Instagram today announced a new messaging feature for iOS and Android that lets members send text, video, and photos privately. For brands using the service, today’s update could introduce new ways of engaging with fans. The downside is that it could, at times, limit your brand’s reach.

Over the past three years, Instagram has been a very public community. In fact, the only way for members to interact with one another in the app was through public comments and likes. The company now believes that some moments would be more relevant to a smaller group of people..

Unveiled during a press event in New York City, Instagram Direct enables individuals to share more privately with a specific group of people. When you open the app you’ll now see a new icon in the top right corner of the home feed.

Tapping it will open an inbox where you’ll see photos and videos that people have sent to you. Media that you receive from people you follow will appear immediately. If someone you’re not following sends you a photo or video, it will go to your requests so you can decide if you want to view it. Once you’ve accepted, that person will be able to send you direct messages in the future.

To send a photo or video to specific people, tap the camera button as you would normally to upload content. Then, at the top of the share screen, you’ll see the option to share with your followers or to send to specific people. If you choose “Direct,” you’ll be able to tap the names of up to 15 people you want to send your photo or video to.

Instagram has made it so you’ll be able to find out who’s seen your photo or video and who’s liked it after sending. Additionally, you can also watch recipients comment in real-time. If you’re already considering the marketing and customer service benefits, we should note that pictures must be sent to start the chat function — you can’t send text-only messages to initiate conversations.

A potential down side is how private messaging will affect reach. For example, if you requested photo submissions for a contest, participants can now privately message you that image instead of sharing it with their entire network. So if you asked individuals to snap a moment featuring your product, it’s possible that only your eyes will see it. However, with the rate at which people are sharing these days it seems unlikely that a notable drop in reach will occur.

At a time when interest in private messaging is surging, Instagram Direct will certainly add a new layer of engagement to the app. The new feature is available today, and you can download the updated apps from Apple’s App Store and Google Play. To learn more about Instagram Direct, visit help.instagram.com.

[Image credit: Phil Campbell]