Is Instagram even a good idea?

In the small business arena, Instagram and Facebook have been life changing–providing a platform, market, and blog-style content showcase all in one. For companies of all sizes, the constantly changing algorithm and demands of the platform are quickly offset by what feels like direct access to the customer. This trade-off has kept social media at the top of the list of must-have items for any business: you must have an Instagram account. You must have good photography, engaging captions. You must post regularly. The boom of these outlets is intrinsically linked to their storytelling ability; and the success (or failure) of your business is attributed to a lack of effort, time, or creativity in sharing . 

It’s a full time job to manage your social media marketing, and most of us are doing the work in addition to everything else we handle with our businesses, simply because it doesn’t seem like there are any other choices. 

Are we fooling ourselves?

On October 4, 2021, Facebook, Instagram, their connected apps, and business platforms all went down for several hours–resulting in the loss of thousands upon thousands of estimated sales dollars from businesses of all sizes. For many, it was a wake up call: if you build on a platform that doesn’t belong to you, it can be stripped away in an instant. Although the outage lasted a few hours and sites were back online in the early afternoon, discussions seemed to pop up everywhere about the dependency we’ve formed on these apps, how they’re serving us and why we do–or don’t–need them.

Circular Logic

Part of the reason small businesses continue to use Instagram is because our customers continue to use Instagram. It’s one of the biggest platforms in the world, with over 1 billion active users, most of whom sit firmly in the 18-35 age group, with the second largest active group being ages 35-55 [Statista]. Facebook, similarly, is heavily used by individuals aged 18-55, with a slightly larger market share than Instagram for users older than age 55 [Statista]. If you’re trying to target these age groups (and to be honest, most businesses are; this is the bracket that has the most disposable income and the highest earning potential long-term), you want to be where they are. 

I can’t help but think, though, that the average user isn’t using instagram nearly as much as businesses are. Recently, I attended my sister’s wedding, and was surprised to find that even her glamorous, social media driven friends aren’t using the platform to shop: they’re using it to connect and be truly social. Yes, they follow brands that they purchase from, but the purpose of the platform is to stay in touch, share their photos and show off their style, homes and pets. They rarely post daily (my sister, who has a private account, has posts that are months apart). When I compare this to the hustle, stress and angst I watch my fellow business-owners go through, I wonder if maybe we’re performing all of these things simply for ourselves: another version of keeping up with the Joneses under the guise of great marketing.

The Person is the Product

We’ve known for awhile that Facebook and Instagram’s business strategy is heavily based on catering to advertisers [Slate]–the people who use the platform are able to use it for free in exchange for being constantly marketed to. As businesses, we’re told that we can buy into the feed with ads and promoted posts–but unless you can put in thousands of dollars, these efforts can feel like a wasted resource. 

Without a reliable way (even within the analytics of Instagram, Facebook or third-party partners like Later) to measure a return on investment or customer acquisition cost, it’s nearly impossible to know how much time or money to invest in advertising. A recent breakdown by Montreal-based ad agency K6 did a great job of illustrating how many factors go into the ad budget on Instagram–and specific demographics. [K6] Most notably, you’ll pay more to advertise to women about textiles or fashion: both adjacent elements to any business focused on needlework or garment-making. 

With this in mind, I think it’s logical to conclude that small businesses aren’t being sold advertising as a way of actually helping them, but as another Facebook product. We’re creating content that people like to follow, and then paying Facebook and Instagram to show it to our customers. But we can’t actually compete within the advertising chain with any level of importance. Essentially, you’re paying Instagram twice–once with your presence as a content creator, and then again when you buy at a low level into their ad strategy. I don’t know about you, but my main competitor isn’t Fenty (Rihanna’s beauty and clothing company, worth an estimated at $2.8 billion), but according to Facebook, we’re in the same category. [Wordstream]

Some Honest Self Evaluation

Is it time to take our toys and head home? No, I don’t think Instagram is going anywhere–but I do think it’s important to recognize where we really sit within the scheme of things as small businesses. Your ad money means nothing to Instagram, so don’t invest your effort or energy there.

Be honest about what matters to you and what kind of creator you are. You can’t be everything to everyone. If you aren’t inclined in your everyday life towards being social, performing the same actions online through social media platforms is going to feel forced and exhaust you. If you shine in person, throw your energy into attending trade shows and events, and use your Instagram as a showcase and documentation of what you do.

If you’re a storyteller (I like to think I am), use your Instagram to tell stories about things: yourself, your projects, your products, your customers. If photography is your strong suit, focus there–the same goes for video, blogging, newsletters, etc. Find your niche and grow within that niche, using Instagram and Facebook only as a tool to showcase what you’re already doing. 

Easier said than done: this is an ongoing struggle for everyone. Just remember–we existed before Instagram, and there’s a pretty good chance we’ll exist after it, too. 

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