Last week, I gave a presentation about Instagram Stories to the Salem, Oregon chapter of The MOB Nation. Although the talk was designed to be brief, I realized how much I had to share and how little I could cover in the time I had.
When I got home, I decided to put together a quick blog post covering the topics in my talk. But more and more features kept creeping in, and this blog post ended up being much longer than originally intended (which, to be honest, is how most of my blog posts happen)!
So you can look at this as my "everything and the kitchen sink, ultimate Instagram guide for small businesses" or "Gwen hates to leave anything out and wanted to create a complete walk through of Instagram Stories features" - you choice.
First, some background on Instagram Stories - the Stories feature was added in late 2016 and modeled after Snapchat’s Stories (which are now less popular in general because so many have migrated to Instagram's version).
Just like your normal Instagram posts, a photo you want to use for your Story must be on your phone. You can tag other businesses, use hashtags, and mark your location in Stories as well. You can also share your Instagram Story to your Facebook Story - either by sharing each story individually or having it as your default setting.
Unlike your regular Instagram posts, Stories aren’t seen on your normal Instagram feed and disappear after 24 hours. After that 24 hour mark, unless you share the Stories in your Highlights (which I cover at the end of this blog post), only you can see your archived Stories.
The process of adding and creating Instagram Stories is different than your regular Instagram feed. It is also a good idea to think of them as separate entities, that support each other. Your Instagram stories can be more fun, less staged, and more spontaneous than your regular feed. They can also be highly styled and branded using the tools in Stores. It is your brand, you get to decide what it looks like!
You can use Instagram Stories to share videos up to 15 seconds, and photos share best if they have a 9:16 aspect ratio (think tall rectangle instead of the square you typically see on Instagram). If your photo isn't properly sized it will either be stretched out and distorted or you can use a pinching motion to force it to be smaller to fit the screen. If you force it to fit the screen, your photo will have black bars on the top and bottom to fill up the blank space.
Since Instagram first rolled out Stories they have added more features and are adding even more options. Why? Stories are incredibly popular and have over 400 million daily users.
How to Post an Instagram Story
Let’s dive into the step-by-step of how to post an Instagram Story and some of the cool features available.
Open your Instagram app. It will open to your Instagram feed.
You can add a Story by tap on the camera icon in the upper left corner or by tapping on your profile photo. It will automatically open your camera so you can grab a quick photo or video.
Let’s look at the options available on this screen:
Normal is the default starting place and this is the basic camera function. To the right of the camera button you’ll see the option to flip the camera and also the option for adding masks and camera effects.
The next option to the right is Boomerang. You can also have this as a separate app on your phone. It takes a series of photos over a couple of seconds to create a short, looped video.
Then you’ll see Focus. This is specifically for taking photos of faces. You’ll get a great photo where the person is the focus!
Superzoom is a fun surprise. Tap on the square to set your focal point. Then tap on the music symbol to select what kind of Superzoom you want. Yes, each type of Superzoom has its own music! Dramatic, Beats, TV Show, and Bounce.
Rewind will play any video you film in reverse – this doesn’t apply to videos you’ve already created and are posting from your phone.
Hands Free lets you record your 15 second videos without having to hold down the record button the whole time.
Going Live On Instagram
To the left of the “Normal” default is where you’ll find your Live video option. You can add face masks here, too. You don’t have a 15 second limit with a live video, so don't feel rushed.
When you go live your avatar in the Stories feed will have a little “LIVE” icon on it to let your followers know you are live. You can also invite someone to join you as a guest on your live video. When you are done, you can save your video to your phone (although you’ll lose your comments and reactions), post it, or delete it.
You can invite someone to join your Live video if they are watching - just like Facebook Live.
Adding Music to Instagram Story
Music lets you add up to 15 seconds of curated music to your Story.
You can search by specific song, mood, or genre. Although there are lots of songs to choose from, you still may not find your favorite quite yet.
Solid Color + Text
Finally, to the far left, is the Type option which allows you to type on a solid color background using several fonts and options.
This is a great option for making announcements or directing followers to your newest blog post. If you have over 10,000 followers you can add a link right in your Story. If not, you'll have to put the link in your bio and direct viewers there.
If you don't like these fonts or color choices, you can use Canva or other graphics app to create your own (I share some app options at the end of this blog post). If you save a template, you'll be able to easily go back and create something new.
