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Instagram backtracks on updates: Can it change the game or stick to being itself?

Instagram backtracks on updates: Can it change the game or stick to being itself?

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Instagram has backtracked on the product tests it previously rolled out, including full-screen photos and videos. Last month, The Platformer, a tech publication founded by Casey Newton who is also the contributing editor of The Verge, said the test version will be phased out in a week or two. Instagram chief Adam Mosseri also told The Platformer then that it will also reduce the amount of recommended posts in the app while working to improve its algorithms.

Instagram was criticised by celebrities Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner as well as netizens for attempting to be like TikTok. Although Mosseri has since explained that its shift to video is "not yet good" and that it's still in the testing phase, netizens still demanded for Instagram to switch its focus back to photo. A Change.org petition is also circulating online titled "Make Instagram Instagram Again", listing out users' demands such as having chronological timelines.

The total number of mentions between 25 to 28 July in Southeast Asia jumped 2,107% to 2.01k, according to Meltwater. Top keywords include "video after video", "actual friends", "photos", "random pages", and "many short films", among others. Most of the chatter came from Malaysia followed by Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore. The majority of online sentiments were negative (82%) while 17% were neutral.

instagram tiktok chatter

CEO Mark Zuckerberg further addressed the topic of Reels in Meta's recent earnings call, explaining that Reels is part of the trend that focuses on the growth of short-form video as a content format. Last quarter, Reels already formed 20% of the time that people spend on Instagram and in the second quarter, Meta saw more than 30% increase in the time that people spent engaging with Reels across Facebook and Instagram.

"AI advances are driving a lot of these improvements, and one example is that after launching a new large AI model for recommendations, we saw a 15% increase in watch time in the Reels video player on Facebook alone," Zuckerberg said.

While Reels poses an opportunity for Meta, it is also a near-term challenge because it does not yet monetise at the same rate as feed or stories. "So in the near term, the faster that Reels grows, the more revenue that act While Meta has the option of mitigating this headwind by being less aggressive in growing Reels, Zuckerberg said "that would be worse for our products and business longer term" since the company is confident that Reels will grow engagement overall and quality will eventually monetise closer to feed.

"Our work on ads monetisation efficiency for Reels is actually making faster progress than we'd expected. We've now crossed US$1 billion annual revenue run rate for Reels ads, and Reels also has a higher revenue run rate than Stories did at identical times post-launch. So the bottom line is I think we're on track here, and we just need to push through this one," he added.

Separately, Instagram is still garnering significant attention from users despite the rise in popularity of other platforms. In Singapore, for example, the proportion of content published on Instagram by the government increased by 5.34% from 9.71% in H1 2021 to 15.05% in H1 2022, resulting in 14.18% growth in interactions from 20.39% in H1 2021 to 34.57% in H2 2022. The proportion of Instagram interactions by ministries have also increased significantly from16.55% in H1 2021 versus 34.54% in H1 2022.

While video content has more engagement than images, Anish Daryani, founder and president director of M&C Saatchi Indonesia told MARKETING-INTERACTIVE that the former is much more difficult to create and many creators might struggle to cope with new skills needed for shooting and editing high quality video content. "As photo publishers are now seeing lesser engagement on their posts compared to video content being published, their concern seems but natural. Besides, Instagram was primarily a photo-sharing platform, and that's what attracted users to it. But as it evolves, users are 'missing' the original platform that was all about great pictures," he explained.

This isn't the first time Instagram has adopted features from competitor apps. When Instagram launched Stories in 2016, many compared it to Snapchat since it also features ephemeral content. When Reels was launched in 2020, then-TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer called Facebook out for launching "another copycat product" after it shut down Lasso, a short-video sharing app which was launched to take on TikTok.

(Read also: Analysis: Facebook 'Reels' in another clone as TikTok battles headwinds)

Sunny Johar, director, digital strategy, KRDS Singapore, said that although Instagram has always adopted features from other platforms, these were always integrated as additional features and not prioritised over existing popular features. Typically, these were introduced to solve a problem. In the case of Stories, Johar said they naturally fit into the user behaviour because the individual Instagram feeds had started to become more curated and Stories gave users the opportunity to share everyday moments that were natural, raw and had a different aesthetic to their feeds.

Furthermore, the UI/UX of Instagram gave Stories their own place with horizontal tapping, and the feed content its own place in the vertical scroll. Ultimately, Stories took precedence over the feed content - but it was a gradual and natural evolution, she said. According to her, the outrage over the prioritisation of video is a great example of what happens when the UI/UX of an app goes against user preferences and behaviour.

"By changing the focus of the app from an interface and experience standpoint, the video content is being promoted at the expense of other types of content that users still prefer to create, share and consume," she explained.

Meanwhile, Kevin Kan, chief experience officer, Break Out Consulting Asia explained that while Instagram is trialling the new features, users are treated to more ads and videos through Reels. "It feel that putting Reels of people you don’t know and the endless advertising that pops up on your screen is making Instagram a productivity vampire," he said.

