Are you using Instagram Stories to its fullest potential? Want to make your stories more consistent and engaging?
To explore how to use Instagram Stories for your brand, I interview Sue B. Zimmerman on the Social Media Marketing Podcast.
Sue is an Instagram marketing expert and author of The Instagram Strategy Guide. Her online course is called Ready, Set, Gram.
You’ll find tips and techniques for using Instagram Stories to help your business stand out, and discover how to use the new Create features that just dropped.
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This article is sourced from the Social Media Marketing Podcast, a top marketing podcast. Listen or subscribe below.
Scroll to the end of the article for links to important resources mentioned in this episode.
Instagram Stories Is a Growing Opportunity for Businesses
Start Doing Stories…
Sue likes to think of Instagram as a village with different neighborhoods: the feed, Stories, IGTV, and Instagram Live.
More than half a billion people consume Instagram stories every day. That’s a massive audience and it’s still growing.
Instagram puts Stories right up at the top when you open Instagram. When an account you’re following creates a story, it shows up at the front of your Stories, as do those you watch most frequently. Many users are just hanging out in Stories, foregoing the feed entirely. However, the fact that your story is at the top of the feed as people scroll, even if they don’t watch it, is a great opportunity for your brand to be top of mind.
Still, a lot of businesses and marketers aren’t creating Stories yet and they need to start. People consume stories because that’s where the real, raw, authentic visual story is. The feed is so highly curated that people like to tap through and connect with content creators more intimately via stories.
Similarly, stories can also drive traffic back to the feed so you can beat the algorithm, or at least increase your engagement, when you show up in Stories. Stories also give you more of an opportunity to be found in the Explore tab. So if you’re not there yet, you should be.
…but Don’t Just “Do Stories”
Sue sees too many people who are just “doing stories” because it’s the thing to do, and Instagram has made it so easy to create them on the fly. This often results in stories with random content that doesn’t measure up to the promise they made in their bios.
When you create an Instagram account, you create it with intention. If you’re here for business and you state who you are, what you do, and why you do it in your bio, people decide to follow you based on that promise, the visuals you’re sharing, and the content you’re creating to match those visuals.
If there’s a lot of random content in your story and there’s a disconnect, you lose your audience’s trust. They followed you for a reason and your story should be congruent with what you’re sharing in your feed.
Before you post a story clip, Sue challenges you to think about what’s in it for your audience. What’s in it for the person you’re trying to serve, the client you’re trying to attract? If you’re not serving up something valuable to them—if it’s only serving your ego—then just don’t share it.
Sue recommends making a checklist of what you should do in each clip to make sure you’re serving what your audience is interested in learning from you. It’s okay if it’s entertaining, says Sue; you don’t have to be boring. Just be on-brand, whatever that means for your business. There are so many features that enable you to do that.
Instagram Stories Formats
Many story creators aren’t taking full advantage of the different types of content they can share on the platform. When you upload a photo, it’s there for 4 seconds and then it moves to the next clip. You can also create graphics in apps outside of Instagram, download them to your camera roll, and upload them to your stories.
A video can be a 15-second video or a consecutive video that you upload. People are even creating videos in TikTok, downloading them, and sharing them in their stories.
You can also use built-in filters (including face filters), add music, and find your brand colors using the color dropper.
There currently are five different text styles in Instagram. Sue predicts that Instagram will add a lot more text styles soon, “but for now, we have what we have.”
When choosing a text style, make sure that the text matches the content. Sue likes getting creative by adding spaces in between letters when she’s typing, which can make it look like a different text style altogether.
Some of the text styles (Typewriter, Strong, and Classic) have a backdrop; you’ll see an A with a box on the top left when you choose your text style and you can tap on that to choose a background color.
Sue nearly always puts a background on her text, and recommends ensuring your text is not only readable but also that there’s not too much of it. When there’s too much text (or too many animated GIFs), it can be hard for your audience to know where to direct their attention.
There are 21 colors that autopopulate for Instagram story text but you can access the full color spectrum by tapping on any of the colors and moving your finger to any color you’d like. Sue predicts that we’ll be able to save our brand hex colors soon.
Sue’s guidelines for text: “Clean, on-brand, and readable. What is it that you want me to do, what am I learning, am I going to tap forward, is there a call to action?” The text box just helps emphasize the point you’re making with the text.
