Advertising Week

Too Kind: Instagram's Marne Levine Talks About How to Get 2 Million Advertisers

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Marne Levine, chief operating officer of Instagram, smiles during the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in Dana Point, California, last year.
Marne Levine, chief operating officer of Instagram, smiles during the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in Dana Point, California, last year. Credit: Photograph by Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

Marne Levine, Instagram's chief operating officer, is working on kindness.

No, really: There is actually a program called "technology for kindness" to help communities feel safe on Instagram. "We're trying to be this very inclusive global community," Levine says during an interview at Instagram's headquarters in Menlo Park, California.

She asks if the office was what one would expect. It is, if not precisely in the way she hopes.

It is Instagram-perfect Silicon Valley, with electric-car parks with recharge stations and ancient grains in the free-lunch salad bar.

Levine wants visitors to focus past the perks. "The hope is that you come through the front door and you're kind of diving into Instagram," Levine says. "You get this video experience, this photo moment."

There's that, too. The walls are lined with images of Instagram posts from celebrities like Miley Cyrus, who did a project with Instagram in 2015 to promote LGBT rights .

That's the kindness Levine is talking about, and Instagram wants it to spread. At a minimum the company wants it to be more prevalant than any meanness. A year ago, Instagram made it so people and advertisers who post to the platform also get to control the comments that appear alongside them.

The new comment filters are just one of Instagram's safety measures. The company works with its parent, Facebook, on technology that helps keep comment sections civil, Levine says. Both are working on machine learning technology to help police the platforms.

That might not seem like a big deal, but any brand that has bought an ad on Instagram probably has seen at least one nasty comment. It's a rite of passage for advertisers on social media to hear the most scathing criticism, deserved or not.

Now, Instagram is announcing that it has 2 million advertisers, up from 1 million as recently as earlier this year. Facebook by comparison has 5 million.

Instagram also says it has hit 500 million daily and 800 million monthly users. It's growing faster with users and advertisers than it ever has, and that kind of growth comes with growing pains.

That's partly why Levine discusses the need to keep the conversation civil on the platform. As it expands, Instagram is organizing around communities of interests such as food, fashion and makeup, and it wants to set a positive toneā€”for advertisers too.

"When you go to a platform and you go to tell your story," Levine says. "You should be able to control that experience in some ways, because it's your story."

Facebook, which bought Instagram in 2012, has its own unique problems of bot activity and spam generated by trolls. Facebook has drawn fire for fostering a toxic environment that was exploited by bad actors during the election.

But kindness only goes so far... Just ask snapchat.

Instagram revealed the new advertiser and user numbers at Advertising Week in New York this week. They also come with Instagram facing some of its toughest competition as Snapchat matures into a technology-enabled ad platform. Snapchat touts its ability to reach developed markets and younger users, many of whom are more engaged on its platform than Instagram.

So Instagram has copied some of Snapchat's most popular features in the past year, including Stories, user compendiums of video snippets over 24-hour periods. Instagram says it reaches 250 million people a day with them, which is more than Snapchat's 166 million daily users.

"They invented the format," Levine says. "We acknowledged that publicly many times. What we did is introduce it to our community in an Instagrammy way."

Since Instagram introduced its version of stories a year ago, the number of advertisers on the platform jumped from 500,000.

Snapchat hopes that its recently released self-serve ad platform can help drive advertisers to its service. Small and medium-size businesses need easy access to help spur that kind of advertisers community.

Over the past two years, Instagram has been able to rely on Facebook's ad technology and targeting to improve its own ad services. Snapchat doesn't have a similar luxury, except to copy Facebook's playbook from scratch.

"Being part of Facebook has been super helpful for Instagram," Levine says. "We've been able to draw on the incredible resources Facebook has."

Since releasing Instagram Stories, time spent watching videos is up 80 percent year over year, Levine says. Also, people and brands are producing four times more video.

"How does Snapchat invent something that doesn't get co-opted in two months by Facebook?" says Noah Mallin, Head of Content at MEC. "Nothing makes what they do immune to that. Instagram pretty much owns Stories now and that must have been a lesson hard learned."

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