Adding Photo Already on Your Phone to Instagram Stories
If you prefer to use a photo already on your camera, tap on the photo square in the bottom left corner (this takes you to the photos you have on your phone).
Once you’ve added a Story, you’ll need to tap on the “home” icon on the bottom left corner to go back to "home" and then tap on the camera icon in the upper left corner if you want to add another Story.
When you add a Story you now have access to several neat functions and options.
Instagram Stories Filters
First, swipe left to add a filter. Keep swiping as there are several options and eventually you’ll be back to the no filter option if you prefer your photo as it is.
You can also take your photo into a photo editing app like Snapseed, VSCO, or Color Story to perfect your photo before sharing.
Ready to add text and effects? Let's go left to right.
Adding Text to Your Instagram Story
.On the far upper left, you’ll see “Aa” – this is where you access the keyboard to add text over your photo.
When you tap “Aa”, you’ll see a screen with a cursor and several colored circles underneath. The circles are your font color options. On the left side is a slider bar - this is where you can adjust your text to be larger or smaller. You can also do this with your fingers using a pinching motion (this pinching motion works for text, gifts, polls, etc - you have a lot of freedom to move things around in Stories!)
You'll also notice the center oval makes another appearance. This is where you can change the text font - Classic, Modern, Strong, Neon, or Typewriter - just like the text only option we covered above.
Depending on which font you choose, you’ll also see a few other options to the left for aligning or highlighting your text. To change the highlight color, just tap on the colored circles (or tap and hold to get access to the color wheel to really customize your highlight color!)
Yes, you can use multiple fonts and colors on the same photo, and you can also edit text after you’ve created it (but before you publish it). You can even highlight text and select a new color just for that word!
If you press and hold a colored circle, more color options will appear, and you can adjust your text color even more.
But what if you want to color match a specific item in your photo?
Yes, you can do that, too!
Tap on your photo and then tap on the dropper on the far left. Then long press and release on the screen and a color drop will appear. You can drag it around the screen until you find the color you want to use for text. Then release (or tap on the color drop) to bring up the keyboard.
This is perfect when you want a specific branding color or want to really color coordinate your text and image!
This is a fun little trick to give your text a special look.
Highlight the text you want to turn into a rainbow. Then place one finger on the far right of your text and another finger on the far right of the color options and then slowly drag your fingers left.
This one takes a couple of tries to get right.
Instagram Pen Tools
Going back up to the top – the middle option is a pen (or pencil, if you prefer). When you tap on that, you’ll open a new list of options.
Again, going right to left -
The Heart symbol is a crayon-like line.
The eraser is the eraser.
The pen with the stars above it is the neon pen.
The marker is the marker.
The pen is the pen.
On the far left you’ll see a sliding bar – slide it up to make your lines thicker, slide it down to make them thinner.
If you think all you can do with the pen tools is write, you’d be mistaken! There are some neat options hidden here!
You can use the marker or pen to draw a solid box or circle or heart or whatever you like and then place text over the top of that. This is a great option to draw attention to specific text or if plain text just doesn't look right no matter which color you select.
Tap the Pen tool (far left), select a color, and press down anywhere on the screen. This is one of the ways you can make an entire screen one color. The other is using the Type function discussed above. This option gives you more freedom to match you branding colors or do something unique.
Tap the Marker tool (next to the Pen tool) and press down anywhere on the screen and you’ll get a see-through color overlay.
Colors for both can be managed with the color options at the bottom of the screen.
You might be thinking, that’s neat, but why would I want to cover my entire photo?
This is where the eraser tool gets to show off what it can do.
Erase some of the color covering your image to play peek-a-boo with what is underneath!
This would be great for new product teasers or highlighting a specific part of your photo.
Stickers, Tags, and GIFs
On the far left of the main page you’ll see a square with a face. This is where all the stickers and GIFs live.
Tap it to open the menu.
You’ll see several options to choose from and more as you scroll down.
If you swipe right from this screen, you’ll see your recently used tags, stickers, GIFs.
If you swipe all the way to the left, you’ll find some hats and glasses to play with.
Remember that no matter which GIF, sticker, or accessory you choose, you can drag it around your screen, reposition it (even upside down), and make it larger or smaller by using a pinching motion.
You can further customize many of them by selecting them and then tapping on them once they are on your photo. GIFs will typically switch direction and/or show an alternate color.
Location, Mention, and Hashtag stickers have three color options - just tap on the text to make it change color.
