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Oh, Snap! Insta-Messaging Is Here: Introducing Instagram Direct

Posted 12 December 2013 9:00 PM by Chelsey Binkley

There was some speculation going around a few weeks back, but today’s “mystery event” clears up any doubt: Instagram has released a new private messaging feature. While it’s an exciting move, it’s not too surprising. The unquestionable rise in popularity of Snapchat meant it was only a matter of time until Instagram jumped on the messaging bandwagon.

Over the past year, we’ve seen a great leveling of the social platform playing field. When one channel introduces a feature that becomes moderately popular, other platforms soon adopt that feature (or a version of it) for fear of being left behind. This adoption also helps to close gaps between platform deficits, which ultimately forces users (and brands) to choose one platform over another. We saw this when Facebook adopted Twitter’s hashtags, when Twitter launched a Facebook-esque scheduling feature, and when Instagram introduced videos to keep pace with Vine. In the end, it’s all about retaining users and preventing them from segmenting their actions to favor another channel. Snapchat has proven the value of a private photo- and video-sharing network, so it only makes sense that Instagram (the original photo-sharing genius) would want to step onto the field — or at least play a similar game. 

Today’s announcement revealed Instagram Direct, which allows users to share private pictures and videos directly with friends. This new feature has Snapchat characteristics: It gives users an easy way to share moments with a smaller group of people, rather than all their followers. In contrast to Snapchat, images will not disappear after a 15-second limit, which enables extended communication around the shared content.


A direct messaging (DM) feature makes sense for Instagram. The platform is all about sharing photos, which leads to connections, which lead to communication, which leads to interaction. And in today’s world, we interact in real time — documenting events, travels, personal milestones, etc. as they’re happening. Therefore, our communications need to do the same. Instagram’s new messaging feature eliminates the issue of sending an image to a specific group while also containing more user actions to its platform — the ultimate goal of every social platform, not to mention brands. Social platforms strive to contain activity to their own properties; giving users an all-encompassing set of tools is one way to achieve that goal. 

Instagram’s DM move will also challenge brands (aka the ad-buying powerhouses funding the platforms), as it offers access to tools that enable brands to better leverage the platform in their social planning. Unfortunately for brands, however, the new update only allows for direct messages that contain a photo; text-only communications are not an option. Previously, brands have been somewhat hesitant to use Instagram because there is no way to quietly solve problems, handle customer service issues, contact contest winners, etc. Thus, I’m sure brands were hopeful that the new feature would enable them to direct message fans, thereby facilitating 1:1 communication with consumers who have questions. Such a feature would also function as a proactive way to keep negative noise out of photo comments and reach out for UGC permissions on content. 

While this would be incredibly beneficial for brands, a part of me is still hesitant about whether users would see Instagram as a complaint/customer service platform in the same way they do Facebook or Twitter. My prediction: Communication between brands and their consumers via Instagram will be a way to continue the connection and build return on relationship, versus some of the more ongoing communications mechanisms in other spaces.

As with all new updates, brands should be cautiously optimistic. Like any other platform, just because a channel (or in this case, a feature) is available, it doesn't mean it's relevant or essential for your company. Use it only if it aligns with your brand and, more importantly, your overall marketing strategy. We can all think of dozens of examples of organizations that jumped on a feature or channel too eagerly, prematurely, clumsily, ineffectively or, worse, irrelevantly.

So is Instagram Direct the next big thing? Similar to any new Instagram feature, I have concerns about whether it will affect the experience. The app’s easy and simplistic interface is the key differentiator for users, and changing this dramatically might be detrimental to its fans. One of the positive aspects of adding direct messaging, specifically, is that it does not appear to affect the way users are currently accustomed to interacting with the bulk of the platform. Unlike Facebook's past redesigns and new feature launches, which infamously and completely upended the previous platform experience, Instagram Direct is an unobtrusive addition. If users want to take advantage of it, they can. If not, they won’t. Aside from receiving messages from friends, their Instagram experience overall will likely remain unchanged. 


Personally, the simplicity of the photo feed is what I enjoy most. Facebook and other platforms can be overwhelming with too many notifications and capabilities (messaging, events, updates, tags, etc.). My hope is that, as they move forward with future updates, Instagram will keep this in mind. So what do you think of Instagram Direct?

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