Millennials and “zoomers” are all over it. Apps are developed exclusively for it. And whether it’s crying models over a sudden lack of “public likes”, vulgar memes or marketing blunders – its controversies are a modern-day constant.

If you aren’t familiar with the platform yet, then you may be wondering: What is Instagram? It’s a social media hit – that’s for sure; but what exactly is it used for, and how are entire careers made out of it?

We discuss all you need to know about Instagram’s platform below – including its community culture, common practices, and all its functions.

What is Instagram – A Brief History

Instagram was launched long ago on the 6th of October 2010, developed from the minds of Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger. It’s success was almost an instant response, gathering 100,000 users in a mere week. This soon hit whopping million by time the app hit its 2-month mark.

What is Instagram - First-ever Instagram post

Initially, Instagram was exclusive to iOS users. It soon became available to Android platforms in April of 2012, followed by Facebook’s ownership – who has been the parent platform since.

The platform remained a free-to-use social media networking service since its early days. Its source of revenue currently comes from paid ads, often used by business accounts.

An Online Community of Creators

Instagram is first and foremost a haven for online creators. The app began with exclusively personal accounts (much like Facebook); soon providing business tools and analytics for companies adopting the platform.

Below are some of the most common types of Instagram users, though we’re merely scratching the surface:

Businesses

According to recent Wordstream statistics, there are over 25 million business profiles on Instagram’s platform. The app additionally sports over 2 million monthly active advertisers, with 50% of its population following at least one business.

Instagram brand accounts

Courtesy of southpark, mcdonalds, and tartecosmetics (Instagram accounts).

It’s safe to say that Instagram’s a highly profitable channel for social media marketers. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a brand (local or global) who doesn’t have an Instagram presence; with some of the biggest worldwide retailers harnessing over millions of followers.

Businesses were initially followed for their product updates and insights on company culture. The advent of Shopping on Instagram, however, has streamlined customer experience on the platform; with businesses now adding “product” tags to their photos, linking viewers to their online stores.

Influencers

It’s impossible to be users of the modern-day Internet, and not hear the word “influencer” thrown about on the daily.

Influencers are known on Instagram’s platform for exactly as their title calls them – their influence. These are users who’ve amassed a large following over time, and are paid for promoting products and services sponsored by other brands.

Instagram influencer profile (carmushka)

Courtesy of carmushka (Instagram account).

A single post can earn an influencer thousands of dollars depending on the size of their audience base. Those with millions of followers can even earn 6 digits per post 

Instagram influencers appear across a range of niches – from fashion and modelling to travel and lifestyle. Their content is often distinguished as having unique aesthetics, with picture-perfect selfies and professionally-taken photos.

Artists

Finally, we’ve got the Instagram artist. These users typically own accounts dedicated to digital artwork, photography, or traditional forms of art.

Some may take commissions (as stated in their bio), and often link to other art-related platforms such as Etsy or DeviantArt.

Instagram artist profile - bobafish

Courtesy of bobafish (Instagram account).

A common trend among Instagram artists are time-lapse videos; in which the user records themselves completing an artwork, and speed it up to fit the platform’s 60-second video limit.

These are commonly found in the make-up or crafting community, with high potential for virality.

What is Instagram – How the Platform Works

We’ve discussed the common characters of Instagram’s community – now let’s explore its primary functions.

Your Own Unique Profile

This is the first step in every user’s Instagram journey – creating your own unique profile.

The platform now offers the option of a personal or business accounts. Those simply looking to connect with friends and family will do just fine with a personal profile; however, those looking to sell or build a professional online reputation will find more helpful tools with a business account.

Each profile is comprised of a profile picture, a bio, and a content “grid”.

Instagram profile features (missmiafit)

Courtesy of missmiafit (Instagram account).

Your bio is where you write brief introduction on who you are and what you do. Businesses will often leave important contact information in this space, or use it to advertise their latest promotions.