Let's dig a little deeper into what the stickers do:
The location can be either a specific place (like a restaurant, park, or business), a city (or county, etc), or even an event (assuming the organizers have set it up). Adding a location hashtag can increase your visibility by putting you in that location's Story for the day.
Location Stories are chosen by algorithm and feature public accounts that have used a hashtag or location. To see what these look like search for a city or hashtag, tap on the result you want, and if there is a Story you'll see a red ring around the avatar. Tap on that to view. It is a neat way to peek into what others are doing - and especially interesting to see a city Story like New York City!
The hashtag sticker is just one hashtag option you have. You can also just type a hashtag (or three) using the keyboard.
The tag sticker lets you tag another Instagram user - they'll get a notification they were tagged in your Story in their messages and can repost the Story they were tagged in into their own Story.
You can also tag someone by typing "@" and their user name - this lets you tag multiple people at once.
Again, these stickers can be make smaller or moved around the screen. You can even make them very small so you still get the benefit of visibility without ruining your photo in the process.
The Music sticker will open the same music option I described at the beginning of the post.
The Time sticker is a quick way to put a time on your Story - tap the sticker once it is on your Story to reveal some other clock options.
Poll - Give your viewers something to interact with - a "yes" or "no" or "this" or "that" poll works best because it is short and easy. Swipe up to see the results of your poll while it is live or look for it in your Story archive after it has expired.
Sliding bar - Ask your followers how they feel about something with a sliding bar. You can see who answered and how by tapping on your Story's viewers in the bottom left corner.
Questions - Yes, your viewers can ask you their own questions when you use this option, and you can answer them right in Stories.
Camera - the camera sticker in the stickers section allows you to take a selfie and put it in your picture. If you've ever wanted to superimpose your face over a tree, your dog, or a magazine cover this is your chance!
GIFs and emojis offer a ton of fun options to punctuate and add personality to your Stories.
Deleting a Sticker, GIF, text, etc
What if you realize you are getting carried away with stickers and GIFs and emojis? Or you decide you don't want that text after all? Easy! Just drag it straight down and a little trash can will appear.
Building a Instagram Story
One way to create more interesting Stories is by saving a modified image to your phone and then using that as a base to create the next image. It is a great way to add a little more information on each screen in a fun and creative way.
The save option is on the bottom left right next to the post option.
If you accidentally post before you are ready, you can delete the post by tapping the three dots on the bottom right hand side of your Story image.
This is also where you can post your Story as a post, send it to an Instagram friend, and adjust your Story settings.
This is my Instagram account under my bio you see three circles. These circles are my Story Highlights. Clearly, my Story Highlights are not pretty or well-branded. Check out this account and this account for some spot on branding when it comes to Stories.
As I mentioned waaaay back at the beginning of this post, your Stories are only visible to everyone else for 24 hours. With Instagram's Stories Archive, you can view all of your Stories and put them in a neat little Highlights collection. The two accounts I linked to just above do it in two very different, but effective ways.
Apps That Take You Further
Check out these apps for more options to customize your Stories (no affiliate links, I just like these apps) because they have Story-specific sizes that you can use as a base. It does take extra steps and time, but the benefit is that your Stories can be uniquely you and really stand out!
A Design Kit for a paid alternative ($1.99 with additional in-app purchases, iOS).
Rhonna Designs ($1.99 with additional in-app purchases, iOS)
Word Swag ($4.99, iOS)
Adobe Spark (free) - Similar to Canva and I think it is easier to use on a mobile device
Videos can only be up to 15 seconds in Stories, so you'll need an app like Storeo (iOS, free + paid version) to break longer videos up into 15 second chunks.
We've reached the end of this Instagram Stories guide (thank you to those who are still with me!).
I've probably missed something, but I hope I've given you a good foundation for how to use Stories, and I hope I've sparked some creative ideas. There is so much possibility with Stories and making it what you want.
I'll admit it.
I came late to the Instagram party.
You post pictures?
And you can't share them?
Although my understanding was a little rudimentary at first, once I saw the way it could showcase products and connect with customers who weren't necessarily on Facebook or Twitter, I was hooked.
At its most basic, Instagram is all about pretty pictures and finding creative ways to show off your world. But beyond that, like all social media, it is about building community around shared interests and passions. But instead of using words, you use images.
Instagram, and the expectation of beautiful product photos, is changing the way businesses present their products and also changing the way they talk about products. If a picture is worth a thousand words, which words do you still need to use? That is where informative, helpful captions come into play.
