Wondering how to use Instagram for sales? Looking for ways to promote your products without using ads?
To explore how to use Instagram as an organic sales funnel, I interview Elise Darma on the Social Media Marketing Podcast.
Elise is an Instagram marketing expert who specializes in helping business owners scale with Instagram. Her courses are Story Vault and InstaGrowth Boss.
You’ll discover how to use Elise’s Instagram Story Seasons Method to generate sales without any advertising and learn what kinds of content work best at each stage of the Story Seasons customer journey.
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Elise’s Start on Instagram
Sometime before 2010, Elise found that the 9-to-5 life of working with tech startups didn’t give her enough time to explore her passion for travel. So she started freelancing her marketing skills on the side. Soon she became recognized as the Facebook girl or the Twitter girl.
By 2014, she quit her job and started an agency offering marketing services to eCommerce brands. She finally had the freedom to work online while traveling the world, but after a while, she began to want greater financial freedom as well.
In 2016, Elise decided to focus on growing her personal brand on Instagram. She posted travel photos, wrote stories, and dug into Instagram marketing and growth. That first summer, she grew her Instagram account to around 30,000 followers. By the end of the year, she had 50,000. But she admits she made lots of mistakes in the early stages.
Because she was focused on growing her Instagram account as a portfolio for future clients, she wasn’t doing things like capturing emails or getting to know the people who were following her. She eventually discovered that people didn’t really want her agency services—they wanted to know how she was able to travel so much and how she was growing on Instagram.
This was the true start of seeing her personal brand as a business. By talking to her followers and really understanding what they wanted, Elise was able to create her very first digital product, InstaGrowth Boss, in 2017. Since then, Elise’s business has completely changed. She’s no longer focused on the agency side of things. Now she’s an Instagram educator for fellow business owners, helping people sell their coaching, services, and products through Instagram.
Why Businesses Should Focus on Instagram
Instagram has emerged as a proven sales and marketing tool, particularly in the last 2 years.
It was 2018 when Elise first saw industry leaders in the online business space—including Russell Brunson, who spoke at Funnel Hacking Live—declaring that Instagram had become the most important platform for business. Elise was shocked! She had known for years that Instagram was amazing but the greater online business industry as a whole was finally picking up on it.
Parent company Facebook has been consistently putting its efforts and its newest, shiniest features into Instagram. We’ve seen so many updates to Instagram, especially in the last year and in the realm of sales tools.
When Instagram first became popular, it was in the influencer sense: People with a million followers were getting free trips and clothing. Business owners got a little confused looking at that. It seemed like users needed to become “Instagram-famous” for the platform to be worth their while.
In 2016, Elise was one of those people gunning for followers without really generating great relationships. But now there are people out there with 100,000 followers making zero dollars. In contrast, there are people Elise works with every day with fewer than 1,000 followers who are making five-figure incomes.
In the last 2 years, Instagram has proven to be a great place to connect with your customers. It’s also a great place to develop a quality following that’s actually going to care about your business and then become customers. That’s where Elise is seeing her students succeed the most.
Instagram Content Types
Content on Instagram can be tricky to figure out. For example, how do you make a photo of yourself “sharable”?
Elise loves to test Instagram captions with photo-based content, and then when the caption takes off, she’ll just reuse that caption in a second piece of content that’s less about her.
To visualize this, she recently shared a photo of herself and her boyfriend but the caption wasn’t really about them. It was a shout-out to all of the partners of online business owners—the ones who make us breakfast, lunch, and dinner when we forget to eat, and who celebrate our wins just as big, if not bigger, than we do.
People loved the caption. They shared this post in their own stories and said, “Read the caption.” That was a big hint to Elise. She later repurposed that caption as a quote card—a text-based post. That removed her from the post entirely and turned it into something that people would more gladly share or tag their partners in because it was less about her and more about them. They could relate to the story, too.
Videos are also a great way to get more reach and more eyeballs on your content for greater visibility. Instagram is now autoplaying IGTVs and sharing stories of people we don’t follow in our Explore feeds.
Instagram Live has recently changed. If you didn’t drum up anticipation and let your audience know you were going to go live, you often wouldn’t have that many people show up live. The power of live video was really in the replay. But the replay of an Instagram live video used to remain in your stories for just 24 hours.
