instagramYou probably won’t be surprised when I tell you that Nike is currently the most popular brand on Instagram. But you may feel tempted to scratch your head when I tell you this: mega brands like Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Victoria Secret and countless others, are not among the top 50 most popular brands on the platform. They didn’t even make the top 100. It matters because Instagram is growing faster than Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest combined.

With nearly 4.4 million followers and more than 26 million posts with its Instagram hashtag, Nike is the largest brand on the platform, according to Nitrogram 50. Compare that to Coca-Cola, which only has about 150 thousand followers and 2.5 million posts currently. Wow – what a huge gap. Could it be that some top brands don’t see the real Instagram payoff? Or, is it just haphazard marketing?

In either case – it’s hard to deny the power of Instagram, particularly for consumer-facing companies. According to this Forbes article, the platform’s community boasts 15 times more engagement than its parent company, and more than Twitter or Google.

The Unfiltered Guide to Instagram for Brands reminds us that some brands have their logos anchored in our minds. Most of us know automatically, when we see a white mermaid on a green background, its Starbucks.  But logos like Starbucks and Nike are part of a very select club of broadly recognized brands. So, why are brands like Sony, Gatorade, Reebok and others falling behind on Instagram? Well – mainly because they haven’t fully engaged their audiences with content that matters.

While Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and others teach us that sharing is good, Instagram forces you to create original content every time. No “repost” feature means that you actually need to do some real work. But that’s a good thing for brands looking to stand out from the crowd. Also, image-based content is rapidly becoming the strategic approach for brands of all shapes and sizes. On Facebook, for instance, a photo album alone drives 180 percent more engagement than an average post on a business page. That’s huge.

Instagram is unique because brands have the ability to tag images with hashtags in a very public way by default. The result is that brands are more discoverable through content created by other Instagram users.

Nitrogram offers brands the following 3 steps to winning – not failing – on Instagram:

Step 1: Build a thriving community

The extremely public nature of content on this platform means that brands need to intimately understand how official followers form the “audience,” while users sharing images with tags relevant to that brand, create “contributors.” Both of these groups are equally important because they dramatically increase reach and visibility. One way to build this community is to monitor how followers are gained (and lost) to improve the rate at which an account grows its audience. Brands can gain post-by-post understanding of the impact of their publishing strategy on the growth of their follower base.

Step 2: Get it just right

Clearly, the kinds of images posted by a brand are important. That’s why it’s critical to closely monitor audience reactions. This way, you can tweak your approach moving forward. Remember, this is a real-time marketing platform, so there’s no ability to schedule automatic posts or publish using an external platform like HootSuite. So to get it right, brands need to really be engaged with their users.

Step 3: Learn from the best

Tracking the behavior of successful trends can be useful in building brand traction. For instance, the top 10 car brands on Instagram have 7 times more photos on their hashtags than they have followers. Last year Lipton Tea conducted a really cool Instagram campaign spanning a month. The global initiative, Liptagram, was launched simultaneously in eleven countries and designed to showcase the “excitement, spontaneity and brightness that can be captured in images” a spokesperson for Lipton said.

Lipton allowed itself a 48-hour window to approve submissions, which gave them time to post new images regularly while preventing any unwanted content to be associated with the official campaign site online. It was a hugely successful campaign that can certainly be used as a model for other brands.