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.
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.
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 ClickZ.com, one of the first sources of interactive marketing news and commentary.