Ideal text placement depends on the call to action. To visualize this, if Sue wants someone to swipe up and subscribe to her YouTube channel, she puts the text toward the bottom.
If the focus is on the video and you’re making a small point with the text, Sue recommends making the text smaller and the video larger. If you’re uploading video from your camera roll, you can actually pinch the video so it doesn’t cover the whole screen, leaving space for text if you don’t want it to overlap the video.
Instagram Stories engagement stickers allow you to go deeper and have one-on-one conversations with anyone who decides to stop in their tap and take action. Options include the slider, countdown sticker, quiz, poll, and question sticker.
When someone stops and takes action, those are warm leads. They like what you’re doing and they’re answering your question or your poll. Instagram lets you see who took action and how they answered, and you can send them a direct message thanking them for engaging or giving them more information.
No matter how many followers you have, you can send a link to someone with an Instagram direct message. So if someone’s looking for a resource for a YouTube video that Sue did, or they’re asking Sue a question about hashtags, she can easily send them a direct link to her YouTube channel to help nurture that relationship.
“That makes them feel like, ‘Wow. That was so nice. She sent me that. Now I understand how to solve this problem I was having,'” says Sue. “It just solidifies these relationships.”
Sometimes we’re at a live event (like Social Media Marketing World) and we want to capture something but we don’t have time to get creative with it. We want to be present in the moment but we also want to share content on our story later. Sue says that you can tap on the down arrow, save the content to your camera roll, and share it later when you’re ready to be intentional with your story.
When you have an Instagram mindset, says Sue, you’re always thinking of your surroundings and looking with a keener eye to snap photos and videos to save. Sue suggests creating photo albums on your phone so you can easily find that content to turn into stories later when it makes sense to bring it into a specific content piece.
Instagram Stories Create Mode
As of this recording, which took place on October 10, Instagram had just released a new tab in Instagram Stories, to the left of the button when you’re creating story content in the app. It’s called Create.
“It makes it easy for people who aren’t super-creative to say, ‘Okay. Now I can do an Instagram story,'” says Sue.
Create includes increased opportunities to customize text-only story clips. When you’re inside the Create feature and you look at the top, there are more options that you can tap on to further customize the look of your story. To illustrate, there’s a dot that allows you to change the background of the text.
To the right of that, Instagram has introduced some new content templates. A lot of people struggle with organizing their content within the boundaries of an Instagram story. The blue line marks the border you don’t want to cross over because some people on different devices might not be able to read what you’ve done. These templates fit within those boundaries.
They have elements such as frames with words on them and squares that you can add your own custom content to.
Instagram has put all of their engagement stickers in Create as well. The Poll, Question, and Quiz features are all here. They’re a great way to have real one-on-one conversations with people who engage with them. You can also now search GIPHY for GIFs to put in your stories.
One of the brand-new features is the Archive button. Just like Facebook, Instagram can now show you stories and feed posts that you created a year ago that you can share. As long as you’ve archived everything, you can bring it back to life, and it can be fun to see where you were a year ago and how much progress you’ve made in your business.
Geotags and Hashtags
Another important strategy to get more eyeballs on your content is consistent use of geotags and hashtags in your Instagram story. You can use one geotag per story clip, and up to 11 hashtags. The color dropper lets you match a background color and make those hashtags blend into your image—if you don’t want them to be too obvious—and still show up in Stories for those hashtags.
You shouldn’t, however, shrink the hashtags so small that they’re unidentifiable; they need to be big enough that if someone were to tap it, it would go into a hashtag hub. A lot of people shrink them and make them disappear, and then wonder why they aren’t getting views from their hashtags.
Instagram Stories Branding
Sue recommends always taking the time to think, “Does this match up to the look and feel of my brand and the emotion that I want to elicit when someone watches my story?”
When we think about our company’s website or print collateral, there’s a certain look, style, and color palette that becomes familiar every time someone engages with our brand. But we don’t always think about that when we’re doing stories, because stories are so easy to create.
You push the button, you take a picture, you push the button, you film a video, and you publish it. Sue says we need to focus on bringing in a little more of our brand to stories so they’re more memorable and feel like they’re part of something bigger.