Instagram profile bio (missmiafit)

Courtesy of missmiafit (Instagram account).

Your “grid” or feed is where your photos and videos are displayed. Many users take time in crafting this; often visualizing their feed as a whole image rather than individual, separate posts. This helps them maintain aesthetic consistency and ensures each post weaves nicely into the next.

Instagram grid (missmiafit)

Courtesy of missmiafit (Instagram account).

Following People

“Follows” are crucial practice on the platform. They’re a way of reaching out to others in your niche, while also building on a loyal, engaged audience.

Following others on Instagram is easy – simply look up a user or business, and hit the big blue “Follow” button right next to their picture. Their updates will now be automatically added to your home feed.

What is Instagram - the Follow button (childishgambino)

Courtesy of childishgambino (Instagram account).

Instagram additionally suggests other people you may know on the platform, based on those you already follow.

Instagram - Suggested Users for You

Courtesy of childishgambino (Instagram account).

Users are notified of new followers through Instagram’s notifications – viewed through tapping the heart icon on your navigation panel.

Instagram notifications

Likes, Comments, and Tags

Likes, comments, and user tags foster the social aspects of Instagram.

Users leave a “like” on a post when it piques their interest. To leave a “like” on a post, tap on the heart symbol underneath it.

What is Instagram - "likes" (benstiller)

Courtesy of benstiller (Instagram account).

Those looking to start a discussion can also leave a public comment. To comment on someone’s post, simply tap on the speech bubble icon next to the “like” button.

What is Instagram - Adding Instagram comments

And if you’re willing to go the extra mile, you can even share the post to your Story or via direct message! (More on Instagram Stories later.) To share a post, tap the paper airplane icon, and select the people you’d like to send the post to (alternatively, you can also tap on the “Add post to your story” option).

Instagram - Share post with users

Courtesy of benstiller (Instagram account).

You can also share a post through user mentions (also known as user “tags”). When writing a comment, you can tag other users through the “@” symbol followed by their username.

Instagram comments - user mentions

Instagram notifies users of all comments, likes, and mentions made to their account through personal notifications.

Posting Photos and Videos

And now we’ve come to the bread and butter of Instagram – its content.

Instagram content comes in the form of photos, videos or photo carousels/galleries.

To upload your media, tap on the squared “plus” icon at the center of your navigation panel. This pulls up both your phone camera and camera roll. You can choose to take a new photo/video directly from your camera, or select an existing one from your gallery.

Posting content on Instagram

Then, tweak your photo as necessary. Instagram’s built-in editing tools offer cropping, filtering, and color-correcting options; though third-party apps are also available for more advanced, flexible photo editing.

Instagram photo editing tools, filters

Once that’s done, write a caption to accompany your post. Research has shown that longer, more meaningful Instagram captions tend to boost user engagement.

Writing Instagram captions

You can also tag your location, and other users (or brands) featured in your photo.

Instagram location geotags

Using Hashtags

Hashtags are marketing strategy all on their own. When getting the hang of Instagram, mastering your hashtag game is vital.

These “tags” categorize Instagram’s posts into their own unique streams of content. Those interested in a certain topic can thus use hashtags to search for related posts. These can be as niche or as broad as you wish; for example, if you’re interested in finding photos of Christmas mugs, searching up the “#Christmasmug” hashtag immediately pulls up a feed of related content.

Instagram - #Christmasmugs hashtag

Instagram allows users a limit of 30 hashtags per post. While many max out this limit (in the hopes of more exposure), studies show the optimum to be around 10, give or take. Of course, it’s important to experiment and determine and what works best for you.

What is Instagram -using hashtags (lenivakucharka)

Courtesy of lenivakucharka (Instagram account).

The Instagram Algorithm

So, how does Instagram deliver its content to users?

This is determined via their algorithm, a common subject of debate (and occasional user distress). Though its gone through various changes over the years, its current state places greater focus on personalizing the user experience.

