Why It's Hard to Be a Brand On Instagram

Lack of Publishing Tools or APIs Means Publishing Is a Very Manual Process

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Publishing and insights APIs are missing from brands' toolsets
Publishing and insights APIs are missing from brands' toolsets 

Brands have a bone to pick with Instagram.

The mobile photo- and video-sharing network now reports 200 million active users and sky-high engagement with 1.6 billion likes tapped out every day, and an increasing number of brands and their agencies are intent on developing a content strategy there. If only that were as easy as it is on parent company Facebook or Twitter.

While brands use sophisticated technologies to publish on those networks, Instagram hasn't launched any publishing APIs (application program interfaces) which means posting on Instagram remains a very manual process. It also means social-marketing companies like Expion, Spredfast and Sprinklr and enterprise giants like Salesforce can't build software to enable Instagram publishing at the scale big brands want.

At the most basic level, it means that Instagram posts from the biggest global brands are still being published from a phone, and they can't be scheduled in advance. On the analytics side, it means brands and agencies can't tap into a third-party tool to gauge strategic insights like the best time of the day to publish certain types of content and what the best Instagram filters to use are, though there are tools that scrape Instagram like Nitrogram.

Manual process
Assessing content performance on Instagram effectively becomes a manual process of tracking likes and comments post by post.

"The fundamental challenge is that there is no professional publishing tool at all," said Michael Lebowitz, CEO of Big Spaceship. "It's this massive and extremely important social platform, and brands are very present on the earned side of things, but you're still having to publish as an individual on your Instagram feed."

It's a logistical headache for brands that are seeking to consistently engage and grow their Instagram followings. For example, 360i has observed that some clients' Instagram posts fare best in terms of user engagement when they're published on Friday and Saturday nights, according to Matt Wurst, VP-social media. That means an employee has to actually do it at the appointed time.

Since the people tasked with posting from brand accounts have to log out of their own accounts first, there's always a risk of someone accidentally posting a personal photo while logged in as the brand.

"It hasn't happened to us, but I'm literally knocking on wood," Mr. Wurst said.

Also, Pinterest
For the record, Pinterest doesn't have publishing or insights APIs either. While those are also hotly anticipated, Mr. Wurst said it hasn't been as much of a pain point.

"The way [Pinterest has] built their site, it's a lot more friendly for scraping technologies," he said.

While digital and creative agencies would clearly benefit from better publishing and insights tools, The Barbarian Group's CEO Sophie Kelly also sees an upside for Instagram -- which is in the midst of rolling out its premium ad business. With more insight into their organic content's performance, she thinks brands will be more inclined to try ads.

"For us to get more and more marketers into it, understanding the insights and the analytics behind what's going on with organic content would only help us to make those cases more strongly," Ms. Kelly said.

While Instagram isn't giving any concrete timetable, it did offer a glimmer of hope that improvements are coming. "Our highest priority is to maintain the community experience on Instagram, while evaluating the tools and metrics that will help brands be successful on the platform -- whether that's building through native interfaces or providing via API access," a spokesman said.

Instagram does have APIs that developers can use to pull content using the parameters of hashtags and locations, as well as from specific accounts if the user gives permission. Curating Instagram photos on other sites is a common use case for brands.

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