There are treasure chests of marketing gold buried across unstable and evolving social media platforms – the very kind startups love because they are free and effective. So when someone finds even a nugget on a newly discovered social media outpost, it’s noticed.

We all saw that late last year when Instagram added direct-message functionality, a tool that allows users to send photos and messages to individuals.  While there were some flimsy attempts to leverage the popularity of this new feature, there were also a few innovative companies who were to successful engage consumers in a personal way.

One was GoEnnounce. The education startup used the new Instagram feature to strike some marketing gold.

The company posted a message on its blog encouraging college-bound high school students to enter to win a prize. All they had to do was  snap a photo of their college acceptance letter and share it using Instagram Direct. These soon-to-be college students were thrilled to share their acceptance letters and in less than 24 hours, GoEnnounce engaged with more than 1,000 individual Instagram users. The company struck the social-currency jackpot.  

The reason this idea resonated with the target audience was that GoEnnounce was able to tap into the power of social influence -- a major theme of Jonah Berger's book, Contagious. The things we say and talk about influence how our peers perceive us. We tend to share things that we believe will increase our social currency.

The GoEnnounce Instagram campaign enabled an avenue for the college bound student to share a new status (a badge if you will) that they'd been accepted into school, presumably a positive emotion. People are proud of this new status and want to pass it along to other friends.

So what are the takeaways from their success? How can you use the new Instagram Direct message feature to unearth hidden marketing gold?

Here are a few tips:

1. Identify a strategy. The technology is loose and fast moving, so startups need to first define their goals of employing a social media tool like Instagram Direct.

Related: Instagram's 5 Tips for Better Marketing -- With Pictures

For example, GoEnnounce is a platform for students of all ages to “ennounce” and track their educational achievements, so it made sense to encourage existing and potential users to share a milestone like getting accepted into college and build a dialogue.

Since students were already posting their college acceptance letters on Instagram, GoEnnounce understood the benefit of rewarding them for what they were already doing.  In turn, they built loyalists and were able to share highly targeted college-bound brand messaging using the direct message functionality. 

2. Let users win. People like winning and they like winning prizes.

GoEnnounce’s prize package was a top secret, sponsored “Welcome to College” kit.  Students participating in the contest were sent a direct message that a surprise gift would ship once GoEnnounce reached their limit of available gifts. This caused them to tag their friends on their GoEnnounce Instagram pictures to spread the word and ultimately increased contest participation.

Call-to-action contests using Instagram Direct are a great way to engage consumers that generate content and buzz.

3. Build an exclusive audience. Using the direct-message feature makes users feel special.  So once your audience engages with you, continue to engage them. Remain conversational by sharing behind-the-scenes photos, offer discounts and ask thought-provoking questions. Mine their collective intelligence and experience for future marketing opportunities.

Related: New Study Details Who Is Using Social Media and When

As for GoEnnounce the contest provided a way to drill down its population to college-bound students. Then the company was able to use direct messaging to offer exclusive promotions specific to this demographic. 

4. Reap and renew brand engagement. By incorporating Instagram-Direct campaigns into your social media marketing mix, startups have the chance to create exclusive consumer-engagement campaigns and also recharge existing users’ enthusiasm.

The magic of marketing through social media is that you can talk to your customers right where they live and can tap into what they are already doing. GoEnnounce’s “Welcome To College” contest using Instagram Direct did just that.

It’s a great example of people minting their own social currency every time they share something through social media and that growth can mean limitless value for your business.

Related: Instagram Success: These Types of Images Drive the Most Engagement (Infographic)