Instagram: don’t just post pretty pics, go in with a plan

I want to be that woman.
I want my life (or at least my living room) to look like that.
Yes, I am going to wake up every morning and roll out of bed into downward dog.

These are the narratives streaming through my mind as I scroll through Instagram, punctuated by “Ooooh cute puppy!” and “Dang, why didn’t my friends invite ME to that?!” Instagram’s ability to generate desire is uncanny. In fact, its purely visual nature seems to give Instagram the power to hijack our brains.

Scientists have studied this.

Researchers at UCLA and George Washington University basically summed up why Instagram works as a sales-generating marketing channel when they studied participants’ reactions to two types of ads: “Logical persuasion” ads had facts and figures, and “Nonrational influence” ads showed participants fun, sometimes sexy, loosely related images.

Here’s what happened: the brain regions involved in decision-making and emotional processing lit up when participants looked at the logical persuasion ads—which meant that the logic regions of the brain were firing. That’s bad for marketers, because those are the same regions responsible for inhibiting responses like impulse purchases.

The nonrational influence ads—the big pretty pictures—didn’t trigger major activity in the logic regions, which means the subjects experienced less behavioral inhibitions. Hello “Buy Now” button!

Instagram is all about the pretty pictures - and as a marketing tool, that makes it a uniquely appropriate medium to trigger emotions and impulses.

Marie Forleo's Instagram stream
Instagram stream of Marie Forleo

As if that wasn’t enough of a superpower, Instagram has the added social aspect. It can build relationships, trust, even friendships—which leads to likeability.

Likeability is its own force of nature.

Marketers know Robert Cialdini had persuasion on lock in his 1984 book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Kinda old news, but human nature hasn’t changed much in 34 years. Still pertinent. This book covers 6 principles of influencing people to do what you want.

Number 5 is Liking.

“People are easily persuaded by people they like.”

In short: capitalizing on Instagram’s social aspect, as well as the visual aspect, can pay double dividends.

And yet…

When you look at most brands’ Instagram feeds, you’ll see completely impersonal photos, or worse, post after post of product images. That’s not what people come to see.

Special K Instagram stream
Instagram stream of Special K

Too much product—and who really wants to follow cereal on Instagram?

The most successful Instagram feeds give the people what they want—which tends to break down into three categories:

  1. Aspiration
  2. Inspiration
  3. Personality

(And any combination of the three.)

Aspirational Instagram feeds play on what we want—what we want to do, what we want to be, what we want to eat, what lifestyle we want to have. Typically, aspirational feeds come from fashionistas, fitness gurus, celebrities and furniture brands.

Inspiration feeds into the human impulse to constantly improve and grow. We want to feel inspired, because improvement takes a lot of energy. Inspiration is our fuel. And, we tend to trust those who inspire us.

Personality-driven Instagram feeds give that sense of personal connection to the person or brand. And yes, brands can be personality-driven. Bloggers, coaches, and even some businesses you’d never think of as personality-driven can build devoted followings with this type of content.

Which category is right for you? Or should you combine all three? That depends on your audience, what they want, and what you want them to do.

Choosing the right theme for your feed

The most effective Instagram feeds almost create their own worlds—they’re that consistent in style, tone and intent. As if each feed were an art exhibit, they are curated to create a specific effect or emotional response from those viewing them.

At a more granular level, each post should address what your target audience wants from you. That could be information, a quick zap of motivation, or a feeling of personal connection (or anything else - if you don’t know what your people want to see, ask!).

Need more concrete examples? Here are six brands that are crushing their categories on Instagram.

Aspiration, Inspiration & Personality in practice

Aspiration

Think of aspiration as a desire engine. Aspirational feeds rely mostly on images, but images that are specifically targeted to appeal to a brand’s specific audience. Aspiration isn’t just about things, it’s about experiences, lifestyle, and ‘living the dream’. These brands are getting it right.

@Anthropologie (Ecommerce)
Instagram tagline: “Apparel. Home. Beauty. Shop our feed: click the link, find your item and add to bag!”

Anthropologie Instagram stream
Instagram stream of Anthropologie

What lifestyle does your audience want? Give them a peek into what might be: Motivational Sunflower Instagram Post and Speech Bubble Instagram Post.

I want to go to there.

Monkey see, monkey want, monkey buy—that’s the beauty of Anthropologie’s Instagram feed. It generates desire and offers immediate gratification (such a great combo), but not by posting straight-up product shots.

This isn’t their catalogue.

