On Monday 24th September, Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger announced their simultaneous resignation, citing the need to explore new creative opportunities.
The abrupt decision sent media analysts into a frenzy. Venture capitalist Om Malik argues the resignation can only be seen as a political move, likely related to the pair's discomfort with the way Facebook is monetizing Instagram in its pursuit of growth.
Is this the end of an era for Instagram? It’s definitely a good time to reflect on the impact Instagram has had on the world of influencer marketing, which has been huge. It's also worth thinking about how Facebook's changes to Instagram have impacted on brands who rely on Insta-influencers, and what this means for creator-driven conscious commerce.
Instagram launched as a location check in app, Burbn, in 2010. It pivoted to photo sharing shortly after, leveraging the smartphone’s potential as a digital camera connected to the internet. Facebook purchased Instagram in 2012 for 1 billion dollars, seemingly a staggering sum for a company without a proven revenue stream, but in retrospect a smart move, anticipating the rising popularity of photo and video sharing.
Instagram's image sharing functionality changed the game for social media influencers. It is the platform of choice for fashion influencers, who trade on personal style and insight into emerging trends more than in-depth expertise (the currency of influencer bloggers and YouTube product reviewers). Instagram created new world of opportunities for micro-influencers (people with between 5K and 100K followers), who can launch a side gig in product marketing on the basis of a handful of selfies. Celebrities also love the platform, using it as an opportunity to connect with their fans, offering them a glimpse of their day to day lives.
The real power of Instagram is how it enables people to tell stories about their lives. A selfie is more than just a personal image - it is a window upon an individual's life story. Beautiful faces suggest a beautiful life, existing just behind the image. This is what people want to know about.
Instagram capitalized on this opportunity in 2016 with its Stories feature. Stories enabled the company to stave off the challenge from Snapchat, with it ephemeral video sharing technology. It was a major boost for influencer marketers and social media creators, enabling creators and other users to engage their audiences with colourful snippets from their life journeys. For brand marketers, these photo and video stories provide the perfect setting for artful product placement.
Since this time, Instagram has experienced a world of trouble. The company has been forced to increase its team of moderators to combat rampant cyberbullying. Like Facebook, it fell victim to hoax accounts and propaganda in 2016's US election tampering scandal, effectively enabling foreign military operatives to spread misinformation to 20 million Americans.
In response to the PR fallout from this event, Facebook made drastic changes to Instagram’s algorithm, reducing the reach of branded content. Facebook's stated objective is to ensure that users see more content from their close friends and family members. While this aligns with Facebook's strategy, it works counter to the efforts of Instagram’s influencers, who’d prefer to be seen by the widest possible audience.
In the wake of Systrom and Krieger’s resignation, it is unclear that Instagram will remain the playland of influencer marketers it has been to date. These are uncertain times for the many brands and influencers who rely on Instagram to promote their products and experiences.
Our concern, at The Merrier, lies with the ethical SMEs and purpose-driven creators who rely on Instagram for social engagement and reach. Not every influencer is a pay-to-post product mule. Many influencers are passionate changemakers who genuinely want to support ethical, sustainable brands and for-purpose products. These are our beloved creators.
Facebook’s changes to Instagram’s algorithm are punishing this community. It's a shame that this is happening right as it's finding its feet. At The Merrier, we’re working day and night to right the balance. It's daunting to pit yourself against the social media giants. But someone’s gotta fight for the little guy.