I confess I have wondered just what niche Instagram fills in the social media ecosystem, so I was very interested to listen to John TassPa who came to talk to us yesterday.

His enthusiasm was infectious – he outlined the evolution of the photo sharing app and shared some fascinating examples of how public sector organisations are using it.  Instagram’s aim is to enable people to “capture and share moments” and it was fueled by the wish to be able to capture and share immediately – the possibility of which was made real by the near ubiquity of smartphones.

Some key facts and milestones: over 200 million people use the app worldwide. It started off as something for iPhone users, but an android app was launched in 2012. Facebook acquired it in 2012. The audience is primarily young (or at least young at heart as John added!)

Some of the channels key values are Community first, Simplicity matters, and inspire Creativity. It was clear how these aims are delivered from the examples talked about. When instagram first launched they made a huge effort to contact photographers and offer them the opportunity to showcase their work. Thus it didn’t start as an echoing empty place, but was already filled with the sort of content they hoped others could create and add. The app itself is apparently very simple to use (I’ll have to get back to you on that….. although I did notice a twitter exchange  from @billt that raised a question that didn’t sound so simple!) and the creativity element is enhanced by the availability of a range of filters which photographers can apply to their images to lift them out of the mass of ordinary snapshots.

On to the examples – unsurprisingly, the channel has been used by tourism bodies who want to expose great images of the regions they are responsible for – the Australian Tourism body pit out a call to people to use a specific hashtag. They then contact the photographers and curate their content in a gallery. Canada copied this, as did Israel and Iceland. The US department of the interior did similar – although their specific action was to encourage their own park rangers to contribute images. The US coastguard shares control of their main channel with different regional stations, so viewers can get a sense of activity all around the States. And a final US example – and one I’ll definitely take a look at – Boston Public Library – an account to explore!

Boston Public Library on instagram

Boston Public Library on instagram

Instagram is encouraging organisations to be creative in other ways. One technique is to identify photographers on the channel who already have a number of followers, and inviting them to take part in specific events to generate new content. Examples of this include a Canadian Regional tourism board who invited a group of instagrammers from around the world on a visit to their state and curated the content they produced. A current example closer to home is the team managing the NATO summit taking place in Wales. They invited a 17 year old instagrammer to become part of the official press pack and cover the summit. Besides getting a range of different photographs, they have also gained a lot of free positive publicity for this.

NATO wales on instagram

NATO wales on instagram

My own Department DFID also scored an instagram “first” with a campaign it ran around the recent Girl Summit in London. Instagrammers were invited to upload short videos in which they described what freedom meant to them (using the hashtag #freedomis) and the team created a short video of the best clips. Again, lots of good publicity and interest in the process – plus a wide variety of actual submissions.

Girl Summit instagram video

Girl Summit instagram video

The session was wrapped up with some examples of public figures who are using instagram to show their more human side. One comment about the best accounts – its what they see, not about seeing them. People including the italian tourism minister Dario Franceschini, and the Mayor of Los Angeles.

Bottom line – instagram is an overwhelmingly positive channel – favourite of the smartphone owner who just wants to flick through lots of colourful, eyecatching content. The words/captions attached are almost incidental, and its actually quite hard, if not impossible to search for content if you are not a member of the community. I can now understand though how it is helping brands to build on trends, and to raise awareness of a topic or theme.

In conclusion, while I’m not planning to completely change my photo taking and sharing habits overnight, the talk proved again to me the mantra that you need to participate in a channel to really understand how it works. I still have lots of questions, so I may well set up an account.