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Why Instagram Matters to Marketers: Evolving SoLoMo to SoLoMoSto

by Ann Handley  |  
December 22, 2011

At its core, Instagram allows you to tell stories visually, with a simplicity and immediacy mobile users expect. At the same time, it adds another layer of elegance and artfulness. That's what makes its stories so appealing, and (for me) why it breaks new ground.

Jason Keath has a great piece on Instagram over at his place in which he heralds the amazing growth of the mobile-social network. By “mobile-social,” of course, he means a social network in which the majority of activity takes place via mobile devices. Instagram, a photo-sharing social network with location-sharing aspects, and Foursquare, the leading location-sharing social network with photo-sharing aspects, both fit this bill well, Jason writes; they were both created initially as mobile apps. They are mobile-first social platforms, in other words, built not first as website with a mobile app added later (like, for example, Facebook).

What is Instagram? It's a photo-sharing platform that lets its users take photos, apply filters to their images, tag them with relevant hashtags, geo-locate them, and then share the photos in a heartbeat on the Instagram network. It also allows them to configure their accounts to easily share their photos on other social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Posterous, Flickr, Tumblr, and Foursquare.

Both Instagram and Foursquare are what’s known in some circles by the portmanteau SoLoMo, for SocialLocationMobile, because such platforms offer the capacity to connect with others and share location and social updates via a mobile network.( If I’m being honest, I’ll confess that I don’t really love the term. But I do like what it represents, which is the unique collision of social, local, and mobile media. And that’s a good kind of collision, too. Like the Big Bang—not like a car wreck.)

It’s true: Instagram is growing by leaps and bounds. Its founders announced earlier this month at LeWeb that the platform had passed 14 million users and is growing at rate of 2 million users per month. By comparison, Foursquare—currently with 15 million users—is growing at a rate of .866 million users a month, Jason writes in his piece.

The fact that Instagram is the fastest-growing social mobile network is interesting to me. But what’s more interesting—and a key reason for its appeal and growth, I’m convinced—is not its SoLoMo capabilities, but the way stories are part of the fabric of Instagram. In other words, it’s not about SoLoMo ... it’s about SoLoMo-Sto’.

In my view, Instagram’s growth is fueled by the richness of its story platform more than anything else.

Why Marketers Should Pay Attention to Instagram

Instant content. Instagram, at its core, allows you to tell stories visually, but with a simplicity and immediacy and elegance that’s hard to beat. Snap a photo with your iPhone (for now, the app remains iPhone-only), make it more interesting with one of several filters (or not—#nofilter is a popular hashtag, too), and voila! Instant content.

But artful content, too. Instagram allows you to create visual stories with an artfulness and elegance and a special kind of gravitas that's at the heart of good content. As every brand becomes a “publisher” charged with creating content to attract customers, the quality of that content becomes increasingly important.

Creating content that is the soul of your brand---and that communicates your point of view and “voice” in a powerful, emotional way---is key. Instagram is one of the best platforms I’ve seen that puts magic wands into the hands of us Muggles. It gives any one of us the tools necessary to create great stuff—-even if you aren’t much of a photographer.

Honing your content chops. Or a storyteller, for that matter. I’ve noticed that Instagram allows you to hone your storytelling skills by giving you the necessary—and instant—feedback by how your followers respond (or don’t) to your posts. I’ve learned a lot about what kinds of "stories" resonate in a broader sense—what truly gets my point of view across effectively—just by seeing how my followers there react and what they respond to.

I also like the way that Instagram essentially trains you to look for content and stories almost everywhere. Companies so often fear that they don’t have anything interesting to share. In truth, everyone and every brand has a great font of inspiration right in front of them, if you only train your eye to look for it.

Personal but universal appeal. A key to a good story from my journalism days is this: Be specific enough to be believable, and universal enough to be relevant. So it is in content. And so it is on Instagram. The images on Instagram are at once intimate and broadly appealing, at once personal and universal. Hence, its popularity.

How Brands Are Responding

Some brands are already tuning into the power of the Instagram platform. (SocialFresh has a list of 23 of them here. Also, check out Instagram's own "Notable Users Directory," which includes many brands, celebrities, news outlets and charities.)

I love how Ben & Jerry (“BenandJerrys,” 8,026 followers) is leveraging SoLoMoSto with its Instagram account, where it shares images from its factory in Burlington, Vermont.

At the same time, though, the ice cream maker tells a larger story: Of the beauty of living and doing business in Vermont, of the ski slopes and sunrises, of supporting musicians and local music festivals, and of Ben & Jerry’s significant global presence. “We’re using it to tell our story in a broader way, and get across our point of view” as both a small business and a global player, says Mike Hayes, Integrated Marketing Specialist at Ben & Jerry’s.

