Bergdorf Goodman used Instagram photos to create an interactive map on its website that shows uploaded photos of shoes tagged with #BGShoes throughout Manhattan.

As businesses take their online social networking more seriously, many have included Instagram in their cyber-branding. According to an August report from Simply Measured, 40 percent of the top 100 brands have an Instagram account. Instagram’s more than 100 million users equates to a massive opportunity for companies to reach out to their photographically-inclined fans.

Get in the Insta-game

Instagram’s user base continues to blossom. As of that Simply Measured study, business participation in Instagram is in fifth place behind Facebook, Twitter, Google + and Pinterest for social networking. When you take into account that Instagram has gained its staggering audience even though it is smartphone-only and just two years old, the popularity of this app is astonishing and yet businesses are only recently adapting. The emergence of Instagram analytics and Instagram-specific advertising experts is a sign that businesses are seeing a boost by incorporating Instagram into their advertising.

Instagram holds a specific relevance to brands because many users consider it a more personal and sincere method of online social networking. There is something about  photography that implies a sense of honesty and insight lacking from text-based media outlets. Instagram’s mobile-only interface makes it especially intimate as the app is constantly within reaching distance in the user’s phone. For brands looking to advertise their product, Instagram can bring an otherwise unapproachable object straight into their target consumer’s pocket.

Tiffany's uses

Tiffany & Co., @tiffanyandco, alternates professional-grade product photos with iPhone-only shots taken in stores and around New York City on its Instagram feed. Followers may not be able to afford the latest Tiffany jewelry, but fans of the product can get updates on the new product lines in between photos of their friend’s pets. 

Post often and use hashtags.

When you are new to Instagram, the quickest way to get likes and followers is to post with popular hashtags. Sure, some people are going to follow a brand purely because they love it. The official Instagram account of McDonalds, for example, has more than 37,000 followers but the Golden Arches' marketing staff hasn’t posted a photo in several months. (And when they did post, they only posted seven photos.) In contrast, the much smaller retailer American Apparel has  more than 72,000 followers thanks to a healthy Instagram feed featuring its latest offerings and its staff, from models to factory workers.

 American Apparel shares its story on Instagram at @americanapparelusa.

American Apparel, @americanapparelusa, sent out their first Instagram photo seven months ago. Each of their photos has multiple hashtags, dividing them into different categories for browsing. Their first photo has about 100 likes, but with consistent posting of intriguing photos labeled with hashtags, their single photo likes have increased to upwards of 5,000.

Avoid excessive cross-posting.

If people like your product enough to follow it on multiple social media platforms, it is important to provide variety in your content. Post photos exclusively to Instagram to make your current followers feel VIP, but occasionally cross-post content to Twitter and Facebook to lure new followers to Instagram. According to the Simply Measured survey, popular brands cross-posted content to Twitter and Facebook only 32 percent of the time.

Provide quality original content.

When you post photos to Instagram, make sure that they are unique and technically outstanding. Instagram users will see your photo amongst hundreds of others, so ensure yours stands out. Sometimes this means not using a filter. Only 60 percent of the photos posted by the brands in the Simply Measured study used one of Instagram’s preset filters. iOS and Android-native photo editors can clean up your photo and add a unique look to set your image apart amongst a crowded feed.

Most of the images on the @nike feed are not mobile.

The majority of photos posted by Nike are DSLR-taken, presumably edited using professional software, and posted without a filter. 

Incorporate Instagram-specific branding ideas.

Live-Instagram an event.

Create buzz about your product by posting time-sensitive news on Instagram instead of just generic product shots. Post photos of a company party or awards event while it is still happening. Small businesses can use this approach to create anticipation for a new location’s opening party and photographers can live-Instagram their event coverage before posting the fully-edited photos.

This Instagram image generated over 30,000 interactions on the @MTV feed.

In the days leading up to the 2012 MTV Video Music Awards, MTV’s Instagram account was updating almost hourly with photos from behind the scenes as performers did dress rehearsals and props came backstage. This photo of metal-studded black high heels came with a tease to fans. “One of our #VMA performers will be rocking this fancy footwear. Who do you think it is?” Nearly 30,000 people liked the photo and more than 1,300 placed guesses. 

Give visual sneak peaks to product releases.

Make your Instagram followers feel as if they are getting the inside scoop. Announce product releases and post photos of prototypes. This is a good way of getting customer feedback on new ideas while building hype and making your Instagram users feel special.

Two weeks before the official seasonal release of the Pumpkin Spice Latte, Starbucks Instagramed a simple photo of a cup labeled with “PSL” on top of a drawing of a pumpkin. As a caption, they wrote the release date of the holiday treat. More than 1,100 fans left excited comments of pumpkin-tastic joy and more than 28,000 followers liked the photo.

Hold contests.

Users ranging from designer Michael Kors to rapper Macklemore have held contests exclusively for their Instagram fans. Ask your fans to submit photos with a certain hashtag, then comb through those photos to pick a winner. You can also tweet and Facebook the photos taken by your excited fans or ask permission to use them in a crowd-sourced advertising campaign.

Armani populated this advertising campaign with user-submitted images.

After Armani’s recent Frames of Your Life contest, it aggregated the best entries to its website to create an interactive, user-created advertisement.

Use discretion.

Remember that Instagram is not a private club. Anyone with the app can search you and browse your photo feed. If your brand is also your name, be careful not to confuse your personal life with your professional online social networking. For artists and photographers, Instagram is an ideal branding tool as it allows users to show off visually. You just have to make the distinction whether your Instagram is a personal networking tool or for your professional brand.

Ben Lowy, a conflict photojournalist based in New York City, uses Instagram (@benlowy) to capture observations of his daily life. Lowy spoke with Business Week about his Instagram usage: “I only post iPhone pics, and only one a day. Unless I'm on assignment, of course. It's been motivating since it forces me to get out and hunt for pictures, even when I'm pushing a stroller or carrying the groceries."

Lowy currently has more than 5,000 followers and he hashtags every photos with #photojournalism.

Lauren Crabbe, @lcrabbe, is a freelance technology writer and photographer, specializing in photography applications for iOS and Mac. Her love of photography brought her to San Francisco to study photojournalism at San Francisco State University where she learned to combine her photographic skills with her passion for storytelling. She has traveled the world with her camera--studying journalism in Denmark, visiting in-laws in Ireland, and sourcing coffee in Guatemala. You can find her biking around San Francisco, drinking a lot of coffee, and capturing her daily observations with her iPhone on whatever app she is testing that day.