Instant gratification

Over 200,000 images are uploaded using Instagram every hour of every day. But although the app is hugely popular it is yet to turn a profit. Where does the future lie for the world’s most popular image app?

Earlier this year Facebook paid $1 billion for what some describe as the antithesis of creativity. Instagram, with its faux-Polaroid filters and army of novice photographers is not only awash with bad pictures, its CEO has also publicly stated that the company does not even turn a profit. But the photo-sharing platform can escape its beginnings as the repository of a million photos of sunsets and pop-up restaurant burgers if it harnesses the power of the creative professionals who use it obsessively. And maybe it can even start to make some money, eventually.

Instagram, love it or hate it, is huge, a global phenomenon with over 7 million daily active users (which is more than Twitter). An incredible 200,000 filter-dipped photos are uploaded through the app every hour. Its rapid rise has been fuelled by the proliferation of smart phones; Apple now supplies more cameras than anyone else, and over 10 per cent of all photos ever taken by mankind were taken in the last 12 months. So it’s no great surprise that an app like Instagram has managed to carve out a unique and undeniable space in our social media culture.

‘Real’ photographers will argue that the images produced by Instagram are low quality and pixellated. Motion blur and shot range are poor with low light shooting a myth. Then there’s also the issue of photographers’ rights. As with most social networks, the app’s terms of use dictate that as the photographer you hand over all rights, in return for your participation. How many Instagram users are aware of this?

Purists argue that Instagram is merely a repository for mediocre images of pets, dinners and sunsets, for those bereft of taste or discerning judgment. Its detractors depict a feed chiefly for morons, with their mindless LOL-ing and liking, who have no sense of what’s good or creative, and what isn’t.  But heavy Instagram users include creatives of every ilk. I follow at least six well-known agency creative directors who use the platform. Oliver Glass, a fashion designer with a mere 300,000 followers uses it avidly, uploading his own works as well as daily inspiration. Street photographer Ope O shares once-a-day, beautiful shots of London accompanied with a quote, to his 12,000 fans.

Personally, I’ve done photography of all sorts, and see Instagram as just another outlet in the rich tapestry of imagemaking. It’s built for speed and reach, and used by creatives on the move, not just the hipsters taking shots of their burritos at Box Park.

It also breeds competitiveness. A few weeks ago I found myself in a ludicrous scenario; several friends were vying to get the best ’Gram of a passing snail at a BBQ. The slippery fellow was casting a shadow far too big for his stature, and his cameo caused a stir – bringing keen Grammers to their knees, literally, in an effort to get the all conquering shot: #GramWars.

As I say, ludicrous, but its effectiveness as a social tool cannot be denied. Every Sunday morning you will find millions of people indexing through Instagram shots of friends, or just people they follow, from the previous week, day, hour, minute. It’s arguably the most attractive social platform since Twitter and Facebook and works wonders at bringing people together in a purely visual form.

Pictures are big business now; they hold huge social currency. We already know that photos on Facebook drive the most engagement, and you only need to look at the rise of Pinterest to see that pictures are the new words in many people’s eyes.

And Instagram, Facebook and Twitter via its sharing facility, are good platforms for any aspiring creative to share their work. A designer might be able to build up a buzz around her work using these platforms, creating a bigger market for a book she releases later on, or keep her clients up to speed on her latest projects.

Big brands are benefitting from using Instagram also. It’s popular, for obvious reasons with fashion brands. Burberry is an advocate – hitting its half a million followers with daily brand imagery, often celebrating our national obsession, the weather. It used the platform recently during London Fashion Week, to release up-to-the-minute celebrity and catwalk images to their fans. Ultimately Instagram is just another touch point, and they’re playing to its strengths – using it for storytelling with artistic value.

At Holler we’ve used Instagram mechanics for the likes of Peroni and Absolut. For the Italian beer brand we encouraged Instagrammers to take pictures at a contemporary opera event, Opera Di Peroni, resulting in an alternative audience view on the event website. For Absolut London, we developed a themed photo entry mechanic all around the Jamie Hewlett characters who adorned the product bottles. As with any platform, it has to be right for the brand, and when done well it can give your fans another window into your brand story.

So where does the social-network-wrapped-up-as-a-picture-book go next? Arguably its growth potential has been stunted by selling out to the bigger competition. It had the potential to become a rival to the likes of Twitter and Facebook, a rival which has mastered the mobile space, something Facebook craves.

Now, in order to grow it needs to become even more integrated into the mobile ecosystem. Could Instagram replace the camera app on smart phones? Unlikely. Rumour has it that Facebook is going to invest in a mobile phone at some point. Instagram would sit snuggly as the camera app on its parent’s devices. Sounds strange but not impossible.

Could extra functionality be added? Part of Instagram’s appeal lies in its simplicity, but if camera phones continue to improve, it could offer a more complex suite of tools in the mold of Photoshop. Selling extra filters and plug-ins could be a way for the company to finally monetise.

Or it may do that through advertising revenue. Many think it has limited potential  in this area, but that’s a judgement on the app in its current incarnation. While it clearly won’t be done overnight, Zuckerberg must be considering using Instagram to monetise mobile for Facebook. The location data it has on users alone must make this tempting. Brands such as Burberry are delivering slick brand images for free, to large followings currently. Will they eventually be paying for this luxury? It will be interesting to see how Facebook will manifest itself in the app, and how brands continue to use the app as part of their storytelling, paid for or not.

And if Instagram only serves to fill the world with better-looking images then I’m not going to complain. It encourages people to embrace creativity, even if it does mean more snails and burritos. Professionals shouldn’t be concerned, as long as their own #nofilter, deftly-composed photographs are patently in a different class. 

Will Pyne is executive creative director of creative agency Holler. He tweets @milly_mix

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