From the October 2012 issue of Entrepreneur
Like the cost-conscious young women they seek to outfit, the owners of online clothing boutique Shopatrend have plenty of style but little money to spend, especially on business functions such as marketing. So sisters Jennifer, Elizabeth and Victoria Acosta, who started Shopatrend in September 2011, are leveraging their keen visual sense to market their company at little cost through social photo service Instagram.

"It is an extremely powerful marketing tool," Jennifer Acosta says. "What makes Instagram so valuable is that it provides immediate feedback about what people like and what they don't."

Los Angeles-based Shopatrend has more than 20,000 followers on Instagram, with about 1,000 new followers signing on to see the company's snaps each week. Subscribers view a steady stream of images on their smartphones or at Followgram, a web-based Instagram photo viewer. "It creates a unique relationship with our customers," Acosta says.

Photos showcase the hip and stylish lifestyle that customers either have or aspire to have. Images go far beyond clothing, to people, animals and interesting objects or designs. For example, one Instagram photo that captured 867 "likes" depicts nail art featuring typeset words.

"People wind up with a pretty good idea of who we are, what we think about and how we feel," Acosta notes. The images and the overall sense of personality, in turn, help define and frame the brand. "We want to create an ooh and aah effect so they will keep coming back and, along the way, buy things," she says.

Acosta typically posts several photos per week. "Instagram is appealing because it's different than other social media sites. It's an album filled with pictures. It's direct and straight to the point," she explains. But beyond the visuals, she observes how many people "like" the images and make comments; Shopatrend then uses that information to prune less popular images and guide decisions about what products to sell and what to display on the website.

The instant feedback is invaluable. Once a photo becomes popular, more people are likely to view it and "like" it. Over time, Acosta says, the process of posting and refining images--including which to remove and which ones to build on--becomes "organic."

Shopatrend also has a presence on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter and Pinterest, and Acosta often uses one social media site to encourage participation in another. For example, she'll post a promotion on Twitter and Facebook promising a 10 percent discount code to anyone who clicks "follow" on Instagram.

Though she won't release revenue figures, Acosta says social media has helped double Shopatrend's sales over the past several months, and the company now boasts customers as far afield as France and Australia. The online growth has inspired Acosta and her sisters to start thinking about opening a brick-and-mortar boutique.

"We like the idea of an organic relationship," she says. "The business is built on close relationships. Nowadays, retailing has lost much of its personality. We want to put some of the fun [and] fantasy … back into fashion." --Samuel Greengard