What started out as a place for cute cat pics and eatable art Instagram is now arguably the world’s most powerful marketing platform – especially if you want to sell to under-35s!

Instagram’s mobile-first, image-based approach to social media has positioned the platform perfectly to leverage the massive growth in mobile browsing, yet some brands struggle to make the platform work for them.

Some marketers worry that Instagram is just too visual to successfully market their products and services and admittedly, it can be a challenge. However, marketing on Instagram isn’t just about perfect images, sweet filters, and clever hashtags – the real art of Instagram is in creating thriving communities by cultivating the audience attracted to your content.

Here are some companies crushing Instagram and what you can learn from them.

  • PayPal

    Not the company you thought we’d start with, is it? PayPal, or any financial services company for that matter, doesn’t scream “INNOVATIVE VISUAL MARKETING STRATEGY” but that’s exactly what they have – and they’ve won awards for it too!

    PayPal has been clever and not tried to do the impossible: attempt to create a visual representation of a financial transaction that doesn’t look like it came straight out of a children’s book. Instead, they’ve gone for the lifestyle element of their service and it’s incredibly engaging.

    Their Instagram posts depict a moment or achievement that PayPal’s platform has helped to facilitate and by doing so they turn a mundane transaction into something aspirational. And more so, it encourages community engagement which turns into user-generated content that they can repost – a strategy that has seen 50k+ followers tag over 1 million posts with #PayPal. Genius.

  • Les Mills

    Our friends from New Zealand, Les Mills, maintain seven separate Instagram accounts. Seven! What is most amazing about that is they are killing it on each and every one of those seven accounts with over 100,000 followers.

    The secret to their success on Instagram is simple: belonging. It’s all about the community with Les Mills and they bring people together with their Instagram strategy, creating brand advocates and loyal customers along the way.

    The Les Mills approach is to create a sense of belonging among people working out. Instead of trying to entice followers with videos and photos of impossibly good-looking people who are somehow never sweaty when exercising but in the most incredible shape, Les Mills has created an inclusive, supportive community of people doing the same workout every morning. That’s instant motivation and belonging.

  • Sharpie

    Perhaps the most recognisable name in pens, Sharpie’s approach to Instagram is the product version of what PayPal does with their service. Rather than just promoting their product with elaborate (and often confusing) concepts, Sharpie promotes what is created with their products.

    Sharpie’s feed is user-generated content at its finest. Filled with fan-submitted art, it achieves the purpose of showing their customers what their product can do whilst creating a community of customers keen to see and share art created with Sharpies.

What you can learn

Visuals are excellent at evoking emotion, and feelings are precisely what Instagram sells – feelings of aspiration, importance, empowerment, happiness, achievement, inspiration, belonging. Instagram allows you to give customers the feeling they’re looking for.

The quality of your photos isn’t where it ends though. Visual content is only effective if you form meaningful connections and cultivate relationships. What PayPal, Les Mills and Sharpie do so well is engage their audiences and truly include them in their movement. They demonstrate how being part of their community helps people achieve their goals or attain the feelings they’re looking for.

In short, they add value to people’s lives – be that appreciation for someone’s drawing hobby, motivation for fitness goals, or by enabling lifestyles.

Visual content that truly captivates Instagram audiences must be more than a litany of “here’s what we sell” photos and videos, which is the marketing equivalent of the “do something” meme; it must create a lifestyle that audiences want to be a part of.