Instagram, the popular photo- and video-sharing app, counts 700 million monthly active users--and growing. More than 80 percent of those users follow a business on the app, making it an ideal platform for small business owners to reach potential customers.

My company recently conducted a poll that found only 24 percent of small business owners include Instagram in their social media marketing. Unfortunately, the reason for this lag may be that many business owners don't know how to get started. Nearly 40 percent say they simply don't know how to use Instagram.

Don't be intimidated. Instagram is easy to use. And with so many other business owners sitting on the sidelines, now is the time to jump ahead of your competitors and start connecting with customers on Instagram. These tips will help you get started.

1. Create a Business Account

After you create a basic Instagram profile (or if you have one already), you'll want to upgrade it to an Instagram for Business account. This will give you access to features that personal users don't have. With an Instagram for Business account you can:

  • Add directions to your business to your profile
  • Make it easy for followers contact you with one tap
  • Access Instagram's analytics tools
  • Promote your posts with ad campaigns

When it comes to content, you probably want to keep the personal photos you share with family and friends separate from the business posts you share with customers. You can manage up to five Instagram accounts from one app, making it easy to switch between business and personal accounts, or multiple business accounts if you have several locations or product lines.

2. Start a Conversation

Instagram is primarily a visual platform, but you can also use text to connect with customers. When you share a post, include a question in the photo caption and prompt your customers to respond in the comments section. When they post a comment, make sure you reply. Make it a conversation.

You should also pay attention to what customers are saying about you on other Instagram accounts. If they share an image with your business location or tag you in a post, you will get a notification. Go to that person's post and add a comment thanking them for their business.

3. Use the Right Hashtags

Hashtags--words or phrases preceded by the "#" symbol--are used to categorize posts on social platforms like Instagram. Using the right hashtags will help new followers find your business. For instance, if a potential customer taps the #OutdoorKitchen hashtag on another landscape designer's post, they would see a list of all posts with that hashtag--including yours.

Small business owners should use common hashtags related to their business:

  • Your industry or field, like #Plumbing, #Remodeling or #LandscapeDesign
  • Your products, like #Cabinets, #SwimmingPools or #Furniture
  • Special features or qualities, like #MadeInAmerica, #Handmade or #ShopLocal

While you can create any hashtag you want, it won't do any good if others don't know to use or search for your hashtag. So, if you create a unique hashtag for your business, make sure you promote it on your website, email newsletters or with in-store displays.

4. Add Your Location

When you share a photo or video on Instagram, you can tag the image with the location where it was taken. Posts tagged with your company location will display your name and address just above the image. Instagram users can then tap on your location name and see:

  • Your location on a map
  • Other photos and videos you've tagged along with your business information
  • Photos and videos your customers have tagged along with your business information

It's easy to add a location to your posts. Look for the "Add Location" option when you're getting ready to share a new photo or video. A list of suggested locations will appear beneath this prompt; if your business is listed, tap to add it to your image. If your company doesn't automatically show up, tap "Search" or "Add Location" for a longer list of suggested locations.

5. Tell Your Story

Instagram Stories is a feature that allows users to create slideshows using photos, video, text and graphics. Stories are displayed at the very top of a user's feed--a prominent place to get your followers' attention.

Each Story disappears after 24 hours, making it a good showcase for visual content that's both immediate and temporary, such as:

  • Behind-the-scenes tours of your business
  • Introductions of new team members
  • Demos of new products or services
  • Timely news, such as a grand opening, sale or event

To create a Story, tap the "Your Story" button at the top left of your Instagram home screen. From here you can record a video, or if you swipe down you can select from photos you've taken recently. You can add text, draw on top of your photos or videos with the paint tool, or add fun graphical stickers.

One big advantage of Stories: Unlike with regular posts, you can see how many people view your story along with their names, so you'll know exactly which customers you're reaching on Instagram.

Instagram can be a valuable marketing tool for small business owners, and it's growing in popularity every day. Make sure you're not left behind. By following these tips, you can get started today, visually tell your business' story, and build relationships with customers.

Published on: May 31, 2017