Oct 16, 2020
This guide is here to help you understand DM, what it can do for your business, how to do it well, and how to avoid coming off like an obnoxious spammer.
LAST UPDATED ON February 21, 2021
If your business is on Instagram, but you’re not using direct messages (DM) to talk to your followers, you’re missing out on one of IG’s most exciting features.
DMs allow you to chat directly to customers on a platform where many of them spend hours every day. You can use DMs to build relationships and brand awareness, close sales, and offer a tailored experience to your biggest fans. A small business or side-hustler can use DMing to make sales without having to build an online store, and a large company can use DMing to add a personal touch to their marketing communications.
DMs are free to send and receive, and they aren’t subject to some algorithm that limits their visibility. Best of all, you don’t need any additional tools or skills to sell in the DM; just be your friendly self. It’s an area where “the little guy” has a competitive advantage because effective DMs are all about authenticity and making a personal connection.
Before we get into selling in the DM, let’s quickly cover how to send one for anyone who doesn’t know.
As a selling platform, Instagram has a lot going for it. For one thing, the market is huge. Roughly 1 billion people are on Instagram. Over 60% of them are in the 18-34 age range. Interacting with brands is a normal part of how people use the platform, with 80% of users following at least one brand. According to YotPo Instagram data, 72% of customers believe that seeing a product on Instagram makes them more likely to buy it.
It’s not just the numbers of users or their demographics that make Instagram appealing; it’s the way people use it. In her video on Instagram DMs, entrepreneurship coach Elise Darma makes an interesting point: her boyfriend of six years has her number, but he doesn’t text her. Instead, he sends her DMs on Instagram because that’s where he spends his time on his phone. Think about that anecdote in terms of your customers. Sure, they can reach you through the contact form on your website. They can go to the trouble of looking up you r phone number. But why not reach them where they’re already hanging out? By joining your customers in the DM, you’re stepping out of a business-to-customer dynamic and into a more casual interaction that’s closer to the kind of chats they’re having with friends and family.
For now, there are basically five types of direct messages you can send. Using a combination of these, you can craft a totally personalized one-on-one interaction with your followers and really communicate the personality behind your business.
Text messages are the default. Just type what you want to say, or add emojis, stickers, and/or GIFs to jazz things up a bit.
You can send pictures and videos from your camera roll via direct message. You can also take photos and videos, set them to vanish after they’ve been opened, and add all sorts of crazy filters and effects. One thing to keep in mind: videos have to be 15 seconds or less.
Instagram video chat works exactly like FaceTime or any other video calling service. It’s probably better to schedule something like this since cold calling is a little unexpected and can come off as a bit creepy.
You’re not limited to messaging one person at a time. With group chats, you can select multiple recipients and get a big discussion going. This is one way to build a community or an inner-circle of your best customers. You can rename a group chat to indicate what it’s all about. Participants can add their friends.
You can also send voice memos. These can be a time-saving way to answer customer service queries and a chance to add a personal touch to your convos.
Instagram direct messaging is a seriously underrated sales and marketing platform. If you’re already on Instagram, but you aren’t using it to make sales, you only need to learn a few basic tricks to get started. No extra tools or software is required (besides maybe an external payment platform, which we’ll get into).
Almost all of the advice in this article applies whether or not you have an Instagram business account. Some of these tips will help you sell on the Gram even if you don’t have an ecommerce site. At the end of the day, the key to success in the DM is engagement and authenticity. If you can be friendly, helpful, and original on Instagram, you can make money in the DM.
If you use your direct messages, for one thing, use them to build relationships. This is how you earn customer loyalty. This is how you sell without being salesly. This is how you nurture leads on the Gram. It’s pretty easy, just have conversations and add value.
Instagram filters messages from users the recipient hasn’t interacted with. These get put in a “message request” – AKA spam – folder. To avoid this, you should always start your interactions outside of the DM. Follow the person you want to talk to, “like” their posts, and leave comments. Send a DM only after they’ve replied to your comments. These filters are subject to change; to be on the safe side, only DM after you’ve had a little back and forth with the recipient.
