Mobile Marketer has re-launched! Click here to learn more!

Facebook fires up private messaging on Instagram to regain steam

With Facebook?s Messenger application reportedly losing some steam, the social media giant is betting on Instagram to take its messaging service to the next level and draw in users.

Yesterday Instagram rolled out a feature called Instagram Direct that lets consumers share pictures and videos to their friends and family through private messages. As more consumers rely on social messaging apps, companies are increasingly looking to differentiate their offerings with two areas that Instagram already has a hold on: videos and photos.

?Instagram has a firm stake in the photo and video sharing market, and this is the cornerstone of one-to-one interactions,? said Matt Witt, executive vice president of digital integration at TRIS3CT, Chicago.

?Facebook can and will learn from this experiment, however, and may in turn incorporate more robust photo sharing into its Messenger app, which right now is primarily focused on chat,? he said. ?Instagram more organically fits this model right now.?

Social message apps grow
Facebook-owned Instagram now joins a growing list of mobile messaging apps including Snapchat, WhatsApp, WeChat and Kik that are also aimed at getting consumers to share pictures and content on a third-party platform.

Teenagers and milllennials are particularly active on these platforms as an alternative to basic SMS messages that can be tracked later.

Facebook has been actively pushing into messaging in the past couple of months, and attempted to buy Snapchat earlier this year for a reported $3 billion.

A recent study from OnDevice found that while Facebook Messenger is still the top social messaging app in the United States, the app is losing traction to competitors that offer more sophisticated and rich apps.

Despite the growing number of users on these platforms, the marketing potential on mobile messaging apps is relatively small since messages can be seen as invasive.

However, there are a few recent examples of brands leveraging mobile messaging apps.

For example, Sony Music?s One Direction recently used Kik to reach 1D fans and promote the brand?s new album (see story). 

Taco Bell, Rebecca Minkhoff and Acura have also used Snapchat to send time-sensitive messages to consumers.

Direct message
Instagram?s app has been updated to include Instagram Direct in the top right-hand corner of the screen. When consumers tap on the button, users can take a photo or video and then send it to users that the consumer follows or to someone that follows them.

After the message is sent, Instagram users can see when the message is opened by the recipient and can watch as consumers type back a response.

Even though Instagram's new feature is clearly a dig at Snapchat, the company's offering also has a few differentiating services that should separate it from other social messaging apps.

?You aren't subject to MMS fees, maybe not huge for everyone, but still a nice perk," said Kevin Purcer, senior vice president of digital Strategy at Erwin Penland, Greenville, SC.

"Second, as the content owner you still have control over your content when you delete the message within Instagram it removes it from all the recipients' devices ? providing some of the ephemeral nature of Snapchat with a bit more control," he said.

"And one of the biggest pitfalls of Snapchat is the lack of ability to have a conversation around a piece of media once a friend sends it out. In the new Instagram Direct, the conversation that follows the media is a huge part of the experience. Combine all of these into one app, and it gives Facebook a reason for users to spend more time with that app rather than defecting to MMS, Snapchat or other OTT apps. Not a bad play at all."

Photo-sharing growth
With the growth in mobile photo-sharing in the past few years, Instagram claims to have 150 million monthly active users and 75 million daily active users.

To compare, Twitter claimed to have 232 million monthly users when the company filed for its IPO earlier this year. Facebook had 1.9 billion active monthly users in September and 874 million monthly users.

While both Facebook and Twitter boast significantly higher numbers, Instagram is bringing back users on a routine basis.

To tap into this group of active daily users, Levi?s, Ben & Jerry?s and Michael Kors are among a group of launch advertisers with pictures that are marked as sponsored within a stream of content.

Although there are a growing number of mobile messaging apps available to consumers, basic SMS or sharing options still make it easy for consumers to send content to their friends and family without downloading an app.

Additionally, the marketing opportunities on social mobile messaging apps can be tricky for brands to pull off since the messages are private.

?Instagram is trying to take a piece of pie away from Snapchat or other messaging services," said Tomek Sarnowski, cofounder of Byss Mobile and InstaPlace, Zczecin, Poland. ?If I want to share something with my friends such as private pictures from vacation, I will do it through iMessage on iOS, Google hangouts or WhatsApp.

?Of course it?s a natural evolution that they should have it, but users have tons of other ways to do this. I don?t see any advantages here,? he said.

Final Take
Lauren Johnson is associate reporter on Mobile Marketer, New York