In the last few months, Instagram has seen a massive increase in its userbase and it’s easy to see why. Unlike other sites such as Twitter or Facebook, it’s got a very simple, very clear goal: to help people share attractive pictures and short videos. That’s it.

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For any consumer-facing business (especially restaurants and retailers), this represents an opportunity to get their brand out organically even as they extend their relationship with existing customers. I’m going to review the basics of Instagram to help you understand how to take advantage of this social network.

How does Instagram work? How does my business get started?

While other social networks offer some kind of online component, the main way to interact with Instagram is through their free app for iOS, Android and (very soon) Windows Phone. You can log into Instagram.com to comment and view your feed, but it’s best experienced through mobile. In fact, you can’t upload photos through the web, and this is an intentional decision on the part of the Instagram team. They want to ensure that people are actually using the service properly and avoid spam.

When you set up your Instagram account, take the time to create a profile that describes your business. Look at this profile for Relish Santa Barbara, a website devoted to food, wine and culture in Santa Barbara, CA.

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You can see that their profile offers a clear outline of what they’re doing and the sort of content that you can expect from them. (They’ve also included a hashtag, which is something discussed a bit later.)

I’ve set up my business’s profile on Instagram. Now what?

Start by taking pictures and posting them. Yes, it’s that easy. Make sure that you’re taking the time to compose a good, square photo and pick the right filter for the picture you’re taking. Yes, the photos you take have to be square on the service, even if you’re uploading them from your phone’s photo gallery. I personally like this restriction, as it forces me to be a bit more creative and it ensures that your pictures are consistently sized and displayed. You should also take the time to include descriptions and hashtag each appropriately; this enables better casual search and sharing.

You might think that you want to stick to only your products or events, but the reality is that Instagram is a very social network, and generally one devoted to positive experiences and sharing. UK Chef Jamie Oliver does more than post photos of food. He’ll frequently take pictures of his family and staff or even take a moment to engage the audience with a picture of a question or statement.

I’ve got pictures. How do I get followers on Instagram?

Start by following other accounts and engage them by liking their images and commenting. Use Instagram’s explore and search functions to target relevant people and businesses to follow. For instance, if you’re a vintage clothing store in Brooklyn, you might want to find a similar company in San Francisco. Community is key to the Instagram experience, whether it’s the sandwich shop on the corner or the woman who’s making amazing stuff in Nebraska. If it’s interesting to you and your business, follow and engage.

To help people find your account, you’ll want to make sure that you’re using good, relevant hashtags. Hashtags are used to mark keywords or topics in a social media post. To use a hashtag, simply use a # before the word or truncated phrase that describes what you’re posting. A groomer with a freshly-styled Pomeranian might try #dogs #puppies #pomeranians, for example. There are also site-specific ones like #catsofinstagram and #instafoodies that you’ll discover as you begin using the service.

Learning how to use hashtags takes initial research, so follow the example of more experienced accounts. Avoid using too many hashtags as they can be a bit overwhelming to your existing followers.

If you’re using Twitter and Facebook (and you should be), make sure that you share links to your photos and videos on those services as well. It takes just a few clicks to sync your Instagram account with those networks and then a single tap enables sharing after you’ve taken the photo. Your followers on those networks are likely to follow through and follow you on Instagram.

Finally, make sure that you publicize your Instagram account. Include the account name on all your marketing collateral and make sure that it’s prominently featured on your website..

I’ve got followers — what do I do with them?

Treat your Instagram account as a community, because that’s exactly what it is. You might want to offer Instagram-specific discounts and deals, for example, or host contests using the service. Some brands have seen massive influxes with this sort of thing, while others believe in a smaller, cultivated community.

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Instagram is about sharing your world and inviting people into it; make it worthwhile for those who are engaging your business on it and reward the people who drive more traffic to you.