Ben & Jerry's also uses it to recognize and connect with fans, calling out a favorite photo of the week on "fan photo Friday," Mike says. "We try to love our fans more than they love us."

General Electric (“GeneralElectric,” 28,042 followers) might be an old-school brand, but it’s using Instagram in innovative ways. In fact, that’s how it sees its broader mission there: Turning innovative GE technology into Instagram art. (If you don’t think energy turbines, engines and generators can be sexy... well, check it out.)

GE is a brand to emulate. It integrates its images there with other GE social channels, and just this week it wrapped up a contest to reward one lucky “Instagrapher” with a trip to the UK that includes a chance to photograph a world-class jet engine facility.

I like how participants didn’t have to photograph GE products to enter, either. Rather, they entered by taking and appropriately tagging photos inspired by the four ways GE works in the world—broadly defined as Moving, Curing, Powering and Building. In other words, GE subtly underscores how its products touch our lives infinitesimally.

Instagram McKay Flooring At the other end of the spectrum, UK flooring company McKay Flooring ("McKayFlooring") is brand-new to Instagram (as in, yesterday!), but I'm already in love with its recycled whisky barrel flooring and reclaimed sports flooring. Gorgeous stuff. McKay's Seamus Murphy has been using Instagram for a while personally, he said in an email, but he launched the McKay business profile for the 40-person company because "it can produce high-quality content fast than can be shared across our spectrum of social media outlets."

Also, Seamus said, "Our particular business is very visual and a good photograph can say more than any written article ... For example, we are having our company Christmas dinner tomorrow at The Corinthian, Glasgow---the first venue that purchased our whisky barrel flooring---and you can expect live Instagram updates as staff members snap and share their photos online."

I can't wait to see how McKay integrates Instagram with their other content efforts--- which includes a blog, case studies, Twitter and Facebook feed, and so on.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is this: Instagram is, to me, the most interesting social network to come around in a long time. Though I cringe slightly at the SoLoMoSto moniker... as a trend? It thrills me.

Are you on Instagram? Give me a shout below with your ID--I'm @annhandley there.

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Ann Handley is chief content officer of MarketingProfs, author of Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Ridiculously Good Content, and co-author of the best-selling book on content marketing, Content Rules. Ann co-founded, one of the first sources of interactive marketing news and commentary.

Twitter: @MarketingProfs and @AnnHandley.

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  • by John O'Neal Thu Dec 22, 2011 via blog

    Hi Ann,
    Really enjoyed your post on Instagram. I love Instagram personally and am trying to figure out how to use it more for iMeet, a video conferencing platform. GE is so inspiring with what they are doing. I know we have compelling stories to tell. I'm @juanoneal on Instagram, and iMeet is @iMeet. Thanks again and Merry Christmas.


  • by Katrina Thu Dec 22, 2011 via blog

    Great post. We've used Instagram to make some behind the scenes moments with our team look a little more iconic. Like that we can use it that way.

  • by Christine de la Garza Thu Dec 22, 2011 via blog

    First, let me note that I follow you on Instagram - and that came about primarily because I opted into the platform early and you came up as a one of 7 social contacts (I follow you on Twitter), that were also on Instagram at the time, so I get to keep up with your visual soundbites.

    That said, I'm writing to essentially jump up and down and exuberantly shout "Yes!" to Instagram and your post.

    In addition to being a boot designer and owner of a delaCav handcrafted bootwear, I am a veteran marketer and strategist, so my adoration for Instagram is 360°. I love it as an artist/creative and I love it as a marketing tool for myself and for my clients. When I describe Instagram, I say it's a visual version of Twitter, which seems to break through.

    I'm looking forward to integrating Instagram on my new eComm site for the boot business and in general utilizing Instagram to it's fullest extent as a social and integrated marketing tool - it's only just begun!

    It's definitely my favorite social media tool/platform/experience - a picture is worth 140 characters, so to speak. (And I'm digging on Pinterest quite a lot too).

  • by Mike K McClure Thu Dec 22, 2011 via blog


    Loved this post! A lot of it rang so true with me. Being an old school Blackberry user, I was thrilled when i finally got my iPad (you can mark me off your iPad Christmas list now) so I could play along on Instagram, too. Although, I wish the iPad had a better camera.

    I love to follow the different visual stories - it really gives you insight into the people you follow in a way no other social platform does. And I do find myself now looking around at things differently, looking for opportunities to share a visual story. I hadn't really thought of it much as a social network for brands - so thank you so much for opening my mind to that possibility. Have a very happy holiday season!

