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Current Insights for Local Brands Who Use Instagram

By Caroline Barnhill

Heather Dretsch recently collected data in the Poole College Consumer Behavior Lab on the relationship between brands and users. Dretsch is a Poole College assistant professor of marketing who specializes in marketing to consumer generations and how to build consumer-brand relationships on social media. She, with analytical support from Hunter Hall, interpreted the data, and Calleigh Crumpler generated insights from the data for local brands. Hall and Crumpler are both Jenkins MBA candidates scheduled to graduate in spring 2023.

Here is what they found and what it means for local businesses building and managing Instagram feeds for their brands.

Supporting Local… In-Store and Online

Dretsch observed an increasing number of consumers who follow and interact with brands on social media, as they do with friends. While TikTok is popular with Gen Alpha, the majority of Instagram (IG) users are Gen Z and Millennials. Ninety percent of the Gen Z and Millennial consumers that Dretsch surveyed use Instagram daily. These are family-oriented, independent and driven consumers who value their connection to the local community. Half of those surveyed keep up with local businesses on Instagram. Their motivation for following local brands is their desire to support local. They are interested in keeping up with new arrivals and promotional deals, as well as learning ways to give back. 

IG is the platform that is perceived by these social-media-savvy consumers to be the most effective for local brands because of the ability to search for businesses, shop directly on their pages, share deals or promotions and see a variety of content. Users can easily find the brand’s page on Instagram and navigate through its content. They also enjoy IG’s variety of content – including stories, posts, shorts, opportunities for interaction and more.

Dretsch asked followers of local brands on IG to reflect on a brand they can’t get enough of. What keeps them coming back? The feed’s aesthetically appealing content. Followers gravitate to feeds that fit their own mood and style. 

“Gen Z and Millennials love bold colors. Brands that showcase intentionally designed and consistently shot photos and videos, whether they be dark and moody or bright and vibrant, appeal to them. Consumers are following an overall brand image. Interestingly, followers view these aesthetics as an outlet for their own personal creative expression,” says Dretsch.

Followers also appreciate it when a brand provides new, exclusive content – or even “brand secrets.” Sixty-six percent of people like it when brands give behind-the-scenes looks at how they do things.

Dretsch’s recent research (Brand Secret Micro-Collectives, Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 2021) could explain the power of revealing something about the brand that feels secretive. Her research on brand secrets defines them as discoverable locations, options and experiences selectively shared with a smaller subset of consumers. Dretsch explored the power of secrets on Instagram and found that when followers of a brand learn information from the IG feed that their friends don’t necessarily already know, that follower feels educated and “in the know.” 

“Consumers believe that businesses generally want to keep things a secret, so letting them peek behind the curtain to get a glimpse of the magic of how things work makes them feel special,” shares Dretsch. “Consumers learn a little more about the company each time. Followers genuinely want to know why companies do what they do. This could mean sharing the brand story, how employees make decisions or the process that goes into making a product or bringing the experience to life.” 

“This is Where the Magic Happens.” 

So what does it look and feel like to go behind the scenes? The process is a huge part. People love to learn how something is made all the way to shipment and procurement. They love it when brands answer the questions: “How did you create this product?” or “How did we serve this plate of food?” They love learning and appreciating the process that goes into producing goods for their favorite brands.

The concept of connecting to one’s self is also huge. Showing behind the scenes makes people feel like they are also a part of the brand, which in turn fosters a personal connection. “Followers are relating what they see to aspects of themselves and their personal goals,” says Dretsch. “Relationships with team members, employees and the people who make it all happen is key to continuing to build the consumer-brand relationship with these followers.” 

Brands can introduce team members, spotlight employees and allow followers to see the role that brand members play. In turn, followers gain feelings of trust and that they are a part of the team. Having employees take them through a day in the life or open a shift with them are popular ways to do this. 

“People love to have more knowledge than the average person. They like to know they are getting information that others don’t have access to,” emphasizes Hall.

However, for brands, this requires a balance between entertainment and education. Dretsch recommends extending followers’ imaginations for how they would use the product. Gen Z and Millennials want to envision themselves taking part in the brand experience, and they like seeing pictures of others enjoying the brand’s offerings. They like to gain this knowledge before they go to the shop/restaurant next.

Shop Til You Drop

As for specific tools brands can utilize to engage consumers right now, shopping ranks at the top. Brand followers love seeing prices, the ability to buy directly from the app, having the opportunity to go straight to the brand website via a post, and having a shopping tab on sellers’ pages.

“It’s important to keep in mind consumer behavior when utilizing the platform,” encourages Dretsch. 

When first opening IG, consumers scroll through posts and view IG “Stories.” Stories can provide something new followers want each time they scroll their feed. Dretsch recommends adding new Stories content a couple of times per day while building the static feed with carousel posts a couple of times per week. Users report attending to short-form videos where people are explaining something to them and discussing what they love about it. Followers are there to deepen their understanding of the brand’s own passion for its products. Only if they have more time to spend in the app do users report that they would like to watch more Reels – especially cute and funny content. 

One other Instagram innovation that savvy followers enjoy is the platform’s ability to provide customized content. Gen Z and Millennials always enjoy a personalized experience, reflects Dretsch. This could look like try-on sessions or walking thru brand locations on lives. 

Whatever the content, followers expect it to be high quality and eye-catching. Inspiration is a common theme. Followers like to be inspired by the brand – to take the ideas and beautiful imagery they see and consider what they can do with it in the future. Thus, one key to engaging followers on IG is always giving them something to explore or plan for the future. After all, Dretsch says, brands need to remember that at their core, these savvy consumers are adventurous and aspirational.

This post was originally published in Poole Thought Leadership.