind when collecting and sharing user generated content is that you always give credit back to the original photographer just like you see in the image below.

The idea here is not to steal somebody’s photo and use it as your own, but rather to share and amplify somebody’s photo with their permission. Giving proper credit (with a tag back, for example) lets your followers see that you have an open and honest relationship with your fans, and lets the creator feel like they’re a respected member of your community—even, in a way, a part of your brand.

Why User Generated Content

A side benefit of user generated content is that this kind of community building “language” is so important for growing your content on Instagram.

When you ask someone if you can use their photo, your brand is going to be just a little bit more at the top of their mind and they’re probably going to be more likely to share additional content about you.

Also, when a photo is shared and credited, the person you tagged will often end up sharing it again in their own Instagram post or story. So now you’ve got an awesome photo and a little extra exposure too.

The critical #added #touch

One last thing about user generated content: you can also use it to grow your hashtag (more on hashtags, coming up next).

Try doing a weekly roundup of fan photos—say, once a week, pick out the best five or so photos shared by followers who are using your hashtag, then put them out into a story and give that shoutout to the creators. This lets people know what your hashtag is and reminds them to use it, while allowing you to curate and share beautiful photos that help promote your brand.

Tip 3: Leverage Those #Hashtags

Here’s that promised extra info on hashtags!

The purpose of hashtags is to help you expand your audience and reach new people. Brands that use more hashtags—in a way that is considered and consistent—end up with more followers and more engagement. #And #you #want #engagement!

Hashtags are another gift for small businesses on Instagram, because they are what people use to find exactly what they’re looking for. If you use the right ones, the people who are looking for exactly what you do or sell will find you, right at the moment when they want what you offer.

You can’t ask for more than that in terms of opportunity.

How to pick your hashtags

Always start with your own branded hashtag and make sure that you’re sticking to it—use the exact same words or letters, every time. (Need an example? The hashtag we use at Elevate Marketing Summit to help attendees discuss what they’re learning is #ElevateMarketingSummit.)

You want to start with your one branded hashtag that you always use, then you can add other relevant hashtags for more variety and reach (though don’t overload your caption—consider readability).

why you need hashtags

Useful hashtags to look for include location (#worldwide or #Vancouver), seasons or holidays (#easter or #springbreak), a relevant event (#virtualsummit or #onlinelearning), a topic being discussed (#contentmarketingtips), or the leading hashtags for your specific niche (#smallbizlife or #savvybusinessowners)—find ones that are focused enough not be be a sea of content, but not so focused that no one else is posting with it.

If you’re using a scheduling tool, you can often post hashtags as a first comment. Or you can post the hashtags below your caption—that’s sometimes the better option if you are using a lot.

Tip 4: Include Custom Graphics

Instagram is thought of as a photo stream, but photos aren’t your only option.

If you’ve spent any time on Instagram (or almost any social media) you’ve likely seen plenty of lovely, text-based graphics that use words to create a beautiful and inspiring image—sometimes layered overtop of a photo, and sometimes simply on a colourful background. You can create your own—sending out any message you like—using a free app like Canva.

Here’s an example of a simple text-based graphic created in Canva:

Image created using Canva

Canva is a wonderful tool for creating quotes or promotional material, and a godsend for small businesses on a budget.

You can create text images that answer questions about your business, share inspirational information, share testimonials from customers, or even just send out a seasonal greeting—all particularly useful for service based businesses. You can also use it to create ads and promotions, layering text or graphics on top of a plain background or even photos of your products, shop, region or even your team.

Canva also has a whack of free stock photos for you to use, if you don’t have your own to start with.

A Few Bonus Instagram Tips for Small Businesses

Finally, let’s leave you with a few more quick and effective Instagram tips to help your small business get the most out of each post. 

  • Always tag your photo with a location—it’s an easy field to fill in and it’s one of the top ways people search on Instagram. A very simple way to be discovered by new people.
  • Always tag the place (online or brick-and-mortar) where your services/products are being used or sold. This is a great opportunity to let other complementary brands know about your business, so take advantage.  
  • Current consensus says that the best time to post is during peak of day, when things are busy and people are most likely to be on their phones. (Naturally, this depends a bit on what kind of business you run.)
  • Interact with your audience—a lot! The trick is to respond to commenters within the first hour that your post has gone live. Engaging with all of your commenters also tells the Instagram algorithms that this is a really good post, encouraging the app to bump up its importance in people’s feeds. 

Finally, don’t just respond to comments, be proactive in engaging with your community. It’s called social media, and we do need to be social with our fans and with our community.

You can’t just post content and then sit back and wait. Instead, put some love out there, and make sure that you’re taking the time as a small business to like and comment on posts from other people and other brands.

Over to You

Ultimately, your business will not reach its full potential without social media. And today, Instagram is where all the eyes are. It’s where you will gain more followers, which will eventually equal more customers. 

It takes a bit of work to get up and running with a feed that is visually appealing, on-brand, relevant and compelling, but it’s completely worth it in the long run. Many businesses base their entire business platform on social media and do just fine. Instagram will definitely treat you well if you put a little tender loving care into it—and into your Instagram followers!

This post was created in a partnership between Marie Hunter of Hunter Digital and Jennifer Kolbuc, owner and content marketing strategist at Mountain Top Consulting.

Jennifer is one of the many experts who have appeared at Elevate Marketing Summit, a 2-day virtual digital marketing conference that helps small businesses build their brand and increase their revenue. The next summit takes place online in March 2020. Visit to find out more.

Blair Kaplan Venables
Blair Kaplan VenablesPresident of Blair Kaplan Communications

Want to learn how to create eye-catching content?

Elevate Marketing Summit is happening March 10 & 11 and it’s all about content marketing: how to create it, curate it, and collaborate on it for exponential results. We have over 15 speakers and topics lined up over these two days with a mix of pre-recorded and live sessions.

The best part is, it’s completely FREE to attend.

Sign up to our mailing list and we’ll let you know when registration is open.

Subscribe to our email list

* indicates required
2020-01-13T10:22:24+00:00 January 21st, 2020|