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It’s not exactly normal for a company selling a product to have an Instagram account before it has a website, but that’s the route Inkbox took on its way to success.

The Toronto-based company, which sells self-applicable temporary tattoos, launched on the social media platform in 2015, three months before setting up a proper online store.

It was a calculated move that served as both a marketing effort and focus group.

“It gave us good feedback on what kind of designs people wanted to see,” says co-founder Tyler Handley.

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Co-founders of Inkbox are Braden, left, and Tyler Handley.Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press

Inkbox’s products are better than traditional temporary tattoos, he says, because the ink sinks into the top layer of the wearer’s skin. The tattoos, which take about 15 minutes to apply, look realistic and last between eight and 18 days, depending on how quickly the skin exfoliates.

To get their Instagram account up and running, Mr. Handley and his co-founder brother Braden recruited friends and family members to pose for photos bedecked in the company’s tattoos.

The brothers interacted with followers, gaining insights on designs, pricing and product names. By the time they finally launched their website they had acquired 2,000 Instagram followers. That translated into $500 of sales on their first day and rapid growth thereafter.

The company has since raised US$13-million in equity financing from Maveron LLC, Golden Ventures Partners and Founders Fund, among others, and has sold more than half a million tattoos. Whoopi Goldberg named Inkbox tattoos among her favourite things, and the company’s products have appeared on the Netflix show Stranger Things and the movie The Greatest Showman.

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The Handley brothers found success on Instagram. They built an audience there before launching their website.CHRIS HELGREN/Reuters

Mr. Handley attributes the success to proper research of his social media audience. Instagram sees high engagement with 18- to 34-year-olds, which is exactly Inkbox’s target market. The company’s product is also highly visual, which makes it perfect for the photo-oriented app.

Inkbox, which has 70 employees, is also active on Facebook and Pinterest, but neither platform fits as well since they skew toward text and video or to older users.

“We like to say we have a product platform fit, in that our product matches very well with Instagram,” he says. “It doesn’t seem like people are going [to Facebook] to follow brands they like.”

Mr. Handley’s advice on social media usage to other entrepreneurs and small businesses is to keep it real. On Instagram, consumers are looking for products and brands they can identify with. Too much gloss can turn them off.

“That authenticity, customers actually like it. You don’t have to be perfect,” he says. “They’re not looking for highly polished brands.”

He also urges communication with followers – actively listening to them and respecting their comments. “Don’t speak down to your consumers, don’t ever act like you’re smarter than them,” he says. “They want to feel like they’re part of the business.”

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Instagram 'gave us good feedback on what kind of designs people wanted to see,' says Inkbox co-founder Tyler Handley.Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press

Social media experts agree with that approach.

Entrepreneurs need to figure out exactly what they’re selling and go to where the correct audience for that product or service resides, says Amber Mac, president of AmberMac Media Inc. and author of Power Friending: Demystifying Social Media to Grow Your Business.

Consumer-oriented products, whether they be temporary tattoos, fashion and beauty items or pet toys, are more likely to draw attention on Instragram. Business-to-business services may fare better on LinkedIn.

“So many people spend time on platforms where their audience is not,” she says. “You need to be playing on the platform where your audience is spending the most time.”

Ms. Mac also suggests that businesses consider creating and posting videos, since many social networks – including Facebook and LinkedIn – are increasingly boosting them in users’ news feeds. Short videos about a minute in length don’t have to be expensive to produce, with online tools such as Magisto making it relatively cheap and easy.

“Every platform is making videos a priority with their algorithms,” she says. “It’s a great way for people to get a sense of what you’re doing.”

Cher Jones, a social media trainer whose past clients include the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and the Toronto Region Board of Trade, also suggests focusing on LinkedIn, which is increasingly becoming a significant promotional platform.

But rather than communicating about products on LinkedIn, entrepreneurs should position themselves as experts on their given subject matter.

“You are showing up as someone who understands the business; you become the person behind the business,” she says. “Ultimately you’ll build credibility, name recognition and connections.”

Ms. Mac and Ms. Jones also both urge frequent posting regardless of which platforms a business might choose to focus on. Algorithms tend to favour those users who post often and who are seen to be engaging with others.

“If you do not have time to engage, do not waste your time on social media. It will not work for you. That means prioritizing it,” Ms. Jones says.

“When you show up, your clients become used to it. They know they don’t have to look anywhere else for answers. Gone are the days when you can just expect people to follow you.”

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