Instagram at 10 - A decade of selfies, filters and #ad

Our Senior Associate Digital, Rachel Ryan, looks back at 10 years of Instagram, and how brands can use it to their advantage...

Do you remember what you were doing on 6th October 2010? Mike Krieger and Kevin Systrom do. A couple of months earlier, in July, they’d shared photos on a new app they were working on, of, respectively, San Francisco’s Pier 38 and a dog next to a flip-flop wearing foot captioned “test”. On 6th October they made this app live on the App Store, and Instagram was born.

First ever Instagram post of San Francisco Pier 38 mikeyk
Instagram founder Mike Krieger's first ever post

Within six weeks it had 1 million users, and in 2018 the 1 billionth user joined Instagram. In that time, it’s changed beyond a simple way to share photos with friends, and has become one of the most powerful tools in a social media marketer’s kit.

In its first two years it was difficult to see how to monetise Instagram. Sure, it was good for awareness and the democratisation of the format where everyone’s posts were given equal billing in your feed made users feel as important as the ever-increasing numbers of celebrities joining the platform. But that all changed when Facebook bought it in 2012.

Facebook had been slowly building its paid offering since 2007. After its acquisition of Instagram, sponsored posts began to appear in users’ feeds in late 2013 with the familiar jostling of organic and paid posts, and cries of ‘the algorithm’ penalising brands not able to financially compete.

The biggest impact, however, came with the first Instagram influencers. As more and more celebrities joined, brands began to see the value in paying them to promote their products in seemingly innocuous posts about their daily routine. As with YouTube, non-celebrities built up their personal brands and began to become just as famous and influential. Nowadays it’s impossible to scroll through your feed for more than 20 seconds without seeing #ad (and that’s another thing, after a number of high-profile investigations into whether influencers were misleading their followers by not making it obvious when content was paid for, the ASA launched its Instagram Influencer Code in 2018 which stipulates that, amongst other things, all paid for posts must be flagged as such).

So how can you make Instagram work for your brand in 2020?

Although Facebook still reigns supreme in terms of monthly users, the average age of its user keeps increasing. Over half of Instagram’s users, however, are aged 18-34 so for brands looking to appeal to a younger audience it is the obvious place to be. Yes, TikTok and Snapchat have been… snapping at its heels, but Instagram has proven time and time again that they can pivot and take on their challengers with Stories and now Reels providing new opportunities for storytelling.

The grid is now the place to show off the best of your photographic skills - anything a bit wonky should be saved for Stories. It’s also the ideal place to launch a content series, and use Stories for following up with more in depth content. And of course grid takeovers can present visually stunning displays. Think of the grid as your digital CV, with Stories and Reels the place you can be more playful. For e-commerce, Instagram Shopping means you can easily tag and link to your products giving shoppers a seamless transition from photo to shopping cart - which is incredibly handy given Instagram still doesn’t support external links in captions.

Stories are particularly important for building a rapport with your audience. The content is less polished, and a chance to show the real you. For influencers, this is where trust comes in as users identify with them through their sharing of candid content. Stories also have much greater engagement. If you’re a brand looking to collaborate with influencers, check out their Stories. This will give you a clue as to whether they share your values, and how much they engage with their audience (the more they do, the more trusted they’re likely to be).

Let’s not forget Instagram TV and Live broadcasts either - the former ideal for longform content (very handily linked to from grid posts), the latter a great way of engaging with your audience and perfect for events and Q&As.

Instagram Reels
Instagram's Reels feature

Which brings us up to Reels. More than just a TikTok clone, Reels gives your brand another way to be discovered. They sit on the Explore tab, which is used by more than 50% of Instagram users every day. Far from having to open up another app to discover your videos, if your Reel is suggested during a normal Instagram binge you’re opening up a whole new audience. Like TikTok, Reels offer up a host of creative editing possibilities, but videos can only be 15 seconds long, unlike TikTok’s more generous 1 minute. This means that, at the moment, it’s educational content that is proving successful, or fun behind the scenes videos, rather than longer, more involved dance or singing sequences. Use the opportunity to show off your brand in an authentic and informal way, and try not to make them too advertisement like. There is nothing wrong with resharing TikTok content if you already have it.

Where to from here? Instagram shows no signs of slowing down. As its users’ priorities evolve, so does the app. Grassroots campaigns thrive in its easily shareable content, and its ever increasing roll call of new features sees off challengers. To mark its 10th anniversary, Instagram has just announced Stories Maps, allowing users to scroll through their archive and see their stories placed on a virtual map if they’d used a location sticker in the original. This does raise concerns about location tracking. It’s possible that users will start to see these features as less fun and more creepy, particularly with the growing awareness of Big Data and films like The Social Dilemma bringing these issues to the forefront of conversation. For marketers, the ability to know more about our audience is of course useful, but the ability to connect with them on a personal level is much more important. And there’s no better way to do that than on Instagram.

Want to know how we can help your company use Instagram more effectively? Contact us at

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