Food, Innovation, Marketing Strategy, Product Thoughts

Why Instagram Should Not Have Added Video

On the perils of changing an existing, highly engaging product.

Summer Raspberries
Instagram makes taking beautiful pictures simple.

This is a response to this week’s Startup Edition question: “How do you build engaging products?”

Facebook has a history of experimentation – changing things wholesale for large groups of users – and of changing the service so that it stays novel and rewards customer usage. So when Facebook bought Instagram and didn’t outwardly change it, I breathed a sigh of relief: perhaps they would keep a nearly perfect product as it was. I think there’s another reason driving the feature addition for video. Facebook needs additional revenue (eventually) to justify the $1b acquisition cost for Instagram, and customers are used to video ads on their TV. They might get used to video ads in their social streams as well.

Many customers really hated this move, because Instagram was already an incredibly engaging product. The uproar uncovers some interesting lessons about the process of creating engaging products.

What was great about Instagram?

Instagram succeeded by doing just one simple thing (capture instant memories using a square photo format on your phone) and making it fun – but not too fun. Instagram also succeeded by building a community of people who love pictures and who wanted to share those photos and ideas with each other. And Instagram borrowed some social metaphors from other successful products (notably, the hashtag from Twitter).

You might argue that Instagram succeeded by having a tight focus and a small, dedicated team that worked wonders and encouraged a community to do great stuff. (You’d be right.)

4 Things That Will Make Your Product Engaging (And Great)

The Instagram team did several things right on its journey to create an engaging product:

1) Collected the “I wants” and “I needs” – I want to share photos, and I need it to be easy, and I want it to have fun filters

2) Separated customer pain from general issues – There are many ways to take pictures, but when Instagram was created there weren’t many ways to share them quickly with friends

3) Identified a crisp problem statement – Why can’t I quickly share a beautiful still moment with friends and discover other great moments?

4) Focused on the everyday experience and made it great – they didn’t try to build all the features, just the ones they found people might use to capture moments in just a few steps, every day

What made the single purpose app 10x better?

The Wow Factor – the way that Instagram exceeded the expectations of customers – is the ability to jump into a social stream of moments that all look professionally produced. Standardizing the aspect ratio and using filters to tune the images to look great makes your photo stream on Instagram easy to review even if the photos are taken by many different photographers of many different subjects.

Adding video changed all of that. Instead of presenting information that you could consume at the same rate, adding video forces the customer to decide: video or audio? This seems like a small change but simply adding more, mandatory choices is a recipe to discourage engagement.

What could Facebook have done?

Facebook could have launched a separate app called Facebook Video – they have a track record of doing the same with Messages. A separate app could have created a vibrant video community without diluting the brand promise of Instagram.

Does anyone care about maintaining a single purpose app?

Looking back, I’m not sure if product managers care about maintaining a single purpose app – it’s too seductive to think about adding a habit to the habit that already exists as a means of building the brand. Is it damaging to do that? Maybe, though it will take time to tell if current or long-time Instagram users will change their behavior. I’ve turned off video auto-play for now.

On Writing, Social Networking

4 ways to get started in social media

I’ve been meeting a lot of people lately who are relatively unfamiliar with social media (except maybe using it for personal use of Facebook or LinkedIn.)  It does feel a little bit strange when you’re getting started to speak to an audience who you’ve never met: you’re worried about saying the wrong thing, not knowing your audience, and saying something that lasts forever.

With those fears in mind, here are four suggestions to get started:


Whether you’re paying attention to a hash tag at, reading the tweets of interesting people on Twitter, or simply searching blogs on Google for a title, there’s lots of interesting stuff out there to read.  In fact, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all there is to read.  Picking a few topics to listen and then seeing what people say that resonates with you is a great way to start in social media.  A few resources that will help you are Google Reader (a great way to aggregate RSS feeds if you don’t know what you’re looking for) and Gist (a great way to learn more about the people you find online who are experts in a topic.)


Now that you’ve gained valuable insight into a topic, share it with your friends, or share it with the world.  Common ways to do this include Retweeting, or sharing a link through Facebook or plain ol’ email.  If you think something is interesting (and you’d like your friends to know why) say so – but don’t feel compelled to overthink your response.  Your main goal in sharing content is to bring interesting and new items about a topic to other people.


