Can one live in the year 2012 and not become swept up in the Instagram wave that’s cascading over society? Yes, though all of those people are stronger than I am. Initially, Instagram simultaneously perplexed and deterred me. Content to remain on the shore with fellow Instagram scorners and scoff at those swimming in a sea of filters, faux photogs, and ersatz Polaroid-like photographs, I remained deeply convinced that Instagram was simply one of those apps I would never use.
What caused me to change my mind? I recently read that Instagram now draws more daily active users on mobile than Twitter. Also, according to Mark Zuckerberg, Instagram boasts 100 million users as of September. I write about social media and social sites, so how could I disregard such an important site simply because of some negative initial impressions? Was I too hasty in my disdainful dismissal? Instagram is not composed solely of individuals anymore; businesses and brands use the app, which intrigued me. So, I decided to give Instagram a fair shake, voluntarily, albeit slightly, hesitantly depart from the shore, and see what this photographic groundswell was all about.
I tested out Instagram, conducted a trial run, if you will, for a few days. I followed friends to get a sense of the app from an everyday user’s perspective, and I followed brands to discern how the app figures into marketing and brand awareness efforts. I wanted to determine why people so enthusiastically ride the Instagram wave and exactly how businesses capitalize upon the photo frenzy in which we’re all caught up.
I ventured into the world of filters and beyond, and here’s what I found.
The thought of learning the ins and outs of Instagram daunted me, but I figured out how to use Instagram pretty quickly. The interface is extremely user-friendly (and there are no ads! #winning). One of the things I instantly loved about the app is its simplicity: it’s easy to use, and there are only a few basic functions. Because Instagram functions solely on mobile, it has to be simple, and Instagram manages to achieve that illusive balance between simple and simplistic.
When it came to following people, Instagram provided me with suggestions based on which of my Facebook friends have Instagram accounts. With the functioning and following down, I took to perusing photos, and I realized why Instagram works. It’s well-established that we love visual content, and Instagram captures and capitalizes on this preference for pictures that we have. We can snap pictures, make them aesthetically pleasing, and then share them, and who doesn’t want to see someone’s life captured in images far more captivating, attention grabbing, and interesting than mere text?
I found some of the Instagram clichés to be true: I saw more than my fair share of photos of Starbucks cups and a plethora of food photos. But I still found myself liking and enjoying Instagram, especially when comparing it to my usual social media experiences. It’s starkly different from the text-based Twitter (though it still makes use of hashtags, something I consider #savvy), and it’s almost akin to taking the best feature of Facebook (the photos), and abandoning all the other “noise,” i.e., those pesky ads that have a slightly cluttered feel, and the incessant bombardment of status updates.
My first Instagram photo: an homage to Damien Fahey.
I used the Shine filter, by the way.
Brands on Instagram
Part of my Instagram trial included discerning the way in which brands use the app. Simply Measured looked at Interbrand’s list of Top 100 Global Brands and found that 40% of these brands have Instagram accounts, though only 37% of the brands have an active account and have posted at least one photo.
(Note the prominence of luxury brands.) I followed a few of these brands, but I also wanted to see which lesser-known brands use Instagram, and much of this was trial and error: I searched for business and brands with which I’m familiar, and I looked at the brands that other people follow. I found a wealth of brands with well-developed Instagram accounts, boasting a solid following and hundreds of photos.
The majority of these brands use Instagram in a way that has a certain disarming levity to it; brands usually don’t explicitly market themselves on Instagram. Their tactics are much softer and subtler. One of the first brands that I followed was Kate Spade, whose description reads “follow us for a glimpse into the world of Kate Spade New York.” This is what brands do on Instagram: they provide us with a glimpse of their inner workings. They offer behind-the-scenes, exclusive, up-close-and-personal photos, photos that humanize the brand at hand and make it seem that we, as Instagram followers, are stealing looks into said brand’s everyday happenings. Instagram is like a visual gateway into the world of the brands we follow, and I think brands hope that through these aesthetic, appealing, and unique photos, they will capture the interest of potential consumers.
Consider MTV. They post up-close-and-personal pictures of celebrities, both staged and candid, for all of us who couldn’t be at the VMAs. Marc Jacobs shares shots from its Runway Show. Whole Foods’ account consists of candid pictures of in-store demonstrations and the store’s volunteers at work in Brazil.
Another thing I noticed is that many brands posts photos seemingly unrelated to their products or services. Trina Turk, a clothing designer, states in her profile description that she posts “photos that inspire me.” Many of these are photos from her fall 2012 collection, but many are seemingly “random”: a photo of Sunset Blvd; photos of other picturesque, striking locales; scenery; fireworks; food. Kate Spade documents adventures throughout New York City, snapping pictures of food and fashion along the way. Burberry posts pictures of London landmarks: Big Ben, the Natural History Museum, etc.
Why the assortment? I think this tendency some brands have to sprinkle ostensibly random pictures amidst pictures of products is attributable to the nature of Instagram: it’s all about capturing not necessarily photos, but moments (this sounds, one, horribly clichéd, and two, like semantics, but I think it’s true). Sure, many photos are staged, but many are spontaneous and/or extemporaneous. And the pics brands post aren’t random or incongruous: they capture a brand’s essence or spirit, not necessarily its products—and this gives said brand a very human feel. All brands want people to associate with them a certain feeling or vibe, and these unrehearsed, instinctive pictures convey those feelings: a whimsical vibe in the case of Trina Turk, a playfully curious vibe in the case of Kate Spade, and a “distinctly British” vibe in the case of Burberry. Of course the brands on Instagram are promoting brand awareness, but I think there’s something much more palatable about marketing efforts when they’re clothed in spontaneity, and I for one loved the way in which brands use Instagram.
The Error of My Ways
After my Instagram trial, I realized that I was much too quick to dismiss the app—and also mistaken in my initial assumptions. While writing this post, I came across a Time magazine interview with Instagram co-founder and CEO Kevin Systrom that occurred in April 2011 and was published in April 2012. Systrom responds to the critique that app receives from the professional photography community by saying:
“I didn’t start this to be a photo app. It was about communicating visually. Those are two very different things. A photo app is a utility. It’s like comparing Twitter to Microsoft Word. If you want to be an author, you’re not always going to constrain yourself to 140 characters.”
Ironically, I found it difficult to put into words exactly why I quickly became enamored with an app founded upon photos and an absence of words, but I realized that Systrom’s “visual communication” phrase captures the reasoning behind my Instagram infatuation. It’s not necessarily about adding filters and striving (futilely) to capture a photo of the Dorothea Lange variety. It’s about conversing and connecting through visual content.
And apparently, that visual content can include pics of cosseted cats.
You may have heard of the Rich Kids of Instagram, but behold, one of the Rich Cats of Instagram.
That filter suits this first-class feline particularly well. And keeping brands in mind, that photo may be a great branding opportunity for the likes of Dom Perignon.