How can one really know the value of an Instagram community? What some social marketers consider “the next big thing” for brands, is barely measurable.

As Instagram starts to become an important piece of an integrated digital strategy for big brands, I’m left left scratching my head wondering if the platform can create value beyond social media channel building?  This thought came to my attention when speaking to a client about an e-commerce brand that had over 50,000 Instagram followers. They had some great questions like:

“How can I turn my 50,000 followers on Instagram into customers?”

“How can I measure sales attributed to Instagram?”

Damn good questions. I hear these questions all the time from clients about social, and usually I know exactly how to answer, but Instagram is an entirely different beast.

In comparison to similar social media platforms, like Pinterest, Tumblr and Twitter, Instagram’s focus on image (and now video) sharing are completely unlike one another.

What makes Instagram so different are the two following characteristics:

1. No Re-Posting

Instagram has no “re-posting” features (re-pins, re-blogs & re-tweets) that help content to be shared across the app’s community. The fact that Instagram content isn’t as shareable puts more emphasis on the content creator to produce their own unique posts, instead of becoming a broadcaster or curator of content created by others. Although this might enhance the quality of content that is being shared, it also makes growing one’s community size labor intensive and in turn, expensive for brands.

2) No Hyperlinking 

The only place an external link can be placed is on the bio section of an Instagram account. In other social media platforms, brands have an opportunity to drive referral traffic to a specific place on the web, such an e-commerce store or a campaign.

If you post a link in a comment on Instagram, it just converts to plain text. As many e-commerce brands spend time posting on the platform, it leads me to think Instagram is really only a showcase mechanism for brands that will (maybe) lead to (untrackable) sales.

From my experience as a social marketer, I believe the bread and butter of social marketing strategy for e-commerce uses links shared online to drive online store conversions. When I work with my clients, I ensure that each social media marketing strategy is completely trackable, otherwise there is really no reason to spend your resources on something you don’t even know is working or driving sales.

The main metric I focus on for e-commerce and social campaigns is pretty obvious: conversions.

Social media marketing hinges on the following two types of trackable activities:

  1. Drive someone to buy something (e-commerce specifically)
  2. Drive someone to do something or give you something (sign up for an offer / give them your email)

Currently Instagram’s platform doesn’t support this at all. Although I follow many big brands that are posting the coolest content ever, their only measure is engagement through likes and comments. Brands are able to interact by responding – but they will never be able to accurately attribute conversions or sales to Instagram directly. Of course maybe you could tie together a post to a spur in sales of a product, but who wants to sift through data like that if you’re posting new things for sale everyday. Who’s to say Instagram was the reason for that sale? Maybe it was Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter – or where ever you shared the picture. It begs the question: why use Instragram? If it’s not directly attributable to driving sales, then why participate?

Instagram E Commerce

For big brands using Instragram, they can be seen as being “au courant,” which also, in my opinion, could be a strong enough reason to allocate marketing dollars to creating a presence on the platform. There are metrics you can gage success from, such as community growth metrics (follower counts & likes) and interactions that could prove valuable to marketers as they make product or brand decisions.

Beyond that, I think Instagram has a long way to go to be valuable to e-commerce brands and social marketers. Deloitte Digital reported that smartphones influenced $159 billion in store sales over the course of 2012, or 5% of total sales, and would influence $689 billion in store sales by 2016. Wouldn’t you think a mobile app should tap into that?

The question still remains, how will Instragram do it? considering their failed attempt at monetizing their offering this year, which sent the internet into a frenzy. Their hyper focus on user generated content has made them the darling of social media as of late, and with their unveiling of video, this route could be what’s on the horizon.

What I do know is that, as a data driven social marketer, I’m not drinking the Kool-Aid yet. It’s not a good social marketing strategy if you can’t measure it.

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