Engaging with potential customers is top of mind for many businesses, including independent garden center retailers. Many strategies are focused on reaching out to consumers and capturing their attention in a world full of digital distractions.

What if customers, instead of changing the channel or clicking the “x” on a pop-up ad, were to voluntarily pursue your brand and connect with you? That’s happening on Instagram, says Marne Levine, COO of the 7-year-old social media platform. She spoke at the 2018 National Retail Federation Big Show, and said 80 percent of Instagram’s 500 million daily users follow and engage with businesses.

Instagram has been developing tools to help retailers tell their stories and form relationships with customers, and companies are taking advantage. One third of Instagram Stories — a feature that allows users to post photos and videos that vanish after 24 hours and was introduced about 2 years ago — are from businesses.

Instagram influences 75 percent of user purchase decisions, according to the company. About half of Instagram users use the “save” button, and a third of those saves come from images from businesses. Many are products that people screen capture to save for shopping later.

“Instagram is not just a place for discovery, but a place where business gets done,” Levine says.

You may have used Instagram as a place of inspiration for your customers, which is important, but it can also be used a powerful sales and promotional tool.

Here are 4 ways to get more out of your Instagram page:

1. Convert your personal Instagram account to a business profile.

This will allow you to include more information than available on a personal page, including a phone number, and positions you to be able to sell products directly on the platform. You can also track insights. Follow step-by-step directions on how to do this here: bit.ly/2t3xgt4

2. Responses: shorter, faster, be yourself.

Just like any other social media platform, it’s important to respond to users who engage with you, as they could be potential customers. People want to connect with businesses on social media and feel a personal connection. Make sure to respond quickly with short messages and use an authentic voice.

3. Treat your audience like a best friend.

Tyler Haney, founder and CEO of Outdoor Voices, a recreational clothing company, says part of the success of her company’s Instagram page is due to the casual, approachable voice they use in posts and responses. Fitness can be intimidating, so they created the inclusive hashtag #doingthings to convey that anything — from walking the dog to pushing your kids on a swing set — can be considered an active, healthy activity (and worthy of their comfortable, recreational clothing). You know what else can be intimidating? Gardening. An approachable feed and a lighthearted hashtag (#plantingthings, anyone?) can show your audience that gardening is inclusive, fun and not to be taken too seriously.

4. Consider selling on Instagram.

You may have noticed that some companies are posting interactive photos on Instagram with a shopping bag icon in the corner. When users tap on the posts, pricing information appears for products that are incorporated into everyday lifestyle scenes (like a living room full of houseplants), and users can follow links to purchase items in the photo.

“We began rolling out shopping with an early test in November 2016,” says Jessica Gibby, a spokesperson for Instagram. “We integrated with Shopify and Big Commerce in October 2017 to bring shopping to an even larger set of U.S. retailers ... so that [consumers] can take action on something they see on Instagram the moment they are inspired.”

Businesses that have a business profile, sell physical goods, and have a product catalog through Facebook or an integration partner such as Shopify are eligible to use shopping on Instagram, she says.

Instructions for selling on Instagram are available at the company’s help center at bit.ly/2JAXf3p. In March, Instagram expanded the shopping feature to eight countries outside of the U.S., including Canada and the U.K.

“We’re seeing that the shopping feature is being used for all types of products — everything from plants (@thesill) to luggage (@away) to 3D printed objects (@lojanama),” Gibby says.

Editor’s Note: Look for more details about best practices for these photos and how to tag products in an upcoming article.