When you’re comfortable with the idea of Listening and Sharing, start commenting.  This could be as simple as writing a comment on your friend’s Facebook page, or as involved as finding the blog of someone you don’t know and writing them a few sentence comment on a recent post to tell them how you feel.  Authors are publishers too, and they really do want to hear from you (really.)  If you can’t think of how to start, think about how you’d like to be addressed if someone wrote you a quick note telling you about something going on in your life.


To paraphrase Dale Chumbley, composing is easy and just like writing email.  The subject of the email becomes the title of the blog; the content or body of the email becomes the content of the post; and the audience just becomes a bit wider than sending your email to one person.  You can start writing today — it’s not hard, and no one expects you to be an expert overnight.  Try writing a blog post and see how it feels — then write some more.  You’ll quickly figure out what sort of a rhythm works for you and how often you should publish, and it’s great when other people read what you’ve written and start the whole cycle again.

What are some ways that you recommend for people to get started in Social Media?

Marketing Strategy, Social Networking

Your Next 10 social media posts: 5 industry-related, 3-business-related, and 2 about you

“For every 10 posts, make 5 about your industry, 3 about your business, and 2 about you”

@TAMcCann at the Agent Reboot conference in Bellevue, WA.

On Wednesday, I attended the Agent Reboot conference in Bellevue, WA.  During his panel discussion, Gist CEO T.A. McCann (disclosure: I work for him) suggested the following axiom, which I think is a great rule to keep in mind when you’re posting online.  I wanted to take a minute to share the way I interpret that quote and how I think about posting online.

Industry Posts (50%)

I work for a company in the tech space (software), and our users are in many different verticals.  So that makes for an interesting discussion of “Industry.”  I think the larger industry we’re in looks like Customer Relationship Management, Loyalty, and Marketing.  But it’s also Customer Support, Market Intelligence, and research.

I maintain lists that help me to track the thought leaders in different spaces: for example, I make sure that I read CRM posts by Brent Leary, Mitch Lieberman, Paul Greenberg, and others.  My goal is to provide thought-provoking, relevant content and to engage with the interesting questions in the larger software (and business field).  It also helps to contribute, either by adding thoughts in the comments or by asking your peers what they think.

Posts about your business (30%)

This category of posts is relatively obvious (help other people learn about your business) but there’s an important point to be gleaned here.  If you answer questions that people have by showing them how your product or service can help them solve that problem, it’s a much more effective message than simply sending out the same marketing message over and over again.  Make the post about your business, but share a relevant point of view that people can use today, and add to the conversation (you can’t control it, but you can shape it.)

Posts about You (20%)

Finally, don’t forget to share some of you in your social media posts.  If you’re a sports fan, tell us what you think.  If you believe in a cause, welcome people to join you.  And if you want to tell someone that you had a particularly good meal and where to find it, don’t shy from that either.

Marketing Strategy, Media Mind, On Writing, Photography, Product Thoughts, Social Networking

What’s on your mobile device?

Your mobile life and what you can do in the rest of your life

I’ve had an iPhone for almost a year, and am astonished at the changes that it’s made in my productivity.  The main difference is that where on my BlackBerry or Windows Mobile phone I mainly read email while on the go or between meetings, I can now access web applications, read email and phone at the same time, and generally live all of the brand promise of the iPhone.  Yes, it sounds like a fanboy shill, but it’s true.

To try and avoid the eye candy that Apple would like to place in front of me in order to make me buy more stuff, I focus on my iPhone home screen and try to make that the center of my mobile productivity.

I do this by splitting up the screen into four general regions:

  • Messages, Notes, Calendar = Upper Left
    Here’s where I go when I need to note something quickly, find out when I’m meeting someone, or to send a quick text.  I don’t spend much time here but I do need to look at it frequently, so I keep these apps on the most easily accessed real estate of the iPhone home screen.  If I need to remember something, I place it into Evernote, my “cloud brain.”
  • Photos = Upper Right
    I love to take pictures, so I keep a few camera apps handy (ShakeitPhoto gives a cool “Polaroid-like” effect, while Hipstamatic has a whole series of effects) to snap and upload pictures.
  • Social + Location + Aggregators = Lower Left
    To keep up with the news by and about the most important people in my network, I use Gist.  I also use the Facebook and LinkedIn mobile apps.
  • Misc = Lower Right
    A few more of my favorite apps live here, including Zendesk which allows me to reach customers at a moment’s notice.