Since the quarantine has resulted in so many people going live, Instagram has now removed the ability to share it to your stories for 24 hours and replaced it with the option to bring the video into your IGTV. Elise used to go live, save a version to her phone, and then upload it to IGTV. Now this is all done in one step within Instagram. Of course, you also still have the option to not repost your live video at all.
Instagram Features Fit Into an Organic Sales Funnel
We’re all consumers. We’ve all bought something before. And generally, a brand has taken us on a journey to get there.
First, we needed to become aware that the brand even existed. Then we were intrigued about what they were offering. Next, we started to desire what this brand was offering, which pushed us over the edge to becoming a customer. That’s essentially a customer journey.
Instagram has so many great features now to help move customers along this journey. If we think of this journey from the business’s perspective—to make someone aware of you—you need visibility. That’s when a lot of people want growth; they want followers. Then to create interest, we need our followers to engage with our posts using comments, shares, and direct messages (DMs).
Next, to generate desire, we need leads. We need to know who in our following is thinking, “Hmm, I’m kind of interested. Yeah, I’ll give you my email or I’ll answer your poll.” And lastly, to get customers, we need sales.
Elise has established that Instagram’s features fit every step of this customer journey perfectly. Once you understand this, it actually takes “The Overwhelm” out of Instagram.
The features are great—things like stickers, going live, IGTV—but they can also be overwhelming, especially when you’re the social media marketer for your brand. You don’t really know what to focus on. But when you understand your customer journey and which features are best for your goal, then you can focus on what you need and ignore the rest.
The graphic of “the funnel” that we see—wide at the top and skinny at the bottom—corresponds with where our content should be focused. Most of your followers are going to become aware of you. A smaller pool is going to be deeply interested in what you’re offering. An even smaller pool of people will desire to give you money in exchange for what you’re offering. And then an even smaller group will become customers.
So the majority of your Instagram content should focus on content that brings you awareness. Then you want a smaller chunk of your content to focus on that interest: letting people know what you offer and encouraging them to engage with you. Then a smaller portion of content would build that desire for what you offer, and explain the transformation that your product or offer gives them. The smallest portion of your content is going to be sales-related.
You’re not going to do all of these phases equally. For the most part, you’ll focus on that largest awareness phase.
The Story Seasons Method
Elise has developed what she calls the Story Seasons Method to help describe these different stages: Visibility, Engagement, Lead Generation, and Closing Sales.
In business, we go through seasons of growth and seasons of just building on systems behind the scenes. For a time, we may only work on visibility, and then for another period, just work on engagement. A lot of businesses that follow the launch model experience this.
Some people will launch programs twice a year. For the rest of the year, they’re working on visibility, looking to get new eyeballs on their brand. Then for a shorter portion of the year, especially as they prepare for their launch, they want to touch base with their people. They want to know “the why” of their followers because that feedback might determine what they actually offer. These “seasons” aren’t all equal in length and businesses tend to switch between them at different times.
Elise initially developed the Story Seasons Method just for Instagram Stories. But we can extrapolate the idea across our entire content strategy.
The First Season: Visibility
How do you determine that your brand needs visibility on Instagram? You might be in an audience research phase or researching a potential product you’re making. You’re searching for clues and signs. You might just be focused on growing your warm audience. Maybe you’re on Instagram to get followers because more new eyeballs means more awareness and potential customers.
You could also be in a season of visibility if you want to be seen as an expert in your niche. Maybe you have an established business and customers, and now you want people in your industry to know you. Essentially, if you want growth, you’re in a season of visibility.
Content for Visibility
In the visibility stage, we’re creating the type of content that someone else can share because it makes them look good and makes them look informed. That exposes you to their audience, which is the best recommendation. The best testimonial or referral you can get today is when someone takes your beautiful, personally made content and they share it in their stories or they DM it to a friend. They’re highly likely to follow you as well.
When you’re in a season of visibility, it’s a great idea to include hashtags in your stories. You can include up to 10. The difference between using hashtags in your stories versus posts is that with posts, you want the hashtags to be really niche-specific. With stories, you want hashtags to be broad.