When you show up regularly using the same font style, colors, or placements, says Sue, people start to associate them with you, your business, and your brand. It’s an opportunity to stand out from all the noise in Instagram Stories.
Sue points to Amy Landino as someone who does this extremely well. Amy is consistently on-brand with her shades of pink, the text style that she uses, and the custom animated GIFs that she’s created. Every time someone sees her story, they know instantly that it’s hers because it’s always consistently Amy.
Sue uses four brand colors to create a consistent look among her YouTube videos, her website, and everything else she does on the internet. She’s had her graphic designer create color-coordinated backgrounds for her Instagram stories to maintain that consistency. Sue saves these in a folder on her phone so she can find them very quickly when she’s uploading an Instagram story.
Sometimes Sue puts an engagement sticker, like a question, on that backdrop because she doesn’t want people to focus just on the pretty picture, she wants them to focus on the action she wants them to take. You can also add a picture on top of these backgrounds (not a video, though).
Sue’s graphic designer worked closely with GIPHY on custom GIFs, which you can find if you search SBZ or Sue B. Keep in mind though that GIPHY has a sometimes lengthy approval process to get your custom GIFs in search. Sue’s team did this for her birthday.
Another way to brand your stories is to find your branded color with the color dropper tool and set it as the color of your text or the background behind a photo.
You can also add consistency by frequently using the same emojis. Sue always uses the bee and the double pink heart in her comments and signatures, and she carries that over into her stories. People send her bee GIFs all the time because of her “Sue B.” The bee emoji is what people identify with her and now they think of Sue B. whenever they see one.
On-Brand Video for Instagram Stories
Being on-brand means thinking with intention. When you’re taking a video, look behind you. What’s in the background? Is it the exit sign to the bathroom? Does that represent your brand? Or are you standing in front of a beautiful mountain and your brand is outdoor camping equipment?
Here are some additional tips for creating high-quality Instagram Stories video.
Just like we’re so intense about the quality of the audio on our podcasts, lighting in stories is everything for Sue. If you’re barely visible, people are just going to exit your story. But in addition to making you look better, good lighting will also foster a deeper connection with you personally.
There are a lot of accessible solutions to this common issue. You can buy some phone cases now, such as the LuMee case, where the whole case lights up. Sue prefers a clip that goes over your phone. They’re affordable on Amazon, they’re rechargeable, and most come with different levels of lighting intensity. Sue recently did an IGTV video with a very simple setup of a big selfie light with a clamp.
For daytime, Sue recommends natural light. “Windows, windows, windows,” says Sue. “Daylight windows are the best.” When you’re taking a photo or video, hold your phone up to the natural light, basically an arm’s length or slightly further away from the window (if it’s a really bright day, you might want to go a little bit further back).
Sue has a Pop Socket on her phone, which she uses to get different angles in her videos (and it prevents her from dropping her phone). She likes to switch between high and low angles in her videos to change things up and maintain visual interest.
Sue likes to hold her phone up high and bring it down into her face if she’s really trying to make a point; she says it makes you feel like she’s getting closer to you so you feel more connected to her. Or she’ll hold her phone down to the ground and talk down into the phone so she looks “like a giant.”
One of Sue’s favorite shooting angles is holding her phone in front of her as she’s talking with her AirPods. She’ll walk past the phone and then poke her head back into the phone, as if she were just randomly walking by to say, “Oh, hi. I see you there.”
Sue recommends not just being a straight-on talking head in your story videos. “You really need to have interesting, intriguing backdrops that are on-brand. You need to have good lighting and you need to think about shaking things up a little bit.”
Sue doesn’t tend to have a problem with audio in her stories; either her AirPods are in or she’s talking to the phone. Sometimes people do hear a bell go off in the background or a train go by but Sue thinks that just helps your audience feel a little bit more connected to your real-life environment.
If the noise is crazy but the clip is good, here’s a “ninja tip” from Sue: You can take the sound off and just put text over that clip of what you were saying.
One of the biggest mistakes Sue sees people make is not putting text on videos. “You have to assume that people are watching your stories in a public place, and they can’t turn the volume on,” Sue points out. There are animated GIFs and stickers that say Sound On that Sue recommends using when you’re making a very strong point (she likes the sound wave GIF). Be sure to put the text inside the blue borderlines so people have context for what you’re saying.