Finally, I’ve added the Mobile Twitter app to my home deck, as I spend a lot of time in Twitter managing multiple accounts and keeping up with a variety of hashtag conversations online.  This is the third in a series of iPhone home page organizations, and I’ve noticed a theme emerging — how can I do more seamlessly in a mobile way while limiting distractions — and the home screen is getting better.  (It’s not without distraction, but better ;).

I’d love to hear how you arrange your mobile device to improve your work.

Marketing Strategy

What Viral Loops are You Creating?

Adam Penenberg, in his new book Viral Loop, discusses the concept of spreading a message with a viral coefficient of greater than one. It’s simple, really – tell some friends, and if they end up telling lots of their friends, you may create a wave of sorts that spurs exponential growth of your idea or service.

Except that it’s not that easy. Some ideas have initial distribution (think posting an update on Twitter) and low or no viral coefficient (no retweets, no repostings). Others seem to take off like wildfire (, Twitter, Facebook, are a few examples … Google hopes that Buzz will be another example) and build a user base and brand awareness almost overnight. What Viral Loops are you creating?

The necessary components of a viral loop are distribution, an interesting idea or meme, and low friction for sharing among other users (think of this as the “transmissability” of the ideavirus). You also need users willing to share your idea, and others who are influenced by them and follow a similar call to action. If this all works right, you get a viral coefficient of greater than one, or a viral expansion loop.

Can you create your own viral loop? Maybe — if you can boil down your idea and make it so easy and compelling for others to share with their friend that they can’t help not sharing it. Can’t explain it in 10 words or less? You might need to go back to the drawing board. Can’t clearly communicate value with your idea? Maybe it’s a clever idea that doesn’t have particular value unless explained in the right context (loop-killer). My viral idea? Make your customers successful. (Ok, maybe it won’t spread like wildfire, but it is simple, valuable, and easy to transmit.)

Media Mind, Product Thoughts, Social Networking

What I learned on my Winter Vacation about Social Media

I took a vacation this week. It was relatively short (don’t blink — you’ll miss it), but I learned some important things along the way. I read Erik Qualman’s book Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms the Way We Live and Do Business and was left alternately amazed, interested to learn more, and confused as to what to do next. Qualman’s basic thesis is that applying the principles of social media to business as usual is “a massive socioeconomic shift.” He also states in the “about this book” section that it provides “useful insights into macro trends, constructs, and behaviors as a result of social media.” These two goals seem to be at odds, as Qualman wants to show us how much things have changed and point the way to a potential future that builds on these insights, but is hesitant to show us exactly what to do next.

I was amazed reading about how things have changed in the last decade. To read the stories of Gary Vee of CrushIt! fame or Matt Harding (of “Dancing Matt” fame from YouTube is to realize that the world of 2009 is vastly different, complex, and social than the world of 1999, when sharing MP3 audio files was still a relatively fringe event and even the idea of sharing your purchase history with your friends through a site like Wishpot might have seemed, well, strange. Qualman does an excellent job cataloging some of these Internet/Web history moments and showing how they marked fundamental shifts in culture. No longer did a Dance craze have to start on MTV: in the new world of the web, MTV didn’t show videos anymore and dances could start anywhere.

Reading these insights (and being involved in social media as I am), I really wanted to learn more. I wanted to see the science behind these insights; learn the behavioral triggers that cause us to be involved in social media; and to see how tools like Facebook, Twitter, and the like have fundamentally changed society. Sure, they’ve changed the economics of recommending and purchasing, but social media tools have also opened up a new method of communicating that is on a vastly different scale than anything we’ve ever seen before. Qualman does a passable job of explaning what happened, but doesn’t offer much in the way of explaining why.

And then I ended up confused. What will be next after Socialnomics becomes economics; when social media just becomes media; and when all of these social media tools become simply another channel with which to talk to customers? Qualman has done an excellent job of surveying broadly the events that have characterized social media over the last several years. He does the best job of looking forward with his survey of the Search industry and describes how that world could change by offering incentives directly to customers, as Microsoft has done with their Live Search Cashback. What Qualman doesn’t quantify as well is how those efforts are doing in the marketplace.

