What Instagram's New Formats May Mean for Marketers

Photo Service Now Supports Horizontal and Vertical Photos, Videos

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Instagram is breaking outside the box.

After years of limiting photos and videos to the square format, Instagram announced on Thursday that people will be able to post photos and videos shot in landscape and portrait mode -- aka the formats available on roughly every other major social network except Vine.

The support of new formats isn't necessarily groundbreaking. Nearly one out of every five photos and videos posted to Instagram don't adhere to the Instagram-mandated square format, according to a company blog post. And other major social networks already support horizontal photos and vertical videos, if not both. But Instagram's adoption of these new formats could lead to a foundational shift in the way that brands use the Facebook-owned photo sharing service.

"I feel like Instagram pretty much made people adopt their format as the square. It gave them a unique voice and storytelling where brands had to adapt their imagery to fit that format. Now that they're kind of shifting away from that, there's definitely going to be a little commoditization across different platforms," said Nick Tran, VP of Integrated Marketing at sock brand Stance.

There are pros and cons to Instagram removing the need for marketers to bend over backwards to incorporate Instagram into their campaigns. A brand like Apple can take those beautiful "Shot on iPhone 6" images and post them to Instagram without degrading the image by cropping the scene. And "Star Wars" used Instagram's support of horizontal video to post a new clip teasing the saga's upcoming installment, becoming the first Instagram user to deploy horizontal video on Instagram, according to an Instagram spokeswoman. More movie studios could follow suit.

There has been an awakening... #StarWars #TheForceAwakens

A video posted by Star Wars (@starwars) on

"I'm sure we'll see an explosion of movies and sneak peeks of trailers," Mr. Tran said. "The fact that Star Wars dropped stuff that had never been seen before was cool. But if people just start throwing up their 15-second trailer or their TV ads, that's where Instagram falls into the trap of looking like every other platform."

One platform Instagram may more closely resemble is Facebook. Brands will be able to take their Facebook campaigns and extend them to Instagram and vice versa, which could lead to more money for Facebook as a whole. "It just easily increases the revenue for Facebook Inc. because they're making it a seamless story for marketers to activate the ad piece," said Travis Freeman, divisional VP-social, media and content integration at Sears Holdings.

One agency exec said that Instagram will not be enabling the new photo and video formats until the beginning of September. The Instagram spokeswoman would only say that the new formats will be available to advertisers "soon."

But it won't only be Facebook ads that brands would be able to syndicate to Instagram. There isn't much stopping a marketer from a running made-for-TV ad or even a standard display ad as an Instagram post.

"I hope marketers aren't stupid enough to take a banner ad and put it in there. But they have the ability to do that now," Mr. Freeman said.

Of course any marketers that do that on Instagram would likely get smacked down by Instagram's audience that associates the service with pretty pictures, not boring banners. "If you have two things going on at once where you have new formats users are trying to get used to and then someone coming in and putting up awful content, they will go rabid on that brand," Mr. Freeman said.

Instagram's move could spur wider support and investment in vertical video, which is becoming increasingly considered the mobile-native video format. Snapchat has been the biggest backer of vertical video to date, and YouTube recently began to support vertical video.

"Vertical video -- whether traditional filmmakers like it or not -- is how people create and consume content on their phone," said Laundry Service CEO Jason Stein. "It's already a large percentage of all mobile video being consumed. Now with Instagram embracing it, that's only going to go up and up."

Of course that carries its own potential complications if brands think they can cross-post the same vertical videos across Snapchat and Instagram. "You really need to have different strategies and different content-creation infrastructures. You can't just use your Snapchat video on Instagram vertical video," Mr. Stein said.

However it may be a while until any of this comes to bear. "I feel like most marketers might throw out a horizontal picture or vertical video, but I don't really expect marketers or brands overall to adapt to this like when Instagram first launched video," Mr. Tran said.

He's not alone in that thinking. Matt Wurst, VP and general manager of social media at 360i, said his reaction to the change in format is "tempered but cautiously optimistic." He added that the update isn't necessarily groundbreaking or transformational, but Instagram's responsiveness to feedback is appreciated. There are, however, other changes he said he'd be more excited about, like the ability for brands to post to Instagram through their social marketing dashboards -- with all the control and content moderation those social publishing tools provide -- instead of through Instagram's mobile app. (And there's always the odd chance that someone with access to a brand's Instagram account will accidentally post a personal, possibly damaging photo.)

"I hope [the update] is a sign for more adaptation and things to come," Mr. Wurst said. "There are definitely other limitations."