One thing shown by this week’s enormous public backlash against the new Instagram Terms of Service is just how ingrained in popular culture the mobile photo-sharing app has become.

Looking back on 2012, it was indeed the year of Instagram; a social network created in 2010 by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger which, in two year’s time, has managed to claim more active mobile users than Twitter. The platform’s popularity began skyrocketing in April after the launch of its iOS app and the announcement of an astonishing $1 billion acquisition by Facebook the following week. By September 2012, Systrom’s & Krieger’s brainchild had claimed over 100 million users. When unprecedented weather struck Northeast America in November, an unprecedented number of mobile photos were shared by these users as Superstorm Sandy became the world’s most Instagrammed weather event. Thanksgiving 2012 then became both the busiest day on Instagram and the most Instagrammed holiday to date as Americans piled food onto their dishes and paused, not just to give thanks, but to Instagram their plates. Comedians acknowledged popular culture’s new obsession via hilarious videos like College Humor’s ‘Look at this Instagram’ and Harvard Sailing team’s ‘Hipster Thanksgiving’while Instagram broadened its reach beyond the smartphone with the launch of web profiles.

What does this mean for brands?

As Tara Raiti explained in her blog post “The Image Era: You’re Living in it,” this explosive growth in mobile photo-sharing catalyzed by Instagram has major implications for businesses. Brands, of all types, will need to recognize new key behaviors and values of smartphone owners, especially those in younger demographics. In the Image Era, brands should now assume that a smartphone-owning consumer:

  • Spends more time on mobile. This was already a trend before Instagram, but the ever-expanding popularity of mobile photo-sharing means more time on mobile and less time on devices like PCs or TVs. Digital strategy should adapt accordingly.
  • Has a deeper appreciation for aesthetics and creativity. A quick browse through Instagram’s popular pages proves that users love to use Instagram filters to turn the dull, mundane and obscure into the beautiful, interesting and novel.  Cracks in a sidewalk, junk on the street, rotting wood, crumpled paper and other things that would normally be ignored are now worthy of attention and worth making into art. Marketers can capitalize on this new behavior by crafting campaigns that celebrate aesthetics in everyday life and the creativity of the individual.
  • Shares more. Part of Instagram’s appeal is that it allows you to share experiences quicker and sometimes better than Twitter’s 140 character limit or Facebook’s much more lenient 63,206 character limit allow. Not only do they feel more creative, but it’s just as important to them that their friends know about their newfound artistic eye. Active Instagrammers also tend to fancy themselves not just as artistic photographers, but also news-breaking reporters that capture novel and newsworthy content. When a newsworthy public event happens nowadays, it’s commonplace to see a crowd of bystanders standing around mobile uploading as the scene unfolds. In the Image Era, people want to share content that’s unique and they want to be the first to do it.
  • Likes competing. The drive to showcase artistic capabilities and share unique, newsworthy content to friends means Instagrammers love friendly competition, and gameification thrives on the network.  Each weekend, Instagram hosts its #WHP (Weekend Hashtag Project) photo-sharing competition and rewards users with the best photos by publishing their contributions to its blog the following Monday. Brands like Starbucks, Tiffany and ASOS have already utilized gameification to create highly successful user sharing competitions that have driven brand buzz and awareness.

At this point, it’s a no-brainer that brands within visually-driven verticals such as luxury, travel, and food/hospitality should be maintaining a strong presence on the network, and many are already doing so successfully. But with over 100 million active users worldwide and the platform’s new web profile feature, even brands that aren’t necessarily associated with artistry, luxury or sexiness need to be regarding Instagram as a major social media channel with which to build a visually engaging portfolio that appeals to an “increasingly visually sophisticated populace.” Brands that may be visually “boring” or may not consider themselves characterized by creativity will now need to find ways to bring aesthetically pleasing elements to their marketing in order to capture the attention of consumers who are more and more preoccupied with their smartphones.

A good example of a brand that’s not necessarily aligned with artistry but successfully rethought its marketing to fit the ethos of the Image Era is Ford. The car company, which is perhaps more associated with affordability and practicality than other sexier, luxury brands within the auto space, utilized gameification on Instagram to launch a highly successful campaign for the new Ford Fiesta. Recognizing consumers’ new love of mobile photography, their deeper appreciation for visually appealing aesthetics and their playfully competitive spirit, Ford created the #Fiestagram photo sharing competition focused on the Fiesta’s innovative features. The campaign resulted in 16,000+ user submitted photos, 120,000 new fans and increased participation in all the brand’s social media channels across the board. To boot, media coverage of the successful campaign generated even more publicity and buzz about the new car.

How can brands measure success on Instagram?

Like any other digital campaign, analytics play a critical role in achieving measuring success. Though at first the tools to track and mine Instagram data did not keep up with the network’s explosive growth over the past year, the good news is that the demand for Instagram analysis has created an excellent environment for start-ups in the social media analytics space to quickly develop software that fills the void. One of the newer tracking tools is telportd’s Nitrogram, which just won $1 million round of funding in November. Depending on level of subscription, Nitrogram allows brands to track data on a number profiles and hashtags, and is highly affordable compared to other software in the social media analytics space. Another product to be on the lookout for is GazeMetrix, image recognition software currently being developed that will allow brands to track when their logo is photographed.  The need for of Instagram-focused analytics is augmented by Instagram’s removal of Twitter cards earlier this month and as Thibault Divault of Nitrogram explains, only “around 15% of the top brands on Instagram also share their Instagram photos on their Facebook timeline, which is a rather low number.”  This means that relying on tracking tools for those networks to understand Instagram presence will likely be inadequate.

As the year of Instagram draws to a close, the juggernaut app continues to stay in focus (no pun intended). Although currently in the midst of controversy, the photo-sharing network and its technology have made a lasting imprint on popular culture and will continue to do so as its capabilities are integrated into Facebook. Marketers will need to make brands of all types more visually appealing in order to compete for the attention of more artistic-minded and increasingly smartphone-obsessed consumers.