The Instagram Platform

When Instagram first arrived on the social platform scene in 2010, they were a small-time, mobile-only social sharing app available only on iOS, working on changing the types of content we share and the ways we share it. Now, seven years later, the app is still leading the pack in visual content sharing, but has become a burgeoning social tool for businesses looking for new and relevant ways to connect with their customers. Vishal Shah, Director of Product Management at Instagram, stopped by Big Boulder Friday morning to give the audience some impressive stats on Instagram’s growth over the years, as well as some direction about where they are headed.



In its early days, the network was a lot smaller and its audience was focused on sharing more “casual moments”: this is what I’m eating, this is who I am hanging out with, this is my dog. While those casual moments are still important to much of the user base, most of the network users have begun thinking of the platform as a “highlights reel” of sorts. Instagram’s product team noticed this shift in focus as the platform grew and did its best to pivot along with it, asking themselves, How can we capitalize on what our users like? How do we “fill in the blank spaces” between highlights?

And so Instagram Stories was born. Giving their networks the opportunity to follow along in an almost-live capacity, Stories is a way for users to capture, in motion, what is going on for them in that moment, and link short videos or pictures together to create a “story” their followers can enjoy about their lives.

What’s shocking to hear is that, since the launch of Stories nearly a year ago, a whopping one third of the most viewed Stories have been created by businesses, whose formal presence is also a recent addition to the platform. While businesses have long been on Instagram as independent accounts, only in the last couple of years has Instagram decided to cater to them by offering advertising opportunities. This last year, the platform also gave businesses access to their back-end insights and data on organic impressions and interactions, allowing business accounts to see what is working and what is not from a bird’s eye view.

“When the business platform was started, it was mostly ads-focused,” said Shah. “While advertising is obviously still a major area of focus, we now also think about businesses as a ‘first-class’ relationship type–how can we help them see and improve their organic presence, and improve our API and insights?”

What they are doing seems to be working: the platform is now 700 million strong, with 100 million of those users coming on in the last year. Businesses are using Instagram to reach these potential consumers in new and different ways–Shah did point out that much of this type of interaction is still experimental on the part of brands–but should know that it’s not a platform for all brands, all the time. Said Shah, “We’ve always been very transparent about advertising: if it’s not working for you on our platform, don’t spend money on it.”

Shah noted that the social sharing tool is still primarily a top-of-funnel activity, so businesses should expect to drive more awareness-based activities than conversion activities. He pointed out that, while mobile is a primary point of access, it’s still not used much for purchasing. While there are transactions that occur on mobile devices, it is, by no means, the majority of transactions. Shah embraced this reality, sharing that social media has long been an important step in discovery and consideration; the product team is constantly working to make the discovery and consideration element even more helpful for both users and businesses. One of the ways the platform capitalizes on this piece is the ability for users to explore and find new business or user accounts based on locations or hashtags. If businesses are in a user’s area, or they’re savvy enough to use the same kind of hashtags their target demographic is seeking out, they can easily be found on the tool.

Also worth noting was that the team found their users like being able to save photos: taking screenshots of images to save for later or reference. The product team built in the ability to now save photos inside the native app; as a matter of fact, if a user takes a screenshot of an Instagram image, a notification is triggered to ask the user if they would instead like to save the image inside the app. Figuring out smaller tweaks to make the visual content sharing platform more user-friendly has always been a top priority for the brand.

So what’s next? We’ve already seen an acquisition by Facebook, ad implementation, insights availability, and the Stories feature, to say nothing of a spike in users, a logo change, a UI change, and a move toward a rank feed versus a chronological feed–where do they go from here?

Primarily, Shah’s team is interested less in removing steps from awareness to conversion for the brands, and more interested in removing the friction typically involved with those steps. By making businesses and product information easy for users to access or find, they can take out some of the headache involved in that process. Additionally, they are able to leverage some of the infrastructure, insights, and other resources from parent company Facebook in order to continue to enhance the platform.

“Almost everything we do on my team is centered around making businesses successful,” said Shah. “The next steps are to determine what information is most helpful to businesses and give them the best way to access it. It’s one thing to show data, it’s entirely another to show something interesting and insightful that tells you something about that data.”

Additional Takeaways:

  • Instagram users typically only see about 30% of the content posted by the accounts they follow; the switch to a rank feed, or relevance-based algorithm, was meant to hone in on what the most valuable 30% was for each user.
  • Shah mentioned the logo change briefly: “Yeah…there were a lot of memes about that one.”
  • Over 200 million people are utilizing Stories every day, more than 40 million more than other similar platforms and functions.
  • There are whole generations of people whose first device was a phone and not a laptop or desktop computer. While it would be easy to think that these were only younger generations, Shah has found that much older generations are this way as well.
  • When asked whether they would ever switch to an “opt-in” function for a chronological feed versus a rank feed, much like the Twitter platform, Shah responded that it’s unlikely. “We’re here to deliver the best experience for our users, and a rank-based feed is what we feel is the best experience.”

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