PHOTO © FARAKTINOV | ADOBE STOCK

Mulhall’s joined Instagram in 2014 because the social media platform presented opportunities to interact with customers online. The retail garden center had plenty of pretty plants to photograph, but cultivating followers wasn’t easy.

“We were posting about the plants and products that we were excited about,” says Sarah Vanek, education and outreach manager at Mulhall’s in Omaha, Nebraska. “But people weren’t really engaging with us.”

That’s when Mulhall’s team took a step back to strategize how they could leverage the photo-sharing platform to connect with customers. Since then, Mulhall’s has amassed more than 21,000 followers. Read Vanek’s tips below for increasing engagement on Instagram.

Find a focus.

Initially, Mulhall’s tried to represent all of its products on Instagram. But then they realized that the most popular plant-related accounts were focused on a few specific topics.

“We started to think harder about what conversation we were trying to be a part of,” Vanek says. “Instead of trying to share everything, we narrowed our focus to speak toward houseplants on Instagram because there was such a strong houseplant conversation happening there.”

Mulhall’s talks about other topics on other channels, but houseplants control the conversation on Instagram. Case in point: More than 1.7 million Instagram posts include the hashtag #houseplants, and accounts like @houseplantjournal boast 325,000 followers.

Left: Mulhall’s video of how to pot up a cactus without falling victim to its prickly thorns was viewed 60,000 times. Right: Exotic plants like staghorn fern make popular posts.
COURTESY OF MULHALL’S INSTAGRAM

Be real.

Two types of photos perform particularly well on Mulhall’s channel: pictures with a lot of white space, like a potted plant against a plain background, and “gritty” images that show the context of the garden center, like rows of packaged monsteras being unloaded in the greenhouse.

The common denominator is authenticity. “What we’re doing behind the scenes is really interesting,” Vanek says. “We might not think about it because we see it every day, but people enjoy seeing what we’re up to. It’s that grittiness and authenticity that we try to capture in our photos to show what’s really happening here.”

Learn the language.

When it comes to writing captions for your posts, pay attention to not only what people are posting about, but how they’re talking about those topics.

Instagram users “have their own dialect with hashtags, tons of emojis and unconventional punctuation,” Vanek says. So Mulhall’s posts consistently include leafy emojis and dozens of hashtags that link content to relevant categories.

Most of these are plant-related (see sidebar), but Mulhall’s also includes location tags (like #omaha) and even its own branded hashtags (like #mymulhalls).

This dialect can be difficult to learn, so Vanek recommends building a team of “native speakers” who are comfortable on Instagram. She’s part of a team of five employees that collaboratively manage Mulhall’s account – with a couple people focused on photos, a couple others who write captions and respond to questions, and another who plans the posting schedule.

Share the love.

The most obvious, but easily overlooked, key to creating an engaging Instagram channel is to actually engage with your audience by “commenting on other people’s posts, sharing other people’s content and answering questions by sharing helpful information,” Vanek says.

Muhall’s regularly reposts pictures from customers who tag the garden center. They even host a photo contest in January, where people can submit pictures by using the hashtag #mulhallsplantcontest.

The more Mulhall’s interacts with fans on Instagram, the more likely they are to return the love – both on social media and in the store.

“We see a lot of people coming into our store and taking photos and tagging us,” Vanek says. “As our engagement on social media has grown, we’re seeing more traffic and sales in the store as well.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.