Sexy hashtags, intimate glimpses and other enticing ways to grow your business on Instagram

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One of the quickest ways to engage customers and build loyalty is through social media, but many small-business owners are so focused on the business of running their business that they neglect this valuable tool.

According to the first CNBC/SurveyMonkey Small Business Survey, released in June, 26 percent of the 2,030 small businesses polled do not use any form of social media to interact with customers or advertise products and events. If you're one of them, you're missing out on a golden opportunity.

In June more than 50 percent of businesses on Instagram produced an Instagram Story, a Snapchat-like feature that lets users share moments in the form of videos or images for 24 hours before those moments disappear. Twenty percent of those organic stories from businesses received a direct message back from consumers.

That engagement likely led to increased sales and raised brand awareness. And best of all for small-business owners, Instagram success doesn't have to cost anything. Here are five keys to telling your story on the social media platform that can help you attract new customers and secure the ones you have already.

1. Learn the language of #hashtag

Hashtags are largely useless on Facebook and kind of important on Twitter, but they're essential on Instagram. Just as emojis have become their own language in text messaging, hashtags are how Instagram users find items of interest — and using the most obvious examples won't help you attract new customers.

"It has to be something sexy," said Glen Gilmore, a professor at Rutgers University School of Business and principal of the social media marketing firm Gilmore Business Network. "For instance, if you're a restaurant, its not enough to say #lunchspecials.

"What's going to get someone is something like #pizzalovers," he added. "You've got to make them hungry, make them excited about the images they see; or, if you're a home decorator, #doors isn't going to do it, but #doorsofdistinction might."

Just as important: Research what competitors (and big companies) are using, and make sure your image quality is at least as good as what they're showing.

"You can't just hijack a hashtag and think it's going to work," said Gilmore. "You have to achieve the quality that goes with it, as well."

2. Involve your community

Certainly, it's important to give your company an identity. That's often the owner or an employee who's a natural on camera (if you choose to livestream), but don't overlook the importance of including customers and user-generated content in your Instagram stories.

When someone who doesn't have a financial interest in the product or service evangelizes it, that increases trustworthiness among potential customers. And that can drive more business your way.

"Small business might even try their own version of 'influencer marketing' in their stories by featuring 'micro-influencers,' people who are trusted in their industry or local markets to help share the business' story," said Gilmore.

Another tip: Widen that community by following people from your corporate account.

"Follow and comment [on] profiles with the same target audience/industry to attract new customers," said Laura Bell Greeno, chief marketing officer for online marketing firm WebScout. "Then follow their followers."

3. Have a call to action

Once you've got the attention of potential customers, it's time to convert them. Have a next step that will incentivize leads, whether that's a discount code or some other enticement.

A sense of urgency helps, as well. If that coupon code only lasts 24 hours, potential customers will be more driven to act immediately, rather than think about it too long (and potentially convince themselves against a purchase). Instagram, after all, is a social media platform that's focused on the here and now. Adding a time-critical component encourages action.

Just make sure the coupon or offer is valuable to your customers. Offer something that's basically useless and you'll lose their loyalty, rather than lock it in.

4. Incorporate a theme

Any good story has a beginning, middle and end. That's true on Instagram Stories, too. For small businesses, one way to find a theme is to give an insider view of the service or product you're offering. This can include everything from showing how a dish in a restaurant is made to how to install a popular item in your stock. By the time they finish watching whatever story you offer, they should be thinking it was helpful, fun or at least engaging.

Help viewers feel as if they're getting an intimate glimpse of your work. ... Social media content marketing in Instagram stories is about adding value to the moment you're sharing with a consumer.
Glen Gilmore
professor at Rutgers University School of Business and principal of the social media marketing firm Gilmore Business Network

"Let your customers see how you install a new patio or the choices involved in landscaping," said Gilmore of Gilmore Business Network. "Share some of the stages of work and features that make it special.

You should help viewers feel they're getting an intimate glimpse of your work, he noted. "Showcase a special technique that consumers can use in their yard or kitchen or around the house that is connected to your business and showcases your skillfulness," Gilmore added. "Social media content marketing in Instagram stories is about adding value to the moment you're sharing with a consumer."

5. Visual storytelling is key, but so is moderation

You can't just throw up any picture you shoot on your cellphone when trying to promote your business. Learn some basic photography and editing skills. Something as simple as realizing the best angle and being mindful of what's in the background can make all the difference when it comes to engaging potential customers. Also, realize that Instagram is a medium where bright colors can catch someone's eye. Let filters help you improve pictures after you take them.

Once you've mastered shooting the right photo, post daily. But not every post has to be, nor should it be, done with the intent of luring customers. Consider an 85/15 ratio as a guideline.

"Keep 'sales' to less than 15 percent of posts," said WebScout's Greeno. "Take cues from well-performing profiles and copy what you like and what works for others in your space."

— By Chris Morris, special to

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