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With 90 per cent of Instagram users being under 35 years of age, and engagement 15 times greater than Facebook (its parent company), marketers are taking notice. Quite simply, the online photo-sharing startup has become the go-to social network for youth wanting to share experiences.

But some brands are missing the boat: Many of the usual suspects on the list of top 20 brands, including PepsiCo Inc.and McDonald's Corp., are no where to be found on Instagram. Emerging players like Go Pro – which encourages its users to capture their experiences (no matter how extreme) – and Forever 21 – which holds unique contests like the 'Soccer Collection' among others – however, are seizing the moment by pushing the limits of creativity with their content.

What's most interesting about Instagram is that – up until recently – traffic on a brand's website was solely organic, as ads weren't available. This forced brands to push their limits on creativity as they did not have the paid advertising to boost their campaigns. In many ways, Instagram was the platform where content was put to test and needed to stand on its own.

A strong example of a brand that's doing extremely well on Instagram is Calvin Klein. Recently, the brand seeded over 100 influencers (including celebrities and models) from 15 countries with underwear. The ask in return was simple: take a photo of themselves wearing the underwear and share it on Instagram using the hashtag #mycalvins. This campaign resulted in thousands of likes within minutes and it didn't stop there. Calvin Klein encouraged consumers to participate as well by using the same hashtag to show off their personal Calvins. This engagement inspired people to effortlessly promote the brand by leveraging what consumers are already doing – posting photos (in their undies).

From a small business perspective, Warby Parker, a glasses company from New York City, wanted to engage their brand enthusiasts and at the same time show admiration for their local neighbourhood. They held an "Insta-Walk" where people met at the company's headquarters and ventured through different parts of NYC. Participants were asked to take photos along the way of what they were seeing through "their eyes" (with many wearing Warby Parker glasses), and eventually the walk ended at a roof-top party. Over 670 photos were captured with the hashtag #warbywalk which linked back to its Instagram page. Not only did fans enjoy an exclusive event in NYC, but Warby Parker had tons of promotional photos to work with, brand ambassador love and positive online buzz.

The real lesson here is the necessity to treat Instagram as its own entity, and not just slap a hashtag on a photo and call it a campaign. What works is understanding your audience and the types of content they're already producing. Instagram's co-founder, Kevin Systrom, has said in the past: "What's really cool about this is it doesn't feel like advertising. When you open Instagram, it feels like entertainment."

Mia Pearson is the co-founder of North Strategic. She has more than two decades of experience in creating and growing communications agencies, and her experience spans many sectors, including financial, technology, consumer and lifestyle.

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