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How to Build a Brand on Instagram

We spoke to digital media strategists about how a brand can build a compelling presence on the platform — and get the right people to follow it.

Valentino has 6.5 million followers on Instagram. Chanel: 11.8 million. Even younger brands in the fashion and beauty space — Everlane, Warby Parker, Baublebar — have hundreds of thousands of followers apiece. With numbers like those, launching an Instagram account for a new company can feel daunting: a bit like slinking into a party that's already in full-swing, and not knowing a soul.

But don't despair! Not only are you not alone, but in some ways, launching an account on Instagram is easier now than it was when the first platform first launched in late 2010. "It's actually a good time to do it, because you can build the right community," says Jessica Kia, co-founder of digital marketing consultancy RJK Project and the former head of global digital and social media at Kate Spade New York. "There are so many more tools to build a following with your customers — to target your email subscribers, or the people who have visited or converted on your website. You can engage a community that has already proven valuable to you, rather than gathering numbers for the sake of sheer numbers."

If you're a fashion or beauty brand, there's no question about whether you should be on the platform — given the audience size (Instagram has more than 400 million monthly users), and the popularity of fashion and beauty content with that audience. "Instagram is the new business card," says Rachel Tipograph, founder of mobile shopping network MikMak and the former global director of digital and social media at Gap. "When people are doing new partnerships, or people are trying to learn about your brand, they'll go to Instagram instead of to your company website, instead of LinkedIn. It will help with your recruiting, and from a partnership standpoint it will show your authenticity and influence. For your customers, it shows that your brand is alive."

We spoke to a mix of social media experts — all of whom have, at some point in their careers, helped build a major fashion or beauty brand on Instagram virtually from scratch — about the steps to take when starting out.

1. Define your goals.

Before you send your first post into the Instasphere, ask yourself why you want your brand to be on there in the first place, and what you want to accomplish. Are you trying to spread brand awareness across the entire Instagram community, or a certain demographic? Acquire new customers, or boost conversions among existing ones? Tailor your approach accordingly.

"There has to be a ROI," says Kia. "Every follower that you acquire, if they're not seriously going to be considering purchasing, then you are investing a lot in photography and styling and you're not reaching your customers."  As she mentions above, Instagram has a number of ad tools that will help you target users who have visited your website, subscribed to your newsletter, even narrow down to those who've actually bought something from you in the past. If your goal is to increase conversions, acquiring those users is a good place to start. "Advertising jump-starts you. Even if you only have $50, you can run an Instagram campaign, and you can reach those people who already have an interest in your brand," says Kia. "Fashion in particular is so much about ego, I think having a large follower count is far less valuable than having a smaller — but an incredibly engaged and loyal — community."

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2. Determine your brand identity.

"My first advice to anyone building a brand on Instagram is to think of their brand as a human, and figure out what other brands would they invite to a dinner party," says Tipograph. "Follow like-minded brands on Instagram, study their content strategy and visual identity, and see how they get followers to respond to their content. Ultimately their goal is to get the same group of group of people who are following like-minded brands to follow them. Because if you look at the way people follow Instagram accounts, they follow like-minded accounts."

Having a defined aesthetic is key. It should align with other brands at your "dinner party," but it should also be striking and unique enough that people would recognize it even if your brand name wasn't attached. Own a color palette, à la cosmetics brand Glossier, suggests Sara Zucker, digital marketing manager at Origins (and the former senior social media manager of Glossier). Decide, too, on a photography style: gritty behind-the-scenes photos, perhaps, or super-clean product shots. Don't stress about gorgeous-looking photos — no one expects that from a small brand, and it's better to be authentic than perfect — but natural lighting helps. Be consistent.

3. Recruit a following.

How do you get followers when you have none? One option is to advertise, as Kia suggests above. If you're going the organic route, Tipograph and Zucker both recommend you follow brands similar to yours, and begin to follow, and engage with, their followers. Use hashtags similar to those brands when you post your own content (but put them in the comments section, so your posts look cleaner). Reach out to like-minded brands and influencers about takeover and sweepstakes partnerships."It's a lot of work," Tipograph admits. "But any person who's built an organic Instagram community has done the same thing." Tipograph's company, MikMak, had particular success partnering with one of the brands it sells, Glossybox, on an iPhone giveaway. The company has also targeted influencers with mid-range followings, in the 15,000-30,000 range, offering a mix of free product and content production resources (MikMak has its own video studio in Brooklyn) in exchange for mentions.

And don't forget to let your followers on other channels – Facebook, Twitter, your newsletter, etc. — know that you're live on Instagram as well.

4. Post at the right time.

You can post the greatest content in the world, but if you're posting it when most of your followers are asleep, it's simply not going to get as much engagement. Figure out where your followers — or, if you're focused on conversion, current customers — are located, and plan your schedule accordingly. Most of the experts we spoke to recommended posting at 9 a.m. ET, when East Coast followers are heading into work; between noon and 2 p.m., when the West Coast is getting moving and East Coast-ers are standing in lunch lines; and on Sunday evenings around 8 p.m., when people are in TV-unwinding mode.

Another thing: Don't post too much from a single event. It's boring. You'll see engagement go down if you do back-to-back posts, and you may even lose followers.

5. When all else fails, photograph some flowers. Or animals.

Zucker says that, without fail, product always performs best for Origins (isn't that lucky!). But there are some days where you just need to fill a slot. Food, flowers, animals are all consistent performers, experts say — but maybe lay off anything too cliché. Like latte art. Please, no more latte art.