When you’re writing that text, it doesn’t need to be the full, exact caption. It can be another point, or a summary, so you have another opportunity to get more value out of that clip. Sue also transcribes all of her IGTV videos.
When you’re creating this text, Sue recommends imagining talking to a 10-year-old. What information would they need to understand exactly what you’re trying to say? You can’t assume that someone knows the context of your clip because they might not have seen the previous clip to your story.
You have to assume that every clip is their first touchpoint with you. Are you making a great first impression that’s on-brand? Is it a representation of your business at the highest quality?
Go Live on Instagram
Sue loves Instagram Live and uses it weekly. You can go live on Instagram for up to an hour. You can even bring on a guest, and when you do, your guest’s audience gets a notification that they joined your live stream. If you’re struggling to grow your audience, one strategy is to consistently do an Instagram Live show and bring on guests who add value to bring more eyeballs from their audience to your own profile.
Sue goes live every Monday at 3:00 PM EST, when she’s dropped a new YouTube video. She uses the opportunity to talk about that video to drive traffic back to YouTube. She brings typically three to five pre-scheduled guests on who can help bring more insight into that content that she’s taught. Sue has been doing this consistently for almost a year now, and she says that it really does help grow an audience.
Mix It Up With Different Instagram Stories Formats
Sue likes alternating between different formats for her stories so she usually incorporates both video and still images.
Often, people don’t have the time to watch your full story and they tap through. Sue recommends looking at your Instagram Insights to see where people are tapping off and where they’re tapping forward. Spend time looking at those insights to see what people like and figure out how long your stories should be based on these analytics.
Think about the journey you want to take someone on and connect those dots. Either they’re getting it, and they want to go forward, or they’re not. Sue’s favorite thing is when they tap back. It’s like, “Wait. Oh, Sue just taught something. I’m tapping back.”
Note: You must have an Instagram business account to get all of the analytics on Instagram, by the way. There’s no disadvantage to switching over to a business account. If you’re here for business, says Sue, you absolutely want to have a business account.
If there’s a lot of text or video and you want to make sure you catch something, you can pause a story at any time by holding your finger on it.
Sue likes to flip her video filters to black and white when she’s making a really strong point that she wants people to listen to. She’s conditioned her audience to pay attention whenever they see black and white, because she’s normally in color, with colorful clothing and backgrounds. “It’s like, ‘Listen to me. This is black and white. I am telling you something you want to listen to,'” she explains.
The Most Important Creative Element: YOU
No matter what you do creatively—sharing GIFs, images, or quotes—people want to connect with you. Sue says she always pushes her clients to get on video.
“Audiences want to hear your voice, see your eyes, see your smile, and connect with you. If they don’t know the person behind the agency, the business, the brand, the movement, there just isn’t that deeper connection. It’s important to push yourself outside of your comfort zone, get some good lighting, and do some video,” she explains.
Discovery of the Week
We found something that’s going to please so many social media managers out there. It answers the eternal question, “Which social media management tool should I use?” It’s a social media tool comparison site: socialmediatoolscomparison.com.
Toggle search elements such as the number of social profiles you want to connect; the number of team members; how many competitor profiles you can add; and the ability to publish, engage, report, or do social listening. Social Media Tools Comparison will compare all of the different social media management tools that will accommodate your exact needs.
It also shows you what plans are available and monthly and yearly pricing. The site indicates the date it was last updated so you know how fresh the results are.
This tool is actually put out by Sociality.io, which is one of the sites that’s part of the comparison. However, it does appear to provide an objective analysis of all available competitive tools.
Check it out for free at socialmediatoolscomparison.com.
Key Takeaways From This Episode:
- Find out more about Sue on her website.
- Follow Sue on Instagram and YouTube.
- Get 3 Keys free Instagram training.
- Check out Sue’s Ready, Set, Gram course.
- Download The Instagram Strategy Guide.
- Check out LuMee, Pop Sockets, and AirPods.
- Try socialmediatoolscomparison.com.
- Check out Social Media Marketing World 2020.
- 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 Crowdcast.
What do you think? What are your thoughts on using Instagram Stories for business? Please share your comments below.