Versagram Lets Tweens Express Themselves in Words on Instagram

Creator Says iOS App Has Been Downloaded 3 Million Times

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The existence of apps like Versagram is evidence that Facebook's $1 billion acquisition of Instagram was money well spent, even if the latter had just 13 employees when it was purchased in April. The photo-sharing site, not Facebook, increasingly looks like the place where the next generation of social networkers wants to talk.

What it is : Versagram is an iOS app that lets users post what are essentially status updates inside of Instagram. Popular among teens, Versagram lets users choose from a variety of background "themes," including pictures of a sky filled with balloons and a spherical head of dandelion seeds, and either insert their own text or choose from a library of celebrity quotes from the likes of Adele and Effie Trinket of "The Hunger Games." (They can also post to Apple's iMessage.)

User base: Versagram's creator, Ian Broyles, estimates that the app has been downloaded 3 million times since he shipped it to the App Store in February and that it's currently being downloaded between 6,000 and 10,000 times a day. From what he can tell, the majority of users are under 16 and plenty are under 13 (the official cut-off for Instagram and other social-media sites).

A random sampling of recent Versagram posts with the hashtag #versalove supports that assessment. One message in the stream that 's overlaid on a picture of clouds reads "OMG!! So happy! I got a new iPod today from my parents!" while another in cursive over a red background says, "I still like that person but I'm not going to tell him!"

Mr. Broyles noted that he built the feature that lets users pick out quotes after noticing that many young users had a tendency to replace the filler text he used when delivering a new theme with "Bored" and other brief phrases.

"When you're a 12-year-old, what do you really have to say?" said Mr. Broyles, 31, who lives in Nashville. He had been seeking a full-time job as an iOS developer around the time he was building Versagram, but then wound up quitting his position at the Nordstrom-owned shopping site HauteLook months later because Versagram had started making money.

"The app has turned into a way for them to express themselves," he added.

User habits have sometimes surprised Mr. Broyles, such as during Election Night, when usage of the app peaked from 1,000 posts per minute to 9,400 posts per minute in the 45 minutes after President Barack Obama's victory was made official. He experimented with a filter for a few days amid the presidential debates that changed curse words to "I have a potty mouth," but ultimately decided that it wasn't his place to be a censor.

Still, Mr. Broyles says he worries about the youthfulness of his user base and, by extension, Instagram's.

"I think a large number of people are fibbing about their age to join Instagram," he said.

How it makes money: The app is free, but Mr. Broyles makes the majority of his income off purchases of supplemental "packs" of themes that cost $0.99 each. As of Nov. 16, Versagram was 23rd in a ranking of top-grossing iPhone utility apps, according to App Annie. (A competitor, Tweegram, which preceded Versagram and launched in mid-2011, isn't far behind in 40th place.) He also said he's exploring the concept of advertiser-sponsored themes.

Marketing strategy: In lieu of advertising, Mr. Broyles marketed Versagram by building up a following for its own Instagram account. Prior to launching the app, he first followed thousands of users -- a relatively small share of whom followed back -- and seeded the account with images the app could render. Now he relies on viral engineering to acquire new users, since each post automatically generates text like "Created with the awesome @Versagram App!" to accompany the image.

Mr. Broyles uses Versagram's Instagram following (317,000 users strong) to keep the fan base engaged. Sometimes he issues scavenger-hunt-style challenges, asking users to look for something on Instagram, but usually on celebrity accounts that likely have notifications turned off so as not to bother anyone. But last week he did an experiment using this reporter's account, asking them to find and like all the cats in her photos. Versagram users responded with more than 2,000 likes and hundreds of comments (mostly "Done @versagram") in the 20 minutes that he kept the challenge live.

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