More local small businesses count on Instagram for customers

For the past two years, Meg Stevens O’Reilly has been using the photo-sharing app Instagram to bring customers to Abeille NOLA, her Magazine Street boutique.

O’Reilly regularly posts pictures of the new clothes that come into her store, and she’s seen quick results.

“If I post something on Instagram, I sell something from each post I make,” she said. “It happens almost every day. I’ve posted something on Instagram, and five minutes later customers have come in and said ‘I saw your post on Instagram. I want this.’”

Instagram is an increasingly important part of small businesses’ social media strategies. It’s helping them drive sales, gain customers and develop their brand. The app is especially helpful to restaurants, bakeries, clothing stores, hair salons and other businesses that sell items that photograph well.

The app, which was founded in 2010 and was bought by social media company Facebook Inc. in 2012, reaches more than 200 million users worldwide. Owners say it’s easy to use and like that they can automatically post their Instagram photos on their businesses’ other social media accounts, including Facebook and Twitter.

Along with posting pictures of the clothes she sells at Abeille NOLA, O’Reilly regularly puts up pictures of her daughter, Viv.

“It helps to show that I’m not just a business, I’m a human being,” she said.

A report released this spring by Forrester Research found that customers are, on average, 58 times more likely to like, share and comment on a brands’ Instagram posts than their Facebook posts. Forrester said this is because Instagram has fewer users and less content, so posts stand out better. Plus, Instagram doesn’t filter out branded posts like Facebook does.

“Every time I log out of Facebook and come back, there are 3,000 possible stories it could show me, but an algorithm picks out the best stories, based on the sites I’ve interacted with,” said Caroline F. Barry, a Lafayette social media consultant. “Instagram isn’t doing that yet.”

Barry teaches courses on how small businesses can best use Instagram through the Opportunity Machine, the Lafayette Economic Development Authority’s business incubator program. About 25 people showed up at her last class.

While Barry said Instagram gives businesses a chance to stand out in a crowded social media marketplace, there are some drawbacks. For one, unlike Facebook, there are no built-in metrics to determine which posts are getting the most views from followers. And there’s no way to use another site or app to upload a photo or schedule one to pop up in the Instagram feed.

Businesses need to use one of several free services to track what posts are doing the best, she said.

The key for businesses is not to annoy followers by posting too frequently. A rule of thumb is the shorter the buying cycle, the more frequent posts should be.

“If you own a car dealership, people buy a car every three or four years,” Barry said. “But a restaurant, a clothing store, people are always in the market for those things. You can post a lot more.”

Josh Holder, owner of Time Warp, a vintage clothing store in Baton Rouge, said while the temptation exists to take a picture of every item that comes into the store and post it on Instagram, he tries to make sure the content is “really well thought out.”

“We don’t want to overfeed customers,” Holder said. “We try to put up inspirational messages and clothing-oriented things to let them know what is trending in town.”

Using Instagram has expanded Time Warp’s customer base beyond south Louisiana, showing that the store carries unique items that fit in with current fashion trends.

“We put stuff on Instagram, and people call and purchase it over the phone,” Holder said. “People call from New York, Wisconsin. It’s been a great tool for us.”

Emelie Alton, one of the owners of Bistro Byronz, said she uses Instagram to make people aware of her restaurant, which has locations in Baton Rouge, Mandeville and Shreveport. The restaurant regularly posts pictures of dishes and celebrity diners, like Lance Bass. “Sometimes we’ll promote specific specials and notify people of fundraising events,” she said.

An Instagram tool Alton uses for Bistro Byronz is hashtags, pound signs placed in front of keywords. Using hashtags means that people who search Instagram for keywords will see a certain post. That has allowed Bistro Byronz to piggyback off the popular #GoBR campaign, recently launched by Visit Baton Rouge.

“Using hashtags allows us to reach more people,” she said.

Rita Goodrich of Inkling Design Studio in Lafayette said she first got on Instagram about four years ago, not too long after she launched her business, which makes invitations, stationery and corporate designs. But for the first year or so, Goodrich’s account was full of personal photos and not business related. “I was not aware that it was such a good marketing tool,” she said.

Now, Goodrich said the Instagram feed is the third-biggest driver of customers for Inkling, behind only word of mouth and her website.

“I have gotten a few different brides searching for wedding-related hashtags who order stamps or stationery,” she said.

Goodrich still keeps a personal touch on Inkling’s Instagram account, putting up photos of her house and her chihuahua.

“I’ve gotten so many likes that way, it’s crazy,” she said. “People look for dog posts and see my design posts. It’s a way to diversify my following and introduce people to our products,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Follow Timothy Boone on Twitter @TCB_TheAdvocate