6 ways to tell better visual stories on Instagram

Rule of thirds. Lighting. Gallery cohesiveness. Are you using top tactics to engage people on the powerhouse picture platform?

Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan Communications’ distance-learning portal Ragan Training. The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations, and interactive courses.

Instagram is the second-largest social media platform, after Facebook, says Jenn Herman. To get the most out of it, though, you can’t rely on sheer numbers alone.

You must master the intricacies of the visual platform, the social media consultant, speaker and Instagram expert says in a Ragan Training video, “Advanced Visual Storytelling on Instagram.”

With 700 million users, Instagram is a powerful platform with a lower bounce rate than other social media sites, she says in her presentation. Fewer people click through to your website by mistake and back out of it again.

“You’re not going to get as much traffic from Instagram … but the quality of traffic is so great,” Herman says.

In a visual age, the platform also has the highest engagement of all social media. “It’s still exponentially higher than what you’re going to get on Facebook and Twitter,” Herman says.

Here are some tips:

1. Good photos matter.

Gone are the days when you could get away with sloppy snaps on the site. Instagram is all about pretty pictures, and that means you must have high-quality images that create brand awareness. Herman cites Chobani as a company posting strong, cohesive pictures that convey a consistent brand presence.

“I love Chobani, because the moment you see it, you know it’s Chobani,” Herman says.

2. Stand out against all the whiteness.

Don’t just repurpose your Facebook photos for Instagram. You’ll build a better community if you understand the nature of the platform and post accordingly.

Instagram is as blank as a whiteboard. Your posts should pop out in a feed of scrolling images, Herman says.

She praises a mostly purple Tarte Yogurt photo captioned “Humpday vibes.” It is a colorful image with texture in the form of horizontal stripes and a thumbs-up across the center of the composition.

A post shared by Tarteyogurt (@tarteyogurt) on

3. Tell a story.

Too many companies tout their brand with dull images of a product set on a table.

Herman asks, “Who wants to see that?”

Good photos stand out, connect emotionally and tell a story, Herman says. Nike successfully does this with its images. Don’t just shoot a package of golf balls. Put a ball on a golf course in the light of a sunrise.

“If you play golf, that’s an immediate connection,” she says.

Ben & Jerry’s Instagram account hinted at a storyline when it produced a limited edition “Scotchy Scotch Scotch” ice cream in honor of comedy anchorman Ron Burgundy (played by Will Ferrell on the big screen).

A post shared by Ben & Jerry’s (@benandjerrys) on

The product placement is obvious, yet there is a clear allusion to Burgundy and his eponymously colored blazer. It instantly plunges those familiar with the movie into the story.

Herman says these Instagram users exclaim: “Oh, my gosh. This is hilarious. I want to go get me some Scotchy Scotch Scotch ice cream.”

Think about ways you can deliver a story through a single image.

4. Use good lighting.

Gone are the days when you could just slap up an image that was half bleached out, half oversaturated, Herman says. These days Instagram demands quality.

“You have to have good lighting,” she says.

If you’re taking a selfie, go stand by a window. (Avoid silhouettes, though.) If you’re stuck in a windowless space with the overhead lighting, experiment. Move around, try different spots in the room, and shoot different angles. Shoot tons of photos. Film costs are no longer a factor, and no trees die when you work digitally, rather than with printouts.

5. Remember the rule of thirds.

A photo can be divided horizontally or vertically into thirds, and savvy photogs know to concentrate the visual interest in one third. The other two should be blank or of minimal visual activity.

It is possible to change your photo settings on iPhones and Android phones to mark grid lines on the screen as you shoot. These lines don’t show up on the image itself, of course, but they can guide you toward better composition.

“Get rid of the clutter,” Herman says. “People like simple, easy-to-recognize things on Instagram.”

A post shared by Anne McIsaac (@yellowillow) on

A post shared by Anne McIsaac (@yellowillow) on

6. Present cohesive galleries.

Don’t just think of individual images as stories. Each image should stand on its own, yet the entire Instagram account should tell a consistent story.

She cites CBRE, a commercial real estate company, which uses its account to tell imagistic stories about cities. Another success, she says, is Montreal photographer and art director Anne McIsaac, whose Yellow Willow Instagram account uses a splash of the brand color in every picture.

GoPro conveys a consistent story of adventure while using images from all over the world taken by its cameras.

“They choose content that looks similar and tells a similar story,” Herman says, “even though you’ve got somebody on a dirt bike, you’ve got somebody on a beach, you’ve got a dog, you’ve got a sunset, you’ve got people paragliding and skiing and every possible outdoor activity.”

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