As a business or solopreneur, everything you do on social media is part of brand building. Direct messaging is an important factor in communicating your brand values, one satisfied customer at a time.
The most straightforward technique for selling in the DM is to use your feed like a catalog of product photos and ask followers to DM you if they want to make a purchase. You don’t need a business account or website to do it this way.
From a sales perspective, think of the people who comment as leads. Nurture those leads by replying to comments and engaging with other users, not just in your own feed but all over Instagram.
Direct messaging can be your way around one of the most frustrating features of Instagram, sharing links. Unlike Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and most other social channels, Instagram doesn’t let you include links in posts.
It’s possible for some business accounts to share links via the “swipe up” feature in their story, but you need 10,000 followers before you can do that. That’s not realistic for most small/medium businesses.
The simplest workaround is to include a call to action (CTA) in your captions, asking folks to DM you or follow the link in your bio. This isn’t an ideal way to do business in a one-click world, but it does open the opportunity to chat one-on-one with interested followers.
One of the best ways to slide into the DMs is to put a poll or a question in your story. This could be a question that’s related to your business, or it could be something random and fun like:
“Bridgerton -or- Emily in Paris?”
You’ll be able to see responses in your feed. Beside each user’s handle, there’s a paper airplane logo–click it to start a conversation in the DM.
These polls can double as market research and a source of user-generated content.
If you do have an Instagram Business account, you can get around the link issue with shoppable posts. These make your content clickable and integrate your ecommerce store. Not every business is eligible for this feature, however. It’s worth weighing the advantages and disadvantages of a Business account before you go with this option. It’s not for everyone.
One awesome feature businesses can use to tailor the customer experience is the “close friends” option. You can limit the visibility of certain stories to a select list of close friends. Through this list, you can reward your most engaged customers with exclusive offers.
Image: Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge
The easiest way to get started with influencer marketing and co-marketing is to just send a DM. Here’s how it’s done from scratch:
Search relevant tags and locations
Use the search bar to search for hashtags in your niche. You can narrow things down by searching for posts location-tagged in your area.
Check out suggested pages
Once you find a page you like, click the down arrow to the right of where it says “message.” on their profile. This will bring up a list of recommended pages you might also want to check out.
Follow & engage before you DM
This is where a lot of folks get it wrong and end up giving DMing a bad name. As tempting as it might be to just smash the paper airplane and start a conversation with a good looking influencer or a prestigious brand, don’t do it unless you’ve engaged with their content. This only takes a minute or two, but it can make all the difference. “Like” some of their posts and/or leave a thoughtful comment. Only after you’ve done this should you reach out.
Make your pitch
Start with a nice, friendly conversation in the DM. Maybe open with a sincere compliment about one of their posts. When it feels right, present your pitch and see what they have to say. Be sure to emphasize what’s in it for them.
Not many people need to be told to spend more time on Instagram. But if you run a business and you’re serious about making Instagram a part of your sales and marketing strategy, you need to dedicate time to it as part of your workday.
Many small businesses are doing the right things on social media. They just need to do more of what’s working. VaynerMedia founder and Instagram-whisperer Gary Vaynerchuck suggests posting seven to ten times per day. His Instagram growth strategy is built on interacting and DMing at scale.
Consistency is the secret ingredient for going viral. A New York Times article on growth hacking Instagram tells the story of one woman who sought advice directly from an Instagram rep:
“How many photos or videos should she be posting to her main feed? (Three a week, she was told.) How often should she be posting Instagram Stories? (Eight to 10 times a week, but preferably at least two times a day.) What about posting longer videos to Instagram TV? (One to three per week.) Consistency was key, the representative emphasized.”
—New York Times, Jan. 26, 2021, “Is There a Secret to Success on Instagram?”
Social media is often a numbers game. If something you’re doing is working, try doing ten times as much of that thing.
