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Would you buy this pizza? Why the Instagram power user system is phony

The story of how Instagram power users (i.e. users with more than 100,000 followers) can make money from Instagram is not a new one. But we usually get only half the story. This was the case last week when respected UK national newspaper The Guardian printed a piece about companies hiring Instagram users with large followings to sell their products. The half of the story that most journalists don’t tell you (either because they’re just not inquisitive enough or are too friendly with Instagram) is this: it’s a phony system. Here’s why:

1) Most power users are no more genuine than manufactured boy bands. Like the products of so many talent shows, most of them were created by Instagram through the suggested user list and the (now-discontinued) Popular page. Whenever a new user joins Instagram they are directed to a list of “suggested users” and, being new and not knowing anyone, many new users will follow Instagram’s suggestion and follow those users. When Instagram adds a user to its suggested user list, that user instantly gains thousands of followers.  It’s estimated that being on the suggested user list gains you around 3,000 followers per week. This is how most power users have built up their huge followings, not by posting beautiful images (though some do).

2) So why did Instagram want to manufacture power users in this way? To do its marketing and to attract interest from brands. If you woke up one morning and found you were getting hundreds of new Instagram followers every minute, you would of course be very pleased and your natural reaction would be to promote the platform with all your energy and remain very loyal to it. And aside from feeling very flattered, you would also see the opportunity to make money, by selling sponsored posts to brands, who in turn now see Instagram as a new more personal way of connecting with lots of customers. Of course, Instagram chose people it believed would take photos suitable for its own brand and who would be good vehicles for other businesses. (Sometimes, though, it also just gave chunks of followings to its friends). And by concentrating massive reach with just a few so-called power users, Instagram became a potent tool for businesses to use as a new form of marketing. If its user numbers were spread out more evenly, it would not be as attractive as a business tool.

3) But are Instagram power users effective ways of marketing? Most followers of power users are very inactive. This is because many were prompted to follow by the suggested user list on the first day they joined Instagram and then either forgot about that particular user or didn’t bother with Instagram at all. This can be seen by comparing their engagement levels (likes or comments relative to their follower numbers) with those of non-power users. When hired by brands to post photos on their behalf, these power users are like junk-mail distributors of flyers for new pizza shops on the high street. They can push a lot of paper through the front doors of a lot of houses, but many of those houses will be empty and, anyway, people are less likely to buy pizzas from a place they hear about via a flyer. In contrast, businesses that use Instagram on a small scale via their own accounts can genuinely engage their customers.

4) Instagram is supposedly all about being sociable and engaging. Power users talk about how nice it is to interact with their followers. But when you have hundreds of thousands of followers, quite naturally, you can’t possibly respond to even a small fraction of comments. And part of the business argument with the power user system is that, unlike traditional advertising, a post by a power user will come with a personal touch because they are real people. But power users’ relationships with the vast majority of their followers are no more personal than between a television set and someone watching it from a sofa.

5) The Instagram power user system skews everyone’s judgment. Competitions want to award prizes to power users so they get good PR next year, curators like to include them in exhibitions in the hope they will promote the show and journalists fall over themselves to interview them in exchange for a power-user plug. And lastly, power users themselves lose all objective perspective about their own work – not surprising really, with so many people fawning over them and their photos receiving streams of obsequious praise.

So, in short, Instagram’s power user business model is fundamentally flawed because, contrary to popular belief, it is founded not on a populist response to the compelling talent of new photographers,  but rather on Instagram’s very clever and highly successful strategy of manufacturing power users in order to do its marketing and generate business interest in its platform. The businesses that hire power users are usually unaware that their huge “popularity” has been artificially created by Instagram. And the new business phenomenon of non-celebrities making money from their photos by advertising for brands has also attracted a lot of media attention itself, in turn raising Instagram’s profile again. But unfortunately, like those at The Guardian, very few journalists think to question how the system was created in the first place and whether it really is effective.

Look closer and you’ll see it’s all phony.

1 Comment
   Moritz Möller said on December 21, 2014 at 6:01 pm

Thank you for pointing out a weakness in the influencer system that is very self sufficient. But still I disagree a bit, the power users oftentimes are community people, hence they meet other Instagrammers to take photos together, that is what Instagram is about. The power users reach a lot of people still and brands can build awareness in collaborating with them. And if they do it right, both sides can win. Of course, sometimes it seems overrated, and it is. On the other hand, the active followers they have, follow them closely and observe what they are doing. Even if the mechanism is similar to other phenomenas in pop culture and online marketing there is another layer underneath, that should not be underrated from my point of view. There still is a lot of community influence in many power users. And Instagram favored a certain style in photography and still continues to do so. But this reflects on our photographic culture and changes the way we see and deal with photography. This is new to a lot of brands and if they want to reach Instagrammers, working with them is the only way to reach them. One could say – a bit cynical, we produce the ad photos for our friends.

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