When I want to check out a brand or company, the first place I go is Instagram”

Not Twitter, not your expensive website, or a glowing press review, but a quick thumb swipe through some tiny images, to decide - in a few brutal milliseconds - whether your brand is any good or not.

Get it right and you could have a new super fan on board, get it wrong and they're gone - if we're being really gloomy - forever.

The quote above might be anecdotal (from a twenty-something MD on a style brand) but it's backed up by the stats. Instagram's user base has doubled over the last two years, to 800 million monthly actives. And, what's more, its growth rate is speeding up.

For startups, without mammoth budgets, the platform can be a tough cookie to crumble. But there are quick fixes to help build a loyal and engaged bunch of followers (and, yes, customers).

Our content agency, Uncanny Valley, have been running The Chapar's Instagram for the last twelve months: strategy, content, and management.

We've doubled the personal styling service's followers, recruited a significant number of customers (new orders up 35%), and created a strong visual brand. Here's how we did it, and the hard lessons we learned along the way (OK, not that hard, but it sounds so much better in the headline)...

1. Focus on the grid not on the daily churn of images

The grid - AKA the layout of the images on your profile - is more important than the individual photos you post, especially for startup brands.

Most potential new followers will give you a couple of thumb swipes up before they make a decision to click follow or not. You need to say who you are, what you do, in the prettiest of packages, and as quickly as possible.

Don't bother with a preview app, the easiest way to experiment with your grid is to upload your images into Google Photos, put them into an album, then and drag and drop till you're happy with the order - you can try out captions here too.

We also make a habit of regularly going through our images archiving ones that look out of place, or break the flow, because…

2. Consistency is key

It’s the golden rule of Instagram. Look at any mega-influencer, micro-influencer, or successful Insta brand, and it's clear that visually consistent imagery is your best bet for engagement (that and lots of Lycra).

This can be use of a high contrast images, a colour theme, always shooting your product the same way, alternating photos and graphics, and, as we’ve done with The Chapar, block colours and still life.

Even if your brand has a wide remit, it's best to pick three or so themes or franchises, and stick to them. For example, we've just started working with a nutrition app and we've locked down "eating out", "hero ingredients" and "takeaway facts."

Stick to one filter (ideally one that doesn't look like you've actually used one) - you'll find the best presets on VSCO.

And for quick graphic fixes look no further than Over app - but for the love of god resist the urge to logo up your imagery.

2. Describe your grid in a couple sentences

If you can’t do this easily, it suggests you haven’t nailed your Instagram strategy. Go back the mood board and decide what the purpose of your Instagram is.

We're presuming you have a Brand Book, because you're going need one to make sure every image delivers on your brand promise, and ultimately business goals. Without it it's like walking through the mountains without a map. Blindfolded. And your shoelaces tied together.

Once that's done, create your dream feed using reference images. What would your profile look like if money was no object? Then start to scale back and work out how you can do it for the number of peanuts you currently have.

3. Look for collaborators over influencers

A lot of brand's influencer strategies amount to nothing more than trying to get people with the largest amount of followers they can afford to pose awkwardly with some product, plus a clunky plug in the caption. It classless and quickly disappears into the daily churn.

Rise above the pay-per-post masses, and instead find like-minded individuals to collaborate with. And think long term creative projects.

We did this on The Chapar with the brilliant Matthew Pike (that's him above in his Chapar kit) - a project that was focused on delivering great imagery for all involved, over a number of months.

4. Make something. Do something

If you're sitting on your bum all day building a good Instagram profile, and any kind of brand with impact, is going to be tough. You're going to have to get out and about and create.

On The Chapar we've set up a still-life shoot and collaborate with one influencer every month.

This allows us to constantly refresh and refine the creative, and provide assets for paid-for social, learning month-on-month what best channels new business.

The more regular the project, the easier it is to find creatives to collaborate with at more sensible rates.

To make sure the imagery is consistent, we suggest a best practice guide. Essentially a fool-proof crib sheet with reference images for each of your themes i.e. this is how we shoot coffee, this is what team images look like, this is how we celebrate Fridays.

4. If you can’t create, curate

Most startups pockets are as deep as Little Mix love ballad (we're thinking Secret Love Song). A smart fix is to follow accounts that match your brand aesthetic and regram their imagery. With permission obviously.

You can usually do this by commenting on an particular image, and explaining how you'd like to use it, then waiting eagerly for a thumbs up.

On The Chapar - with our 'smart living made easy' mantra - this means architecture, feel-good travel, classic cars, and art - like @benjamincraven_'s work above.

You're still going to need to make your own content if you want to have a unique and strong visual brand. But borrowing a few images along the way will help you get there a little faster, and hopefully give other people a mutual leg up too.

Find out more about Uncanny Valley content agency - and our monthly social and content packages, drop me an email: joe.barnes@theuvcollective.com. Packages start at £2000.