What makes Anthropologie’s Instagram so compelling is that each photo appears to be a slice of life. You can buy what’s in the photo, but what you’re really hoping to purchase is access to that lifestyle.

Anthropologie shop
Their “shop” isn’t just products either - they also link to related blog posts

See, they’re not selling a bedspread, a bath towel or yoga pants—they’re selling an ideal life. Which is why so many of their posts have absolutely nothing to do with their actual products, and everything to do with the lifestyle their target customers dream of having.

@Kimpton (Hospitality)
Instagram tagline: “Unique. Stylish. Spirited. These photos make us happy. Tag yours #kimpton.”

Kimpton Instagram feed
Instagram stream of Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants

Make your own “I want to go there” posts with customizable templates on Canva: Orange Madrid Travel Instagram Post and Madrid Royal Palace Instagram Post.

Aspirational “I want to go there/do that” posts work really well for the hospitality industry, and Kimpton hotels get this. They also get what their target clients want—a little style, a lot of relaxation, coziness and sophisticated fun. They cater to the young professional crowd. People who love their dogs (the hotels are very dog-friendly), drink wine, craft beer and cocktails (Kimpton hotels have daily complimentary happy hours), and listen to vinyl records.

Each Kimpton hotel has its own Instagram, but the main brand page gives a solid overview of what their people love best.

How do they know? Check this out: the types of posts Kimpton curates on their feed mirror the types of posts their guests hashtag them in.

The Editorialist LA Instagram stream
The Editorialist LA Instagram stream

What does your audience love most? We’ve got templates for that! Try these templates from Canva: Where To Next iPhone Layout and Window Girl Social Media Graphic.

Kimpton’s photos work because they speak to a specific audience who loves specific things. And, if you have any lingering doubts as to how well this strategy works, just read the comments on one of their photos: “I want to stay here hopefully soon.” Yep, that’s how desire gets made.

Don’t Fall Into the Dark Side of Aspiration: perfection-porn. You’ve seen it—the variety of post that goes “Look how perfect my life is. #NoFilter.” These posts seem like they might be aspirational, but they can really turn off an audience. Always have a sense of humor, and more important, a sense of humility.

Inspiration

If aspiration makes you want to have something, inspiration makes you want to do something. Inspirational posts make you feel capable of being better, part of something greater, or just make you go “Wow”. Inspiration uses quotes, images and art, and is practically guaranteed to make your people follow your feed.

@TheSlowFactory (Fashion/Ecommerce)
Instagram tagline: “#FashionActivism: Magic is #sustainability + #slowfashion funding human rights & climate change projects. Raising awareness. #floatinginspace.”

The Slow Factory Instagram feed
Instagram stream by The Slow Factory

Powerful brands take a stand, and our templates make it easy: Dark Blue Photo Animal Rights Poster and Black and Cream Floral Women's Rights Poster

SlowFactory is an independent fashion label with clothes, jewelry and accessories that support environmental and humanitarian causes. Their work is fair-trade, their ink and fabrics are eco-friendly, and their tagline of choice is #FashionActivism.

Every product is literally made to inspire, whether it’s to inspire political action, or just inspire awe at the universe. Their Instagram feed is perfectly consistent with their mission, incorporating political statements with product shots, and personal photos of the founders engaging in activism. It’s a good reminder that brands don’t need to be politically neutral to succeed.

@Society6 (Art/Ecommerce)
Instagram tagline: “Home to thousands of artists from around the world selling their original work as fine art prints, apparel, tech and home products.”

Society6 Instagram stream
Instagram stream of Society 6

Don’t have original art on tap? We’ve got you covered: Dark Teal Beach Painting Art Postcard and Violet Brush Strokes Art Postcard.

Society6 offers a completely different form of inspiration—it’s wall-to-wall art. Life, death, profanity, nudity, surrealism, realism, and everything in between collide with throw pillows, cell phone covers and mugs. It’s a riot of creativity that garners impressively high engagement levels from its artistic followers.

@Barefootfive (Blogging / Ecommerce / eCourses)
Instagram tagline: “Rise and rise again until lambs become lions.”

Barefootfive Instagram post
Instagram post shared by Brooke Hampton

Choose the font that represents your brand with this customizable Canva template: Bird's Nest Social Media Graphic.

