Instagram for marketing: The good, the awesome...and the catch

Instagram for marketing

The snap-happy social network has come of age and marketing departments are buying in. Instagram has almost completed its transformation from frivolous camera app to serious marketing channel – almost. Here I talk about its marketing appeal, sweet spot and achilles heel.

Once the vacuous repository of trout pouts and lives more fabulous than yours, Instagram has evolved into the marketing channel of choice. As we’ll see, the numbers illustrating this are glowing. It’s fair to call Instagram a runaway marketing success – but it is this “runaway” quality that also poses a risk to brands.

All hail the king

Instagram has toppled its Snapchat inspiration-slash-blueprint to reign supreme among photo and video sharing networks.

Key to its coup-d’etat was last year’s introduction of Instagram Stories. Stories is a direct Snapchat borrowing, but thanks to design advantages such as its search feature, and an already avid fan base, it has officially taken over from big brother Snapchat.

Instagram Stories

Currently, 250 million people use Instagram Stories every day, beating Snapchat’s 161 million daily active users.

Not only that, with 600+ million users around the world, Instagram surpassed Twitter last year. Brands are prominent among the converted, with 90 percent of the ‘Top 100 Global Brands’ now active on the network.

The marketing appeal?

It’s not just the volume of users that forms the foundation of Instagram’s marketing appeal. The demographics favor the advertiser as well.

According to Pew Research, 59 percent of Instagram users are aged 18 to 29, and 31 percent earn more than USD$75,000. So that’s the coveted millennial market, soon to simply be ‘your primary market’, coupled with some serious purchasing power.

Then there is Instagram’s engagement rate – at 4.3 percent it is ten times that of Facebook and 84 times that of Twitter. It goes without saying that having the full Facebook monetization machine behind it hasn’t hurt the network, with more than 500,000 advertisers attracted so far.

These are being rewarded with higher conversion. According to two Instagram Case Studies, Apartments.com saw a 2.5 times return on ad spend using the platform and Sprite Mexico garnered an 18-point lift in ad recall.

The first used Facebook Pixel to target its listing ads towards website visitors, the second employed the full creative possibilities of Stories to create tight, attention-grabbing ads.

The sweet spot

Why the marketing success? Basically, Instagram has us pegged.

From the beginning, Instagram understood precisely what catapulted Snapchat so far so quickly onto the social scene.

First, there is the continuing rise of mobile in internet consumption. It is now at 49.73 percent worldwide (not including tablets), though with notable regional variation: 31 and 36 percent respectively in Europe and North America, compared to 65 percent in Asia.

Obviously, Instagram is a mobile-first app with 98% of users exclusively accessing it on mobile devices. The upshot being that from its inception its newsfeed algorithm was built to prioritize mobile-first content.

This combined with our seemingly almost insatiable demand for video content creates the sweet spot. Our brains are simply visual by nature. The often repeated (and debated) stat that we process images 60,000 times faster than text is just one of many explaining the exponential rise of visual formats and especially video.

Video is definitely the medium of the moment and Instagram Stories has it locked down. The format already secured 200 million users by January of this year. The Snapchat inspired 24-hour lifetime of Stories plays perfectly to our seeming preference for short-form, easily-shareable video content – as well as our mobile browsing habits. According to Google, the average session lasts 1.2 minutes and is repeated dozens of times in any given day.

Once again, brands have not been slow off the mark: in an interview with Fortune, Instagram’s product marketing director Jim Squires said that more than 70% of Instagram users follow at least one business, and businesses have posted a third of the most-viewed Instagram Stories so far.

In one high-brow success Story, Nike got 800,000 views on a single post in 24-hours. The format clearly extremely well, and brands would be foolish not to seize this opportunity with both hands.

However, there is one glaring pitfall that needs to be factored in before going full-steam ahead.

The achilles heel

That would be Instagram’s restricted API (application programming interface).

Amongst other limitations this prevents third-party tools such as social media management platforms to schedule or post directly to Instagram profiles. This stands in stark contrast to the other top networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

The problem is that although loved for its off-the-cuff, real-time personality, Instagram in corporate hands is still a corporate comms channel. And as such it is just as prone to the fragmentation, inconsistencies and outright gaffes as any other.

Perhaps the biggest, and most Instagram-specific issue dogging the network is that of sponsored content. The disastrous Bahamas Fyre Festival made headlines for a multitude of reasons, including the failure of many of its paid Instagram influencers to disclose their status as such. The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has since been out to make an example of them.

This is a great example of how the real-time power of Instagram can quickly slip out of the control of the brands wielding it.

Whereas marketing departments can reign in and control their Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn presence using content calendars, Instagram’s API makes the format something of a rogue outsider. Without the ability to see Instagram posts against the bigger picture of broader campaigns and activities, a lot of its potency can be lost.

Like any other network, Instagram needs to be aligned with other channels and subjected to approval flows to ensure compliance and quality.

It’s a somewhat ironic limitation considering Instagram’s perception as the perfect format for developing brand image and personality.

Sure, marketing departments can always break open the excel sheets and attempt to maintain an overview via email, but any marketer knows how quickly campaigns unravel among the email chains. Add multiple teams, markets and timezones to the mix and the problem snowballs.

The Fyre example also demonstrates how crucial a central overview and approval process is, and how costly lack of it can be.

A handful of social media management vendors have created workarounds to enable Instagram publishing. And one or two of these even work well. But until Instagram opens up its API – and as yet there are no stated plans to do this – brands not taking advantage of the workarounds will remain at a disadvantage.

But that’s not going to stop anybody and certainly not Instagram. The evolution may be incomplete, but it remains the network every brand wants to develop its presence on.

So go crazy, stay snap-happy but don’t forget the basics of marketing and branding. Your Instagram Story may fade in 24-hours, but its mark on your brand–and the consequences of uncontrolled posting–could last a lot longer.

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