Instagram is a photo-sharing application launched in late 2010 and acquired by Facebook in 2012.

Though some forward-thinking businesses are already using Instagram in their social media branding efforts, chances are you aren't yet, and neither are your competitors. With its universal appeal, however, Instagram is not a medium marketers should ignore. And you'd better move quickly if you want to make an impact.

(While you're at it, check out MarketingProfs on Instagram.)

How You Shouldn't Use Instagram

Let's start out by defining how you should not be using Instagram in your social media branding strategy, because you don't want to waste your time—or, worse, turn off your potential fans—by committing a social faux pas or by annoying them.

All of the photos on Nike's Instagram account are colorful, but the pictures end up coming off as the products of photo shoots rather than the more casual style cherished by other brands (and, usually, users). Nike's myriad fans may still love the pics, but not all of us are Nike and we don't have armies of loyal followers. So keep it real.

1. Don't use Instagram solely for advertisements

This is true of any social network, but it is especially true on Instagram, where you have the potential to share all kinds of visual advertising your company has been using. Don't do it. Resist the urge. And while we're on the topic: Instagram is for photos—save your infographics and illustrations for Pinterest. They just look strange, and the square format doesn't suit them.

2. Don't sign up and then leave your profile to rot

Just as you need to be active and to engage with your fans and followers on Facebook and Twitter, you need to be active and engage on Instagram. If you don't, your profile will simply look like a pathetic, failed attempt at outreach. That's not to say you shouldn't try it out; however, if you find that it's just not working for you and your customers, at least disable the account.

3. Don't post too often

Don't be tempted to go to the other end of the spectrum, however. If you have lots to share, spread it out over several days. A few photos a day is fine. Fifty at once is not okay. Sharpie does a good job, consistently posting about once every day or so.

4. #Don't #overuse #hashtags

Twitter's short character limit has (somewhat) prevented hashtag overuse; just because Instagram isn't so restrictive does not mean you have a license to tag your image with 40 hashtags.

5. Don't repost all of your photos to other networks

Don't flood your other social networks with photos from Instagram. That doesn't mean you should never repost them: Of course you should, if you know your followers will enjoy the image and also help spread awareness of your Instagram account. But remember that your followers have chosen to follow you on specific networks; don't force another one down their throats.

How You Should Use Instagram

Here are some great ways to use Instagram to build your brand and social presence—and, therefore, your business.

1. Show off your products in beautiful environments

Have a photogenic product? Great, you're all set! However, if your product is mundane—or maybe you sell an intangible service or Mustang parts—you can still use good placement and take a careful shot. Perhaps you can pose some of your more photogenic employees with it, or take a photo of your product on a beach or a windy cliff. If all else fails, you can try putting it on your cat.

General Electric shows off a locomotive engine test cell in Grove City, PA, using a nice color filter and vignette effect.

2. Give a behind-the-scenes look at your business

It might seem strange to have a photo of your employees goofing off on your company website, but you don't need to have the same reservations with Instagram. Social media is a great way to connect with your audience and show your human side without seeming too unprofessional.

Show your visitors how your product is produced (GE is good at this), or perhaps walk them through a day in the life of someone at your company. You could profile your employees, or just show them hard at work. Instagram is a great platform for highlighting what is unique or special about your company—like show-and-tell for grownups.

3. Display before/after pictures

Some fields (design, decorating, makeovers, health programs, and more) lend themselves well to before/after shots. If you fall into that category, what are you waiting for? You have a great subject at your disposal. Use it to drive sales for your service or products. Invite your fans to share their own before-and-after shots.

Speaking of which...

4. Invite your fans to participate

Participation is what social media is made of. Instagram is a great place to crowdsource photos. You'll probably need to wait until you have a large enough following before you try this; but, when you do, you can invite your fans to share their photographs by using a specific hashtag.

This approach is perfect for conferences and events, or for getting your fans to show off how they use your product.

Threadless is the poster child of crowdsourcing photos; many of the product images on its website are from customers. Starbucks also uses this technique, instructing its Instagram visitors, "Tag your coffee photos with #Starbucks!"

5. Hold a contest

A contest is a great way to encourage people to use your hashtag. Offer a free product or service to a random person, or reward a particularly good shot.

6. Build anticipation for upcoming launches or announcements

Have an upcoming event or product launch that people are (or should be) really excited about? Build the buzz by occasionally snapping a sneak peek or a shot of the product in production. Use a hashtag to link the photos together thematically.

Wired joins in on the excitement of the iPhone 5 announcement.

7. Take advantage of geotagging

Instagram allows geotagging—i.e., attaching geographical information to media. Geotagging is of particular use to companies tied in some way to physical locations.

You could use geotagging together with a contest to get visitors to your restaurant or store. Food trucks have used Instagram geotagging very successfully to show what and where they are serving at a specific time; often, their customers also snap shots of their food to share, tagged with the location.

Even if you are not tied to a geographic location, you can share images from a conference or industry event, and become a part of that conversation.

8. Post cute-animal pics

I hinted at this earlier: People love animals, and they'd love to see your pets or any cute animals, however tangentially related to your products. Definitely not an approach to take all the time, but occasionally paying a little respect to your animal spokesperson wouldn't hurt. Modcloth does it well, occasionally showing the owner's adorable pug, Winston, as well as other cute animals.

Modcloth's animal mascot,
Winston, poses in his Halloween costume.

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Hopefully, this mini-guide gave you some good advice for beginning your Instagram journey. Instagram is still a relative newcomer on the social media scene, however, so be creative and discover new uses for it.

Does your business use Instagram yet? If you have any other tactics or examples from your own business that you'd like to share, please do!

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image of Adrienne Erin

Adrienne Erin is a writer for Pongra, a topical blog where she writes about technology and social media.

Twitter: @adrienneerin