Let’s assume you’ve already set up your Instagram account, and it has the same name as your business. Why? To make is easier to find you! If your business’ name is already claimed, you may need to get a little creative, but try to stay as close to your actual business name as possible so customers can find you.
You’ll want to completely fill out your profile and add a link to your main website. The link in your profile is the only place links work on Instagram. In captions, on photos, or in comments, they are just text and not clickable.
Let's also assume you are already planning on watermarking your photos in some way (I like the Phonto app, but there are others), and you already know that Instagram is designed to be used from your smart phone/tablet and know there isn't much you can do with it on an actual computer.
How to use Instagram for Business
Instagram for businesses works on three levels. Each are equally important.
The first level is the ability to showcase your products in beautiful, fun, and engaging ways. Sure, you can hold your product up and take a picture. Or you can lay it on the floor and take a picture. Or prop it up against a decent background. But what if you could use your photo to show how amazing and wonderful your product is? The right lighting, a good angle, and some basic props can really make even a simple product shine!
If you need inspiration, search for magazines and social media accounts that are within your niche. Don’t copy (because that would be rude), but pay attention to how they are using light, props, angles, and textures to create interesting photos.
If you’ve never taken photographs designed to be seen by customers and the general public, it can be a little intimidating when you start! I really like this article about how to take better photos. Also, don’t be afraid to get close up, you might sell something that has gorgeous detail – show it off!
Once you take the photo and you are happy with it, it is time to think about the caption. If you are selling a product, I like the idea of listing the price within the caption. Why? One of the drawbacks of Instagram is that you can’t link directly to a product page, so there is no easy way for a user to learn more about a specific product in a photo. So why not give them all the information they need in the caption?
The second level is discovery via hashtags. The correct use of hashtags is crucial for viability and growing a following. If you aren’t clear on the purpose and use of hashtags, think of them like a giant filing system. Everything image using a specific hashtag gets “filed” in that drawer. Pretty easy, right?
There are a few things to keep in mind:
Singular vs. plural hashtags – There is a difference, so make sure you are using the one you intended.
Misspelling – If you misspell a hashtag it gets filed all by itself (or sent to live on the Island of Misfit Hashtags).
Volume – There are some hashtags that are wildly popular and everyone uses them. Which means you can use them (preferably during peak hours so you get more views), but it also means the competition is fierce and your photos will have a harder time standing out. On the other hand, there are some hashtags that have low volume. Which means you might be using a hashtag no one is looking at or even one that one user has used 2,000 times over four years.
Keep these in mind as you research hashtags. You are looking for a mix of hashtags that includes both semi-popular and very specific (but widely used) hashtags. If you are a local business, use your city as a hashtag. If your location is in an established neighborhood, use that as a hashtag.
If, for example, I was a book seller in Portland, I would want to use hashtags like:
#Portland (3,959,925 posts)
#pdx (2,561,982 posts)
#bookstore (487,390 posts)
#amreading (103, 280 posts)
As well as using the author and the name of the book as a hashtag. I'd also spend some time looking for Portland and book-related hashtags with under 10,000 posts.
You might think that something like #pdxbooks or #booksinportland would be a popular hashtag, but it isn’t. In this case, it might make sense it use those hashtags anyway because after 20-30 posts, you’ll be the dominant account using that hashtag – which can be great for branding, future contests, or gaining the interest of book lovers in Portland.
How many hashtags is too many? Everyone has a different opinion. I’ve seen articles that suggest posts with three hashtags get the best interaction, but I think you also have to take into account the size of the social media following. An established brand can use fewer hashtags because their reach and client base is already established.
On the other hand, 25 hashtags always looks excessive and in many cases it is overkill.
I like the balance of 7-15 hashtags, depending on what serves the photo and the audience the best. Experiment and see what works best for you.
The third level is community, or making friends. If you are simply posting image after image and not engaging your audience, then you are broadcasting instead of being social.
This is social media, which means this is your chance to interact with new people. That doesn’t mean being salesy and pushy. It means being a genuine human being and making friends.
You can do that by responding to comments left on your posts. You can use hashtags to find others who are interested in the same things you are interested in. You can use it to connect with other complimentary businesses and support each other.
This isn’t a comprehensive guide to using Instagram for business because there are always specific nuances and unique things to think about that apply only to your business, but I hope this has been helpful!
Musings about marketing, social media, and small business.