Woman using smartphone, looking at Instagram feed

According to the Instagram, your homepage content is now dependent on three factors: your relationship with users, your content interests, and the timeliness of the content posted.

This means the first posts you see on your home feed are from the people you interact with most; hold content similar to previous posts you’ve liked/commented on; and are relatively recent.

Of course, other, more minor factors also affect the content you see on your homepage. These include how frequently you use the app, the number of accounts you follow, and the amount of time you spend scrolling through your feed.

The Explore Page

The Instagram algorithm also works to serve you content through your “Explore” page.

Users access their Explore page by tapping on the magnifying glass icon on their navigation panel. Instagram curates a stream of content based on previous posts and profiles you’ve engaged with; creating a real-time feed of posts suited to your niche.

What is Instagram - Explore page

As such, everyone’s Explore page is different, and changes depending on the content or users you engage with.

Instagram Stories

Instagram Stories were introduced in 2016, creating a channel for on-the-go, everyday content updates.

Similarly to Snapchat, Instagram Stories are temporary and thus limited to a 24-hour lifespan. They’re typically used for less-polished content; offering daily insights into the user’s life, announcements for brand promotions, or a countdown to an event.

Instagram story (alinakozhushko)

Courtesy of alinakozhushko (Instagram account).

To post a story, select the camera icon on the upper left-hand corner of your screen. You then have the option of selecting a photo or video from your camera roll, taking a new one from your camera.

Instagram - add a Story

A unique feature to Stories are the wide range of stickers to choose from. While GIFs comprise a majority of these, many serve their own function – such as “poll” stickers for engaging with your audience; music stickers that play a chosen track on Spotify; and even mini quizzes.

Instagram story stickers

When a new Story is uploaded, a rainbow ring forms around your profile picture. To view your Story (or other users’), simply tap on your picture.

Instagram story update (kendalljenner)

Courtesy of kendalljenner (Instagram account).

Your homepage presents a queue of the most recent stories posted by those you follow.

Instagram Live

What better way to get personal with your audience than through a live video?

Instagram Live is beloved by users as a convenient way of engaging with followers. Celebrities use it for Q&As, businesses use it for product promotions, and others use it to simply livestream their current activity – whether they’re at an event, travelling, or creating content on the spot.

How to use Instagram - Instagram live

Courtesy of The Verge.

To start up a live video, tap on the camera icon on the upper left-hand corner of your screen. Swipe over to the “Live” option, start the video, and you’re ready to go!

When a user goes live, their profile picture appears among the Stories queue, displayed with a throbbing icon and the label, “LIVE”.

Instagram Live icon (business2community)

Courtesy of business2community.

Users can send comments and reactions as the live video plays. The user hosting the live video can turn off, moderate, or pin these comments.

Instagram Live is a cost-friendly, easy way of interacting with followers at a closer, more personal level; developing a more “human” image of your brand.

Instagram Insights

Finally, we have Instagram Insights. Available only on business accounts, these tools are incredibly helpful in measuring the growth and engagement of your profile.

Instagram metrics - Audience insights

Though updated on a weekly basis, Insights offers a in-depth look on the interactions made to your Stories and posts; the visits made to your profile; and data on your target audiences.

Under the “Audience” tab, users are given their followers’ most active times per day of the week. This helps them determine their optimum times for posting, on an hourly and weekly level.

Instagram - best engagement times

Insights are also available per individual post. Simply tap on “View Insights” under your post to yield a list of data outlining the interactions, reach, and impressions gained.

Instagram analytics - post insights

Join the Biggest Social Media Beast Today!

Whether you’re business looking to build your online presence, or someone in need of a creative outlet – Instagram is the way to go. With over one billion monthly active users, you’ve got a large, potential audience to tap into; no matter how broad or specific your niche may be.

Join in on the rising trend of content creators and online retailers – you may just strike Internet success, or at the very least, make a new friend or two.