In a world that increasingly communicates through images, social media platforms like Instagram are changing the way we see and interact with the world…and with brands! Far more than just a tool for marketing, the rise of the visual age offers insights into the perspectives and needs of emerging consumers.
When I was young, my world revolved around words, text, and language. As both student and teacher, my work was the art of communication, oral and written. But somewhere along the way, I found myself in a society driven by images. As an American in Japan, I lived with illiteracy and can tell you that you’d be surprised how much meaning you can convey when words are taken from you. Nowadays, even words themselves must be conscious of their visual elements, as anyone who has played with fonts for a presentation knows well.
Humans are intensely visual. In fact, it’s what we’re best at. Over 90% of information processed by our brains is visual and we process images 60,000 times faster than text. They grab our attention and stay in our memory in a way that makes them wildly effective, even when context is reduced. Images and videos can provoke such strong emotional reactions that they create an intensely personal identification with things we’ve never experienced, or “prosthetic memories.” Furthermore, visuals communicate their content instantly, so they are much more likely to inspire engagement and sharing.
Sure, images have always had a large role to play, but the ubiquity of media and social media platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and Pinterest are both symptoms and drivers of a tremendous shift. We now spend more time than ever in front of screens and exposed to advertisements (up to ten hours a day). Smartphones have placed cameras in everyone’s hands at all times. They have transformed our relationship with photography to the point that even Kodak has launched a “photography-first” smartphone.
The role of photos has changed from preservation to presentation. Kodak urged us to crystallize moments and views of particular beauty or importance, safe from the ravages of time. The captured scene was stored away as a memory, more often than not, whereas photos now are just a starting point. Instagram is a creative process that invites interaction, sharing images and seeking external validation. It’s not just whether I feel that this is a moment to preserve, but whether other people respond to that moment and wish to share it. Thus the personal experiences and lifestyles depicted are also constantly exposed to concrete measures of validation, hence the term: Instagram-WORTHY.
Instagram is both a conscious activity and an unconscious framework through which experiences are assessed. Companies must understand that Instagram isn’t simply something one does. It’s a process of self-creation. Articles on how to use social media to generate influence or market through Instagram abound, so let’s shift focus: How can understanding Instagram help us understand emerging consumers’ behavior?
INSPIRATION, NOT INFORMATION
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it lacks a grammar so to speak. Photos are often divorced from a broader context and open to very subjective interpretation. Yet even while it breaks things down into snapshots, Instagram is still very much about storytelling. Without language, communication takes on an entirely different shape and the rules aren’t as well known, but the very ambiguity and personal nature of interpretation can make the story all the more compelling. Visuals don’t have to tell consumers how a brand is right for them, like the information-laden marketing of older generations. Instead of directly focusing on the product or service, visuals today should weave a tale that invites consumers to step in, inspiring a vision of a life that incorporates that product, leaving the viewer to fill in the details and connect the dots. Just because a snapshot contains a single moment, does not mean it is isolated or unable to reference a host of other images and meanings.
Unlike Snapchat, which positions itself around raw, authentic, unedited moments (because Snapchat images are ephemeral, the presumed lack of planning is part of their charm and differentiation from competitors), Instagram images are often very consciously crafted. In fact, as potential employers now ask for access to applicants’ social media accounts, there is more pressure than ever to develop and manage personal brands through carefully crafted images. Thus Instagram is not only a space to cultivate and showcase creativity, it also skews to polished images and idealized styles.
This platform is highly geared towards individuality and the expression of a personal lifestyle and aesthetic. Brands should adapt their approach to place the user at the center of the narrative. Yes, emerging consumers are becoming more invested in a brand’s backstory, but that concern itself is a reflection of the consumer’s values and priorities in their own narrative. A strong story for your brand is essential, but it is still a prop or backdrop the central protagonist (a.k.a. consumer) uses to tell their own tale.
Beyond cultivating an artistic eye and appreciation for the everyday (by literally posing them in a new light/perspective), the logic of Instagram encourages users to explore their world and expand their experiences. An “Instagram-worthy” moment is created by the novel as well as the picturesque, both of which can drive consumption and experimentation with new products in new markets. But even a perfect Instagram moment is a one-time deal. With the exception of throwback Thursday (#tbt), repetitive images are a poor strategy. The challenge for brands is to create fresh opportunities to engage their products and locations or to lead by example through their own compellingly crafted representation of their brand and products.
Instagram is not static. It is interactive, particularly insofar as it craves and invites external validation. Not only are the images attentively staged and edited, the overall curation and scheduling of the account encourages a very strategic mindset through which to experience and assess life.
“Is this moment Instagram-Worthy?”, “Will this image earn many ‘likes’?”, “Am I due for an Instagram post?”, “Does my account have enough variety?”, “Is this an aesthetically pleasing photo?”, “Are my hashtags appropriate/effective/cheesy?”, “Does this reflect my authentic life or just my travels?”….. It can be exhausting….
So Instagram may be a way to establish a personal vision of self, but it does so very publicly; affirming that vision through concrete external feedback. This creates an opportunity for brands to engage their consumers. That high degree of self-awareness also means Instagram users are not averse to some direct, tongue-in-cheek marketing. IKEA did a brilliant job of poking fun at people who hold up dinner by taking Instagram pictures, in a great example of cross-platform engagement through YouTube. After all, each platform brings its own style and benefits, so each adds new elements which through inter-referencing can build greater momentum.
A brand’s story is more important than ever, as emerging consumers increasingly value and seek elements such as social consciousness, local production, and a mission orientation. Instagram is a medium that highlights the individuals who work within a company and the actions through which a brand engages the communities around them. Transparent, day-in-the-life or behind-the-scenes images humanize products and companies, helping to foster consumer loyalty. The flip side, however, is that Instagram images can also increase expectations of socially conscious corporate behavior. With a goal as elusive as “authenticity,” the larger brands can find themselves at a disadvantage. It’s crucial that brands demonstrate how they can align with consumers’ values and help them achieve their goals and desired lifestyles.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. We still have a long way to go before we understand how communication through visuals provokes responses in a fundamentally different way from a text-based or audio-based society. Even if visuals have been a part of our communication for millennia, we are obviously seeing an explosion in the scale of images we are exposed to each day and a revolution in the way individuals are able to order and publish their lives through images on a global scale. When we change the way we record, communicate, and validate ourselves, it has an impact on what we value and prioritize. Dozens of articles state that Millennials (and Baby Boomers too!) are seeking experiences over possessions, but that’s not limited to fabulous vacations or concerts, it’s embedded in the motivations to purchase even a simple cup of coffee. Small, everyday items are now also understood and evaluated as experiences, not just goods. As such, the higher emotional drivers of consumers are more crucial than ever to effective marketing. While there is currently no clear method through which to conduct market research through visual social media like Instagram, it is a tantalizing glimpse into the inner workings of those most complicated beings – consumers.