Could Instagram Be the Amazon Disruptor?

Bridget Johns
Bridget Johns
Chief Marketing Officer, Head of Growth Strategies

Instagram is evolving into a marketplace that is experience-rich, has high visual content and has a purpose that extends beyond just shopping, and it just might become the medium to break Amazon’s stranglehold on digital-empowered retail.

As we marched through the holidays, I was continuously asked what trends would define the season. I believe the answer is, increasingly, Instagram. Yes, Instagram.

Amazon is, of course, this behemoth that has become synonymous with Christmas/Holiday shopping. As we all know, Amazon couldn’t be easier. Your friends and family tell you what they want, you easily find it on the Amazon site, and in many cases have it shipped to their doorsteps with the click of a button. This, of course, is not news, but what is news is the way other tech-rich experiences are shaping the way we are not only transacting to have goods delivered to our homes, but how we are experiencing new brands and products in the first place.

There is no doubt Amazon has changed how we shop, but the question has remained, how do you expose consumers to new and emerging brands and products in an authentic and interesting way? Instagram is leading the charge on a new model for brand discovery. In fact, the proposition is so compelling that even Amazon is spending money to promote its top rated products on Instagram.

An emerging theme of the past few years has been the changing nature of the retail store – digital natives have been opening stores at a record pace as the cost of customer acquisition has skyrocketed on digital mediums. Mall and property owners have gotten into the game and have started creating turnkey environments to facilitate this physical exploration (BrandBox, Showfields, Neighborhood Goods, etc). All of this activity translates to increased options for shoppers to experience new and emerging brands. Instagram plays squarely in this trend. Both in its role as a social media platform – allowing the perfect photo to be shared with friends and family – and also in its role as an emerging venue for brands to find new customers.

The role of influencers has been well documented and is well understood. But the two trends that I think are having a critical impact on today’s commerce are the “Instagrammable” live retail experiences and the Instagramization of the overall shopping experience, replacing everything from fashion magazines to a walk around the mall.

Instagram as an experience

Over the past few seasons, Instagram experiences such as Color Factory, The Museum of Ice Cream and NYC’s new entry, Camp, have been popping up as places to create and enjoy memories, spend some money and share experiences on Instagram. Ready-made photographic playgrounds create inspiration and the perfectly framed shot at every turn.

Traditional retail environments are also starting to get into the game. High growth retailers such as Allbirds and Year and Day are opening stores that have visual appeal in addition to being a place to experience these new brands. This is all done to aid in the visual representation of a place or brand. Companies like Pixlee make it easy to connect fans to possible customers, giving everyone a chance to build their own Instagram personality, and helping brands extend their reaches virally. This season, even Instagram parent Facebook got into the mix with a pop-up experience in Macy’s, highlighting some of the most popular Facebook-first brands. All of this experimentation and physical store growth points to the fact that consumers reward brands and retailers who create engaging experiences. Instagram is just that, an engaging experience that is tailored to one’s unique lifestyle and preferences. The power of that feels very anti-Amazon.

Instagram as a commerce platform

Yes, you read that sub-headline correctly. Your favorite photo sharing social network – made famous with selfies and glam shots – is increasingly becoming a place to drive retail sales. Of course, Instagram (and Facebook) makes billions in ad revenue, so their interest in retail is not a new one. However, what is increasingly interesting to me is how over this past holiday season the Instagram social experience so seamlessly became a transactional experience and how I believe this will shape the shopping experience more and more over time.

This holiday season, nearly everyone I spoke to has bought at least one, and often more than one, gift via Instagram inspiration. Personally, I was a big fan of Traveller Collective, Rothy’s and Turing Tumble (a marble run game for kids) for my holiday gifting. All three of these experiences were unique in some way, but all of them placed me squarely in Instagram’s robust data engine, making me the perfect target for these brands and more.

It’s not difficult to tie my professional, family and travel experiences together to these three brands. Instagram knows I have a strong interest in retail and emerging brands and it also knows family life and travel are central themes for me. Through its look-alike modeling, matching the right product to the right person is a central value of its advertising platform.

Additionally, Instagram is making it easier and easier to shop directly from the in-app experience, and while it still isn’t as seamless as Amazon, when it is, it could represent the perfect hat trick. Imagine a marketplace that is experience-rich, has high visual content and has a purpose that extends beyond just shopping. The possibility for Instagram (and other social platforms) to disrupt Amazon is fascinating to me. And the cool thing about an Instagram-type experience is that in addition to driving digital sales directly from the app, it still drives physical foot traffic into stores. Retailers love the platform for the opportunity it represents, and consumers find it authentic and engaging.  

If Instagram (and Facebook) can weather the consumer privacy storm they are currently in the middle of, the opportunity is huge to impact retail and shopper experience. Competition is good for consumers and should be good for retail. I hope you are as excited as I am to watch this story unfold. Happy New Year!

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