Instagram Stories is a powerful tool small businesses can easily harness to produce authentic marketing that connects with their customers in an innovative way.
They’re fun, creative, will build your brand, breed loyalty, create an affinity with your audience and ultimately attract more followers.
And all you need to take part is a phone – making it a cost-effective solution.
Instagram Stories gives small businesses an informal way to promote themselves, their products and offers in a way that doesn’t appear pushy or salesy. And it’s perfect for showing off the people and passion that makes your business tick.
It might seem like a daunting platform that huge brands such as Starbucks use in a ultra-polished and regimented manner. But the real appeal is the authenticity it provides.
It brings you closer to your audience and potential customers in a way no other social media platform allows.
Get it right and execute consistently and you’ll see results. It’s one of those special channels that appeals to both regular consumers and brands – win win!
What is Instagram Stories?
Instagram Stories isn’t a fresh phenomenon. Instagram introduced it in 2016 as a way of competing with Snapchat Stories – and it worked.
With 1bn active daily users on Instagram, millions are posting every day – with 33% of those stories being published by businesses*.
Stories are a collection of photos and videos that you can add to during the day.
It works like a reel of pictures of videos that appear in a slideshow format – the user swipes from one to the other. A story disappears after 24 hours.
Instagram wants you to record your favourite moments during the course of those 24 hours – giving users a warts and all peek at what goes on in your life.
Instagrams’s super user-friendly interface let’s you add doodles, text and hashtags over the top of this pictures and videos.
Sound familiar? It’s a lot, lot, lot like Snapchat Stories – with some extra features that make it more appealing as a marketing tool for businesses.
Adding hashtags and locations to your Stories can also hugely increase your visibility in Instagram’s Explore tab – more on that later. And if you’re particularly proud of a Story, you can save it as a highlight on your profile page.
It may seem like any content you produce will be lost in the noise of the millions of people producing Stories but there are plenty of methods that will help you stand out in your niche.
Why should small businesses use Instagram Stories?
It’s cost effective way of delivering marketing messages to your customers and audience in an informal, conversational and creative way that’ll make you out from your competitors.
Whether you want to share fun and lighthearted content, promote a marketing campaign, or drive sales, you can do it all with Instagram Stories for small businesses.
The functionality effectively allows you to collect a lot of content in one place without persistently bombing your followers’ feeds with pictures.
The result is you’re able to put out a lot of content without annoying people.
When your followers look at your Stories they’ll have the option of direct messaging – more than 20% of Instagram Stories result in a direct message*, giving you an authentic and powerful one to one relationship with your customers.
Examples of businesses using Instagram Stories
Starbucks uses a combination of Instagram’s stickers and text with their own picture editing to promote their products – very much in line with their brand but with an informal Instagram twist.
Clothing brand Boohoo is know for its competitions and regularly posts giveaways and contests – a tried and tested marketing tool sparkling with images and calls to action.
Topshop uses Stories for offers, clothing tips, shoutouts to influencers wearing their clothes and sneak peaks at new products. The emphasis is on giving value to the audience, with the sales messages secondary.
Slimming World uses the platform in multiple ways – but it’s SW recipes and inspiring stories of its champion slimmers stand out.
Notice the theme of unrelenting positivity – very much the ethos of Instagram whether individuals or business, and what tends to differentiate Instagram from rest of social media.
Slimming World aims to give value in a way that shows off its brand and its core belief.
Etsy uses Stories in a similar way. The designers’ e-commerce platform uses Stories to give tips, how to’s and feature designers.
Again – notice the focus on giving value and interacting with the audience.
Where do Instagram Stories appear?
They’ll appear at the top of your followers’ feed with a ring around your profile picture. Tap on it and your story opens up, tap again and it’ll skip to the next picture or video in your story. Once your story has finished if you keep tapping it will move to the next story.
If you add locations or hashtags to your Stories then that content may appear under Instagram’s explore tab.
Tap on ‘search’ and then type in your location or tag – a list of suggested stories will appear at the top of the search.
Potentially this can open you up to a bigger audience.
How to post an Instagram Story
Like all things Instagram, creating a Story is pretty easy – but if this is your first time it might seem a bit awash with features to begin with, so here’s a basic step by step guide:
1. Start at the home screen and swipe right or tap the camera icon in the top left. This’ll take you to the camera.
2. From here you can basically go one of two ways – take a photo or video, or select one from your phone’s recent photos.
To select a recent photo tap the icon in the bottom left corner of the screen that looks like your most recent picture.
If you select a photo from over 24 hours ago, the date it was taken will automatically appear as a sticker. You can drag it to the picture of a bin at the bottom to get rid of it.
