Instagram Is the Rihanna of Social Networks

Rihanna - Instagram for PR

Grantland ran an interesting piece about U2 recently, describing an existential crisis of sorts.

On the one hand, U2 is extraordinarily popular. They sell millions of expensive concert tickets anytime they tour, and Bono has a net worth of around $600 million. Conversely, their popularity is rooted to their past music. Their recent albums haven’t been anywhere near as successful as their previous albums.

Rihanna was born eight years after U2’s debut album “Boy” was released. She is an incredibly popular artist, with a net worth of about $140 million dollars. Unlike U2, she doesn’t write all of her songs. The writing and co-writing credits on Rihanna’s albums are a venerable “who’s who” in the music industry: Kanye West, Sia, Justin Timberlake, Nicki Minaj, Jay-Z, Timbaland and even Paul McCartney.

Here’s a communications quandry: who is the better messenger? U2 with a legion of loyal fans who (by and large) ignore their later catalog, or Rihanna who has a smaller legion of newer fans? (This was meant as a hypothetical question but feel welcome to respond in the comments)

In this piece, I want to make the case that Instagram is the “Rihanna” of social networks, relative to Facebook as social networking’s U2. Where Facebook is a behemoth social network with consistent utility, Instagram is a smaller network engineered for high-engagement. If you haven’t considered Instagram as a PR vehicle, let me lay out the case for Instagram.

We found love in a hopeless place, or reasons Instagram shouldn’t have succeeded

Instagram began as a mobile-only, iOS-exclusive app in 2010, seven months after the image-sharing app Pinterest launched. Pinterest was gaining a lot of momentum by integrating with Facebook and was about to raise $37 million dollars in VC funding to Instagram’s $7 million. Instagram looked like a niche social media platform with limited appeal. It was the Charlie XCX of social media platforms.

It turned out that the exclusivity masked an incredible demand for the app. Instagram was downloaded 1 million times on the day it was released for the Android OS. The valuation of Instagram that week increased 10 times from $50 million to $500 million. Everyone pretty much knows the rest: Instagram was purchased by Facebook for $1 billion dollars, its growth has surpassed Twitter, it now boasts a per-post brand engagement rate of 4.21 percent (60 times Facebook’s engagement rate of .07 percent).

For our purposes, it’s probably not useful to prognosticate about too many of the reasons for Instagram’s ascent. But there are some measurable aspects of Instagram that are quite unique and special in the social media space. So, let’s explore that…

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Shine bright like a diamond, or why Instagram engagement is so high

Instagram’s per-post engagement is 60 times the per-post engagement of Facebook. Even crazier, for all social networks that Forrester studied, Instagram was #1, and #2? Facebook.

That’s a harrowing statistic and you might be skeptical of its validity (I was). It turns out that there are some very special characteristics about Instagram that make this statistic plausible AND probable, which include:

  • Lack of content filtering
  • Content quality assurance
  • Demographic skew of users
  • High time on-site relative to other social networks

Lack of content filtering.

Contrary to Facebook or to Twitter, Instagram users have full access to their entire feed. For brands this means that the 1 to 3 percent reach you enjoy on Facebook is probably quite a bit higher on Instagram. But it hasn’t always been this way. In 2012 when Facebook had a filtering algorithm but wasn’t constricting reach as drastically, engagement rate was 1.3 percent (compared to its current .07 percent). So, the huge difference in engagement between Facebook and Instagram may not indicate that there is a huge apples-to-apples difference in how they deliver content.

Content quality assurance.

Looking back at Facebook 2012, there was one category of post that earned 39 percent higher engagement than the others: images. Like Rihanna and her network of proven songwriters, every piece of content posted to Instagram is higher interest than much of the content posted to Twitter or Facebook. One presumes that video content falls in the same “high-interest” category as images.

Demographic skew of users.

ComScore did a study of mobile apps by age group and found that the highest concentration of mobile users was in the 18- to 24-year-old demographic, who spend nearly 10 percent of their time on the app. This seems to indicate that the largest user demographics for Instagram are mobile-first, digital-native users. Facebook by contrast is strong across demographics, and presumably would have a lower engagement-per-user (on average) as a result. (Note that this data is a year-old, and with Instagram’s growth relative to Facebook the Instagram statistics are probably even larger now).


High time on-site relative to other social networks.

The other story that the comScore data show is told by what apps aren’t shown: Twitter, G+, Pinterest, Snapchat. As a social network, Instagram’s strength appears to be keeping users on-site. Only Facebook keeps users on site longer.

What PR practitioners need to know about Instagram is that it has some very special characteristics that keep people on-site and engaged.

Where have you been, all my life? Or, how are brands finding success on Instagram?

