Instagram is Apple's app of the year
. According to Social Fresh
, it's soon going to surpass Foursquare as the largest mobile social network—that is, most of users' activity happens on mobile devices. Early this month, the makers of the photo app, which is available only on Apple devices right now, announced it had 15 million users
and that an Android app is on its way.
All of which means it's a pretty big deal. But is there a way to use the app, which applies filters to images to give them a retro look, as a commercial communication tool? You bet there is.
"Its visual immediacy means that it's a great way of really capturing someone's attention," says Katie Moffat, an independent online communications consultant and blogger. "From an organizational point of view, you can show the other side of a business, behind-the-scenes, its people, and so on."
Lots of companies are using Instagram to do just that.
How it's different
Unlike Facebook, which is a "walled" network, Instagram is open to everyone, which makes it easier for brands to connect with strangers, says digital marketing strategist Melonie Gallegos. She calls the site something of a micro-blog for images, given that Twitter is mostly text. However, brands can cross-post their Instagram photos to Facebook and Twitter, she notes.
Unlike Flickr, Instagram is streamlined for mobile, says Moffat. "It's simple and intuitive," she says. "Instagram was built first and foremost as a social media tool used on a mobile platform. Flickr started off as a website and hasn't implemented the community aspect as well."
Melissa Liebling-Goldberg, editorial director at Gilt Groupe, says the app is different from other social networks because it aims to "evoke an emotion" rather than drive traffic to a website. It's about creating a world around your brand, she says.
Laura Keesee, an account coordinator at Vantage Communications who blogged about Instagram, points to Starbucks and Burberry, both of which have topped 100,000 followers on Instagram, as brands that are using the tool well. Burberry mostly posts images from fashion shoots and of its new designs, she says. Starbucks asks its fans to take photos of their daily coffee and tag them.
Liebling-Goldberg says her brand has drawn nearly 5,500 followers by trying to "bring the lifestyle behind the Gilt brand to life." For example, a stylish photo of some Christmas lights propelled the brand into the app's "popular" section, with more than 600 "likes" in just about 20 minutes.
Another Gilt photo that really caught people's attention was one of a crystal chandelier in the Fontainebleu hotel in Miami. "We didn't identify where it was. There was a conversation going on immediately trying to pinpoint where it was," she says.
The brand's fans often post photos of their purchases, Liebling-Goldberg says, with thank-yous attached. She says Gilt stays on top of those and regularly thanks its fans back.
Style blogger Hilary Rushford says the app is great for building a personal brand. "For me, it saves any time of having to edit photos and compose a full blog posts," she says. "And for my followers, it gives them what feels like a behind-the-scenes peek at my life, since they know it wasn't edited but just snapped and shared in the moment."
If your brand isn't in fashion or style, you shouldn't shy away from Instagram. Any brand can use it to give folks glimpses into what it does, says Liebling-Goldberg. "Having a consistent aesthetic really starts getting you followers much more quickly," she says. "You want to feel like there's one eye behind it, and you're getting a glimpse into someone's world."
Moffat adds that perhaps the worst thing a brand can do on Instagram is load it up with product pictures.
An example of a company that creates a world very effectively is Red Bull, Keesee says. "You won't find photos posted of product; it's all about the culture and off-the-wall extreme environment they have worked hard to maintain."
Moffat says companies shouldn't be too worried about measuring how effective using Instagram is, at least not yet. "Those organizations that are leading the way in social media in terms of really engaging with their customers, are doing so because they understand that sometimes you have to just dive in there."
However, Keesee does recommend one tool that could be really helpful: Statigr.am, a Web-based tool that enables you to view your Instagram feed through a Web browser and conduct searches. It also includes metrics such as how many likes you've gotten, how many comments you've received, and what your top photos are. You can even see which photo filters and posting times get the best responses.
Matt Wilson is a staff reporter for Ragan.com, where a version of this story first appeared.