When users sign up for a service, there is usually a level of trust in the service offered. When the service provider breaks that services without communicating about it, Kan said trust is lost. In this case, consumers signed up to Instagram to look at photos of their friends. While it is the trend these days to shift focus to the younger generation, Kan said Instagram didn't communicate that they were trialling new features to alert users.

"Communication is key to managing expectations and maintaining trust – especially for influencer endorsements and the advertising revenue they generate. There are opportunities here for Instagram. Advising users that new features are being trialled and that they would invite feedback on the new features, would be a great way to involve users in designing features and the UX," Kan said. Instaagram should make product development a part of the customer journey as this would be a sure way to enhance the customer experience.

Similarly, Forrester's VP and research director, Mike Proulx, said Meta is "desperately trying to increase engagement of Reels" to monetise it for ad revenue and this equates to essentially forcing it upon users. Instagram has also been testing a new full-screen UI that mimics TikTok to emphasise Reels in feed. In such instances, Proulx said:

A forced engagement strategy won’t bring Gen Z back to Meta’s platforms and could end up accelerating their exodus.

That said, perhaps it is also time for Kardashian and Jenner to switch up their content strategy. Claudia Low, Lion & Lion's head of creative content, said Instagram posts and Stories are the name of the game for both celebrities. However, when video content is what social media users are liking, sharing, and generally consuming more of these days, even on Instagram, and when multiple apps are racing to offer similar services, Low said this goes beyond adapting functions and instead reflects a sign of changing times. 

What should Instagram's next move be?

Low described this to be a Catch-22 situation because while videos keep audiences hooked in a way that photos cannot, users generally don't like too much change all at once. "Instagram can't be another TikTok, but to dig in its heels like Facebook will make it obsolete," Low said.

She explained that this is a subjective issue because she personally likes using one app to consume what she chooses. "I think Instagram's going to have to stick to its guns and navigate the PR backlash with grace as it continues its testing and optimising," Low said. While it currently feels like Instagram is trying to be many different things at once, Low is all for an Instagram that gives her more options as a user and one that evolves to better serve content creators rather than influencers.

Mosseri did stress in the video that Instagram vows to get better and produce more effective and important ways to help creators reach more people. Meanwhile, Meta also said recently that Facebook will allow content creators to make more money from videos with licenced songs under Music Revenue Sharing. This allows video creators to receive 20% revenue share on eligible videos, with a separate share going to music rights holders and to Meta.

On the other hand, M&C Saatchi Indonesia's Daryani believes that Instagram will gain more by finding the unique role it chooses to play in consumers' lives rather than wanting to clone TikTok. This is because consumers focus on a channel mix where Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, LinkedIn, and Snapchat, for example, all have their place.

"Differentiation is key to being relevant, and that's what Instagram should focus on. As far as competition is concerned, Instagram has already been outwitted and outplayed by TikTok," he said, adding:

Perhaps it needs to stop trying to be everything for everyone, and make choices to stick to an audience that appreciates Instagram for what it is. Perhaps it's time to change the game.

From a PR recovery perspective, Break Out Consulting's Kan said Mosseri made the right move in tweeting out a video in the wake of the Kardashian-Jenner complaint. Moving forward, Instagram could take a leaf out of TV networks' book by holding an upfront event to inform users what's coming next and how it will enhance their social media experience. This way, user expectations will be managed and they will know what to expect in trials and upgrades.

"Listening to what users want is important but it is also important to know when to drag users into the new decade too. Just look at airbags in cars or the launch of the iPhone. Consumers didn’t know they needed it until they were given the product or feature," Kan explained.

Aside from the UX standpoint, Kan is also looking at this issue from a geopolitical lens. Based on this, it makes sense for Instagram to move into the video space given the global political climate. Hypothetically, if Russian sanctions were to be applied to China, that would mean Chinese companies such as TikTok's parent firm ByteDance could have sanctions levied against them or they could face public backlash. "This could lead to a migration of users from TikTok to Instagram if Instagram had the features users or influencers need to continue their video productions. In the world of Influencers and advertising dollars, you need to be ready to ride the next wave," he explained.

Meanwhile, KRDS' Johar believes in a more natural evolution in the user experience rather than forcing the audience to adapt through a downsizing of photography as a form of self-expression and art. "Users take to their Instagram feeds to view content from a mix of friends, family and influencers, celebrities or brands that they follow. However, on TikTok, the content is mostly creator-focused and the For You Page gets far more traction than the Following page," she said.

Thus, whilst TikTok is a strong competitor in terms of time spent in-app, Instagram has its own place as a means for people to keep in touch. It would be far more powerful if Instagram was a place where people could also create video content to share with existing and new audiences, in addition to all the other features they already enjoy, rather than a place where people can only predominantly do the same as what they can on TikTok and Snapchat, Johar added. 

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