How Instagram Restored My Faith in Social Networking


If you have not played with runaway hit mobile social network Instagram, you should. Yes, it’s become known as a utility for iPhone users to send pictures to Facebook and Twitter, but make no bones about it, Instagram is its own social network, and a very enjoyable one, too. In fact, it has restored my faith in the media form.

With more than 13 million people on Instagram, you can see some fantastic sharing. It is innately personal and wonderful.

Gone from the mix is the usual social media punditry and sword fighting. Instead you simply have real experiences throughout the average day. It’s just photos, sharing and comments, and nothing more.

Instagram exists on the mobile web, and is not tethered to the web. Rather it is on your iPhone or iPad via application (soon coming to Android). It only lives on the most personal and portable electronic devices. I think that in combination with its simplicity is what makes the network so special.

You see, on the go people can only be people. It’s not contrived, and thus sharing is unusually naked and revealing. People show each other how they see the world. Yes, you can share professional or well edited photos via your phone, but generally Instagram is a social phenomena of the moment. It feels safe, and unbelievably relational.

Sure, companies are trying to figure out how to tap into the incredible Instagram phenomena. And Instagram itself is another social network in search of a revenue model (advertising looks like the probable path). With an open API, people are exploring how to harness the photos, including search by city.

But for now, Instagram is very pure in its simple peer-to-peer interaction. And in that sense, it is a welcome relief in comparison to the over-commercialized Facebook, Twitter, and blogosphere.

Has Social Taken a Supporting Actor’s Role?

IPad Apps

When you look at the iPad app store, one thing becomes clear very quickly. Social networking is not the most popular use of the iPad. Far from it. In fact, just one of 12 of the top paid iPad apps over Memorial Day weekend (as pictured above) was social networking related. The vast majority were games, with a sprinkle of BBQing, music and productivity joining MyPad+ for Facebook.

Consumer use of social media on the iPad reflects some startling statistics that show social’s impact on daily consumer life is less than one would think. In fact, only Facebook and YouTube get any serious attention, between 20-50% of Americans use them regularly (depending on interpretation). The rest of the wide variety of social tools are well, niche social networks.

So, has social in fact been relegated to a supporting form of online media? Is it the relationship tool and feedback line of the web, really just a feature set for online marketing? If current online media usage is any indication then one would have to conclude yes, social is an important, supporting set of online media.

Figure 3

A recent study by Sandvine shows that social networking doesn’t even rank in the top five bandwidth activities online though real time communications (chat) does. In fact, social networking looks like it peaked in 2010 according to the chart above. Of course, this measures bandwidth use, and peer to peer file sharing and real time entertainment (like Netflix) are bandwidth hogs. Social media tends to be text -based, thus it is not bandwidth intensive.

Still the indicators from the variety of data sets point to a conclusion: Social media is not the principal actor in online media. Does this mean we are in a bonafide hype bubble? Or perhaps people don’t want to talk on social networks a majority of the day, just for proportionally smaller parts? What do you think these data sets mean?

Differentiating in a Sea of Sameness

Junior, the Pug!

Maturation in social media marketing has created a sea of sameness, where conversations revolve around listening, responding, strategy, ROI, influence, etc. Consider the common complaint that all of the social media books, A-List blogs, and retweeting fans say the same things. The current “state of the conversation” serves as a great reminder that mature markets require differentiation to stand out and capture stakeholders’ attention.

It’s only by differentiation can one cut through the cluttered idea market to gain a stakeholder group’s interest. Differentiation distinguishes ideas, services and products.

Differentiation gets back to basic product marketing. That means creating an element(s) of uniqueness to an offering that appeals to the marketplace, whether that’s information for marketers, social change theories to attract charitable donors, new social middleware solutions to help organizations achieve their missions, or products for consumers. Without uniqueness, new blogs, causes, services and products are doomed to live in the second tier, offering a slightly less or more brilliant version of the market leader’s products. Yet regardless of the offerings’ merits, without differentiation it cannot rise above.

Sometimes the answer is as simple as positioning. Other times differentiation takes the form of carving out a niche from the larger mix. The organization focuses on one piece of the puzzle only, for example Flip camera’s sole focus on low-end handheld video cameras. This form of product marketing and branding was the basis for Al and Laura Ries’ Origin of Brands.

Differentiation always takes a deep understanding of market dynamics. This comes from listening, but also a perception of what stakeholders want and their unresolved needs. As much as algorithms and mathematical data helps marketing, part of it remains this deep perception that causes an organization to take a risk and launch new products that have yet to be proven. Consider the iPad’s incredible success in spite of the empty slate of apps that had yet to be developed for the tablet at launch. Within six months, 10,000 apps had been developed.

There’s a great desire for new ideas in social media marketing. The current voices haven’t broken out of meme box with substantive new approaches. Discontent amongst the marketplace continues to rise, and has spread to the corporate side where customers are starting to cry bubble. The idea marketplace is ripe for voices to differentiate with new exciting approaches that work. Consider how Danny Brown’s voice continues to evolve with his new partnerships, thoughts and approaches.

How will a cancer org separate itself from LIVESTRONG, the American Cancer Society and Komen to stand out and really make a difference for those interested in resolving cancer? Donors won’t be easily shaken to try something new unless they feel it has a serious chance to do a better job. Or maybe the cancer approach focuses on a niche, like Jennifer Windrum Strauss’s WTF Lung Cancer effort.

It’s a New Year. How will you differentiate your efforts so they don’t fall into the mediocre trap of sameness?

Messaging Still Fails


One of the greatest triumphs of the social web remains the open citizen revolt against marketing messages (bored image by Samael Trip). Note how well the Apple iPad name flew yesterday online (ahem, let’s not go there). Nonprofits experience the same disinterest from their stakeholders as companies due.

In fact, a recent report by marketer Nancy Schwartz (hat tip to Beth Kanter for forwarding me these stats), 84 percent of 915 nonprofit leaders who completed the survey last month said their messages connect with their target audiences only somewhat or not at all. Nancy’s post includes comments from survey participants explaining why their messages fail to connect:

  • “Our messages need to be more succinct to communicate how effective we really are.”
  • “We don’t move our base to action.”
  • “We have individual elements that are ok solo, but no unified path.”
  • “Our messages aren’t hard-hitting or targeted enough. So they fall flat.”
  • “We need to shape messages that are simple enough for staff to remember and feel comfortable in repeating it to others.”
  • “Too much jargon. I can’t even understand what we’re saying.”

Maybe, but… Let’s be frank as I’ve written about this over and over again in the past on the Buzz Bin: The Cluetrain Manifesto was right! “There’s no market for messages.”

It doesn’t matter if you have a compelling cause or a public interest, or if your company contributes to society. If you drill people with messages, they will absolutely turn their back on you.

And you know what? You deserve it. It’s like entering a party and spamming people with solicitations, stale lines, and hucksterisms. Thanks for talking about yourself and what you want from me all night. Cause or not.

The 20th century approach of communications is over, regardless of medium. Mass communicating at people no longer works. Even Super Bowl ads are starting to fail now, thus Pepsi’s $20 million (troubled) social refresh program.

Whether its social or not, cause and corporate communicators alike need to stop and retool their strategic approach towards messaging. What we learned in business or communications school has changed. The old dynamics of media, specifically the concept that there are limited channels of media that people get information from, no longer applies.

Look at messages as conversation starters (see this post I wrote on the starter message premise). You won’t control the dialogue, but the fact of the matter is you already lost control and some argue, you never had it. Instead let’s have real interesting conversations that matter to us (organization and person), and society, in general.