Instagram was built on instant gratification and endless scrolling. It is not optimized for organization and archiving. Use a notes app like Evernote or Apple Notes to keep track of handles and hashtags and to save texts that you reuse frequently.
If you want to save even more time, a shortcut app like TextExpander can autofill your messages/emails so you can really plow through a bunch of DMs quickly.
If you’re selling in the DM without an ecommerce store, you’ll need to set up an external payment platform (PayPal, Venmo, etc.) to accept payments. To make a manual sale, ask the buyer for payment and follow up with shipping info. It’s a simple option that requires no additional tools, but it comes with some downsides: manual, off-site payments are time-consuming and don’t scale.
Are manual payments right for you?
You have to decide whether manually processing orders, which is hard to scale, is worth it. For some businesses, it is.
Making DM sales is often the best option for businesses that have low order volume and high average order value (AOV.) In the examples section below, we discuss a seller of high-end vintage cameras. He doesn’t have a lot of inventory, and his products often sell within minutes of posting product photos. If that sounds like your business, you might want to stick with the simplicity of manual payments and DM selling while you continue to build your brand through posts and engagement.
On the other hand, if your business is built on volume or your strategy is constant growth, manually processing payments on an external platform will overwhelm you.
Customer expectations come into play here too. Someone in the market for a vintage handbag or a restored camera is probably willing to do some digging and reach out with a DM when they find what they’re looking for. Someone making an impulse buy or signing up for a subscription expects instant gratification; they might not bother if making a purchase requires more than one click.
Nobody wants to get banned or flagged as spam. Because direct messages are private, they tend to raise suspicions a little more than public marketing content. Here are a few tips to stay on the right side of Instagram’s policies.
Image: The Verge
Instagram Shop eligibility
Setting up an Instagram shop requires approval, and not every business is eligible. For more, see their recently updated eligibility requirements.
A popular search term related to selling on Instagram is “Do you have to pay taxes if you sell on Instagram?” The short answer is YES. Selling on Instagram is just like selling anywhere else: your revenue is taxable, and laws regulating your industry apply. Consult with your accountant to make sure you’re playing by the rules and don’t get any tax surprises.
You may also be subject to laws governing how businesses communicate with customers. When in doubt, consult IG’s policies or seek legal advice.
Don’t be a jerk
You can avoid 99% of policy problems with one simple rule: don’t be a jerk. Always consider the person on the other end of your message. Ask yourself:
Am I wasting their time?
Do I sound salesly and spammy?
Is this a message I would be excited to see in my inbox?
“Value” is one of the internet’s favorite words. You probably constantly hear experts telling you to “deliver value,” but let’s look at what that really means.
“Deliver value” = Be helpful
Can you solve a customer’s problem? Make their day easier? Teach them something? That’s value right there. Savings and special offers are always helpful too. Sometimes “value” just means more money in your customer’s pocket.
“Deliver value” = Have fun
Boredom is one of the main reasons people check Instagram as they go about their day. Is there something you could send them that will make them laugh or entertain them, even if it’s just for a few seconds? Don’t overthink it, just have fun.
“Deliver value” = Be insightful
So you wanna be a “thought leader”? Instagram is a good place to share what you know, and the DM is a good place to start interesting conversations. If you haven’t noticed, there’s often a lack of depth and insight on the Gram. In an environment where everyone’s being shallow, there’s opportunity in going deep.
“Deliver value” = Be relevant
Sometimes people want to be entertained, sometimes they want to be informed, sometimes they want memes. But they always want relevance. Maybe this article hasn’t made you laugh out loud, but if you want to learn how to sell in the DM, it’s definitely relevant.
“Deliver value” = Be yourself
The amazing thing about DMing is that it gives you a chance to have a normal conversation with customers. Don’t spoil this opportunity by sounding like the customer service department of a big, faceless company. Be real/be you!
Image: Saturday Night Live
Let’s look at some real-world examples and DM selling.
DM selling is a natural choice for businesses that deal in high AOV and low volume. Brick and mortar shops like camera stores and jewelers often rely on relationship building to close sales and cater to customer’s individual tastes. DMs are great for that. Boston’s Leica store (@leicastoreboston) lets followers know that their DMs are always open.