You want stories hashtags to be industry-wide because people can follow hashtags and they’re less inclined to actually follow the smaller, more niche hashtags. You’ve only got 24 hours before the story disappears and you want to get as much visibility as you can. If you use hashtags in your story, people can see it even if they’re not following you.
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Three stickers are especially good for visibility in stories: location, hashtag, and mention. Elise feels like Instagram gave us these stickers purely to get new eyeballs on our profiles. If you use any one or all three of them, you’re essentially tagging another account in your story. For the mention sticker, the person mentioned will get a notification that you tagged them, and then they can reshare your story with their followers. Those are the three best story stickers to use when you’re in the season of visibility.
Finally, in covering visibility, Elise really loves IGTV for video content, especially since launching her YouTube channel in 2018. She repurposes her YouTube videos as IGTV videos. Elise initially thought it would be too repetitive to post the same video on both platforms. She was surprised when no one complained and she realized that people weren’t seeing her content across all platforms.
Now she publishes her videos on YouTube and then repurposes them on IGTV a week or so afterward. Note: There’s a duration limit of 60 minutes on IGTV uploaded from your desktop. Anything 10 minutes or less can be uploaded from your phone.
The Second Season: Engagement
Once you’ve reached a comfortable number of Instagram followers, that’s when you need to turn to those followers and ask for feedback. You need to engage with them so they engage with you.
The season of engagement is essentially when you need feedback from your current audience. You’re not focused on follower growth. You’re now just focused on chatting and connecting with the people who are already following you.
You might be in a season of engagement if you have a product or offer idea and you want to put it out there to confirm that people are interested in it. Maybe you want to chat with people one on one just to get a sense of where their heads are.
Content for Engagement
In the engagement season, outside of stories, you need to include a call to action in your captions.
When this idea first became popular, most people just said things like, “Like this post if…” or, “Comment on this post if…” But in 2020, the Instagram algorithm actually cares more about saves and shares. When Elise writes a caption that she hopes will generate engagement, she’ll ask people to save the post.
Often, it’s a good, info-packed post that they can reference in the future. Sometimes she’ll ask them to share the post with their fellow mom friends or with fellow business owners—whoever the audience is.
When she looks at the analytics for her posts, sometimes she’ll see that she didn’t get a lot of likes on a particular post compared to how many followers she has. But she doesn’t care about likes; what she’s looking for in her insights is who’s saving and sharing.
When you see someone’s post and you love it, there’s the little paper-airplane icon right on top of the caption. That allows you two options. One is to share that post in a story, and that’s generally how Elise crafts her content. She wants it to be the type of content that people will share to their own story. The paper airplane is also going to show a list of people you can send the story to directly via DM.
There are a few great stickers that you can use in your stories to increase engagement. One is the poll sticker, which encourages people to tap a button and engage with your story. There’s also the question sticker that allows you to write an open-ended question and people can pop in their answers.
Elise loves the countdown sticker to build anticipation for a live stream, an open cart, or even just teasing something. People can follow that countdown and get notified when it ends. There’s also the slider sticker, which is a very easy way for people to share their emotion about your story. The quiz sticker is another useful tool for getting feedback from people.
The Third Season: Lead Generation
Once you’ve talked to your followers, you may be ready to move into a season of lead generation. It’s one thing for someone to say they’re interested but it’s another for them to take action. Many times when we’re list-building, for example, that puts us in a season of lead generation.
Let’s say you’re preparing for a launch and you’re making a prelaunch waitlist so that those who are super-interested get first dibs. Maybe you’re just building anticipation for something to come. A lot of times with the live-launching model, you have months of visibility-type content and then you’re building leads. You want to get a list of fresh leads when you launch your new offer. That’s the season of lead generation.
After visibility, this is probably a longer season as well. Lead generation is often going on in the background, especially when you’ve set up systems in your business to generate leads.
Content for Lead Generation
Often, we’ll have a line in our bio that’s pretty vague such as, “Visit my website” or “DM me to chat.” Elise likes to generate leads through her bio by being very specific about what they can DM her. She advises thinking specific, not broad.
Let’s say you’re an astrologer. You can say in your bio, “DM me your birth date for a free reading.” That gives people a reason to send you a message. Another thing Elise loves to do is use a code in her bio or captions that allows her to track leads. To illustrate, one of Elise’s wedding-photographer clients said, “DM me ‘coffee’ for a free add-on to your package.” He could just track who messaged him “coffee” to see how many leads he was getting directly from Instagram.
