Marketing Meetup Recap: Instagram Marketing for Your Bookstore

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The latest Marketing Meetup hosted by the American Booksellers Association covered how booksellers can use Instagram to market their bookstores. The topics covered included what and when to post, paying for Instagram ads, selling through Instagram, tracking analytics, and the benefits of marketing on Instagram.

The January 31 Marketing Meetup — one of the biweekly online video conferences hosted by ABA on — featured guest speakers Mike Gustafson of Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Alana Haley of Schuler Books in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor.

Gustafson said that he encourages his staff to think of Literati’s Instagram as an extension of the store itself. “It’s really easy to get caught up in trying to figure out the data behind social media. A lot of people, myself included, go to panels and meetings to see if there’s some kind of secret formula to increase engagement,” he said. “But there’s really not.”

He compared Instagram to writing a book: “You can follow a basic formula or philosophy, but you really just have to go out and do it by trial and error.”

Literati’s Instagram account offers customers an introduction to the store, Gustafson continued. The store avoids posting advertisements or trying to sell products through the platform, and he advised against paying for advertisements or promoted posts, as in his experience, ads actually decreased user engagement. Instead, he recommended that booksellers try to keep posts organic.

“We use Instagram to capture moments,” Gustafson said, “sort of like a visual diary of our bookstore. I always ask my booksellers, what’s the story of the day?” 

Gustafson added that the story of the day doesn’t necessarily have to be about books. It can capture an image of seasonal weather, an image of a sunset outside of the store, or it can recount a funny customer anecdote. “If we scan back through our Instagram posts,” he said, “we want to create a cohesive narrative of what’s happening in the bookstore.”

Gustafson uses a calendar to mark holidays, table displays, local events, local festivals, and book awards to keep track of and organize everything he’d like to post to Instagram. “I’m not exactly following that to a T, but it helps add some [order] to it,” he said. “When you have something scheduled, you’re not freaking out and saying, what am I going to post today?”

Instead of posting static events or sporadic moments, depending on the season, the posts on Literati’s Instagram follow some kind of a theme, said Gustafson. In the winter, there’s snow, darker colors, greens, and pine. In the summer, there’s a lot of sunshine.

“We place an emphasis on having very beautiful images, making sure the frames are symmetrical, and making sure the background is visually pleasing,” he said, noting that if booksellers can afford it, they should spring for a more expensive cell phone with a high-quality camera. “If you’re posting with an outdated cell phone with grainy images, people are going to think your store is outdated.”

To boost engagement, Gustafson recommended that booksellers change up the background and lighting for each of their photos. After looking at Literati’s insights, he noticed that photos taken in the store’s dimly lit basement weren’t engaged with as much as photos taken in different places. He attributed this to the poor lighting.

“One thing I did last summer was I got out of the basement, out of that bad lighting, and I took my stack of books that was on a display outside. I sat it next to a tree and I put a little cup of coffee there,” he said. “I just changed the background, and it increased the reach and engagement.”

Just as important as having a good image is having a good caption, Gustafson said. He recommended taking multiple images and writing different captions for each, then asking for a second opinion before publishing to ensure that the content is high-quality and appropriate. “I can’t tell you how many times the buddy system has helped me stay away from too political of a post or something that just isn’t very good,” he said.

In addition to posting to the store’s feed, Gustafson recommended that booksellers also consider taking advantage of Instagram Stories (temporary video posts), which are a good option for more in-depth content like book reviews and staff picks. He added that it’s “way less formal, and it kind of shows that there’s a human behind the post.”

Posting at the right time of day is also critical, Gustafson said. For his store, that’s 9:00 p.m., and he found this out using the Instagram Insights analytical tool. Haley added that for Schuler Books, the optimal time is also 9:00 p.m. Each store tries to post daily.

Haley also offered an in-depth explanation of how she uses Insights to track engagement on Instagram. Schuler Books and Nicola’s both use Instagram to reach younger customers that might prefer that platform over Facebook. While both stores use their feeds to sell some merchandise, like Book Beau protective book sleeves, they generally use it as a branding tool and focus on producing high-quality content.

“We primarily use [Insights] to track engagements and reach,” Haley said. “We make sure to like and respond to our feed, to generally be a good social media citizen and create a good social media community.”

Insights is a valuable tool to see what’s working and what isn’t, Haley said. Booksellers can look at the overall activity on their feed, including which posts did well and whether users liked or commented; it also shows the number of impressions a post has, as well as reach.

Haley said she typically pays more attention to reach rather than impressions, as “with impressions, the same person could have seen something more than once — we focus on reach because those are unique individuals.”

Insights also offers a content tab, where booksellers can look at each post on their feed side-by-side to see what their top performers are. This can be sorted by week, month, six months, and more in order to give the exact information a bookseller might be looking for. Each week, Haley reviews this tab to see what the stores’ results are.

As far as content for specific posts in concerned, Haley said Boomerang effects, carousel posts with multiple photos, and video posts do very well for her stores. “We try to focus on our staff,” she said, noting that the top-performing posts usually incorporate booksellers. “We like to try to let them have a little fun with it.”

Some of the top-performing posts at Schuler Books are an image of blindfolded booksellers holding Josh Malerman’s Bird Box, as well as an image of a Book Beau pouch.

“Every store has a story to tell,” Haley added. “If you just stick to that, people will respond.”

Booksellers who would like to participate in the next 30-minute Marketing Meetup, which will be held on February 14 and cover ticketed events, can send an invite request to ABA’s Phil Davies. All ABA members are invited to join. Meetups are held at 11:00 a.m. EST on two Thursdays a month.