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Instagram Filters: Why are they so popular and what does it mean for brands?

The marketing sector can be a complicated place as new marketing tools and techniques are launched, almost on a weekly basis. Powered by The Drum Network, this regular column invites The Drum Network's members to demystify the marketing trade and offer expert insight and opinion on what is happening in the marketing industry today that can help your business tomorrow.

Social Chain question when the death of the filter will be and conclude, not any time soon. / Facebook

Instagram filters. They're everywhere. If you work in marketing, and you've missed them, take a long hard look in the selfie camera on your phone.

So, why are these filters so popular, and are we close to reaching saturation point? How exactly can brands leverage this growing social trend for their benefit?

Let's start with the why. There is nothing particularly innovative or groundbreaking about the 'why' behind Instagram quiz filters' popularity. They tap into age-old adages surrounding the human condition and what we typically want to consume on social. Filters such as 'Which Pixar Character Are You', 'Which Disney Character Are You', 'Which Pokémon Are You' all play on fandom, tapping into cultural institutions and nostalgia. Users inherently want to know what an objective source (the filter) is going to reveal about themselves (the result).

Filters can also tap into a moment of extreme relevance - they are topical and reactive: 'In 2020 I Will Be...' jumps onto the new year's resolutions conversation in January, and provides humourous, self-deprecating filters that engender shareable reactions and thus drive virality. These Instagram filters are the natural social evolution of BuzzFeed's personality quizzes, and they are just as wildly relatable and shareable.

Specifically, in regard to the quiz filters exploding in popularity, the randomiser in these quizzes certainly drives engagement. The answers are also typically complementary or self-deprecating. The user of the filter does not know what the result will be, and this is shared with their audience who essentially find out at the same time, via an authentic reaction (recording continues after a result is revealed). Friends see friends doing it, and the standard laws of social conformity apply - good, humorous reactions once a user has been labeled by their filter encourages further uptake within their audience.

One final contributing factor to the popularity of these filters is that they are currently very difficult to locate on Instagram (outside the story you've just viewed!). This increases the urgency for users - they see a quiz/filter that they like, shared by a friend or celebrity, and try it immediately for fear of missing out on that small piece of cultural relevance and the comedic reaction that they can share with their audience.

So, are we reaching a saturation point? No. These filters have undoubtedly proliferated and are currently part of our everyday behaviour on social (particularly Instagram), but we are only just getting started.

You need only look at filter development over the last year to appreciate this. We started with beautification style filters, where users could alter their facial features (an online cosmetic surgery of sorts) - Instagram soon banned these. We have now moved towards more traditional camera filters, and more recently the viral sensation 'quiz filters'.

With the stratospheric levels of growth that filter creators achieve with successful filters (growing hundreds of thousands, if not millions of followers as a result), there is no reason that this will stop. Creators will continue to iterate, and users will receive new and creative filters to engage with on a daily basis. Interestingly, such is the follower growth associated with successful filter creators, we are potentially seeing the emergence of a new genre of Influencer.

Now, where do brands stand in the midst of this? They are looking and will continue to look for ways to get involved and remain relevant. Crucially, as with any piece of content uploaded to social, the key is to stand out. In a world where consumers are suffering from content overload, and constant notifications, creativity truly is king - bog-standard filters will be forgotten.

With that being said, there are few things more powerful for a brand than jumping on and owning a social trend. The potential for earned media here cannot be understated. If brands hit on a shareable filter, they essentially tap into free advertising space on platform user's stories - a micro-influencer campaign of sorts.

Naturally, brands need to remain authentic and consistent with their messaging. There are three key rules for brands here: the filter needs to be fun, relevant and shareable. With the aforementioned content overload so clearly evident across social platforms, this fun, on-trend and playful feature helps brands to break through the cluttered newsfeed.

There are numerous examples of branded examples here.

Chipotle recognised the power of the 'quiz trend', and aligned this with their brand perfectly, asking users a question they could relate to: 'what type of Chipotle customer are you'. This was both humorous and aligned with user behaviour on Instagram - the activity demonstrated how relevant and aware of social trends the brand is.

Kylie Cosmetics added value with their filter, enabling users to try on different shades of lipstick from 'Kylie's Lip Kit's' prior to purchase - providing tangible utility & real relevance. This is a major opportunity for fashion and accessory brands - the ability to use AR filters on Instagram to enable prospective customers to 'try on' products. Make this fun and shareable, and as a by-product of this, they will achieve mass reach too.

Oreo randomised their only customisable asset (their cream flavour) with the filter 'What Oreo flavour are you?', and Delta Air Lines used 'My 2020 Destination' as a filter, latching on to people's inherent aspirations, dreams and wanderlust for the year ahead.

The reasons for this trend are perfectly encapsulated in Jonah Peretti's quote: "Content is King, but distribution is Queen, and she wears the pants." The novel and creative nature of these filters has piqued the social media user's curiosity, but the incessant need to share them across your own stories, and the ease with which this is achieved, is the real driving force behind the crazy numbers this trend is generating. Instagram filters are just the latest in a long line of social innovations that will enable brands to meaningfully connect with their consumers.

Right now, it is arguably one of the most effective and efficient ways to generate hype through mass-shareability.

Joe Smith, US strategic account director at Social Chain Media.

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