Instagram recently opened up its API to developers, which has led to some really great tools to navigate and manage IG. I use SocialBro and Iconosquare, the latter of which has an analytics function that allows you to look at (lofty) Instagram brand data to see how the most effective brands on Instagram are doing.

Looking at the largest Instagram followings by size (non-celebrity), we see that engagement level is lower than Forrester’s average (4.21 percent) averaging 2.08 percent for the top brands by followers. The lesson being that at scale, brands are getting incredibly good engagement from Instagram.

Top Brands on Instagram by Followers
Brand Categories Followers Engagement Rate Posts on Hashtag Media Posted
National Geographi… media 22.2M (=) 1.58% (1240) 1.4M (197) 7k (20)
Victoria’s Secret fashion 17.4M (=) 1.66% (1199) 2.4M (121) 2.4k (261)
Nike fashion sport 17M (=) 2.60% (737) 45.6M (3) 790 (1011)
FC Barcelona sport football 13M (=) 3.04% (573) 1.8M (161) 5k (47)
Real Madrid C.F. sport football 11.4M (=) 2.08% (964) 4.6M (63) 994 (807)
NBA sport basketball 7.7M (=) 2.03% (992) 7.3M (38) 8.9k (9)
Forever 21 fashion 7.1M (=) 1.93% (1040) 4M (76) 2.2k (317)
Nike Football fashion sport 6.2M (=) 4.18% (302) 275.1k (585) 823 (971)
adidas Originals fashion sport 5.9M (=) 1.44% (1332) 733.8k (350) 1.9k (373)
Louis Vuitton fashion luxury 5.4M (=) 0.92% (1632) 9.2M (31) 900 (889)
GoPro electronics 5.4M (=) 3.70% (393) 12.1M (19) 1.7k (417)
H&M fashion retail 5.3M (=) 1.82% (1109) 3.9M (78) 1.1k (773)
Starbucks beverages 4.9M (=) 3.95% (336) 21.5M (10) 777 (1021)
Zara fashion retail 4.9M (+1) 1.20% (1476) 10.3k (1620) 665 (1170)
Iker Casillas celebrities athletes 4.9M (-1) 3.87% (350) 393.9k (486) 897 (891)
Anastasia Beverly… beauty 4.8M (=) 1.29% (1426) 2.2M (126) 3.8k (95)
Chanel fashion luxury 4.8M (=) 1.59% (1234) 26.2M (8) 150 (2385)
Michael Kors fashion luxury 4.7M (=) 1.52% (1282) 6.9M (42) 1.6k (464)
Vogue Magazine media 4.6M (=) 1.47% (1312) 101.8k (891) 1.9k (389)
adidas fashion sport 4.6M (=) 2.17% (924) 13.6M (17) 723 (1090)
Topshop fashion retail 4.5M (=) 1.18% (1492) 11.4M (23) 3k (166)
Louboutin fashion luxury 4.5M (=) 1.22% (1469) 4.3M (70) 2k (349)
8fact media 4.4M (=) 3.70% (392) 63k (1046) 2.9k (187)
Dolce Gabbana fashion luxury 4.4M (=) 1.31% (1407) 2.5M (117) 1.8k (405)
Falcao celebrities athletes 4.4M (=) 3.45% (455) 193.1k (687) 427 (1613)
Gucci fashion luxury 4.3M (=) 0.84% (1691) 15.9M (14) 799 (1003)
Dior fashion luxury 4.3M (=) 1.12% (1527) 15.5M (15) 729 (1083)
Manchester United sport football 4M (=) 3.76% (376) 661.8k (381) 2.7k (217)
Burberry fashion luxury 3.7M (=) 0.88% (1663) 9.8M (26) 1.7k (421)
Prada fashion luxury 3.7M (=) 0.99% (1591) 16.4M (13) 767 (1032)

Let’s then take a look at the brands with the highest engagement on Instagram. The average engagement for these 30 brands is 10.6 percent, but the average number of media posted is much lower averaging 392. This could be due to myriad variables, but it may be that a lower post frequency is a contributing factor to high engagement rate (A query of highest frequency posters appears to substantiate this somewhat: average engagement rate is less than 1 percent for the top 30 cohort).