Bird's Nest Quote Instagram Post

Brooke Hampton’s Barefootfive Instagram feed is a study in the art of creating your own quotes. The woman is a prose poet, eminently quotable, and works it. When you consider the sheer amount of inspirational quotes that are shared on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest, the value of creating your own becomes clear. Every single quote is branded with Brooke Hampton’s name and “fb/ barefoot five”, and the images forming their backgrounds range from personal photos to whimsical pre-Raphaelite paintings.

Notice just how consistent in appearance they all are. Images are darkened with a filter, and her typewriter-inspired font is unmistakable. You’ll know a Brook Hampton post at a glance—which, of course, is Branding 101.

@MarieForleo (Coaching)
Instagram tagline: “Speaker. Writer. Entrepreneur. Fancy Dancer.”

Marie Forleo Instagram Stream
Instagram stream of Marie Forleo

Get your #GirlBoss on with these Just-Add-Inspiration templates: Girl with Glasses Tumblr Graphic and Magenta Girl Photo Quotes Beauty Pinterest Graphic.

Life & business coaches make inspiration their day jobs, and nobody does inspiration better than Marie Forleo. Her Instagram account is very much an extension of her blog, which could be described as #Girlboss with a dash of Oprah and a dollop of The Secret. It’s very specifically targeted at ambitious women looking for “the clarity and confidence to build your dreams, on your terms”—to borrow Forleo’s CTA for her free audio training “How to Get Anything You Want.”

Yep, that’s how she rolls.

Forleo’s Instagram feed follows a formula of tips, inspirational quotes, and a lot of video clips—shortened versions of the videos she posts on her blog—that end with a CTA “Check out the Full Episode Over at MarieForleo.com/Blog.” See, Instagram doesn’t allow you to put links in posts, so including CTAs that direct viewers back to your site are important details to add.

She’s also not afraid to experiment with the latest Instagram capabilities, like using Insta stories, animation and swiping up to learn more. Whatever she uses, the content is always hyperfocused on delivering value to her target market.

Personality

Personality-driven businesses are those in which customers really come to see the person—and the person is indistinguishable from the brand. Followers feel like they have a genuine relationship with the person, and often they do. Maybe not the kind where you invite each other out to brunch on Sundays, but the kind where mutual support is offered and received. But you don’t have to be an individual human being to have a personality-driven Instagram feed—some brands are doing it too.

@AceHotel Instagram tagline: “A friendly place. Chicago, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, London, DTLA, New York, Palm Springs, Portland and Seattle.”

Ace Hotel Instagram stream

Snag the hipster vibe with this Insta-ready template: Retro Photo Music Event Instagram Post and Colorful Photos Plain Collage Instagram Post.

Ace Hotel is a small chain of boutique hotels that are big on style—of the avant garde, hipster-chic variety. The target consumer is clearly Millennial, but unlike Kimpton above, they don’t snag their quarry with “I want to go there” shots. Their feed is as hip (some might say hipster) as the rest of their brand.

Once in a while—a long while—a post will promote a seasonal sale, or an actual straight-up photo of an Ace Hotel property. But the vast majority is a blend of art, vintage photos, political statements and ‘found’ quotes (like street signs and graffiti). It’s a feed people follow for fun - and it’s not a great stretch for those same people to assume that staying at an Ace Hotel property would also be fun, artistic, and dare we say hipsteriffic.

@TheCherryDollface Instagram tagline: “Vintage Hair & Makeup Cherry Dollface…..Helping girls feel beautiful.”

Cherry Dollface is a Youtube star with an audience of retro-fashion, pin-up and rockabilly lovers. While her Youtube channel contains hair and makeup how-to’s, unboxing videos and product reviews, her Instagram is very much about her personal life, and one of the main ways she personally connects with her audience. In between glamor shots and promotions of her upcoming tours, she shares photos of her stretch marks and very personal stories of her medical struggles (she’s been through multiple heart surgeries) and depression.

CherryDollFace Instagram Stream
Instagram stream of thecherrydollface

Beauty, useful tips, vulnerability—that alone is a compelling mix, but what really wins the hearts of her fans (literally—her personal posts get thousands of Instagram hearts) is Cherry’s unwavering kindness, acceptance and inclusivity of all body and beauty types. She’s lovely inside and out.

Is your brand aspirational, inspirational or personality-driven?

And what does that look like? The answer is up to you—and your audience.

 

Community Growth at Zest.is. Moderator at Product Hunt and Growth Hackers. Previously: Growth at Inbound.org. I teach SaaS Founders how to build, engage, and grow communities for their SaaS products. Check out my book: The SaaS Growth Playbook.