3. To take a photo tap the big button in the middle above the word ‘normal’. To take a video hold that button down and release it when you’re done – you’ll have a maximum of 15 seconds.
4. You’ll notice some buttons either side of the big button. This is what they do:
- Thunderbolt: Gives you a handy flash
- Arrows: Turns the camera around to face you
- A face: This is Instagram’s face filters (wonder where they got that idea) – these are best deployed when you take a video given they move about and generally look very cool. They are best experimented with first – most require the camera facing you and you’ll get direction on what to do. If you’re using Instagram to push marketing messages it’s unlikely you’ll be using these too often but they are worth having fun with and give your audience a look at a more playful you!
5. You’ll also notice the options along the bottom that you can drag the screen to reach. This is what they do:
- Type: If you just want words on a plain background this is what to go for. This is useful for adding a call to action or to break up the pictures and videos in your Story. Tap to type, and then when you’re done tap the font at the top to choose between Modern, Typewriter, Strong or Neon. You’ll get a different colour options for the background by tapping on the icon in the bottom left. Tap and drag the text around the screen and use your fingers to pinch it to make it smaller or drag to make it bigger. Plot twist: You’ll notice the photo icon in the bottom right, tap that and you’ll take a picture that will be filtered through your choice of background image with the picture over the top.
- Music: Tap this and a list of tracks will come up for you to choose from to set a video to music in the style of music.ly. Once you choose the track you can press play and drag across the screen to choose where it starts from. Then, hold down the big button to record a video with the music playing in the background.
- Live: Exactly what it says on the tin! Tap to start a live video which will send a notification to your followers that you’ve gone live. When you’re done, your video can be added to your story.
- Boomerang: Tap this to record a boomerang video (a short video that plays and then rewinds).
- Focus: Tap for picture and hold for a video that will focus on a face (like your own) while cleverly blurring the background to give you a slick professional look.
- Superzoom: Because everyone needs sound effects. Hold the big button and the camera will steadily zoom in on whatever you are focusing, while recording as a video. The longer you hold, the more it will zoom. Here’s why it’s clever – before you start recording/zooming, you’ll see a music icon in the middle of your phone – tap that to choose between sound effects and filters that kick in when you start filming. Fun!
- Rewind: Record a video like you normally would, expect when you add it to your story, it will play in reverse. Like Boomerang, but just the ‘rang’.
- Hands free: Tap this and you’ll start a video without having to hold down the big button – allowing you to switch between front facing and rear facing camera as you record.
6. Whichever of the above options you choose, you’ll end up at a screen displaying your picture/video with three icons in the top right and three along the bottom. This is what the ones on the top do.
- Text: Add text to go over your image – type away and then tap done in the top right. If you want to change font, tap the option at the top middle of the screen – colours are displayed along the bottom. Drag your text around the screen and use your fingers to tilt it and make it bigger or smaller. You can type the @ sign to tag another account, or the # to hashtag.
- Stickers: Here are all your stickers to add, and where you can let your creativity flow. Two to watch for are the hashtag and location stickers, which will help you get seen in Instagram’s explore function. Drag and resize your sticker after you tap done. Some other important ones to try include the poll sticker, selfie sticker, emoji slider and question sticker. Experiment with them.
- Pen: Draw to your heart’s content with the pen tool using your finger – different pen types are at the top and colours along the bottom. Use the eraser brush to be rid of them.
7. Swipe left or right to apply a filter before you post.
If you have a business account with 10,000 or more followers, you’ll be able to add a URL to your post here.
If the user swipes up, it’ll take them to that URL – super useful for driving audience to your website or a particular campaign. Here’s an example of it in action from Ben and Jerry’s,
8. Finally you’re left with your posting options along the bottom.
‘Save’ will save it to your phone for another day, ‘add to story’ will do exactly that – post your picture or video in all its glory so it will appear in your story at the top of your followers’ feeds.
‘Send to’ will share it will a specific person or people, if you’d like to keep the story to a limited pool.
9. Your story will appear at the top of your followers’ feeds, but it will also be visible on your profile page by tapping your profile picture.
You can find out how well your Instagram story is performing by swiping up while viewing your story. This will display the number as well as the names of people who have seen each photo or video in your story.
What Instagram Stories should a small business post?
The million dollar question. There’s a myriad of content you can post, it’s choosing what you think will connect with your future customers. Here are some ideas:
1. Sneak peaks and behind the scenes
This goes back to being authentic – Stories strip back the polished layers of traditional marketing and offer an honest, transparent look at your business.
And that tends to be what consumers like – it might be a glimpse of your working day, a product coming together or a time-lapse of an event you’re hosting.
