Social evolution has a way of separating the wheat from the chaff, preserving the most useful of tools while placing the also-rans into a homogenous bucket. Just take a look around at the different products and services that have either flourished or flopped over the decades – for every iPod there's a Zune, for every Scooby Doo a Marmaduke. Society chooses what it prefers and, in a process of natural selection of sorts, creates concise division between the must-haves and the rather-nots.
Nowhere is this notion more prevalent than in the innumerable social media channels dotting our highly digitized lives. While some might appear to be nothing but snark and trolls as far as the eye can see, others are more about making connections and conveying emotion – to engage with one another on a meaningful level rather than simply exchanging NSFW memes and 140 characters of ill-advised testifying.
Marketers, of course, are well-aware of these discrepancies and have begun to form their own list of favorites, the channels to rely on for deeper engagement with highly segmented affinities and, thus, an intensified brand identity and overarching message. Instagram is quickly taking up this particular mantle by becoming the go-to social media channel for brands to locate, target, and engage. Thanks to a specific set of attributes and basic human nature, Instagram is distinguishing itself for marketers and brands in the digital age.
A Visual Medium for Visual Beings
We've been storytellers since our days as hunters and gatherers. From the far-reaching lineage of oral tradition to the modern stories about things that go bump in the night, many of our perceptions are formed by stories and our unique ability to fill in narrative gaps.
Science has done its part in researching and quantifying this unique human characteristic. With the Gestalt Principles, for instance, modern research into the psychology of perception was able to provide a tangible framework to our interpretation of stories that, most importantly, allowed us to gauge their impact on human behavior.
Imagery best embodies the Gestalt Principles at work – photography in particular – as it creates an initial flood of visual information that establishes the basic foundation of a story or complex set of emotions from a single glance. Although Instagram has evolved to be more than just shared pictures, it is still a social media platform rooted in visual media; this fact makes it inherently more engaging than text-based platforms.
Obviously, given the power and potency of visuals to make people think, feel, believe, and act, Instagram has a leg up on other forms of social media that attempt to mimic the deep connections it thrives on forming.
Guilt by Association
Given the amount of overlap between the different social media platforms, it's unfair to associate restraining characteristics to one without also mentioning the strengths. Twitter, for instance, is perfectly capable of allowing users to share pictures, video, and an array of other media that can be just as impactful as those used within Instagram.
Likewise, Snapchat shares many of Instagram's distinguishing attributes, particularly with the introduction of Instagram Stories. Yet despite the wide-ranging strengths of the Twitter and Snapchat platforms, Instagram's perception by the consuming public – as well as the other social media channels – is what distinguishes it from the competition. While Twitter is certainly capable of sharing visual media in a streamlined and easy fashion, it is more associated with text-based messaging than anything else.
In the case of Snapchat, its perceived younger-skewing demographic makes it less appealing to marketers in search of a target audience already knee-deep in careers and with disposable income in the bank. Fair or not, these perceptions also play a pivotal role in distinguishing Instagram from other social media channels.
Put the Rubber to the Road
A handful of brands have already leveraged both the perception and power of Instagram to their ultimate benefit, utilizing its unique strengths to galvanize their brands and engage with their audience. National Geographic, for example, routinely relies on the connectivity between image and audience to take full advantage of one of their strengths – photography – within a channel that specializes in visuals.
Using its small army of world-class photographers, National Geographic appeals to the specific interests of its more than 75 million Instagram followers through intriguing, compelling, and often emotional visual imagery, only enhancing its already strong visual brand.
Likewise, Airbnb recently played to its strengths through its "Live There" Instagram campaign while simultaneously taking full advantage of the platform's unique characteristics. Throughout the campaign, Airbnb asked its Instagram followers to share their own user-generated pictures – both hosts and guests – to create an immersive set of images. The resulting posts allowed users to imagine themselves sitting poolside with a margarita in hand, relaxing next to a fire in a mountain cabin, or watching the sunset from the patio of a beachfront villa.
Again harkening back to the unique ability of photography to create entire story arcs with a single image, Airbnb allowed users to vividly imagine experiencing those settings firsthand rather than just reading about them in an ocean of static copy. In other words, maximizing the strengths of the Instagram platform helped them strengthen their brand and better connect with their target audience.
Like National Geographic and Airbnb, the most effective marketing campaigns are those that amplify brand strengths, minimize weaknesses, and properly marry message to channel to maximize impact. For brands that already rely or should rely on the unique power of visual imagery to create an immersive message, Instagram is quickly distinguishing itself with its ability to engage and – if properly utilized – convert. Now go find that camera and get to work. Your audience awaits.