Instagram's influence on mainstream culture fascinated me ever since I visited its campus last year. According to the Pew Research Center, Instagram is the second-most used platform used in the U.S.. I'll admit that haven’t been active until recently. When I was a journalism student I saw Instagram as a way to promote one’s personal brand and to showcase photos. Promoting articles is difficult because links only work in the profile description. (The New York Times created a website link that gets around this quirk.)
But Instagram is more than a place for media outlets to show great photography. Brands are taking advantage of the platform’s millions of users and creating connections with consumers. And like all social channels, Instagram can be a great marketing tool for businesses of all sizes.
Promote All The Products
There's a particular word that I thought about while creating this piece: “instafamous.”
The word refers to accounts, from artists to models to health gurus, who are a new type of celebrity. These accounts have between hundreds of thousands to millions of followers interested in their content. Companies identify such accounts as “influencers” and often create partnerships with them. These partnerships play out as posts endorsing a product or even “account takeovers” where an influencer posts content to a brand's account.
This type of marketing, called influencer marketing, has some overlap with old school celebrity spokespeople like Kirstie Alley for Jenny Craig or Jamie Lee Curtis for Activia. But rather than attaching an influencer with a brand, influencer marketing relies more on accessing an established network of engaged followers. Influencers already have a strong connection with their follower bases, and their fans trust that endorsements come from a well-researched place.
Since every influencer has their own niche audience, businesses and influencers can be selective with their partnerships. It wouldn’t make sense if Nike were to approach beauty blogger Jaclyn Hill with a partnership to promote their new running shoes. Hill’s audience would be more interested in what she has to say about a beauty product than a running shoe. In this way, brands can grow their awareness among relevant audiences that are likely to engage with them. Since influencer marketing saves time and money that would've been spent on creating traditional ads, it’s not surprising that there are many blog posts and articles singing its praises and giving advice on how to create successful partnerships and campaigns.
Community and Culture
After being somewhat active on the platform for about a year, I feel compelled to note that I really dislike when I feel like a post just wants to market to me for the sake of making money or converting me into a follower. What gets me to purchase a product or check out a brand is if I feel like the marketing comes from a genuine place. I want a brand with a good story to tell, and I want to have a sense that the person I’m following really does their research and understands what I would care about in terms of learning about a new product.
A lot of my educational and work experience is based on social media and online content, so I’m fairly confident that I can identify a sponsored post. Still, sometimes a post isn’t obviously sponsored and people want to know if they are being marketed to. The Federal Trade Commission reached out to more than 90 influencers in April reminding them that they need to “clearly and conspicuously” disclose when their posts are sponsored. This means that hashtags like #sponsored and #ad shouldn’t be buried in the caption or comments, and saying “Thanks [sponsor name]!” isn’t enough.
Luckily, though, Instagram is working on making paid content more obvious. Last month, Instagram announced that it will test out a new template that would allow influencers to indicate sponsored posts where the location would normally be on normal posts, and the same disclosure can be applied to Instagram stories. With this new tag, according to the press release, the advertiser and influencer will automatically get the same data surrounding a post’s reach and engagement. It’s unclear if all sponsored content will have to fall under this template. Hopefully, it’s a step in the right direction.
Like I said earlier, there are whole communities on Instagram that can center on any subject or influencer. But because the platform uplifts pictures that are visually pleasing, thought-provoking or exciting, it promotes a “keeping up with the Jones” culture, especially when it comes to people whose lives we want to imitate. We’re all a bit guilty of being envious of someone’s photos and editing own our lives so that the shiniest versions end up online, but sometimes it can go too far. Former Instagrammer Essena O’Neill famously spotlighted this in 2015 when she made international headlines when she deleted over 2,000 photos on her account and rewrote the captions to show the heavy edits and shallow mindset behind the post.
The ways that online media can hurt (and empower) its users is another beast for another blog post, but influencers and the companies that want to work with them should use their power wisely. As one of my broadcast journalism professors taught me, the combination of visuals and a compelling creator is an effective way to get a message across—here’s to hoping that the messages will have more positive and informative effects on users as the wave of influencer marketing continues to ride.
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