Instagram is taking a big step toward becoming a virtual, crowdsourced newsroom. If you’re one of the few marketers out there who don’t believe in the power of Instagram, it’s time to listen up. Click the magnifying glass on the menu bar of the app and you’ll be taken to a newly redesigned section—it’s almost an app with an app—with some new features like Trending Tags and Trending Places. The move, which is similar to Twitter’s own oft-consulted trends list, proves the photography-based network hopes to become the place you turn to see real events happening in real time at concrete locations.
In the past, Instagram’s search feature was limited to results based on who users followed and what kinds of photos they liked. Each user browsed a personal feed filled only by their real and virtual friends and heroes. But like other social networks, Instagram realized its potential to break out of the bubble and potentially break some news—or at least reveal what’s happening right now at that music festival someone missed out on. This new functionality empowers marketers to reach their audiences in even more ways.
When it comes to breaking news, Twitter could be hard to beat. It’s the place many people turn to share the latest headlines and speak their mind. Sometimes the network becomes newsworthy on its own, like when Caitlyn Jenner became the fastest user to gain one million followers, beating President Obama’s record and happened in only four hours. But Twitter’s trending topics often surround televised events.
Another Jenner world record, and at 65? Who’da thought! Humbled & honored to have reached 1M followers in 4 hrs. Thank you for your support.
— Caitlyn Jenner (@Caitlyn_Jenner) June 1, 2015
From the Super Bowl to the Bachelor finale to the NBC Sound of Music Live premiere, Twitter is a great place to find clever one-liners and jokes surrounding live events. Live broadcasts often display recent Tweets and a themed hashtag right on the screen and encourage viewers at home to participate.
Quality of Content
Where Instagram’s trending feature can surpass Twitter is in the quality of content. Instagram is already known as the place to find high-quality images and video, and that is unlikely to change with the new trending feature. But the expectation for high-quality content on Instagram is both a blessing and a curse. Top Instagram users often share only one perfectly curated image per day whereas Twitter users may send out 10 or more Tweets in one day or even 10 Tweets in 10 minutes during a live event like the Oscars.
For a hashtag to trend on Instagram, it means a lot of users must participate as opposed to fewer users sharing a lot of content. But with 70 million photos and videos created daily and—according to the app—more monthly active users than Twitter, Search and Explore has some serious potential to grow the network even further.
What You Need to Know
1. Photos and Videos Can Now Trend
Just like Twitter’s trending list, Instagram photos can now trend by tag and location. Everything from fun hashtags like #zombies to holidays like #nationalsugarcookieday to events like #wimbledon to locations like #bryantpark can rise to the top.
These trending photos could be happening near you based on your current location or around the world. It’s worth noting that what you see in the app may not be what everyone else sees. Instagram plans on tailoring results based on what your followers have liked in addition to what a large number of users have liked.
Besides acting as a real-time news source, Instagram can also be used another way—as a travel guide. Step foot in a new city, open the photo app and see what’s trending. If you’re walking around Manhattan and see that #bryantpark is trending, and the photos look fun, you may want to head over there and check it out.
What That Means for Marketers
Check each day’s trending hashtags and you can tag onto whatever is popular right now. Your photos will get more exposure and more likes, and you’ll land more followers. You may already follow this strategy on Twitter.
This feature makes staying relevant on a daily basis, or even an hourly basis, easier than ever. Even if you plan your content days, weeks or months in advance, be sure to browse the trending hashtags before posting your image. There might be an already-trending hashtag that’s a natural fit for your content.
2. Sponsored Photos and Videos Cannot Trend
Instagram ads let you pay for more exposure but don’t expect them to appear in the Search and Explore tab. You won’t find any branded content there unless it trends naturally. The algorithm prevents any sponsored posts from making it into the trending topics.
What That Means for Marketers
Some hotels and tourism boards have offered free vacations to popular Instagrammers in hopes that they’ll gram some quality shots and get more exposure for their brand. This trend will likely increase as Search and Explore will become a crucial destination in the app.
The only way brands can be a part of it is by playing the game like everyone else—by sharing beautiful, high-quality images that people love. Brainstorm ways that your company can partner up with influencers who already produce fantastic images or define a new in-house Instagram strategy for improving the quality of your content.