It’s possible that my confusion results from the unsettled nature of the tools we’re using to measure social success. My colleagues in the marketing department at Gist and I have evaluated many tools looking for a combination of analytics, tool utility, and team collaboration and we haven’t found it yet. Perhaps the message with Socialnomics is that the same sort of analysis applies to social and economic shifts. It’s easy to catalog what changed, and a bit harder to see what it means yet. Erik Qualman is doing a great job at packaging up these ideas and serving them to people who need to know more about social media. I look forward to reading his thoughts in the future, and in contributing both to the theory and practice of moving social media and socialnomics into the mainstream.

Customer Service, Media Mind

How do you build service to scale?

I read @codybrown‘s excellent analysis of network growth and scaling with regards to MySpace, Facebook and Twitter this morning and got to wondering if the concepts he’s talking about can be applied to broader concepts in Customer Service. Brown presents the idea that services like MySpace have failed because they couldn’t channel their explosive growth into a system that worked not only for the core adopters but also for mainstream users. Later-arriving, “fast-follower” services with more focused missions are stealing the MySpace user ( for music, Facebook for social networking, etc.) because you don’t have to be an insider to figure out how to find the service useful. What does this mean for service concepts in general?

The recent purchase of Zappos by Amazon is a good example of a company with fanatical customer focus acquiring another company with fanatical customer focus. Both Zappos and Amazon have built service to scale — and, I believe, will be able to avoid the problem that @codybrown references — because they focus on three things: Customer Service above all else, Mass Customization, and Back-end services that lower the cost of transactions.

Both Zappos and Amazon practice fanatical devotion to Customers. Zappo’s motto, stated directly in its logo, is “Powered by Service”. states that “Customer Service is everything.” Amazon has similar focus, calling itself “Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company.” There are many customer testimonials that might provide additional detail here — the point is that both of these companies have made it possible for customers to tell other customers whether a product or service is good or bad. By empowering the customer and by pledging to fix it when the customer’s expectations aren’t met, both Zappos and Amazon have created a situation where their best customers will shout the company’s name from the rooftops and their worst customers will have a strong process for recourse. Customer Service, and policies that reinforce that customer service, make it possible for both of these companies to build the rest of their brand around that service.

To deliver that service, both Amazon and Zappos practice what I call “mass customization” rather than making an individual web site, store, or product offering for one customer or set of customers. This may sound contradictory, because each customer does get an individual order, and that customer may have an individual concern that sounds different than another customers. But if you take the perspective of looking at groups of customers who buy shoes (in the Zappos world) and then you segment them so that they all buy shoes in roughly the same way (even if front-end design templates and brand segmentation make it seem different), and you fulfill these orders and return them in roughly the same way, then you’ve built the system to have a relatively constant cost per order, even though your product offerings may be myriad in their breadth.
Build once, deliver many different flavors with a common back-end system, and you’ll be able to satisfy the Customer Service needs of all of those different customers.

To deliver this vision of build once, deliver many flavors, both of these companies had to build back-end logistics, supply-chain, and fulfillment services that lowered the overall cost of doing transactions. For Amazon, this meant building software systems to manage inventory, present and build stores, make and fulfill orders, and then building a physical distribution system to implement this vision. For Zappos, the implementation was slightly different, but the effect was the same: build a system that as it scales provides learning curve improvements, opportunities to apply LEAN and greater efficiencies and profitability overall per order. Only now as their services are growing and growing do these investments look particularly shrewd, especially when new product lines (, e.g.) are introduced for the combined company to market. Amazon is leaving Zappos alone to operate as an autonomous unit. Good move — I think it will pay off for both companies.

What does this mean for Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and other new product entries? Build your service to planet scale — at least in your head. If you don’t know how your service will function when it’s really really big, then you will miss the opportunity as MySpace did to shape the service and prevent fast-followers from cherry-picking the best parts of your model. Make your offering a defensible position — as both Zappos and Amazon have done — but focusing on a service offering your present and future competitors can’t easily duplicate. And finally, a paradoxical idea: you need to try many ideas and fail fast, but remain focused on the small goal that’s easy to explain to your most fanatical and dedicated customers, as well as the mainstream customers you don’t have yet. Keep it simple, please the customer, mass-customize by configuring your offering rather than building net new code for each segment, and build your systems and your ideas to scale.