I should probably turn in my content marketing license, because I’m scared of Instagram.

Seriously — my dog has more instagram followers than I do.

You’re probably thinking “OK, boomer.” And, if you’re not, maybe you should be. After all, I know the statistics:

So I get it. The problem is that I don’t know what the heck to post on my Instagram account. After all, I make words. I don’t make pretty cakes (although I used to before the arthritis in my hands got too bad!). I’ve made three babies who have turned into pretty awesome teenagers. But I don’t do fashion or makeup or any of the other things that make for gorgeous images on Instagram. And I’m far from a digital nomad — I’m a work-from-home mom with a husband, three teens, and two dogs. I can’t post breathtaking photos from around the world. The view from my desk is a lot more humble.

But then a client whose business deals in professional services asked me the same question about Instagram: What the heck do I post? So I decided I’d better dig into Instagram and how it can drive business for people whose work doesn’t produce things that make for pretty pictures. Here’s what I found out.

Stake your claim.

The more ways you claim your online presence, the greater the chance that people will find you when they search for the services you provide. So think of your Instagram profile as another place to establish your business, just like Facebook or LinkedIn.

You should also have a business or professional account rather than a personal account. Or you could have both. But if you want to connect and engage with people who might need your services, you want a business account. Not only does it provide you with analytics, a business account also lets you promote certain posts. And the icing on the proverbial cake is that you can include a link to website, your contact information, etc. It just makes it that much easier for potential clients to find you.

Follow these instructions from Instagram for setting up a business account or converting from a personal account to a business account. But let me save you some time — you can only do it on a mobile device, not via your desktop computer.

Use your bio strategically.

Once you’ve got your business account set up, it’s time to fine tune your bio.

  • Use a professional headshot (I know you’ve heard this part before) or your company’s logo. If you don’t have a professionally designed logo, go with the headshot.
  • Your bio should clearly communicate who you are and what you do.
  • Take advantage of the real magic: A business profile lets you include a link. Ideally, that link would go to your business site, but, if you don’t have one, I’d recommend linking to your LinkedIn profile (and get to work building that website!).

Get your doctorate in hashtags.

OK, I might be exaggerating, but only a little bit. Hashtags are the fuel that feeds Instagram’s algorithm gods, and your posts will live or die based on the hashtags you use. (Posts with at least one hashtag get 12.6% more engagement than posts with no hashtags.)

Instagram hashtags tend to be kind of squishy: The most popular ones include #me, #love, and #cute. The challenge for a business is to find the right combination, and there’s no foolproof recipe. You’ll want a combination of popular, industry-specific, and brand-specific hashtags. And, within each of those categories, you’ll want a mix of broad and niche hashtags.

Fortunately, Instagram allows you to use up to 30 hashtags per post, so you have plenty of room to experiment and find out what works best for your business.

I wasn’t kidding by much when I said you needed a doctorate in hashtags. There’s a lot of advice out there, and I’m not going to try to duplicate it. If you want a deeper dive, here are some of the best resources on Instagram hashtags:

Think about your business visually.

I’m not an intuitively visual thinker; my home has always been among words. Even when I’m shopping for clothes online, I find myself reading the description before looking at the picture. That’s why I started this post by saying I’m scared of Instagram. I always end up wondering “What the heck do I post on Instagram? A picture of the words on my screen?” And I assume the same is true for other professional services: accountants, lawyers, business consultants, etc. Not only is our “product” not photogenic, there are often privacy issues and NDAs to consider.

So…what the heck DO we post on Instagram?

Here are some of the ideas I came across in my research:

Happy clients

With permission, you can post pictures of your clients with you or your employees. For the caption, write a short description of what their problem was and how they solved it. Or you could share a picture celebrating your 10th anniversary of doing business together. If you’re a realtor, you could share a picture of yourself transferring the keys to new homeowners.

Post like these serve as testimonials and are good social proof for you and your business. Just remember that you can’t post pictures of clients (or anybody else, for that matter) without getting a release.

