Hacking the Instagram Growth Formula
Not too long ago Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger wanted to explore start-up opportunities in Silicon Valley. With backgrounds in marketing they decided to put together a messaging app called Burbn. Included in the app was the ability to share photos, which they discovered seemed to be the most popular feature among their users. Around that same time, Systrom’s girlfriend complained that she wished there was an app that would make her iPhone photos look prettier. This, of course, gave Systrom the idea of creating filters. Systrom and Krieger incorporated their first two filters, XX-Pro and Valencia, into their app Burbn. The filters wound up being hugely popular.
They decided to refocus their efforts primarily on photo-sharing and rebranded the app as Instagram. They began developing more filters and the app took off, soon outpacing their primary competitor at the time, Hipstamatic. The key to Instagram’s success was three-fold, as Systrom puts it. It enabled users to 1) create beautiful photos, 2) incorporated a social element that allowed users to share photos with their friends and comment on their friend’s photos, and 3) upload the photo while the user created a caption therefore making the upload process seem incredibly fast.
In the beginning, Instagram was a hipster’s paradise. It let the innovators and early-adopters create beautiful photos and engage with their friends. The app environment felt small and niche. At a time when Facebook was focusing on growth and was becoming increasingly mainstream, Instagram felt like a strange cross between Tumblr, Flickr, and DeviantArt where users could explore their artistic side without any repercussions.
Then Instagram began to grow. Then Facebook bought Instagram. Then businesses got on Instagram. Then people decided to start using Instagram as a branding mechanism.
In the marketing world, the big questions has now become “How can a business grow their Instagram?” Much like with Facebook pages, the idea is that having followers on Instagram opens up a direct marketing channel to consumers, it allows branding opportunities, and helps businesses develop a story around their brand which is actually incredibly important in the world of social media.
The problem, and the inherent question, is whether Instagram is really worth the trouble anymore. Generally speaking, people don’t follow businesses on Instagram, they follow people. John Legere, the CEO of T-mobile promotes his personal profile on Twitter, not the T-mobile profile; Kylie Jenner uses Instagram to promote her brand Kylie Cosmetics, and Taylor Swift uses her Instagram mostly to promote her tours and album releases. Furthermore, the algorithm for Instagram focuses on engagement not popularity with the idea being that Instagram will show you the people you care about most, first.
Systrom has recently noted that, according to their data, people don’t engage with beautiful photos on Instagram anymore, or even celebrities, they engage with their friends. Facebook, in their attempts to combat the spread of misinformation and focus on their new mission statement of bolstering communities recently created a firestorm by announcing they would refocus their efforts on promoting friends posts rather than businesses or news outlets.
There are many different tricks people use to grow their Instagram accounts which probably work to varying degrees: sponsored posts, paid ads, influencer sponsorships, influencer promotions, story ads, shout outs, follow-for-follow, content marketing, incentives, bribery, and videos. Hashtags don’t work. But with Instagram nearing 1 billion users, there is more and more noise and the competition for attention becomes more fierce.
As social media becomes the new second life; meaning, as social media becomes virtual reality and people spend more time vicariously living their friends lives I can’t help but wonder if growth hacking Instagram is really worth the trouble. Now, there is no doubt in my mind that for a business to succeed in the modern world, they need to have a strong social media presence; but as I continue to read my daily Adweek rundown, I feel a sense of SEO hacking circa 2009. A time when people were too focused on getting their message out and creating as much noise as possible rather than build a great business.
As marketers we mustn’t forget that the key to SEO is and will always be great content. In the world of business, beautiful pictures are great, but they will never be as good as a fantastic service or an incredibly innovative product. Do videos of self-driving cars, fast drones, iron-man boots, or a Tesla getting launched in to space get shared because they’re like everything else or because they’re amazing?
Power brands like Coke and Wal-mart are often criticized for having relatively small social media presences. An axiom of advertising is that you must go where the eyeballs are and all the eyeballs are on social media, so as a business you must have a strong social media presence. But I’m not so sure that is necessarily the most important channel for large market cap companies. The four building blocks of business are Product, Customer Service, Sales, and Communication. Social media helps with the communication, but that is only a small part of the puzzle.
As e-commerce grows and smaller companies like Nyx or Kylie Cosmetics give the bigger companies a run for their money I tend to view the ‘gold rush’ toward social media as a bit short-sighted. While people may continue to follow their favorite brands, I think big companies are better suited for investing in community infrastructure. Take the Citibike program for instance. A great service that aids communities and brands itself the whole way. Why not take those advertising dollars and put them to good use through community investment. Renovate buildings, repair roads, build bridges — brought to you by the good folks at your community Wal-mart. That, to me, would go a much longer way toward brand image than some photo on Instagram that probably won’t get seen.