Instagram’s future: something closer to TV than it might readily appear.

So I’m on Twitter, as I tend to be, and I see a tweet from Ben Basche that goes something like this:

iPhone: 🖥
Snapchat: 📱
Instagram: 📺

Ben has tremendous vision. Brilliant guy. But sometimes he says things that make me scratch my head. Sure, the Snapchat-as-phone analogy is clear. But Instagram as TV?! We talked it out a bit, and I still didn’t feel convinced. Here I am a month or so later coming around to it; perhaps from a parallel perspective, yet seeing the same conclusion.

It starts with the nature of the platform.

Facebook is curated self. Instagram is the curated feed. The difference is super important.

The Facebook Feed and the Need for Nuance

A new user’s Facebook graph starts with friends and grows until it includes push content from publishers, brands, and influencers. Often, the Feed features things like political news, troubling events, or stories that incite anger. Given that, the thumbs up is (was) too specific. It wasn’t appropriate for a post announcing the death of a friend’s pet hamster. Nuance needed!

The hamster gets the third one from the left, PS.

The Instagram Feed and the Need for Speed

Instagram is far more about discovery from the moment you join. It’s beautiful imagery. It’s inspiration. It’s the occasional photo of your friend’s plate of food for some reason. In the Instagram feed, dopamine hits come fast and frequently. The primary interaction is the Like. The model is binary. Either dig it, or sit on the sideline. Just keep scrolling.

The Instagram feed is also quite different on account of the content that’s typically there: travel photos, memes, art, puppies, videos of puppies, etc. Very rarely is it emotionally taxing. Further, all original posts are meant to be experienced in the feed. The stage is set for impulse. Scroll, scroll, double tap, scroll, scroll, double tap. All the pretty things!!!

You know what’s also pretty? The entire cast of any show whose name starts with “Chicago:” and ends with a traumatic profession. TV figured this out a while ago. People like pretty stuff as it turns out.

Re: Pretty stuff. Let’s not forget that Instagram insulated itself (somewhat, at least) from the reality of Metcalfe’s Law by hacking beauty: dummy-proof filters that made the ordinary look extraordinary. It’s been the strategy all along.

Pretty Pictures sell Pretty Products

Instagram has been experimenting with several interactive commerce models since 2015. Most recently (November ‘16), they launched the Shop Now button for still images—perhaps an acquiescence back to core Instagram. You pause on a shoppable post for a moment, the blue button illuminates, and you can jump into a WebView to shop the item. It makes it easy to bounce in and out of the feed and shop a product—emphasis on product. Direct response is the play. For now.

Who might want to sell using Instagram today?

If we can grant the “Instagram fosters impulse” premise as true, it follows that adopters of shoppable buttons would be best off selling impulse purchase items. That might be why we’re seeing niche, eye-catching, clever products make use of the button. If your feed is anything like mine, you’ve probably noticed the trend: a collapsible pillow for air travel, a space-grade aluminum pen I had no idea I needed, another goddamn foam mattress.

Sure, Instagram’s direct response ad products have had some spammy growing pains (“Women love him, trainers hate him!” kinda stuff), but you can see where it’s headed. Quality will win out because it has to. There’s no other way for either side to maximize profit.

Shoppability in the context of the roadmap: The march towards 📺.

So yeah, sexy products are cool, but TV needs entertainers, right? In short, yes. The validation that Instagram can drive mobile purchases creates a vacuum for influencers (entertainers) to run towards. No longer do they have to wait around for a brand to see them as a worthy mouthpiece. They can be the authors of their own success, right? Eh, not so fast. If someone is thinking, “QVC’s talent department won’t return my calls. I’ll show them!” Instagram can say, “Chill, Deborah. This isn’t the farm system.”

You see, Instagram is being masterfully deliberate with the evolution of commerce. No shoppable live video (yet), so no smarmy pitchman stuff (RIP Billy Mays); just nice static images and neatly edited video. Because what are sellers gonna do if they only get ONE image or a few seconds of video to sell their product? They’re gonna make it sliiiiick, boy.

This works out well for Instagram, because pretty pictures are why you came here in the first place. Entertainers can and will have their opening in due time. Just not yet.

Alignment with Advertisers Comes First

With respect to product ads, Instagram claims not to be taking a cut of purchases. This creates alignment for both parties.

Insta enjoys advertising rates commensurate with the impulse environment they’ve created. Sellers keep all proceeds from the sale. They’re equally incentivized to maintain a quality, engaging experience.