It might be an interaction with a regular customer, your face at 5.30am as you arrive at work or a batch of cupcakes coming out of the oven.
Make your followers feel like they are part of a special club and they have a bond with your brand which they don’t have with your competitors.
Asos uses its own models to interact one-on-one with followers in its ‘insiders’ Stories – look at the number of posts across the top – that’s hyper dedication to interactivity.
2. Product launches and teasers
Big brands will use all of Instagram’s power to launch a new product but there’s now reason a small business can’t either.
Maybe you’re a hairdresser with a new product, a cafe with a new sandwich, a hotel with newly decorated rooms or a pub with a new beer.
Build hype and a buzz with a daily story in the days leading up to the launch, and then go all out with lots of updates on launch day.
Nike is a master of building hype before a product launch, so much so it creates hype for its new ad campaign for its new products using Stories:
One of the most popular methods of using Stories, thanks to the 24-hour window.
Create excitement with a flash offer that lasts for a day, either instructing people how to enter on your Story (eg ask them to post some kind of picture to enter), or by driving them to an entry form on your website.
Unless you have 10,000 followers, you won’t be able to take advantage of the ‘swipe-up’ feature that guides the user to your website, so put the competition URL on your profile.
4. How to guides
Recipes, product demonstrations, parenting advice, DIY guides, life hacks – how-to guides are a brilliant way to build loyalty around your brand and give value to your audience.
The more value you give, the more people will come back to you.
The way Instagram Stories moves from one picture to the next with a tap makes it a brilliant platform for step by step guides – and work really well as highlights.
Alternatively, host the how-to guide on your website, and use Stories to tease people to read it – follow Airbnb’s weekly Travel Tuesday feature for inspiration:
5. Live blogging events
You’re holding a seminar or an open day or a theme night – live blog the event with pictures and videos of your guest to build a sense that everyone else is missing out!
It’s also a great way of showing off your content to a larger audience than your attendees.
Take a big breath before you try this one, because you never know what you’re going to get – but in the overwhelming number of cases brands get answers they’re pleasantly surprised by, no matter how obscure they might be.
Try starting a story on Wednesday asking for questions and ideas and then run another Story on Friday that’s a video of you responding.
You’ll be surprised what people want to know… and how many product ideas you’ll get out of it.
7. Reacting to trends
There’s been a big announcement that affects your industry – your followers will want to know your take on it, and Stories gives you an authentic way of getting your message out quickly.
How to interact with your followers using Instagram Stories
Don’t make it a one-way message – use Stories to build conversations and show off your bond with your customers. Here’s some ideas.
Have loyal customers and followers you want to thank publicly, or posts you’ve seen that you want to highlight? Try a shoutout.
Pick a post that you want to highlight and tap on the paper aeroplane – you’ll see an option to ‘add to story’.
Tap that and the post will appear as if you were adding to your story – use stickers and texts to show your gratitude and add it to your story.
Designate a ‘shoutout day’ and build a series of them during the day, or just add them in on a daily basis.
You’re a sandwich shop trying to decide what your deal of the day will be tomorrow . Run a poll on Instagram Stories the night before (the polls are in your stickers), and then start the next day (it’ll still be in the 24-hour window) by adding with a shot of you preparing the ingredients of the winning sandwich.
If you’ve got 10,000 followers you’ll be able to run a poll, otherwise use the ‘questions’ sticker (you’ll need more creativity, but it works nicely).
Stationery brand Staples embraces Stories on an almost daily basis – here they are using the polls feature to interact with followers around their Back To School campaign:
3. Run takeovers
Do you have a local influencer or a favourite customer that you could hand your account to? Give them the keys to your Instagram while they interact with your brand for a day, adding to the story as they go.
For example – you run a hotel and a guest posts to your story for a day – breakfast, a day out, in their room, dinner and a thank you at check out.
How to turn your Story into a Highlight
Once you have a story live it’s pretty simple to add as a highlight on your profile page. This means your story will exist perpetually for people who land on your profile page.
Tap ‘New’ and then tap as many images and videos you’d like to add to your highlight. You can keep track of how many people have viewed the highlight in the same way as a normal Story.
By tapping on the story and then the three dots, you can use the edit function to can change the highlight name, delete pictures, and add a bespoke cover if you so wish.
Think about the way you present highlights on your profile – there are some creative examples out there:
When should small businesses should post on Instagram Stories?
It’s not an exact science – clearly if you’re planning on live blogging something then you’re going to be posting content all day long anyway. Ultimately it’s more about the quality of the post than the when – your story is going to appear at the top of the feed anyway.
However, it doesn’t hurt to try to hit key times on Instagram – lunchtime, 5pm and 7-8pm if you want to plan when you’re going to deliver the content.