Glimpses of what goes on behind the scenes

This is an especially powerful type of post for people who work from home — we’re all a little voyeuristic, and getting a glimpse of someone’s home life is hard to resist. I shared this picture on Instagram and, for the caption, wrote about what was on my agenda for the day. My picture wasn’t staged, although it probably should have been. Candid shots aren’t inherently bad, but sitting-by-the-pool-with-my-laptop-and-a-margarita shots are the ones that earn a lot of engagement. So do working-while-curled-up-in-my-pjs-and-a-blanket-while-it-snows-outside shots.

I can go all day without leaving home when I’m busy, but if your work requires you to get out and about, you have tons of opportunities to make the ordinary extraordinary. Even being stuck in traffic on a rainy day can have a story behind it if you think hard enough. (i.e., What kind of work is piling up? What would you rather be doing?) And if you’re playing hookie one day (going fishing, getting your nails done, etc.)? Take pictures! Don’t be shy…share the fun; then get back to work.

Quotes

Quotes on artistically designed backgrounds (my teens sprout fangs if I dare to call them memes) are popular on Instagram. I often make one containing the title of my blog post and use it as the featured image. I’ll share it on Instagram with a brief description of what the blog post is about, and include the URL (although it won’t be an actual link).

But you can also share quotes from within your blog posts — those little nuggets of text that you’re especially proud of, or the ones that make a point you want to highlight. If you use pull quotes or one of those “Tweet this” plugins, that’s the text I’m talking about. You can do it with subheads, too, doling out portions of your blog post a bit at a time.

What if you don’t have a blog (please tell me you do!)? There’s no end to places where you can find text worthy of splattering across the right background. If you’re running a family business, maybe it’s something your great grandpa said. Maybe it’s something your favorite customer says all the time. Or it could be a quote that resonates with you personally and illustrates how you approach life and business.

One of my favorites is from Carl Sagan:

“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

Another is from a former colleague who was emphasizing the importance of meeting your audience where they are:

“You gotta put the hay down where the goats can get at it.”

And there’s probably a Friends quote for any situation imaginable.

  • Run a match-making service? “She’s your lobster.”
  • Provide house cleaning services? “Could your house BE any cleaner?!”
  • Have a limousine service that picks people up at the airport? “She got off the plane!”
  • A solopreneur coming back from a family vacation? “We were on a break!”

Unsplash is a great place to find royalty-free images. You can even search their portfolio for “background”. Or if you find something you like but it’s a bit too busy to serve as a background for text, you can use a photo editor like PicMonkey to blur the background so that the text will stand out

Using your own pictures

Unsplash has gorgeous pictures, but after a while you start to recognize them, which is why I prefer to use my own when I can. So whenever I’m out with my good camera (on vacation, at whatever sport — currently wrestling — is in season), I look for things that would make good background shots: flowers, leaves, even the raindrops on the stone pavers in our yard. Sunsets and clouds rolling over the ocean make great backgrounds, too. I even uploaded some of mine to Shutterstock to see if they’ll generate a little side income.

Anyway…when you’re out with your camera, keep background images in mind. That way you’ll have a custom image instead of seeing your same background all over the internet.

Networking

Let’s get the first rule of Instagram out of the way right now: If somebody takes the time to comment on one of your images, respond! You never know when the person commenting on your image has a connection to your next dream client.

And keep in mind that you shouldn’t always wait for other people to start the conversation. Search for hashtags relevant to your business or industry, and comment on the images other people have posted. Even though Instagram is image-based, it’s still about conversations and engagement. I actually got caught up in a Twitter conversation today where somebody asked people to post three pictures of their dog. It has nothing to do with my business, but if somebody happens to click on my profile, they might decide they need my help with content strategy.

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So what did I learn? Your business doesn’t have to produce tangible objects to have a place on Instagram. Those of us who work in content marketing or other professional services just have to use a little more imagination. I finally made the leap; will you?

Want some help? That’s what I do, so please get in touch.

P.S.

One of the things I don’t like about Instagram is its mobile-first approach. I like to take pictures with a professional-quality camera, upload them to my computer, and edit them before I post. I had been air dropping the edited pictures to my phone so I could post them, but I recently discovered a Chrome plugin that lets you upload photos from your computer, and it’s made all the difference in the world to me. So give that a try if you prefer posting from your desktop.

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