Why People Use Instagram and What Brands Can Learn
Instagram launched in 2010 as a social media app designed for sharing images from mobile devices. In the short space of five years, it built up an audience of more than 300 million active users and had more than 30 billion photos posted. Like other social media platforms with large audiences, such as Facebook and Twitter, Instagram is used as a channel by brands to connect with consumers.
Huan Chen, assistant professor of Advertising at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, sought to fill the gap in research with a qualitative study designed “to explore young consumers’ experiences on Instagram and their perceptions of marketing communication.” This study was published in Journal of Current Issues & Research in Advertising.
Participants included young consumers who were active Instagram users. Earlier studies identified 18 to 23-year-olds as the core of Instagram users. Chen conducted interviews with a total of fifteen 18 to 23-year-olds, nine women and six men.
Why People Use Instagram
Three themes surfaced for the consumers’ understanding of photo-sharing on Instagram. First, consumers use Instagram to capture a moment in time and relive that memory in the future. Chen noted that the participants in the study “showcase their interests, lifestyles, values or beliefs by what content they post or by which content they seek.” By using hashtags and filters, participants further personalized their photos and videos.
“Social media have become a crucial platform for teenagers to construct, adjust, maintain and manage their identities,” Chen wrote. They highlight their personal styles and show a “cool” facet of their identities. However, excessive posting of “selfies” was viewed in a negative light.
The second theme that emerged was that Instagram was used to “fill their fragmented time to escape from classes or work, to relax or to entertain themselves.” Users in the study visited Instagram at least five times periodically during the day. One participant noted the appeal of checking Instagram as, “Just because it’s mindless. You don’t have to read anything.”
Lastly, consumers used the platform to maintain relationships with their current set of friends in their everyday lives. However, they can also interact with celebrities and briefly acquire “celebrity-like experiences” according to Chen. For the user, it can generate the illusion that they have some relationship between them and a celebrity. This can occur when a celebrity shares a photo or video posted by a user which results in widespread circulation.
Perceptions of Marketing on Instagram
These themes were also evident in the participants’ openness to Instagram marketing. Participants said they perceived advertisements that did not look like traditional advertising in a more positive way. While the participants were conscious that Instagram was marketing information to them, Chen wrote that, “the subtleness of the ads was still important to them,” and that “participants liked more natural and subtle marketing information.”
Previews of products or services coming to market—insider photos—give a consumer a sense of being exposed to privileged information, creating a sense of “intimate co-presence.” This kind of engagement with an audience can help achieve marketing goals.
Endorsements of products and services from both friends and celebrities are important for young consumers. Participants reported that they were more willing to take into account marketing information that friends had posted. Personal endorsement from friends added the element of credibility for participants. Chen found that a celebrity endorsement, “is more appropriate for gaining attention and building brand awareness” than for resulting in any change in attitude toward a product or service. Therefore, Chen suggests, “companies should use celebrity endorsement on Instagram cautiously, knowing its limited effect on the actual purchase behavior and possible negative effects on brand image and brand equity.”
For marketers, a significant implication is that communication via Instagram “should make consumers feel good about themselves.” Enhancing a consumers’ self-image and giving them a sense of being in an exclusive or privileged group is important. Additionally, marketing communication can build trustworthiness if the information is introduced by consumers’ friends or family.
This study is a snapshot in time among a narrow group of young consumers in a fast-changing media world. More research—studying different cultural usage—can prove useful in revealing aspects of photo-sharing in a broader social context.