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Social skills: the battle to beat Instagram's algorithms

As Instagram updates its algorithms and influencers are obliged to declare their #ads, brands are having to get smart to get noticed.

Less than a decade old, social media platform Instagram has nonetheless transformed the fashion industry. The photo-sharing giant was launched in 2010 by US tech entrepreneurs Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, and has been owned by Facebook since April 2012. It is a powerful weapon in any fashion brand or retailer’s arsenal. 

Fashion empires have been built on the back of the platform’s ability to bring brands and millennial consumers together. Primark, for example – which does not have a transactional website –  said last month that it has managed to boost footfall in stores by using its following of almost 7 million for targeted marketing, alongside collaborations with influencers.

But making an impression on Instagram is not as easy as it once was. The Competition and Markets Authority warned last year that influencers must declare clearly when content is sponsored –  robbing posts of the all-important sense of authenticity. Brands and retailers must also keep on top of Instagram’s ever-changing algorithms, which show users posts it believes they will care about the most, rather than in chronological order. 

It’s incredibly challenging to get audience attention

Lisa Maynard-Atem, socia media strategist

The power of the platform means consumers’ feeds are crowded places, and brands and retailers’ posts are jostling for space among their competitors. Unique content, rapid and consistent posting, and carefully selected influencer collaborations are among the tools available to them as they attempt to stay at the top of the Instagram ladder. 

“Instagram is becoming a more challenging space. When I started working in this field [in 2010] the pool in terms of competition was very small,” explains social media strategist and former Harrods social media manager Lisa Maynard-Atem. “You also didn’t have the algorithm to contend with. Now it can be extremely difficult to reach your audience organically. Around 95 million posts are shared every day. Think about how big that number is. It’s incredibly challenging to get audience attention, and you have to work extremely hard to elevate your content above the noise.”

On trend

The world of fast fashion relies on trends changing at an ever-more rapid pace. It is reliant on Instagram to reach and – just as importantly – understand consumers who are hungry for newness.

“Instagram opens up a direct conversation with our customer,” explains James Apsley-Thompson, PR manager at fast fashion etailer I Saw It First, which has more than 480,000 followers. “We can immediately find out what she is shopping for, the trends she wants to invest in and the celebrity styles she’s lusting after. This constant dialogue is invaluable for fast fashion retailers in particular, as we can quickly adapt our product offering for commercial success.”

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To stay ahead, brands and retailers need to have their fingers constantly on the pulse, adds I Saw It First’s social media manager, Bianca Skeete: “The main challenge we face is being surrounded by  such fierce competition. It is important that we are the first to post amazing product, content or trending news relevant to our target market. As an emerging brand, we have to be extremely reactive. All members of the marketing team – from interns all the way up to senior management – are in constant communication, sharing news articles, viral stories or anything that may be of interest to our followers.”

Maynard-Atem argues that retailers need to think about their strengths and be bold in their approach: “It is entirely possible to cut through the endless stream of noise, provided you have great content that showcases what I call your ‘unique social selling points’ – elements of your brand that have the potential to be well received on social media. To find out what these are, you need to be willing to take risks and try different things. Accept that not everything you put out will be received in the way that you want it to be, but be willing to try anyway.”

Community awareness

Gord Ray, product marketing lead at Instagram, also encourages fashion businesses to experiment as much as possible.

“There is no one secret [to success on Instagram],” he tells Drapers. “The most important thing is that brands listen to their communities and understand what is relevant to them, as well as what the story they want to tell about their business is. Do they see Instagram as a selling channel, or for branding, or is it both? The brands we see being successful on the platform are those that are constantly testing and trying new things, and are never complacent.”

He adds: “What is becoming more and more important is allowing followers to feel part of the brand, so responding to messages and comments, and creating discussions is key.”

We ensure all content is an engaging representation of us as a brand – just like the windows of a physical store

Bianca Skeet, I Saw It First

This approach has worked for fast fashion and occasionwear specialist Quiz, which has 470,000 Instagram followers.

“To build an engaged audience, we have to engage with them,” explains Amy Moore, the brand’s senior social media executive. “An important part of our strategy is focused on replying to customers’ comments and direct messages, as well as liking images and comments.”

I Saw It First, meanwhile, says taking a global mindset and focusing on consistency have helped it to maintain a successful strategy on Instagram as its follower count soared.

I saw it first

I Saw It First

“As our audience has increased, from hundreds to thousands to hundreds of thousands, it has been a challenge to engage with everyone,” adds Skeete. “Consistency is also key. We average four or five posts a day on Instagram, ensuring all content is an engaging representation of us as a brand – just like the windows of a physical store.”

The power of influence

Instagram has become synonymous with influencers, another powerful tool for fashion businesses. Finding the right person to wear your product on the platform can send sales soaring, but there are also potential new challenges to face in the world of influencer marketing.

Two recent documentaries – Panorama’s “Million Pound Selfie Sell Off, which investigated digital influencers, and Netflix’s exposé of the disastrous Fyre Festival, which was promoted by celebrities such as model Bella Hadid (who has 23.1 million followers) – have raised questions about whether consumers can trust these digital stars. Under new guidelines published by the Competition and Markets Authority in September, influencers must now declare when they have been gifted products or services, as well as clearly marking adverts.

For retailers and influencers to work together successfully, authenticity is more important than ever, argues Blanaid Kenny, business director for fashion and beauty at influencer marketing platform Whalar.

“Spending time learning more about each  [influencer’s] personal likes and audience demographics, and sharing a genuine appreciation for the content they create is the perfect start to an authentic partnership that audiences will engage with,” she argues. “Too much focus on numbers and revenue – although they are important metrics – can take away from the artistic relevance creators can bring to a campaign. In short, looking beyond the reach to the content itself is crucial when sourcing creators who can effectively translate your brand’s message.”

Bobby Samari, founder of Manchester-based fast fashion etailer Femme Luxe (340,000 Instagram followers) agrees: “We have to be careful that we’re promoting the right product on the right person, who has genuine followers and an engaged audience. Increasingly, we’re finding that micro-influencers [which Samari defines as those with 300,000 or fewer followers] drive sales more than celebrities, because they have more fashion-forward content and their lives are more relevant to their audience. Celebrities have huge followings, but they include people who aren’t our target audience, and are less valuable.”

Instagram’s power for fashion retailers and brands shows no signs of waning. Recent updates – including making its live-video Stories function shoppable – have increased its power as a purchasing channel and, therefore, its value to the fashion industry. To thrive on the platform, retailers must make content a priority, focus on building communities and emphasise what makes them different from the competition.

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