Fast-growing Instagram has exploded to over 200 million monthly active users in just three years. And although millions of businesses have joined Instagram, few have successfully figured out how to harness the popularity of the image-based social platform.

With not many advertising options available for marketers who'd like to use Instagram, a growing trend is the use of influencers—Instagrammers with a large following—to help with marketing efforts.

Influencer marketing is not a new concept. You've probably seen it before on blogs, Facebook Pages, Twitter, and other social media outlets. Instagram, though? It puts all the others to shame!

Instagram influencer campaigns can yield tremendous results because of the amount of engagement each post generates. Studies have found that Instagram engagement rates are up to 58 times higher than that of Facebook and 120 times higher than Twitter's.

With so many users interacting with content, marketers can do a lot more—with a lot less.

Case No. 1: SHREDZ

SHREDZ is a nutritional supplement company that posted about $90,000 in annual revenue at the end of 2012. Its marketing team noticed that there was a growing fitness trend on Instagram, and some users were growing some massive followings.

The team went out and found dozens of Instagram users with engaged followings and offered those Instagram users free supplements and monthly payments in return for posting images of them working out with the SHREDZ product.

The results?

At the end of 2013, the company posted $5 million in gross revenue, in part due to its successful Instagram campaign.

Case No. 2: Bachelr

Bachelr is a men's fashion ecommerce startup that launched in 2013. Much like SHREDZ, its team identified a growing trend of fashion bloggers' amassing large followings on their Instagram accounts.

Bachelr reached out to dozens of these users in preparation for its launch, and it created a series of images and paid each influencer $50 each time the influencer posted the image.

The results?

Two weeks into the campaign, the Bachelr website received over 20,000 visits and crashed its servers.

When used correctly, influencer campaigns generate tremendous results. Here are the steps you can take to launch your own influencer campaign.

1. Identify influencers

There are two main types of influencers:

  1. Celebrities, athletes, and the like
  2. Instagram users with large followings

Unless you've got a million-dollar budget, stay away from the former and focus on the latter. Instagram users who have a large follower base can be just as effective, and they will usually deliver a much higher ROI on your campaign.

2. Find influencers

Locating influential Instagrammers is simple if you know how and where to look for them:

  • The "Popular" page. The popular page can be found by pressing the star at the bottom of your screen. This page uses an algorithm that finds Instagram users in your area based on the people you follow and shows "suggested posts" for you to check out; the vast majority of the people featured have a large following.
  • #Hashtags. This method takes more effort, but it's still an effective way to find influencers. The hashtag (and username) search bar is located in the same place as the popular page. Type in various hashtags that are related to your business or target audience (see a list of the most used hashtags and their meanings). Instagram will then spit out all of the content that has been posted using that hashtag. Scroll through the images to find images with high engagement (above 5,000 likes or 300 comments).
  • Rely on your followers. First, press the heart-shaped icon at the bottom of the screen. Second, press "Following" at the top of the screen. This section shows you the images that your Instagram connections are engaging with. Look for images coming from Instagrammers with a large following. This method will yield the least amount of influencers, but the ones you do find will be the most influential. The theory behind why is relevance: Your connections are like-minded people with similar interests; finding an influencer through your own network will most likely yield one with a following that is highly relevant to what you want to promote.

3. Vet influencers

This is arguably the most important part of the process. If an Instgrammer has been doing a lot of promotions via his account, it's very likely that he's exhausted his following. In addition, you want to make sure that the influencer has real likes—not ones bought illegitimately.

That means you need to do a thorough analysis of each influencer's profile. Take a look at the recent 20 or 30 posts on the profile, paying close attention to the level of engagement. If an Instagrammer has 200,000 followers but gets only 100 likes on each photo, the account is spam.

Every photo should have, roughly, 5% engagement. In other words, if the Instagrammer has 200,000 followers, then photos should be generating, on average, 10,000 likes and comments (combined).

4. Contact vetted influencers

You have two main ways of reaching out to the list of influential instagrammers you've vetted:

  1. Profile info. Most influencers will make it easy for you by leaving an email address or other means to contact them in their profile. Send them a clear and concise email telling them about your business and inquiring about their services as an influencer.
  2. Direct messaging. To send a direct message, you must be following that person. To send the message, perform the same actions you would when posting a photo. After you've selected a photo to post, you are given the choice of sending the photo to all of your followers or directly to a specific person. Select Direct and find the Instagrammer you would like to contact. Send a message with a little bit of information about your business and a brief overview of why you are inquiring about their services.

I suggest you create a spreadsheet to keep track of the Instgrammer's handles, contact info, and date you reached out to each—to help you stay on top of follow-up and not unintentionally re-contact the same influencers.

5. Launch your campaign

The most effective influencer campaigns are not direct advertisements. Instagram users are highly sensitive to spam, and advertising your message too hard could actually have a detrimental effect.

Instead, create a campaign that fits seamlessly into the influencer's profile. If you are using multiple influencers, you need to tailor posts to each account and its following. Doing so requires more effort on your part, but the results are well worth it.

For example, if you are trying to promote a mobile app, don't just post a screenshot of the app with a "download now!" caption. Instead, have the influencer post an image of themselves using the app with a message like "So addicted to @yourinstagramhandlehere! Have you guys tried it yet?"

Each post should be different from the others but each post should contain your Instagram handle and a hashtag. The intent is twofold:

  1. Drive traffic back to your profile to increase your following.
  2. Get Instagrammers talking about your business with the use of hashtags.

6. Track your campaign

Influencers aren't cheap, so you need to track your campaign to gauge effectiveness and ROI. Various free platforms are available. I recommend the following:

Both platforms will help you keep tracks of metrics on your account and how each influencer post is progressing.

When setting up key performance indicators (KPIs) for your campaign, the most common error is making them monetary. As I noted, Instagram users are sensitive to spam and ads; setting monetary goals will result in that mindset trickling down into your content, pushing it down the wrong path, toward spam.

Instead, aim to create KPIs around engagement. I use the following when launching campaigns:

  1. Increase comments X%
  2. Increase likes Y%
  3. Increase following Z%
  4. Increase off-page (AKA, users who don't follow your account) engagement X%

It may take more time, but creating a campaign with high engagement as its goal will result in increased sales—trust me!

* * *

If you decide to launch an influencer campaign, you'll need patience. Just as with all forms of advertising, one post isn't going to get results. You need to commit to the strategy for a long period to see true results.

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image of Ryan Stewart

Ryan Stewart is the owner of Webris. Before that, he was a marketing consultant with Deloitte and Accenture consulting. Ryan holds an MBA and played Division 1 football for the College of the Holy Cross.