A picture is worth thousands of dollars for Limelight Extensions.
Phones start ringing at the Farmington Hills, Michigan, salon each time co-owner Miranda Jade Plater posts pictures on photo-sharing app Instagram. Would-be customers call to book appointments or ask questions about hair extensions she posts.
Colorful styles get the most attention. Plater still gets calls about a photo of herself that she uploaded two months ago. In it, she's wearing long, black curly hair extensions with the ends dyed bright orange. That photo alone has generated about $10,000 in sales.
"Without Instagram I couldn't tell you where we would be right now," she says.
Instagram is an increasingly important part of small businesses' social media strategies. It's helping them drive sales, gain customers and develop their brand. The app is especially helpful to restaurants, bakeries, clothing stores, hair salons and other businesses that sell items that photograph well.
The app, founded in 2010 and bought by Facebook Inc. in 2012, reaches more than 200 million users worldwide. Owners say it's easy to use, allowing them to automatically post their Instagram photos on their businesses' other social media accounts, including Facebook and Twitter.
To boost Limelight's followers, Plater pays local models and reality show stars to promote the company on their accounts. Payment is either a percentage of sales, a flat rate or free hair. In return, they post photos of themselves wearing the extensions with a link back to Limelight Extensions' Instagram account. The company has more than 27,000 followers.
Yumbox is trying a similar strategy. The Doylestown, Pennsylvania-based company makes colorful lunchboxes with portioned sections meant to teach kids balanced eating. It recently paid a well-followed health food blogger to post a photo of a food-filled Yumbox. The post spiked traffic to its website and doubled its Instagram followers to nearly 5,000.
Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter allow small businesses to pay to promote their posts and gain followers. Instagram, which declined to comment for this story, doesn't do that yet. On its website, it says it is working on offering advertising to more of its users.
There are cheaper ways to build followers. Yumbox also reposts customer photos: co-owner Maia Neumann says she scours Instagram for photos others have posted using Yumbox as a hashtag.
Why does Instagram resonate with potential customers? A photo can say more about a business than words. "People process photos faster," says Jesse Redniss, chief strategy officer at Spredfast, which works with brands to build their social media presence.
"Storytelling is paramount for a business to get people to care about who they are," says Redniss. "People are always entranced with a story. It's how people become interested in a brand."