3. You Can Now Search by Location
Before the most recent update, users could only search by people or tags, but now they can search by a specific address or landmark, or all three at once. For each location, Top Posts and Most Recent images appear beneath a zoom-able map that links iPhone users to Apple maps for turn-by-turn directions.
Users can now see what any location around the world looks like from the inside of a restaurant to the going-ons of a nearby festival to a new vacation spot they’re dreaming of. Users who’ve turned on their location services within the app can be notified of what’s trending in their area. For those in the hospitality and travel industry, quality photos generated and tagged by users are more important now than ever.
What That Means for Marketers
Be sure to tag each and every one of your photos with a location. It’s just another way your images can be found by a potential new follower. Remember: Tagging an image with a location is almost impossible to do after the fact unless you’re still standing near the area in which the photo was taken.
That means the photos from your Hawaiian vacation better be posted before you board the plane or you’re not going to be able to add a location tag. The location tag is worth the effort though. If your image gets enough likes, you could hold prime real estate whenever people search that location.
4. There are Curated Collections
At the top of the Search and Explore tab is a slideshow of four images: two link to collections of handpicked images based on a certain theme like “fashion” or “glimmering islands.” The other two link to suggested users and trending places. The former will give recommendations based on whom you follow. The themed collections will be updated twice per week and will likely feature only the highest quality images.
What That Means for Marketers
Instagram editors will always be on the search for additions to these curated collections. Always be descriptive when posting an image by using hashtags and location data so your work can be found and potentially featured in a future collection. But don’t stop there.
The need for high-quality imagery is more apparent now than ever, and hashtags and location tagging will only take you so far. Only the best of the best will have their photos hand picked by Instagram. The competition is fierce. If you can’t up the quality of your in-house content creation, try consistently partnering with high-quality influencers for “Instagram takeovers.” The user posts to your account for a whole day leaving you with some fantastic images and some new followers.
How Does Instagram Video Play into Search and Explore?
With a 15-second time limit, will Instagram video ever really take off in a news sense? Incredibly short video lengths haven’t stopped the disappearing message app, Snapchat. At only 10 seconds per video, Snapchat users share quick shots of their everyday lives, but that’s not all.
Snapchat has recognized their ability to find and share up-to-the-second live footage. We’re talking crowdsourced video coverage. Users can contribute to themed compilations based on a location or live event. The edited footage is curated and pieced together by Snapchat editors. Users only get the option to contribute to this themed footage when they’re physically located at the location or event.
On any given day, users might be able to contribute to or watch a Chicago channel, a Punxsutawney Phil Groundhog’s Day channel or an MLB Wednesdays channel. These themed compilations can be viewed more than once, unlike Snapchat’s user-to-user videos which disappear after one view.
The topics are curated by Snapchat editors not unlike Instagram’s curated collections. Instagram should take note. After all, Instagram content can only be tagged at a location if you’re nearby. Editors could group the best videos into a themed collection, and there you have it. You’ve beat the five-o-clock news to their coverage and you’ve one-upped Snapchat on quality.
But there’s that issue with quality again. Snapchat is known for haphazard selfie-like video footage whereas Instagram is known for top-notch content. Add in the fact that live streaming apps like Meerkat and Periscope are gaining popularity and it’s enough to wonder if the quality of content on Instagram can be maintained when it comes to video.
Right now the video feature on Instagram seems to serve those who excel at stop-motion animation, plus a few who’ve gotten really creative with the 15-second time restriction like Bart’s Fish Tales, a 15-second cooking show.
Of course, there are the few businesses who’ve built their brands around exciting video footage. See Go Pro, who can strap a tiny camera to the back of a shark and get 235,000 likes.
Perhaps Instagram will increase the length of video in the future. Or add live streaming. Or group videos into collections. For now, we’ll just have to take a note from Bart’s Fish Tales and figure out our brand’s version of a 15-second crab club sandwich recipe.
For more recent trends on Instagram, check out this article that looks at what’s in store for the future so you can be better prepared in designing your Instagram strategy.
Aubre Andrus: Aubre Andrus is a Chicago-based tech journalist and content strategist who loves working with startups. By night she moonlights as a children's book author.