At the end of last year, Instagram hit the 300 million monthly active user mark and surged into place as the second most used social network in the world.

As Twitter turned its efforts this year towards igniting its user base and Facebook moves further towards a paid-for platform and tackling slowing growth, Instagram has paced ahead with its unique approach.

So what sets Instagram apart from other social success stories?

Its growth

Facebook’s early growth is often seen as the arbiter of social network adoption rates; however, although the first social network is still growing steadily, it’s actually losing favour within key demographics as millennials tail off in favour of other networks. Twitter has admitted its growth is nowhere near what was expected, with users increasing just 5% quarter-on-quarter.

Instagram, meanwhile, gained 200 million users from 2012-2014, tripling its user base in two years. For comparison, it took Facebook four years to hit the same number, the web itself seven years and mobile phone users hitting 100 million took 16 years.

This kind of rapid growth can leave organisations in its wake whilst individual users are firmly on board; in this case, especially ones that made the mistake of assuming that Instagram, with it’s image base, is simply a nice to have network, rather than a powerful platform.

Its content

Instagram’s content has been key in leading young people away from the other networks in favour of this instantly gratifying, visual-led network. Images posted are often lifestyle-focused and have an aspirational feel, providing what Rob Newlan of Facebook’s Creative Shop has described as “an inspiration exchange”.

Regular users can become incredibly popular ‘Instagram influencers’ and build authentic and enthusiastic follower bases if they are producing content which fits in with the aesthetic values of Instagram and its users. Unlike with Twitter, where news-based topics trend briefly and are searched for so users can find out what’s happening, Instagram hashtags have greater longevity, and often provide a source of inspiration for those searching.

Instagram is used to express and engage with creativity as much as it is for escapism. The community of users value beautiful content and aim to create their own, taking the time to edit and craft images before posting them. Two kinds of images are then pushed to a ‘Search & Explore’ section of the platform, which is unique to each individual user; those liked by accounts they follow and those liked by a large number of Instagram users. This means that users are just as likely to discover content that has proven popular within a small circle of users they engage with, and is likely to fit in with their values, interests and passions, as content that has proven popular with the wider Instagram community.

Its users

Newlan also described Instagram as providing a collective lens. Because Instagram is an egalitarian platform, it has fostered a community focused on collaborative engagement and support. The way the platform works, including the only clickable links being available to paying advertisers, makes for a tight community that lives entirely on the platform without being diverted to other sites, as they are on Twitter or Facebook.

The user community revolves around shared interests leading to shared hashtags, reciprocative support and relationship building. Instagram itself focuses on nurturing its community of users, which can be seen in its business decisions; the first person hired by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, the founders of Instagram, was a community manager tasked with ensuring all users needs were being responded to.

This hyper-engagement does not exclude brands, as long as they fit in with what the users value in terms of content. If the post looks good and fits the network, there will be a big response. Last year, Forrester found an engagement level on brand posts from brand’s followers as 4.21%, compared with 0.07% from Facebook and 0.03% from Twitter, meaning that Instagram delivered the brands 58 times more engagement than Facebook or Twitter.

Look out for our next article on Instagram, as we zone in on how brands can benefit from these engagement levels.

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