Who needs to economize with 140 Twitter characters, or capture attention with a superbly worded Facebook post, when a picture or video is still worth 1,000 words on Instagram?

The photo/video sharing service, which Facebook acquired for $1 billion in September 2012, engages potential customers 18 times more effectively than Facebook and 48 times better than Twitter. The service has grown to 130 million users, even as the average luxury brand boasts just 100,000 followers. That’s according to “Intelligence Report: Social Platforms,” a new study from L2 Think Tank in New York. Other visually focused platforms such as Pinterest, Vine (Twitter’s video service) and YouTube have also grown substantially and prove worthy methods for matching brands with consumers.

Except, the report also notes, that social media is responsible for driving less than a quarter of 1% of e-commerce traffic for prestige brands, and less than 3% of overall traffic for their web sites.

So what, exactly, is Instagram’s crushing social victory worth?

Same stick, different carrot

The short answer seems almost too simplistic: Instagram’s new video service, introduced in June of 2013, caught people’s attention to the point that users reportedly uploaded some five million InstaVideos within the first 24 hours. With that kind of attention, many brands were eager to become noticed themselves, and the Instagram bandwagon started filling up almost before it could pull out of Dodge. Also, by running Instagram as a stand-along service, rivals of Facebook could engage with the platform on their own. So could users who chose to opt out of Facebook. All of this only added to Instagram’s explosive growth.

The trick, experts say, has come in figuring out how to give consumers something in video form that they couldn’t get as a still photo display or show. And that something can either be a typical “beauty shot”– like those slickly produced car videos that border on soft porn to make the newest bucket of bolts look sexy – or a behind-the-scenes glimpse that arouses and deepens user interest.

It’s all up to – wait for it – what works for the brand. An ice cream company might want to use beauty shots. In an effort to change things up, a car company might go for the backstage cameo. Or vice versa. The overall goal, whatever the approach? To drive users to the company site where they can engage with even more content, in hopes of upping the traffic and creating regular habits of engagement.

One example: Ford Motor Company posted a series of videos following a conference where experts held court about such topics as technology, green issues and marketing. Karen Untereker, who heads up Ford’s social media in the U.S., explains,

Video allowed us to feature sound bites from those panels and share them in ways photos never could.

The (ad) wave of the future

A few key report numbers underscore Instagram’s quick rise in popularity:

  • Visual platforms like Instagram see roughly 25 times the level of engagement of community-based platforms.
  • Lululemon Athletica, for example, enjoyed twice its previous conversion rate after it linked its #thesweatielife gallery on Instagram to its product pages.
  • Even more telling, Chanel has snagged the largest number of photos with user hashtags on Instagram – even though the beauty giant still has no presence on the platform.
  • Instagram’s expansion to include 130 million users correlates to year-over-year growth of some 900%, nearly twice that of its nearest social competitor, WeChat (500% y-o-y) and almost three times that of Pinterest (380% y-o-y).
  • Facebook, with over one billion users worldwide, recently reported over a million active advertisers and $1.6 billion in Q2 2013 advertising revenue; and FB execs say that an ad-based model is coming to Instagram. It’s a matter of when, not if.

A digitally social funnel

L2’s survey, which began in June 2012 by taking a closer look at 100 prestige brands on Facebook, expanded this year to include 247 global brands on 15 social platforms. The intent, the company’s founder says, was “to provide data, best practices and case studies to help organizations determine where to increase/decrease investment.”

Brand categories include Beauty, Fashion, Retail, Hotels and Watches & Jewelry. Brand names range from Rolex to IKEA to Gucci to Revlon to Burt’s Bees.

Given the breadth and depth of brands surveyed, it’s all the more interesting that the study found that luxury brands shouldn’t hook up with a social media site if their customers aren’t already there. Instead, marketers need to learn where their consumers hang out online and then establish a presence in those places.

As L2’s research lead, Danielle Baily, explains: “It’s not about luxury brands chasing the hottest platform, but rather understanding which platforms make sense for them; determining where they can find the variance by growing sizable, highly engaged communities; and focusing efforts there….It is in brands’ best interest to use social media to funnel consumers into their traditional, owned marketing channels to extract the most value.”

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