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.

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 http://search.twitter.com, 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?

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.

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.

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 (HotOrNot.com, 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.)

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