You can see this same sort of alignment in Snapchat Discover. Discover partners now pay Snapchat for the privilege and keep any ad revenue they reap from creating content people want.

The inevitable influx of influencers (prefix alliteration unintentional), however, demands a different approach to sharing the spoils.

Influencers cometh. What now?

So what about those influencers—the folks who previously promoted a brand, put #spon in the caption, and kept all the money? (Otherwise known as the problem Vine never mitigated.)

Fear not! Instagram got the roadmap right.

With the Shop Now UI framework, Instagram has set the terms for leverage with the influencer set. Insta optimizing for control goes way back. Lest we forget that they’ve never allowed hyperlinks in captions or comments. Linking out as a means to ‘sell’ something has always been full of friction for the user. Instagram never conceded that ground. Wise moves all around. Control all around.

Insta’s evolving relationship to influencers

Right now—today that is—influencers matter. That won’t go away anytime soon, but the rules of engagement will almost certainly change. They’re the entertainers. The best content creators. The relationship is at least somewhat symbiotic, and the Long Tail tends in their favor.

Regarding efficacy, though, we need only look at the old advertising maxim:

Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

When it comes to influencer marketing, that 50/50 split is something that’s tough to even aspire to. By comparison, Nielsen’s 📺 boxes kinda confirm humans. Follower counts, though? Eesh. Dicey. Bots, fake accounts, lapsed accounts—so many variables.

Sure, social analytics tools can give you a post-facto sense of efficacy, but how valuable is a like today? How valuable is a like in the future? In the current environment, influencers are a vanity brand play at micro scale. What, then, could influencers potentially be better utilized for? OMG glad you asked. Direct response!

Scaling audience and getting paid: The Insta📺 Way™

Currently, shoppable posts are planted in your feed. You don’t have to follow that brand to see that brand. It’s an ad. Duh.

Influencers are different. They’ve earned the opportunity to charge brands because they’ve scaled their own audience. Users have subscribed to them. In this way, influencers are part of your á la carte bundle, and Instagram is the cable provider you don’t pay for.

In this way, influencers are part of your á la carte bundle, and Instagram is the cable provider you don’t pay for.

Beyond the whole oligopolistic 🏰 thing, the cable bundle has been sustainable because it’s priced at a super healthy multiple of total fees paid to content providers (e.g. Bravo, ESPN). The fee relationship allows for the integration of programming and advertising. We, Cable Co., pay you $X for delivering Must-See-TV which justifies bundle subscription. You, Content Co., scale up your audience with that good-good, and charge advertisers whatever price you’re able. Goshspeed.

Given that whole ‘free to use’ thing, Instagram has to flip that framework, They’re perfectly set up to do so.

Influencers can scale audience on Instagram for effectively zero dollars, but their ceiling is limited by quality. Quality is hard. Making Must-See-Content consistently is harder. And for the producer, the opportunity cost of a high-value piece of content being buried in the feed, or algorithmically hidden, is very high.

Totally un-secret secret: The Feed Works

If Instagram is a lean-back destination, Must-See-Influencers have leverage by way of reach, and Instagram has leverage by way of programming (in ways currently owned by networks in the cable model).

Programming matters because Insta owns the feed. Sure, there’s Discover (or whatever they’re calling that now), but that’s not the primary use case. Concepts like dayparting matter. Push notifications and app deeplinks matter. And since we’re talking mobile, sensors matter. They likely know your location. They could theoretically ‘geopart’ content which is a word I just made up. Hell, they could extrapolate with reasonable accuracy that you go on a run a few times a week. You wouldn’t have to tell them. Imagine how valuable that might be to an influencer selling exercise gear in this One-to-One Future.

Instagram is in the drivers seat on so many fronts. Wanna make episodic content and rep brands? Pay me. Wanna do that Mik Mak thing and sell direct? Pay me.

Instagram has a remarkable amount of control over the future of monetizable content on the platform. We’re witnessing product strategy at its finest.

There have been times where the users figure out how to move the goal posts of the platform (see: Twitter). Instagram has managed to avoid that with stunning consistency. They have charted and controlled their own path even when the measures were defensive. Now they’re way out ahead on offense, and they stand ready to create a new entertainment paradigm. It’s been a joy to watch. For nerds like me, it’s been Must-See- 📺.

I hope I did you proud, Ben Basche. Kisses.