Crack the Instagram code with our best marketing tips for this top social-media platform.

It’s hard to remember the days before social media. How did humans keep in touch with friends, both disparate and distant, prior to the dawn of Facebook? Did presidents really once opine via platforms that allowed for more than 140 characters? As a modern civilization, we’re plugged in—which means that across the board and regardless of profession, social engagement is ubiquitous.

Beauty brands and retailers seeking to thrive in the tech world of 2017 have had to refine various strategies for best social-media practices, because the tenets of Twitter do not translate to the principles of Pinterest, which do not function as the methodologies for how to make a bam on Instagram (IG). Of all channels, IG is arguably the most visual, thus making it a natural fit for the image-centric world of beauty.

There are currently over 600 million Instagrammers. According to Pew Research Center, 59 percent of people ages 18 to 29—aka Gen Z’ers and millennials—use IG (while another 33 percent of users fall between the ages of 30 and 49). An April 2016 Pew survey discovered that “32 percent of teenagers consider Instagram to be the most important social network.” Women love it even more than men: 32 percent of ladies interacting with the internet are on IG, as opposed to 23 percent of gents, notes Pew. Instagrammers spend approximately 20 minutes a day on the mobile photo-sharing site, accord- ing to a study conducted by digital marketing group, SimilarWeb. In comparison, social media users hang out for 45 minutes on Facebook, 19 minutes on Snapchat and 13 minutes on Twitter—thus making IG the second most-used social platform in the U.S.

We talked with experts from Planet Beauty (@planetbeautyofficial has over 18,000 followers on IG) and CosmoProf Beauty (@cosmoprofbeauty has over 450,000 followers) to learn the top tips and tricks for how to #market on the ’gram.

Newbies, take note. If you’re serious about building an IG following, do your research first and foremost, before you post. Snoop what’s working for similar, larger accounts in order to get aesthetics-inspired. “Cohesive feeds that showcase compelling images tend to garner a stronger response,” explains Lauren Rouchou, social media manager at Lineage Interactive, which manages posts for Planet Beauty. She’s a fan of VSCO, an app providing filters that feature the high-quality, artsy look of film. “I love that vibe—while simultane- ously recognizing it’s not for everyone,” she laughs. The trick is to land on what works for you.

One of IG’s hottest features is called “Stories.” Over 200 million users dig it daily, as it lets you post a bunch of pics or video clips that play like a slideshow, rather than being limited to a single shot. Much like Snapchat’s “My Story” function, each IG gallery magically disappears after 24 hours. But in terms of still versus moving images, the stats don’t lie: Although a whopping 40 billion photos have been uploaded on IG to date (and roughly 282 million selfies!), videos still get two times the engagement of photo- graphs, say SimilarWeb researchers.

The best time to post for most engagement is, for whatever reason, 5 p.m. on Wednesdays, according to experts at software marketing company WordStream. The most popular filters are Clarendon, Gingham and Juno/Lark. And chew on this: Pizza is the most widely Instagrammed food, ahead of steak and sushi.

Next, learn as much as possible about your audience. “Using data collected from our Instagram analytics page, we’re able to view the demographics of our viewers, broken down by gender and age,” reveals Rouchou. “Furthermore, we can determine the best times of day for sharing, according to when users are most active on the site.”

Such research allows stores to strategically steer material to achieve optimal impact. Aside from numbers, there are two additional ways to learn by listening. “Spend time immersing yourself in your community, and they’ll reward you by telling you exactly what they wish to see,” advises Meghan Gentz, senior manager of social media and content at CosmoProf Beauty. “Our followers are open, both about what’s lacking and what may be overdone.”

The practice called “social listening” is a second method by which researchers gather information. Examine the successful behaviors of other brands to glean deeper insight on what resonates with similar audiences, and thus more expertly curate your own content.

“We are of the learn-by-doing philosophy,” Gentz says. “We dove in headfirst upon initially embarking on the task of creating an engaged social presence.” By testing different types of content at various times of day, CosmoProf Beauty pros were able to land on a natural rhythm that suited their members—and they’ve stuck to it since.

Their specific formula for success revolves around two important rules: Highlight the stylist and showcase stunning work. “Trends may change, but celebrating beauty professionals remains our constant,” Gentz says.

Planet Beauty’s marketing masters discovered that the combo of cold, hard data plus insightful reads that showed where their audience was most reacting led to the generation of visuals that garner top results. Rouchou says, “We know what performs well and what may fail, so we highlight what we’re certain of.”

Continuous research into viewers’ ever-shifting tastes and habits is an integral part of evolution, without which brands grow stale. “It’s essential to keep eyes and ears open to what’s trending any given day on social media,” Rouchou says.

