Instagram covets bigger social stardom and is broadening its appeal beyond mobile, with an eye toward driving brand opportunities. As a result, Instagram could lose appeal for users who embrace it for its ease of use and intimate feel.
While brands are increasingly looking for ways to connect social media and mobile, Instagram appears to be heading in another direction with its recent rollout of more Web-based features. The site may be trying to target a wider group of digital users, but the strategy risks making the photo sharing experience more cumbersome and annoying for users.
“It’s trying to make itself more relevant to a larger population of Internet users – after all, only 46 percent of U.S. adults have smartphones,” said Casey A. Fitzsimmons, client services director at iProspect, Boston.
“The more reach Instagram has, the more appealing and relevant it will seem to brands,” she said.
“However, without seamless integration of the filtering features into Facebook, it will be difficult to capture that audience. Part of the reason Instagram has been so popular is that mobile phones are always with you, allowing for effortless documentation in the form of low-res photos – Instagram made it easy on a smartphone to make those photos look cool. Users aren’t going to go to a separate Web site to apply filters, then upload photos to Facebook, making integration with Facebook or whatever other partners Instagram has, crucial.”
Mobile ad model When Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion earlier this year, many viewed the acquisition as filling in a critical piece of the puzzle in Facebook’s mobile strategy.
The deal was also seen as a significant move from Facebook because Instagram was speculated to not have a sound revenue model in place.
In November, Instagram rolled out Web profile pages for users that shows all of a user’s photos. Users can log-in to their accounts from the site but cannot upload or search for photos.
Although the Web portals are not fully functional for Instagram users, it could signal that the social media site wants to be a main social media player alongside Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.
With a native advertising model, brands could format ads to appear as content. However, the trick is finding a way for sponsored messages to not overtake user-generated content.
“The introduction of a Web presence is a clear indication that in the post-Facebook-deal era Instagram means business and to a certain extent wishes to maintain its independent identity,” said Richard Mooney, partner and managing director of North America at Essence Digital, New York.
“A Web presence is the first sensible step in monetizing Instagram, developing a blank canvas that brands can use to connect to a digitally-savvy, creative audience that is growing each day,” he said.
“Of course brands will at first look to develop earned-media opportunities within this new destination site, as they did on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google+ and Pinterest before it, but in future months I expect to see Instagram start to create a number of photo-based ad formats for brands to leverage, clearly cementing themselves as an advertising platform. What will be interesting to see is whether they extend the reach of the platform to include photo views within Facebook, or whether the two will remain completely independent.”
Wavering focus Part of the appeal of Instagram though is that with a mobile-only focus it feels more intimate than other social media sites. As Instagram moves to become a bigger player in social media, the challenge again is for brands to be a part of the conversation without overtaking it.
Specifically, what makes Instagram work on mobile is context with real-time content.
For example, in August Instagram ramped up its location efforts with a Photo Maps feature that lets users plot their photos on a map to show where they were taken.
The company also rolled out new features aimed at making more content more shareable. (see story).
By moving away from mobile, some experts believe that Instagram’s focus on PC could hurt the company’s proposition to both consumers and marketers.
“Deviating from its core – mobile – and focusing on anything else but mobile is going to diminish the platform,” said Craig Elimeliah, vice president of technology and digital solutions at Rapp, New York.
“Brands want to be in-stream via mobile,” he said. “I personally enjoy following brands on Instagram but only via mobile. On mobile they may inspire me to take action, such as make a purchase or visit a store if there is something in that image that compels me to do so. The content without context is boring.”
“Audiences are expecting so much more from the content they are consuming and want that content to become more aligned with their own personal content they enjoy consuming. This happens more effectively via mobile because users’ guards are down – consumption is happening in real time, typically with others around.”
Cutting the chord In addition to Web profiles, Instagram recently disabled Twitter Cards for the platform, which embedded a photo into a tweet so that users did not need to click on a link to view a photo.
Now when consumers tweet a picture of an Instagram photo, they must click through to view a Web-based version of the photo. Users who click through on Twitter’s apps are encouraged to view the photos inside the Instagram app, which the company is likely using for acquisition.
In response Twitter updated its apps to let users upload and edit photos with its own set of filters, showing how photos play a crucial role in Twitter’s mobile strategy.
Although the new tools might make it more cumbersome for users to view photos, it likely will not hault consumers from using either Twitter or Instagram, per iProspect’s Ms. Fitzsimmons.
“Twitter can offer photo filtering features, but it is likely that users were posting Instagram photos on Twitter as an extension to their presence on Instagram,” she said.
“Twitter is a much less visual social media network than Instagram – the focus is on a variety of content, largely text. Even if they just added photo-filtering capabilities, they will likely not grow their market share due to that functionality alone.”