The #DMtopurchase hashtag flags items that are available for purchase in the DM. In this example, the Newburgh Vintage Emporium (@newburghvintageemporium) lists a chair available for sale. The post can be found through the “DM to purchase” hashtag. Notice how they’ve also location-tagged their shop; this post would also be visible to anyone looking at posts from the same location.
This post from a vintage clothing seller is also tagged #DMtopurchase. The seller adds a “DM to purchase” call to action in the caption. This may seem simple, but it’s important. There are plenty of product photos on Instagram. You want to make it clear yours are for sale and let people know how to purchase them.
The Etsy Conversion Podcast gives us the text message one Etsy seller uses to tell customers how to claim an item and complete their purchase. This is exactly the sort of thing that templates or a shortcut app can help you partially automate.
This example illustrates the main downside of selling in the DM: given the option, most people would rather just click BUY NOW. This seller grew her revenue 43% after she enabled Instagram Shopping.
Even if you still intend to do most of your selling in the DM, there are some distinct advantages to a Business account you might want to consider.
Jordan Steen, the Cereal Entrepreneur, talks about using Instagram DMs to get clients for his marketing agency.
It’s basically the same process as reaching out to influencers and potential business partners: Follow their account, engage with their content, and strike up a conversation in the DM. You may want to tweak this formula slightly if you’re pitching large organizations like Fortune 100 companies or multi-nationals. While DMing a boutique digital marketing agency will probably get you through to someone you can work with directly, the Instagram messages for a big corporation are usually managed by an intern or somebody with no purchasing power.
The screenshot below, from Elise Darma’s guide to selling the DM, is a great example of easy-going B2B networking in the DM.
Image: Elise Darma.
So far, we’ve been using the word “product,” but you can sell almost anything with direct messages. As businesses become increasingly reliant on their online presence to stay afloat during the pandemic, we’re starting to see restaurants get in on DM selling. During the pandemic, chefs, bakers, and restaurateurs began using Instagram as “the world’s greatest takeout menu.” Direct messaging is critical for small pop-up eateries trying to make the platform work for them.
“When Instagram introduced Shop and Reels tabs to its home page last November, prioritizing popular brands and influencers, I worried that the platform would become more hostile to tiny food pop-ups. But cooks made it work, relying on direct messages or linking out to forms, custom-built shopping pages or third-party apps.”
– New York Times, Jan. 26, 2021 “Cooks Turned Instagram into the World’s Greatest Takeout Menu”
One barbeque cook featured in the article started by taking orders exclusively via Instagram DM. He used Insta to start a BBQ pop-up out of his backyard!
Restauranteurs found an unlikely use for Instagram DMs that helped them make the most of a tough time. Similarly, real estate agents have been using direct messaging to connect with potential clients and take the networking aspect of their job online.
“I put myself out there (on Instagram) to stay top of mind with friends and acquaintances, so they think of me if they’re in the market for a house,” said Jessica Krikorian, a Massachusetts-based real estate agent. She uses her personal account to promote her work.
Realtors have been using Instagram stories to conduct virtual walk-throughs and show properties. Someone who sees the video and wants to know more about the listing can reply with a direct message.
Direct messaging is a marketing game-changer hiding in plain sight. DMs are a special place where a business can get to know customers in a way that isn’t possible through other channels. DMs can bolster the sales of an online business or generate new opportunities for brick and mortar shops and solo operations without requiring a website or ecommerce shop.
Get to that first sale in the DM, and you’ll learn a ton in the process. Then, double down on what works and fine-tune what doesn’t.
And don’t think of the sale as the end of your interaction. The final step in the DM customer’s journey is the all-important follow up. Reach out to buyers and ask them to leave a review. Offer a special discount in exchange for user-generated content. Or just follow up and see how they’re enjoying the product a few weeks down the road. Remember, DM is the place where you can get personal and make your customers feel valued and noticed.