The Rise of Instagram- The 10 Year Journey

The Rise of Instagram- The 10 Year Journey

Let’s take a look into the 10 year chequered history of Instagram and how it has managed to not only survive but conquer social media.

Everyone know what Instagram is – a Photo and Video sharing app made specifically for the Mobile and highly popular amongst the millennials. Launched in 2010, by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, Instagram started its life as an iOS app and later was bought by Facebook in September, 2012. Today, Instagram boasts of being the 3rd most used Social media platform globally and having over a 1000 million monthly active users. The focal point of discussion here is that Instagram has managed to survive turbulence of the past 10 years .

2010 to 2019 – This period saw the rise and fall of social media platforms like Google Plus, Vine, and Apple Ping. They were all well-funded ventures with solid ideas but none could find a sustainable footing in the market. In order to understand how Instagram not only survived but has managed to survive the past 10 years, we have to look into its history to understand the answer – showcasing its triumphs and struggles.

Instagram’s first challenge came even before its launch –it started life as a prototype called Burbn by Kevin Systrom – which was mostly a knock-off of Foursquare in functionality. The first prototype was actually a combination of features from Foursquare and Mafia Wars – a video game! Systrom can be regarded as lucky when it came to getting investment but the most fruitful decision he took, along with his co-founder Mike Krieger – scraping everything in the Burbn app other than the Photo, comment and like features- the core pillars of Instagram for a long time. Burbank was named as Instagram as a portmanteau of “instant” and “telegram.”

Instagram started as an iOS app and in its first year of existence, had been able to create a brand name for itself amongst the iOS users. The first two months saw 1 million registered users and by the end of the year Instagram had well over 10 million registered users.

The one update that would bear long term dividends and shape how we till date use Instagram- was the introduction of Hashtags. Location sharing and tags were fast becoming popular during that time and Instagram did not waste time in cashing on in the opportunity. The next update brought along with it the iconic Instagram filters and other cosmetic accessories, which would distinguish it from the photo sharing apps available back then. This was the major driver behind the high popularity of Instagram in its early days. Most photos looked generic on mobile phones and Instagram made it a fun filled experience.

When Instagram was launched for Android in April, 2012 it was already a well-established brand name and within a single day had over a million downloads. Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion in April, 2012 and the deal was closed in September, 2012. The main issue plaguing Instagram at that point was that it was a platform which had a lot of buzz about it but no real business model.

Mark Zuckerberg announced his vision for Instagram as Committed to building and growing Instagram independently

The first big move in that direction was increasing the engagement of the users on Instagram. Instagram added the explore tab inside the app which showed popular photos, photos taken near the users’ location and search. As part of increasing engagement amongst users, Instagram also launched Instagram Direct in 2013 – which enabled users who were following one another to directly send private messages with videos and photos.

In 2013, Instagram also added 15-second Video feature which shifted the app from being only a photo-sharing platform. This was seen as a direct attempt to compete with the now defunct video sharing platform, Vine.

Instagram had exclusively been limited to mobile users and was missing out on desktop/laptop users so far. In order to remedy the situation, Instagram launch website profiles – which enabled a user to browse Instagram but with limited functionality, the end goal being the addition of new users from desktop and retention of existing users by providing them cross-platform accessibility.

As of 2019, Instagram has a very diverse global user base and this had been the case from its very inception. Why is a diverse user base important for an app like Instagram? Most competing technologies and apps start from one or two countries, and a loss in market share in lesser number of countries mean a lesser loss in overall market share. The diversity in user base translates to lesser degree of risk in business terms

So, how did Instagram managed this feat? The Instagram development team started testing the app on devices which were not on sales in USA, particularly low-end android phones which were popular elsewhere in their target market. By optimizing the app for performance across all mobile devices, Instagram ensured a smoother user experience irrespective of mobile specifications.

Monetizing Instagram: For all the successful strides that Instagram was making, there were no monetary returns to show for it. The earliest attempts to monetize Instagram started back in 2013 by starting video and image ads that would appear in between users’ photos in the news feed for users. Initially this initiative was limited to a handful of brands in the United States. The next major update saw the inclusion of Carousel Ads in Instagram- limited upto 5 images at that point. These ads also had the option of diverting traffic to the advertiser’s website – one of the key requirement for conversions. Instagram advertising has seen continuously been upgraded to attract more advertisers – addition of video carousel ads, addition of business tools like business accounts, business profiles , analytics and making the ad creation process easier. Instagram advertisement got integrated into the Facebook Ad Business which was the most welcome feature for most advertisers as it gave them greater control and features for ad creation, along with a more diverse advertising platform in comparison to Instagram. The success of Instagram’s efforts can be validated by the existence of 2 million advertisers using their platform.

The Algorithm Update: In 2016, Instagram rolled out a update to order in which photos/videos were visible in a user’s feed- earlier it was in a chronological manner and the update changed it one determined by an algorithm which would show content in a manner which would not only be more relevant to the user but also increase engagement on the platform. This however, received lots of negative feedback and backlash from the user base. However, Instagram despite the negative feedback, stuck to its gun and kept the algorithm along with providing minor periodic updates.

From a business perspective, this meant that fewer people will see the posts given by Brands. This translated to businesses not being solely able to grow organically on Instagram – a factor that was key to brands prioritizing on using advertising on Instagram. There are ways to grow a business account organically on Instagram but using advertising is the faster and less complicated way to go.

The Instagram vs. Snapchat struggle Launched in 2011, Snapchat provided a platform for ephemeral content and became hugely popular amongst the millennials – the audience segment that was the core user base of Instagram. Snapchat’s most popular feature was it Stories – which allowed users to post updates that were publicly visible to all their connections. A steady rise in the user base of Snapchat represented a threat to Instagram, who replied by shamelessly copying the Stories feature – even the ‘Stories’ name was carried over. Sticking to the Stories name did have one advantage in the fact that people were already accustomed to the Stories feature and did need to be made aware of what the new Instagram feature provided.

Snapchat had introduced Stories back in 2014 and their user base had been gradually increasing at a steady pace. When Instagram introduced the same feature, it took them less than a half a year to overtake Snapchat in terms of Stories Daily Active Users (DAUs). In turn, this also lead to a spike in the number of Monthly Active Users (MAUs) for Instagram and for the first time since 2011, resulted in a decline for user base of Snapchat.

Snapchat had introduced Stories back in 2014 and their user base had been gradually increasing at a steady pace. When Instagram introduced the same feature, it took them less than a half a year to overtake Snapchat in terms of Stories Daily Active Users (DAUs). In turn, this also lead to a spike in the number of Monthly Active Users (MAUs) for Instagram and for the first time since 2011, resulted in a decline for user base of Snapchat.

Instagram has continued to evolve and adapt itself to stay relevant amongst its user base. In 2018, Instagram launched IGTV, a vertical video platform which allowed users to upload video content of upto 10 minutes in length, and for verified users’ upto 60 minutes. IGTV can be viewed as a low key attempt to create a competitor for Google’s YouTube, focusing mainly on mobile users. IGTV can be used both from Instagram app and as a standalone app too – the only differences being related to notifications and settings.

Understanding Instagram’s journey from its inception, the one theme that has been common throughout the years is that Instagram has always been able to adapt and evolve itself to stay relevant and overcome competitors. While some critics can accuse Instagram of blatantly copying the features from its competitors e.g. Snapchat stories – Instagram has always been able to integrate the features that are most popular amongst the user base. In most cases, Instagram did not have a first mover advantage but instead managed to adapt itself to not only survive but also become the third largest social media platform.

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