Beyond The Filters: Brands Begin To Pour Into Instagram

What do NPR, NBC News, Playboy, Pepsi, CNN, Starbucks, Grammys, and David Blaine all have in common? They’ve all recently signed up for Instagram. Yes, the mobile photo sharing service. And there’s apparently a plan beyond simply sharing filtered pictures with fans.

For now, that plan appears to be engagement. For example, when Starbucks unveiled their new logo a few weeks ago, they immediately shared it on Instagram to get feedback. Meanwhile, NPR has been using the service to share photos from stories such as this one, a Phillippine politician’s assassination. “NPR has amazing comment threads on their stories. It’s really inspiring to see,” Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom says.

So how did these brands come to find Instagram? Did Instagram reach out? Is it some sort of paid deal? No to both, Systrom says. “It’s happening organically – we usually stumble upon these folks because someone mentions it on Twitter. For better or worse, we haven’t done any outreach ourselves,” he says. “We’re not interested in paying anyone to use the product — we want it to happen because they love the product, and they see value in connecting with their fans,” he continues.

This trend started with National Geographic back in November of last year.

Instagram is evolving from being a photo platform for you and your friends to share moments, into something larger and more powerful as a platform to connect with news events in a rich way,” Systrom notes. He says that they’re still figuring out the best practices, but says that they’re working on better experiences for all the brands to communicate more directly with their users.

One obvious idea is to allow for links in Instagram comments. “We don’t yet support links in the text – but we’re working on ways for partners to link out to content that’s relevant. We’re working with some of these partners specifically on this,” Systrom notes.

And all of this is interesting given the amount of interest in the mobile photo sharing space currently. It’s red hot, but people look at these apps and wonder how the hell you build a business around them? Well, it’s certainly not the picture filters, Systrom says. Instead, he thinks of those more as hooks to get people sharing and using the service. But they know there needs to be more to it then that.

And so do rivals such as PicPlz. A big reason why that rival startup got $5 million in funding was because the plan is much broader than a photo-sharing app.

Something else Instagram aims to build out is the third-party community around their service. While they attracted some heat yesterday for pulling the data plug on one small service using their pictures, it’s only because they’re prepping a proper API. They hope that will be done in the next week or so.

Oh, and as for Playboy? I asked Systrom how exactly they were using the service expecting, well, you know. “You should follow them. They just signed up — their idea is to share a behind the scenes look at the Playboy offices, not to post adult content,” he says. There goes one potential revenue idea.

Regardless, brands signing up for Instagram is a very good sign for the company. It means they’re beginning to be viewed as one of the potentially necessary tools to connect with an audience. Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, etc. They’ve all gone through this stage.