The Poll option in stories is great for lead generation. Elise loves asking people yes-or-no questions on polls, but for the second option, she doesn’t use “no.” Instead, she’ll say something like, “Hey, have you grabbed my brand-new Instagram freebie?” One poll option will say “yes,” and the second one will say, “Send me the link.” She can see who responded to the poll, swipe up and see every single person who said, “Send me the link.”
Instagram puts a little paper-airplane button next to their name, which opens up a DM thread with them in the same window, allowing her to paste in the link and send it to them. DMs are so powerful for leads. There’s no limit to how many links you can send in DMs.
The Fourth Season: Closing Sales
You’re in a season of sales if you’re live-launching your offer. Your cart is open. You’re welcoming new students. You’re answering any last-minute questions. You’re reiterating your offer again and again. You’re letting people know about the deadline or the price increase. Whatever it is, this is where you don’t hide. You need to be clear and let your people know, “This is available; this is why you should join.”
The idea of sales can be a bit icky for people but when you’ve done all the prep work and you have an amazing offer that you know is going to solve a major pain point for people, you’ll feel excited. You’ll feel so pumped to share this with people because you know it’s going to help them. And by closing sales, you’re really answering questions and helping people get off the fence.
Elise rarely live-launches. Instead, she’s developed a lot of systems that are always running behind the scenes in her business, whether it’s a webinar funnel where she’s running ads or just driving people to an opt-in page. You can have those things set up and running in the background but just think about what your outward-facing goal is for your followers.
Content for Closing Sales
Closing sales is usually a short spurt of a season. With closing sales, the power is in the DMs. You always want to include a call to action for people to DM you. This could be in your captions or your bio but it should also be in your stories.
Elise likes to do a sequence of at least three stories for closing sales. The first story is the context of what you’re about to share. The second story is the meat—the thing that you’re sharing with them such as the fact that it’s the last day to get 25% off. The last story in this sequence needs to be a call to action simply to get people to reply to your story with any questions or comments. When they reply to your story, that’s going to create the DM thread between you, and that’s really where you’re going to close sales.
Elise also loves polls and quizzes for closing sales. The quiz sticker is a great tool to ask people what’s holding them back from joining. You probably already know the typical objections that people have. You can list all of the popular objections as quiz options and then people can choose.
You can see who chose what option and you can follow up with them in a DM based on what they chose. If they said, “This is too expensive,” you can DM them and say, “Hey Karen, I saw your answer to my quiz. I wanted to let you know I just released a payment plan, so now you can join for $97.”
If you’re not engaging with people in DMs while you’re doing a big sales push, you’re leaving money on the table. Elise has seen her students do some really smart things like tagging anyone who’s a hot lead for their product as a close friend. They then send stories to only close friends so they’ll really cultivate a deeper relationship. They’ll even take the time to DM every person who’s a close friend and manage those relationships.
Often, the majority of sales come from those relationships built there in Instagram DMs. Many times as a customer, you’re interested, you have a few questions, but when the person you’re following actually replies to you—maybe they send a voicemail or a video note—that takes the relationship to a whole new level.
Elise admits that she’s a last-minute launcher. But in an ideal world, her only job during a launch would be to show up publicly by doing lives and emails, and then spend the rest of her day just messaging people individually.
To anyone who even views her stories, she can send a message and say, “Hey, it’s Elise here. I just saw that you might be interested in joining, and I wanted to pop in and see if you had any questions for me. I’m happy to help.” That one little message makes all the difference for people to say to themselves, “You know what? I think she actually cares. She’ll treat me like a human in this online program that I’m about to buy.”
Key Takeaways From This Episode:
- Find out more about Elise on her website.
- Follow Elise on Instagram and YouTube.
- Download the Social Media Marketing Industry Report.
- Watch exclusive content and original videos from Social Media Examiner on YouTube.
- Watch our weekly Social Media Marketing Talk Show on Fridays at 10 AM Pacific on YouTube.
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What do you think? What are your thoughts on using Instagram as an organic sales funnel? Please share your comments below.