When I recently asked antiques expert Harry Rinker to name some new sales trends in the field of selling collectibles online, he surprised me. He mentioned a site that doesn't seem profit-oriented.
"Instagram is a new player in the area of collectible sales," said Rinker. "I have a friend who is a jeweler on Instagram and who can almost give up the show circuit with the sales coming in."
It was surprising to hear this because, as you probably know, Instagram was created as a photo sharing site. Anyone can post photos or videos on the site based on their interests or on a common theme. It wasn't originally intended as a place to post items for sale.
But when I started to look into Facebook-owned Instagram, I discovered that there's a definite buzz about it.
Instagram instituted one big change early in 2015 designed to turn viewers into shoppers. It enabled merchants to link to product descriptions from their Instagram images -something you see on Banana Republic's Instagram page.
But, as with other social networking sites, these are pay-to-play opportunities for merchants (in other words, advertising).
This article focuses on social selling - if you want to learn more about advertising opportunities for small businesses on Instagram, check out this blog post where you'll find a tutorial.
Using Instagram to Attract Shoppers
Social selling enables prospective buyers to interact with a seller's customers and other social media contacts to get more information and support about what they are considering as well as make purchases immediately on the social media site without having to go to another website. The idea is that, if you can get a prospective customer to buy immediately without having to make more clicks, you're more likely to complete the sale.
In general, there are two ways to use Instagram for an ecommerce business:
1) You can use it as a showcase to highlight products you want to feature, and then steer visitors to your ecommerce store to make a purchase.
2) You can do some more sophisticated things such as posting prices and descriptions on Instagram itself, or you sell collaboratively with other Instagram users, or find influential Instagram users and get them to promote your products.
I heard from a number of merchants that they, too, are having success using Instagram for sales.
"It is an absolutely fantastic and highly misunderstood channel to sell on," says Candice Galek of Miami Beach, who founded Bikini Luxe. Galek should know: of the nearly $3 million in sales she did in 2015, she can directly attribute $100,000 to Instagram via analytics.
Engage to Build Credibility
Members who sign up to use Instagram create "collections" of photos that share a common theme. Usually, the theme that links the images is an interest, a hobby, or a wish to share something of interest.
The idea of a group of images with similar contents lends itself naturally to creating "collections" of images of items for sale - a sort of visual product catalog that shoppers can scan in a glance. That's just what some sellers are doing.
Lisa Chu, founder of Black N Bianco Kids Clothing of Los Angeles, takes the "traditional" approach to Instagram. She sells children's formal wear like boys' tuxedos and flower girl dresses online. She uses Instagram only as a "platform to communicate and showcase our customers wearing our adorable little clothing," she says.
"Sometimes if there is a sale I will include the price of the product. But for the most part it will only be used to build credibility with our audience. I don't believe in using Instagram as a dumping ground for our advertisements. We do point people to our store on my Instagram home page, but never in the description because it looks like spam."
However, most of her product images on Instagram include the BLACKNBIANCO.COM logo across the bottom as a sort of prominent watermark - and a reminder of the website URL.
Chu estimates that about 8 percent of her company's revenue comes through Instagram. She urges prospective Instagram users to participate actively with others. "Instagram is a social media platform to engage with your audience and show that you are part of the community," she comments. "Using it as the only source to market your business will not help your ecommerce grow. It takes a lot of pieces to complete the puzzle of successful ecommerce but Instagram is a vital piece to that puzzle."
Highlight Products and Product Features
E-Commerce Giant Holdings President and CEO A. John Mikulec says he sells "The largest selection of tailgating gear online on TailgateGiant.com and Everything for your Man Cave, Game Room, or Rec Room on ManCaveGiant.com. He, like Chu, uses Instagram as a highlighting tool.
"We have used Instagram for years to highlight new and featured products to grow awareness to slower moving products that may get lost in our sites that have 42,000 and 90,000 products, respectively. We also use it to highlight product features that otherwise would go unnoticed."
Mikulec only puts prices and descriptions on Instagram product images on special occasions: "Only if it is a big sale like Cyber Monday or Black Friday. We don't want customers to look at a post from two years ago and request that price when it may have gone up."
Product descriptions accompanying individual images are rare: "Instagram viewers have short attention spans for posts and want you to get to the point." Rather, the short descriptive space can be used for a brief announcement such as "Now Available: Kolder 12 Pack Coolers!" In contrast to Chu, Mikulec does include a link to the TailateGiant.com main Instagram page which, in turn, contains links to the TailgateGiant.com and ManCaveGiant.com websites as well as discount promo codes.
The main goal of these Instagram product postings is to get shoppers to an online store where they can find the features they want and make a purchase. The social photo sharing site effectively highlights merchandise the store wants to promote.
But featuring products isn't necessarily social. Instagram sales go to the next level when the merchant combines the "product highlight" approach with viral marketing, collaboration, and true "social selling."
That's the subject of Part Two - available now.