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Instagram’s New Terms of Service: Implications for Marketers

January 8, 2013

Published here on January 8, 2013.

As a public relations student, I recognize that what happens in the tech world matters. A change in company policy can affect for an organization’s ability to advertise or market itself through social media. So you can understand why I followed the news fanatically when Instagram was in the media spotlight a few weeks ago. In the article “What Instagram’s New Terms of Service Mean for You,” the New York Times Bits blog reported that Instagram appeared to have rights to advertise specifically to its users and to use users’ content for advertising purposes of its own.

Aside from the excellent case study one can glean from this issue (what with the quick response on the company blog and the clearly attuned ear Instagram had toward its users), it’s easy to see the media loves scandal more than most topics. After Instagram apologized, the issue all but disappeared completely from the intense spotlight in which it had suffered.

So what exactly changed?

  • Instagram can market specifically to users. In the rise of the “Big Data” concerns, this change echoes the trend of most social media platforms in allowing those platforms to market specifically to users based upon their account activity and indicated interests. If a user follows several beverage companies, they will be targeted as such.
  • Instagram can share data with its parent company, Facebook. After all, they’re owned by Facebook.
  • Underage users of Instagram are not exempt from the changes. Instagram states that even if a 14 year old signs up to use the service, the mere act of their agreeing to the terms of service implies that they have a guardian who also consents to these terms. This eliminates any legal issue similar to the one McDonald’s recently faced over their viral marketing campaigns to children.
  • It’s also important to note that Instagram does NOT own the rights to any user content. This was stated very clearly in the company response. Users still own their own content.

That’s all great, you say, for Instagram. But what does this really mean for organizations and how they market themselves through social media?

First of all, it’s important to note how Instagram can even be used for online marketing purposes. You can check out this blog post for specific examples, but in short, Instagram helps with branding. With the hashtag communities and the more personal-touch feeling of the platform, an organization can use Instagram to humanize itself. Starbucks is an excellent example of Instagram done right. It boasts more than a million followers, and posts pictures of coffee being enjoyed among friends, or cookies sitting out in preparation for Santa Claus.

As far as marketing ramifications of the terms of service update:

  • Companies will be able to more effectively target users. As I said above, Instagram and Facebook are now sharing data, so marketers have a larger ability to avoid wasted effort. There will be less broad campaigns and more niche-based appeals to users. Marketers will be able to collect and compare user data from the two services. Obviously a person’s tastes are not going to change as they switch between social media platforms – marketing to someone through Instagram based on data received from Facebook will prove very helpful.
  • Instagram strategies may resemble Facebook. There has been talk of promoted photos as a method of advertising, similar to the promoted posts on Facebook. This will make things easier for marketers since they won’t have to adapt to completely new techniques. Methods of tracking effectiveness will most likely be similar as well.
  • Instagram doesn’t own organizational content either. While using photos of couples or food strikes me as better content with which Instagram can build its own brand, those Starbucks photos would look good on a billboard. Organizations can rest assured that their content will be doing the advertising for themselves, not for Instagram.

I reiterate that it’s important to know about changes in terms of service, because the rights a social media platform has on user data can directly affect the ability to market through that platform. Luckily, Instagram’s changes made this easier. No doubt marketing companies will take some time adapting to these changes, as they have been constantly adapting to social media since its creation. Instagram is also very mobile-based, a world to which marketing is just barely getting acclimated.

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About the author:  Joseph Havey is an account manager for the Triangle-based Shelten Media, LLC, a start-up company specializing in social media marketing. He is a junior at N.C. State, majoring in Communication with a focus in PR and a member of N.C. State’s PRSSA chapter. He also writes for their newspaper, Technician. In his free time, he trains for triathlons.


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