  • by Lina Arseneault Thu Dec 22, 2011 via blog

    Love Instagram and the journey to SoLoMoSto @linaarseneault

  • by Moses Keshishian Thu Dec 22, 2011 via blog

    Hi Ann!

    Thanks for this awesome post on Instagram, really enjoyed it!

    Keep posting those awesome pix.


  • by Derek Peplau Thu Dec 22, 2011 via blog

    Great post Ann, and some very good points. You've also hit on one of the best aspects of the service: it helps you to develop a creative eye so you're always looking at things with an eye to content creation. Combined with the feedback from your network (and outside of it) and it surpasses any other photo sharing tool.

    And don't forget to hashtag content there as well if it warrants it. In the course of our Movember fundraising this year, I received comments and likes from people well outside my network on many of the shots I took. Nothing got truly viral in my case, but I wasn't really trying for that. The potential is there for sure.

  • by Lesley Thu Dec 22, 2011 via blog

    I've had a love affair with Instagram since day one (excusing one or two minor gripes about the platform). It's one of the only apps I use daily! I hope more brands begin to understand the unique power of some social media sites and begin to harness the functionality to tell their stories. My only concern is that it will be met with the tired phrase "But we're already on XYZ social media platform; why this one, too?" I personally think it's a great tool to showcase "behind the scenes" action for brands, not necessarily 100% product.

    instagram: lhridge
    twitter: lesleyridge

  • by Carly Thu Dec 22, 2011 via blog

    Hi Ann,

    Great post! I just recently discovered instagram after getting my first iPhone! It's not only a great app for personal use (I've already taken 20 pics of my cats with different filters..ha) but as a young marketer, I agree completely that it would be a great tool to use when helping to create a name for yourself in the world of social media and interact with your customers.

    I'm on instagram @cshepherd2

  • by Tim Evans Thu Dec 22, 2011 via blog

    Love the post! I accidentally came across Instagram when a reader posted online his winning contest letter from us. I was quite impressed with how professional the pic looked and have since used that feedback to post on facebook and other So sites. Here is a link to that Instragram snapshot.

    Now we just need Instagram to create an Android platform too!

    Best regards,

    Tim Evans - Publisher

  • by Ann Handley Thu Dec 22, 2011 via blog

    You too John.. thanks! Now following you....

  • by Ann Handley Thu Dec 22, 2011 via blog

    Katrina - What's your ID there...? love to see what you're doing.

  • by Ann Handley Thu Dec 22, 2011 via blog

    Love that --a "visual version of Twitter." Seems to me that a picture is worth more than 140 characters... but I get what you mean!

    Just started on Pinterest myself - so I haven't gotten a feel for that yet. What's your ID on Pinterest?

  • by Ann Handley Thu Dec 22, 2011 via blog

    Oh phew... you were next on my list for an iPad, too. Lucky me. : )

    I agree - it does offer unique insight. Absolutely.

    Thanks for chiming in Mike.. I'm so glad we're connected there!

  • by Ann Handley Thu Dec 22, 2011 via blog

    You too Moses!! Really curious to see how you integrate it with your podcast, too!

  • by Ann Handley Thu Dec 22, 2011 via blog

    Yes - you raise a good points. Instagram is fueled by hashtags in a big way -- in some ways, they're descriptive and connect you to others. In other way, they're almost slam poetry... commentary on the image in and of itself, adding humor and color. (Like #drugofchoice on a photo of a kitty with catnip, for example.)

    Thanks for chiming in Derek!

  • by Ann Handley Thu Dec 22, 2011 via blog

    Hey Lesley - Just followed you...

    I not only use Instagram daily, I check my photo stream before I'm out of bed (to the annoyance of certain members of my family....)

    Your comment is, in part, why I wrote this post... I think Instagram is different and unique and special - and I hope brands begin to see it that way. As an opportunity, in other words, and not a burden.

  • by Ann Handley Thu Dec 22, 2011 via blog

    Hi Carly! Just followed you. (Kitty prints in the snow.. awww....) ; )

  • by Ann Handley Thu Dec 22, 2011 via blog

    That's awesome, Tim!

    Re Android: I hear it's in the works.....

  • by Claudia Benassi-Faltys Fri Dec 23, 2011 via blog

    Love this article! Love, love , love! What you've written and Instagram :-)

    It echoes with my last article (I never link to my blog, but this time, you'll see, that it has lots of similarities, except the part about "story", on which I fully adhere, too). Have you heard of Ford's competition #fiestagram in Europe? I think they were among the first ones to roll out such a complete campaign via Instagram.

