The mobile photo-sharing app Instagram has turned into a social-media phenomenon, accumulating 400 million uploaded photos and 15 million users since its launch in October 2010, and brands are increasingly taking notice.
Early-adopter brands on Instagram -- which currently only runs on Apple devices -- include Starbucks, which joined in 2010 and now has 202,000 followers, Red Bull (95,000 followers) and Burberry (151,000 followers); media properties such as NPR and The New Yorker; and major events like the Oscars. Nike and President Barack Obama's re-election campaign just joined within the last month.
A common use of the platform is to show consumers what's happening behind the curtain at a company. A recent image posted to General Electric's account shows a technician working on an engine in an aviation facility in Peebles, Ohio, for example, and Tiffany & Co.'s account photos shows the inside of a jewelry workshop in the store's flagship Fifth Avenue location. But brands are also using Instagram to run contests and source images. Levi's is currently running an open casting call for models by asking Instagram users to tag their photos with #IAmLevis for consideration, while Marc Jacobs recently asked Instagram users to tag their holiday photos with #marcfam and then curated a selection on its site.
Instagram has nine employees in San Francisco, and like many early-stage social startups, hasn't publicly articulated its plans for revenue. It launched with $500,000 in seed funding and closed a $7 million funding round last February. While it doesn't officially partner with brands, its head of business operations, Amy Cole, says she offers suggestions when asked. She's aware of roughly 200 brands and organizations (including celebrities such as Justin Bieber and nonprofits like Charity: Water) on the site.
She said brands that use Instagram are generally looking to forge a more personal connection with their customers. "Photos can be so emotional," she said. "It's a great way for users to really connect with a brand in a way that 's different from text posts."
Some brands like General Electric use their Instagram content for their accounts on Tumblr, the blogging platform with a heavy emphasis on images that 's experiencing similar growth and also putting growth and utility before revenue. In some cases, the platforms are being used together. The sportswear company Puma sent 10 bloggers with major followings to Abu Dhabi last week to document activity around the Volvo Ocean Race and the Mar Mostro racing yacht the company is sponsoring. Most of the bloggers used both platforms and were instructed to post with hashtags like #sailing and #marmostro.
"Platforms like Instagram and Tumblr offer this neat connection between the more creative/cultural set and like-minded brands such as Puma," said Antonio Bertone, Puma's chief marketing officer, in an emailed statement. "The people who are active on these portals are the Puma consumer."
In the case of General Electric, which has roughly 34,000 followers on Instagram, the intent is to showcase the company's impact in areas like energy and transportation by appealing to enthusiasts with photos of engines, turbines and locomotives, according to Linda Boff, executive director of global digital marketing. In addition to its regular account, the company just wrapped a campaign on the platform to find an "Instagrapher" who will be flown to Wales to photograph an aviation facility. Nearly 4,000 Instagram photos were submitted with the hashtag #GEInspiredMe and then posted on Facebook, where fans voted for the finalists.
"We love the idea that Instagram lets us share this intersection of science and technology, but doing it from a very visual, artistic point of view," said Ms. Boff. "When you're as complicated as GE, how you tell the story and how you bring the company to life is incredibly important."