You may or may not have noticed Instagram's announcement that it launched profile pages for a select number of users and brands this week. (Non-power-users, fear not: yours should be accessible in the next week or two.) But either way, it's a big deal.
At first glance, it seems like a relatively "lite" launch: similar to Facebook's timeline release, you get a big image above your head (comprised of a composite of your photos), seven randomly selected recent images (sorry, no choice in the matter on this one), and a chronological display of your photos (like a Facebook timeline, you might even say).
But first glances are usually short, blurry, and hard to describe. So let's take a second one.
Why Instagram is way more than just stand-alone photos
Instagram recently surpassed the 100-million-user mark. It's owned by Facebook. It might have facilitated the most photographed event in history over the past few weeks, as Sandy’s devastating impacts gave rise to more than 800,000 “#sandy”-tagged photos on the platform (Mashable bumps that figure up to 1.3 million when other superstorm-related hashtags are taken into account).
Co-founder and CEO Kevin Systrom has pointed to "Big Data"-type visions, like "if you're in New York, knowing which stations have gas," and tracking where the highest concentration of Instagramming is happening in any given moment. The corollary, then, of brand-driven engagement also exploding should not be hard to envision. Think geographically targeted special offers, image-inspired contests, and viral friends-and-family photo-tagging campaigns. Scrupulous readers will note that Instagram is already facilitating major brand engagement.
But here is the difference, and the reason why Instagram profiles are quite significant: most of a brand's Instagram-driven engagement today occurs on other platforms, like Twitter, Pinterest, and Facebook (the last of which has promised Instagram users to keep their beloved service separate… ish).
Let's say you're Nike, for example. You want to engage your audience around an Instagram-enriched photo stream of your sponsored athletes, right as they are heading into game time. And you would like to give away prizes to the users who create the most inspiring captions. With pre-profile Instagram, you can't. Why?
Because, in pre-profile Instagram, you can only share individual photos with your existing subscribers. In other words, every image has its own, dedicated page. It is, in effect, siloed.
The only way to truly create "brand engagement" using pre-profile Instagram is to share photos across your owned platforms, those that engender, well, the most engagement: Facebook (create a “game-time” app that allows people to caption the photos), Twitter (assign the photo stream a hashtag), and Pinterest (create a board featuring the best-captioned photos).
The post-profile Instagram: Welcome to native brand engagement
In the future, of course, you'll still want to engage multiple platforms. Now, however, with the launch of profiles, and with the assumption that Systrom’s ultimate vision far transcends the mere time-based and randomly selected photos that profiles currently display, the likelihood of native, brand-driven Instagram engagement becomes very real. Instagram, in other words, becomes its own full-blown engagement platform -- one worthy of a robust strategy, with its own complexities and necessary sensitivities to terms of service and nuanced rules of netiquette.
Everyone has “Pinterest strategies,” and “Twitter strategies,” and “Facebook strategies” these days. Up until now, an “Instagram strategy” has usually consisted of choosing cool pictures to post to our owned channels. Friends, readers, colleagues: not any longer.
The day Instagram made its investors happy
Instagram is evolving. Facebook’s investment in the service now represents roughly $715 million, and it’s reasonable to assume that Mr. Zuckerberg will want to start making some of that money back in the not-too-distant future.
Considering that nearly all of Facebook's revenue comes from advertising, and taking into account quotes from Systrom like “We're obviously very excited by the adoption of Instagram by the world’s major brands and we'll continue to build products that suit both them and users alike,” one need not be too radical of a visionary to portend that native, brand-sponsored Instagramming is not so far away.
Call it the Image Economy, the Instagram Economy, the imagesphere -- whatever you want. Regardless of how you describe it, however, it’s time to start getting ready to put one more strategic playbook in your social marketing mix.
Readers: what do you think? How close (or far away) are we to a brand- and advertising-driven Instagram? And how can Systrom keep his users happy while taking steps toward turning his fully free service into a money-making, investment-returning business?