Top Brands on Instagram by Engagement Rate
Brand Categories Followers Engagement Rate Posts on Hashtag Media Posted
Germanwings airlines 14.5k (1739) 20.45% (=) 65.6k (1030) 375 (1732)
CMN Hospitals nonprofit 15.8k (1706) 15.90% (=) 2.1k (2020) 217 (2182)
Red Band Society entertainment tv 91.3k (997) 15.24% (=) 50.8k (1113) 139 (2428)
Parks and Recreati… entertainment 152.2k (785) 13.13% (+1) 342 (2392) 352 (1780)
Doctor Who BBC entertainment tv 39.1k (1330) 12.93% (-1) 17.1k (1465) 458 (1541)
Elon University education 10.2k (1880) 12.66% (=) 40.2k (1186) 708 (1111)
New York Universit… education 14.9k (1729) 12.21% (=) 323 (2403) 245 (2088)
In-N-Out Burger food 64.4k (1129) 12.10% (=) 1M (262) 44 (2731)
Alex Morgan sport athletes 1M (182) 10.44% (=) 128.6k (832) 307 (1912)
Unfriended Movie entertainment 25.5k (1510) 10.09% (=) 2.4k (1999) 32 (2755)
Deutschland sucht… entertainment tv 106.7k (934) 9.93% (=) 103.4k (886) 591 (1298)
Six Flags Magic Mo… places entertainment 53.1k (1212) 9.90% (=) 45.6k (1152) 182 (2286)
A.S.S.E sport football 21.1k (1595) 9.83% (=) 37.5k (1208) 484 (1490)
University of Wash… education 21.8k (1583) 9.83% (=) 27.9k (1310) 428 (1605)
Paradise Hotel Nor… entertainment tv 42.2k (1297) 9.75% (=) 4.3k (1845) 242 (2104)
USA Hockey Team sport 16.6k (1691) 9.48% (+1) 3.1k (1925) 149 (2390)
NCIS entertainment tv 31.5k (1416) 9.46% (+1) 240.5k (623) 264 (2028)
Grey’s Anatomy entertainment 625.2k (333) 9.46% (+1) 22.3k (1377) 250 (2076)
Roccat electronics 46.2k (1256) 9.24% (+1) 12.8k (1549) 164 (2339)
Guinness fmcg alcohol 28.2k (1467) 9.22% (+1) 1M (271) 369 (1746)
Valencia FC sport 104.9k (943) 9.21% (-5) 40.3k (1185) 1.7k (416)
Roger Federer athletes 662.9k (308) 9.18% (=) 130k (829) 77 (2634)
Dartmouth College education 11.1k (1841) 9.17% (+1) 110.8k (865) 657 (1174)
Sydney Football Cl… sport football 12.5k (1802) 8.90% (+1) 30.1k (1282) 1k (802)
24heures Du Mans sport 12.2k (1814) 8.86% (+2) 28.6k (1297) 830 (957)
007 James Bond entertainment 47.5k (1246) 8.36% (=) 626.2k (388) 106 (2544)
Vikings entertainment tv 147.8k (794) 8.32% (-4) 769k (338) 466 (1528)
Glee entertainment 252.3k (624) 8.17% (=) 10.9k (1599) 301 (1925)
Big Brother Canada entertainment 22.6k (1566) 8.00% (+1) 1.9M (156) 392 (1701)
History TV media 12.4k (1807) 7.99% (+1) 357 (2376) 209 (2203)

What I wanted to point out in this section is that brands are having success with different tactics. Brands that post frequently may enjoy a .8 percent per post engagement rate, which is still higher than any other social network (on average). Brands that are judicious and strategic about their posts may enjoy higher engagement.

I want you to stay, or conclusion

“Is there anyone out there that can challenge the leadership of MySpace?” – Robert Young, GigaOm, 2006

“We’re back, re-applying for the job, and the job is best band in the world.” – Bono, The Guardian UK, 2001

When it comes to social networks, there is a period where each platform earns its legitimacy. In 2006, MySpace was the biggest social network in the world. In the article referenced above, Robert Young questions whether platforms like myyearbook might soon challenge MySpace’s dominance. By 2007, Facebook was clearly the heir apparent quickly surpassing MySpace and becoming the eminent social network to this day. Facebook has tinkered with a lot of the user experience since their ascent, but the basic utility of the site is more or less the same. Facebook is the U2 of social networks.

Pew Internet writes that Instagram usage grew 9 percent year-over-year from 2013 to 2014, while Facebook’s use was stagnant. While that still means that Instagram only has a third of Facebook’s users, it also surpasses Twitter trailing only Pinterest and LinkedIn for total users. That said, the similarly sized social networks can’t compete with Instagram’s engagement or with its time-on-site. The content on Instagram is optimized for engagement, the audience is young, and interest in Instagram content is high. Instagram is the Rihanna of social networks.

If you haven’t considered Instagram as a communications platform, hopefully some of the statistics here will help you to reconsider.

“When you realize who you live for, and who’s important to please, a lot of people will actually start living.” – Rihanna

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Image: Eva Rinaldi (Creative Commons)