    Best wishes from Switzerland

  • by Kathy Kyle Fri Dec 23, 2011 via blog

    I am just wild about instagram as well.
    With so many platforms available to communicators, instagram is a crowd sourcing powerhouse that serves as the nexus between beauty and ideas.
    Love it.

  • by Cyndee Haydon Fri Dec 23, 2011 via blog

    I appreciate your observations and while I"ve only been on for about 2 months I can tell you it's definitely changed the way I see my world and share it with others even though I've been blogging for 6 years. Your insights on "telling a story" are so spot on for me. One of my favorite books is "The Story Factor" by Annette Simmoms who discusses the different stories you need to tell as a marketer - I am a visual learner and so I believe the visual aspect of Instagram has such an emotion impact for me that I find myself feeling more connected here (at a personal level) than some other social networks.

    I know I feel that instagram allows me to connected differently and often see more dimensions of those I follow- personal photos of like family and kids, work, lifestyle, their hobbies, their friends, pets, passions etc. learning more about "the total person" through pictures I get to enjoy on instagram.

    I especially love the creative/expressive dynamic of using filters to express more and create works of art and beauty.

    It's also interesting how engaged the community is compared to flickr in my experience - I do think that mobile aspect really helps because it's easy to see, respond and share. Guess what they say is true...a picture is still worth 1000 words ;D

    Do you think these same dynamics are why so many are excited about Pinterest too?
    PS I enjoy your photos on instagram ; D

  • by Reynaldo Thu Dec 29, 2011 via blog

    When I read the title of your piece, I got annoyed, "why do they have to take this cool thing, my Instagram, and make it about marketing!?" but, as I read, I appreciated the fact that YOU appreciate the power of Instagram, and you get it. I'm planning on following all four (BandJ, GE, McKay and Ann) just to see what they've got going on. My handle is reymac on Instagram. Thanks.

  • by Ann Handley Fri Dec 30, 2011 via blog

    Hi Reynaldo - Just followed you. Thanks for your comment -- and in part I wrote this because I want marketers (and everyone, for that matter) to really appreciate the uniqueness that is Instagram. Focusing on "story" is a key part of that.

  • by Ann Handley Fri Dec 30, 2011 via blog

    Hey Cyndee -- Thanks much! Totally nodding at everything you say here! I don't know the Annette Simmons book, but it sounds like one I'd like to check out. Oh -- and I enjoy following you on Instagram, too!

  • by Hank Sat Dec 31, 2011 via blog

    I do not understand the hype re Instagram. There is absolutely no need to manipulate a good photo.

  • by @nik Sun Jan 1, 2012 via blog

    Great post, agree on the power of visual storytelling but cringe at the alphabet soup.

  • by Ann Handley Sun Jan 1, 2012 via blog

    I know... part of me does, too.

  • by Dirk Singer Tue Jan 3, 2012 via blog

    Hello Ann,

    A really interesting article and based on our experiences of using Instagram for clients at Rabbit, I'd completely agree.

    Instagram is obviously very well suited to the travel industry, and over the past six months we've been rolling out a series of country by country destination competitions for (UK based) low-fares airline bmibaby.

    Rather than try and shoe-horn in a heavily-branded campaign, we've worked with Instagramer groups in Italy, Germany, Holland and most recently Switzerland to encourage Instagramers to post images of each country which we then use for a visual destination guide on the bmibaby site.

    This approach has been phenomenally successful, resulting in 15k+ images being tagged and submitted.

    tnooz recently did a round-up and summary of the campaign ( and a gallery of the X images submitted for the Switzerland phase of the campaign can be seen here


  • by Mike K McClure Wed Jan 4, 2012 via blog

    haha, hope you have yours now, too! (iPad that is)

  • by Laurent Buanec Thu Jan 5, 2012 via blog

    Great article from a user fan and a marketing point of view. As I mentionned in a recent comment of a picture I published to thank people following my stream, it has been one year since I joined IG, 365 days that my addiction has been growing ! It has been one year of pleasures for my eyes, heart & soul. Day after day I am still so amazed by the creativity of this community, their imagination, their inspiration, should they be pros or amateurs. It is such a chance and a pleasure to travel around the world through their eyes.
    Laurent aka @kerhouarn there
    See you there !

  • by Jim Mitchem Thu Jan 5, 2012 via blog

    Instagram's cute, but I'm not real big on filters as an *art* form. But hey, whatever it takes to get people to share stuff. Obviously, with the growth of social in general, along with the exclusivity of the iOS market, 'everyone' is there. Bottom line - people like to share pictures. There's no great mobile photo solution out there that integrates as well with social channels as Instagram.

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