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The Cult Of Instagram

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This month, a little app for the iPhone got itself a bit of an update. New icons, a photo clarity feature and a retro filter, Sierra, to add to the eleven it already has. So why are 15 million people so delighted?

One way to describe Instagram would be to call it the Twitter of photos. The two young founders, Mike Krieger and Kevin Systrom may well have got the Instagram idea from Twitter in whose ex-office they work. Instagram users are an addicted lot. Sharing moments of their lives with friends and strangers through vintage and toy camera style photos, they use the app to the hilt, making it the one thing they would miss if their iPhones were taken away. It's difficult to quantify, but Instagram, along with another app, Hipstamatic, will have played its part in edging out standalone digital cameras.
Instagram got it right from the concept up. It kept things simple, it gave users a way to share something that mattered to them, and it made everything look beautiful by making it nostalgic and mysterious. Less than two years into its life, Instagram has become a social network of its own. Naturally, businesses are busy exploring it too. And there are many ways you can use Instagram, but always with the realisation that this medium is different from the other networks, neither as "in your face" as Facebook, nor as specific as Twitter or as professionally-oriented as LinkedIn.

An obvious way for companies to use Instagram is for branding. Or rather, strengthening the brand. Burberry is reinforcing the traditional Britishism of its brand by posting pictures of something from London. In the stream, too, are photos of Burberry products, but tastefully slipped in, rather than hard sell. Burberry's over 177,000 fans on Instagram love the pictures. The idea is to post interesting pictures, and not necessarily product shots. There is a picture of its headquarters, for example, but instead of showing off a gleaming building, it's a picture of someone coming out to the pavement, holding an umbrella. What does the picture say? It says a lot about the brand's values. It says we're not that different from you. It says we're at home with the rain. One connects.

General Electric's feed for its 39,819 followers features photos from its research and technology, going back to the time of Edison, also reinforcing the company's brand stature.

Levi's uses Instagram to showcase products in beautiful photos of denim and other apparel. Advertising products on Instagram is a possibility, but only as long as it stays within the Instagram mood and atmosphere, or it would risk being a turn off. In January, Levi's kicked off a campaign to crowd source via the hashtag #iamlevis its next star model. Anyone could participate with their photos. 

Starbucks, ever the pioneer on social media, has been using Instagram since the app's early days to engage with customers and build its community further. As it has done with other networks, Starbucks has managed to use Instagram to make its customers its brand ambassadors, by giving them access to a behind-the-scenes look at everything to do with Starbucks. Not surprisingly, the customers — or rather, fans — feel, more than ever, part of the brand. The social savvy Red Bull has also been using Instagram for engagement through contests and rewards.

 Magazines and news channels also use Instagram. National Geographic, an early Instagram partner, has actually not, on last search, put up an official account with photos, strangely. Billboard magazine has vibrant photos of the people it covers, including sneak peeks before they appear in print. Here, the comments of its 95,833 followers are mixed, some appreciative of the artists, some outright nasty. CNN, NPR, NBC and other channels use it to visualise the news, including involving users in a similar manner to what happens on Twitter.

Instagram is yet to go mainstream in India. First of all, iPhones are limited to a privileged few, although you can, at a pinch, use it on the fourth generation iPod that has a camera, although a low-end one. The app is also just about usable on the iPad, but, of course, no one wants to take pictures on that. It's good for sharing photos taken elsewhere and browsing them. But a version for Android is almost here. Two weeks ago, a link to the app was actually spotted on the Android Market, though it disappeared. When it becomes available on Android, Instagram will take a big leap towards going mainstream. There is also talk of its being prepared for the Windows Phone platform. With smartphone users growing in India, it is not inconceivable to think that Instagram could, one day, be a tool to reach an increasingly connected audience with pictures — and fewer language barriers.

mala(at)pobox(dot)com, (at)malabhargava on Twitter

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 27-02-2012)