10 Years of Instagram: from photography to shopping, how one of the world’s biggest social media apps has become an online mall

Op-ed

Ten years ago this month Instagram first hit our mobile screens. Back in the day when David Cameron was Prime Minister, iPhone 3GS were gracing our bags and back pockets, and Downton Abbey reigned supreme on Sunday evening TV, Instagram was just an app for photography lovers.

I refrain from using ‘little-known’ or ‘undiscovered’ because in its first week, the platform nabbed 100,000 users and had its first million in two months. In the smartphone age Instagram was always going to have a meteoric rise, but even founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger could not have predicted at the time that their photo sharing site would become one of today’s most popular direct-to-consumer ecommerce platforms.

It’s only been in the last three years or so that Instagram has really staked its claim in the ecommerce world. Abandoning hopes of competing against the likes of Snapchat and Facebook Messenger as a messaging service, Instagram has increasingly been developing new shopping features for users, creating a wealth of opportunity for brands and retailers looking to tap into the spending power of 1 billion monthly active users.

But equally, Instagram should be wary not to disconnect from its users by further invading their private and curated feeds with irrelevant or unattractive promotional content. It’s critical for Instagram to perfect the balance between conversation and conversion to secure it’s dominance for the next 10 years.

 

From hashtag to price tag

I liken Instagram today to an IKEA catalogue; it’s a lot of the same behaviours. Instantly, you get the desire to improve your life. This experience of discovery for inspiration, as traditionally with a magazine, is fundamental to the success and longevity of the platform.

In March 2018 Instagram launched Shopping in the UK, the first step in the eventual evolution to keep the entire purchase journey in-app. Shopping first allowed users to learn about pricing and product details by tapping on the specific items featured in posts from their favourite brands before being directed out of the app to complete the purchase. But now with the roll out of Instagram Checkout, users can buy products in as little as two taps.

Enabling users to buy directly from the platform has allowed Instagram to edge out its competition. Comparatively Pinterest offers a frustrating experience because for quite some time there has been no clear path to purchase; you might see lots of products that you like, but there is no follow through. Instagram has left Pinterest in the dust, and created a streamlined purchase process converting followers into loyal customers for many brands.

With the world of ecommerce being so elaborate and highly optimised today, the tools Instagram is able to provide brands, especially small businesses, means they are better able to compete for consumer pounds and dollars. Smaller brands that don’t have the resources to build and manage their own ecommerce site now have Instagram to host the entire purchase journey.

Instagram Shopping gives businesses a uniquely immersive and conversational storefront for people to explore the brand story and best products. This is where the brands can have meaningful and more casual conversations with potential customers, which provides precious insights for marketers. The platform also plays on a key cognitive bias to increase drive conversion – messenger effect, reciprocity, network nudge, descriptive norm – and it works! 50% of Instagrammers follow at least one business, and 80% say the platform helps them decide to buy a product or service.

Of course, there are drawbacks with this, such as brands themselves not being able to control and have autonomy over the user experience. Increasingly we are seeing established, global brands utilising these features on Instagram, making competition even more fierce – and arguably, making users’ feeds even more crammed with promotional content.

According to Instagram, 75% of Instagrammers take action after being inspired by a post. With user engagement and intent so high, it’s critical for Instagram not to encroach on the user experience and hinder the initial purpose of the platform while on its own path towards ecommerce domination.

 

Striking a balance

I don’t have a crystal ball to consult about Instagram’s future in the next 10 years, but we can see it following a similar path to Facebook and for that I must give caution. Facebook, in my opinion, went too far with its ecommerce proposition and disconnected its users – a lot of whom migrated to Instagram. At some point when you opened Facebook, you didn’t see content from your friends – it was just one giant curated catalogue of products and news and ads. If Instagram goes the same way, people will be encouraged to migrate to another app.

There needs to be a balance between inspiration and ecommerce. Just like in a magazine, you need to balance the editorial and the advertorial, so not everything feels like a direct sell. If you opened up an Elle or GQ magazine today, if it was full of content that just said “buy, buy, buy!” you would never pick up a copy again.

Because Instagram is an incredible asset to so many brands and businesses, a lot of them are now reliant on the platform for new sales and customers. If Instagram plans to roll out further shopping capabilities, it also needs to prioritise improving the customer experience and helping small businesses grow.

A decade on, Instagram is showing no sign of the platform losing appeal – but has it reached its limit? As its ecommerce offering enhances and expands, will users eventually migrate to another social platform to escape to the private sphere? What will this new platform be – is it TikTok, or something not yet made? This is where I really wish I had that crystal ball…

By Sandra Perriot, Retail Strategy Director, Cheil UK

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