The IG app itself is likewise constantly improving, so those not keeping au courant with fresh developments run the risk of missing out. For example, developers recently rolled out the carousel feature, allowing users to tack multiple pictures to a single post. “In terms of marketing, that’s been a total game-changer,” Rouchou says. “Novel tools further help us leverage our communications.”

“Facebook and Twitter tend to be fast information platforms—people grab their news and go. But Instagram is visual, which means users are likely to linger on the page or take time browsing through images. From a creative standpoint, it organically fosters a community of likeminded individuals who love aesthetics.”

–Lauren Rouchou, social media manager, Lineage Interactive

In worlds both virtual and real, no one likes a downer. “Always give offerings a positive spin,” Gentz urges. “It’s discouraging—and, ultimately, self- destructive—to follow someone with a negative or cynical attitude.”

Don’t stingily guard secrets; uplift fans by sharing them instead. “Trends and techniques are forever advancing,” Gentz says. “As a group, we only stand to benefit by swapping knowledge.” Finally, never underestimate the thrilling power of authenticity. Embrace that fact that no one else can quite produce the same image that sprang from your mind.

Even the most decadent dessert can turn you off after too many bites—we’re all familiar with the concept of overdoing a good thing. But where’s the sweet spot when it comes to frequency of image sharing? Here, the experts differ. Planet Beauty pros stick to a strict, twice-daily diet. “At maximum, we update feeds two times per day,” Rouchou says. They’ve found that further engagement constitutes as over-sharing, which may lead to viewer disinterest that could potentially culminate in the kiss of death: unfollowing.

On the other side of the spectrum, nine times is the charm for CosmoProf Beauty account managers. “Over time, our team crafted a schedule to best meet the browsing patterns of our community. Maintaining this timetable helps keep stylist features top-of-mind, and gives beauty mavens around the globe the chance to catch up with our conversation,” Gentz says.

Fear the dreaded hashtag overkill! A few specific markers are a must. “The most popular IG tags are #Love, #Instagood, #Me, #Cute and #Follow,” note WordStream experts. But if hashtags have taken over your entire caption, stop, rethink and revise.

“Having a good eye for what Instagram users like to see is crucial, and that includes the use of hashtags—too many of which will be fatiguing,” Rouchou points out. What sets certain shops apart from others? The ability to conceive and create an alluring IG feed.

Everybody loves free swag. Social media giveaways are often the fastest, easiest way to accomplish four essential objectives: share knowledge, drum up excitement for new and existing products, gain followers and generate engagement. Here, the call-to-action is also of utmost importance. Include a “Follow @ YourBrandName on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for your chance to win!” line in all captions, so as to see the max bang for your investment buck.

Like any app, Instagram is not infallible. It comes with its own inherent set of boundaries. “Our biggest struggle is figuring out new ways to continuously resonate with customers,” Gentz says. The brand has endeavored to cultivate a platform where everyone from novice to licensed cosmetologist feels welcome, and now the trick lies in growing that base while preserving originality. Because, truth be told, IG is not the most forgiving of all mediums. You’re often just as good as your last hit post.

For brands striving to drive traffic to web stores, the inability to link products via captions presents a further challenge. “Occasionally we must tell viewers to click the ‘Link in Bio’ to purchase the product about which we’re posting,” Rouchou says. “It’s a bit of a setback, and not as instantly gratifying as we’d like this technology to be.” She and others are keeping fingers crossed for the introduction of a hyperlink feature in the near future. (Wink, wink, Instagram developers!)

“There’s a level of implied trust that comes with Instagram. Your followers have chosen to be part of the conversation, so they’re inherently more active in it and more likely to participate beyond a simple scroll or like.”

–Meghan Gentz, senior manager of social media and content, CosmoProf Beauty

When all is said and done, Instagram is where you go to scroll through pretty pictures. Aim for the stratosphere— don’t settle on mediocre sights. Photos should inspire and thrill and educate and scintillate and make products pop from the cosmos of sameness. “It’s all about the image,” concludes Gentz. “That two-by-two square must be impactful enough to stop a scroll and trigger interest in the caption.”

If the visual isn’t arousing, it won’t matter what you’ve scribed below. In Gentz’s experience, transformation posts depicting a clear before and after tend to spark lively conversation. “People love to see the process and hard work that have gone into crafting a finished look.”

At Planet Beauty, Rouchou first identifies a product, then crafts a cool concept for how to represent it virtually. Recent examples include posts about two Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics items. “For the first, a lipstick called Strange & Unusual, we created a Beetlejuice-themed graphic,” she explains. “We also did a turntable-style GIF for another lipstick named Synth.” It’s incredible to witness the enthusiasm this type of original idea can incite. Think outside the box, and you’ll win the hearts of IG followers.