Remember that when you post, the 24-hour period will last until that point the next day, so if you Story is about something in the evening, you’ll probably want to update in the morning.
If one post in your story relates to the next (like a competition or product launch), make sure you posting all your content in a batch, one after another, rather than strung out, otherwise the Story isn’t going to make sense.
How often should you post an Instagram Story?
Again, this is more about quality than quantity. Add as much to your Story as is interesting to your audience. Some brands post 10-15+ times a day into their Story because they’ve got such a great bank of content and built up a loyal audience.
The key is consistency – both in volume and quality. Don’t do a Story once and then never return to it for a month and expect to see results – do it with consistency.
Yes, this takes time and resource – but this is a powerful marketing tool with reach that in any other era of marketing you’d have to pay for.
How to analyse the success of your Instagram Story
By all means experiment with Instagram Stories – there’s lots of features to go at – but keep a track of what worked and what didn’t.
Click on your profile picture to view your story and in the bottom left it’ll tell you how many people have viewed it. You can also get a better overview by clicking on your analytics (if you have a business account that is) and tapping ‘content’. Click ‘see all’ beside Stories to see how many impressions your individual posts are getting.
Tools and tips for small businesses who want to make their Instagram Stories stand out
Canva is probably going to be your go-to picture editing tool unless you’ve invested in something a little more specialist.
It’s easy to use and allows you to craft text over your images before you pop them into the Instagram act.
When it comes to planning your Stories, use Canva to line up all the individual elements, and then post everything in a batch quickly, one after another.
You’ll need to sign up, but all the functionality you need is free. If you’re taking pictures on a camera that you’re then editing on desktop, you’ll need to set up Canva with custom dimensions of 1080×1920.
Once you’re finished you’ll need to get your image onto your phone (eg drag it into your iCloud). Alternatively, download the Canva app to your phone.
If you want something with a little functionality when it comes to creating graphics try Snappa – a similar piece of kit to Canva, but with a few more options.
Storeo is a handy app for breaking up your video into chunks. So instead of having to film 10 different 15-second videos, just record one and then break it into pieces.
Once you’ve downloaded the app, simply upload a video from your phone or record a new one.
From there, tap “Export” to slice your video into 15-second clips. You can either upload directly to Instagram Stories from the Storeo app, or download the video and post it manually.
Instagram Stories comes with Boomerang functionality, but if you download the original app, it allows you to record the gif-like videos for later use.
Instagram Stories golden rules for small businesses
1. Tell a story
The clue is in the title – try not to just sell (though that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t). Try to craft a story and offer some insight into your brand and product.
Tell the story behind the product, rather than just telling everyone it’s £2.99 on Fridays. Storytelling is the secret to good marketing and Instagram Stories is the perfect canvas.
Think about the narrative to your story and above all make it easy to understand. Stories are a snapshot in time, they’re not for complicated notes on product development.
2. Personalise it
Put yourself into your Story – let people see the face of your brand. Inject character into your posts by using texts, GIFs and hashtags help to get your message across. Learn from what people like about your posts and do more of it.
3. Be imperfect
An overused word in this blog post, but the idea of Instagram Stories is that it offers an authentic look at the user – and authentic often isn’t polished. Don’t be afraid to appear that way, this isn’t a TV ad. It’s far more powerful than that.
A hypothetical example
Let’s say you run a cocktail bar with a reasonable following of Instagrammers who like the pretty pictures of the cocktails you make, and the inspiring quotes you post about drinking them.
On a Wednesday, you decide to take the plunge with Instagram stories. So you run a story of you going out to gather the fresh ingredients for that weekend – limes, lemons, mint etc – complete with emoji stickers and a live video of yourself tasting the results of a test cocktail.
On Thursday, you pick one of the cocktails you picked all the ingredients for and run a Story on how to make it – step by step pictures and short clips which are ideal for Instagram Stories.
Then on the final shot, you use a superzoom for dramatic effect and a love filter of some kind.
On Friday, you do the same with a different cocktail. Repeat on Saturday.
On Sunday, you ask your followers which of those three cocktails should be half price at a special event at the bar on Wednesday, a night when you’re trying to drive up trade.
You use a poll in Instagram Stories to post the question, and follow it up with a post on your page advertising the half price event.
On Monday you also use the story to challenge people to try to post pictures of themselves outside your bar on Tuesday, if they do, they get one free cocktail.
On Wednesday morning you do an Instagram Story of you gathering all the ingredients again for the big night – when you should have a bar full of revellers ready to taste cocktails.
Have any good examples you’d like to share? Post in the comments.
* Source: business.instagram.com