The exaltations of Instagram
By Sandy Strasser
It is as through we are caught up in a seemingly endless coffee-table book: today, 400 million registered users interact with the social media platform Instagram across the globe. Every day, more than 80 million new images are uploaded and the site has long ceased to be a place for merely showcasing private experiences. Marne Levine is Chief Operating Officer at the photo and video sharing platform. Her job: managing global operations. This makes her one of the most important women in the digital media sector. In our interview, she talks about the fantastic opportunities that the world of social media offers companies and why it is enterprises in particular that will have to engage more intensively with the topic of storytelling in the future in order to ensure they do not lose the loyalty of their customers.
Ms Levine, you have been COO at Instagram since 2015. Prior to this, you were Vice President of Global Public Policy at Facebook. However, you were originally involved in politics. What were the reasons for this unusual career change?
MARNE LEVINE: It’s always been important to me to be part of a mission-driven organisation. This is what initially drew me to politics and government. Government, in a way, seemed like the ultimate mission-driven organisation. However, Facebook presented a new challenge to be excited about – our mission to connect the world. Instagram is part of Facebook Inc., and since becoming COO of the platform over a year ago I’ve become increasingly invested in our own mission: to capture and share the world’s moments.
What attracted you to the world of social media and how did you prepare yourself in advance of taking up your new position?
M. L.: Facebook and Instagram hadn’t even been invented when I started my career. I was working in government when the opportunity to join Facebook came my way. As soon as I looked at the issues faced by the company I realised the opportunity I had to take on these challenges head on; and as I thought about having the chance to shape how a company would approach these types of issues, Facebook started to seem more and more exciting. Four and a half years into my job, I had the opportunity to join Instagram.
To what extent have you been able to use your political experience in your work at Instagram?
M. L.: Above all, my career in government helped me find my voice. I started my career in Washington D.C. D.C. is divided hierarchically between principals and staffers. As a staffer, I spent most of my time behind-the-scenes. When I went to business school and professors started asking me for my opinion, I realised how it had become second nature for me to give my boss’ opinion instead of my own. When I started working at Facebook, I realised I was transitioning to a culture where everyone was encouraged to have and share their point of view, no matter what their role or level in the company. It took me a while to learn to find and raise my voice in this new environment, but it made me more motivated than ever to work for a company like Instagram that is helping to amplify people’s voices everywhere.
What is your opinion: why has the form of self-presentation we are familiar with on Instagram, Pinterest, etc. grown so much in importance within society? How can we change the world with images?
M. L.: Billions of people now have a phone with a powerful camera in their pocket. And they’re using them to take pictures and videos to express themselves and share experiences with others. If you look at social media overall, between 2 and 3 trillion images were shared last year. This means that more photos were taken on mobile phones in 2015 than were taken on film in the entire analogue camera era. These images are creating a language that we can all speak, and that we can all understand, regardless of our nationality, age, education, religion or location. And this new visual language is changing the world in many ways.
How quickly can a non-digital native get their bearings on Instagram and other social media?
M. L.: Instagram is incredibly simple to use: anyone can join our global community of over 400 million people in an instant. A great example is 50-year-old Londoner Helen Downey (@unskilledworker). A couple of years ago, she started painting and shared some of her work on Instagram. Now she has more than 200.000 followers and her account was even discovered by Gucci. She now paints for Gucci, bringing their creative ideas to life.
Business and the economy are also becoming increasingly visual. Why will it be absolutely essential that industrial enterprises are on social media moving forward?
M. L.: Businesses have been important Instagram community members from the start. In fact, 50 percent of people here follow a business. Because of this, people take notice of the businesses they discover on the platform. In the business world, advertising was one of the first industries to recognise the unique storytelling power of images. Images have the capacity to move consumers in ways that words do not. And in an immersive setting, centered around their passions and interests, we are seeing that people are very receptive to visuals, especially those that are relevant to them. We’ve seen this first-hand at Instagram, and while it’s early days of advertising on the platform, studies show that ad recall can be about three times better than the norm for online advertising.
What advantages does social media offer these companies? What specific power does this form of communication have?
M. L.: One of the things that we often hear is that people feel like Instagram can transport them to another place. What this means for the business world is that Instagram is opening new doors to once closed industries, allowing businesses to connect with consumers more deeply. Take the examples of fashion, traditionally a very exclusive industry. But with today’s new global, visual language, outsiders are beginning to break in. The world’s premier fashion shows in Paris, Milan and New York are no longer the preserve of the industry elite; they are accessible to all.
How should companies best present themselves to acquire followers?
M. L.: Instagram is a place to be visually inspired. The best brands here are authentic. They use Instagram to tell the story behind the brand. The other tip is to be consistent. What is your visual brand identity? What’s your style, your colour palette, your look and feel? Is it recognisable as you? People are exposed to so many brand messages via so many touch-points that you need to continually reinforce your brand and story. This is especially true on Instagram.
But don’t just be represented here because it’s there. Use it to drive real business results. Instagram can be the place where people discover and get inspired by your brands, the place where you can connect with your consumers and also where you can drive sales. Many people only think about us as a branding platform, but there are loads of brands and businesses that are really putting Instagram to work. The final advice I would give to brands is to be creative and have some fun. From video, to slow-mo, to cinemagraphs, to illustrations, there are loads of ways to tell your visual stories. Our community is incredibly creative. I’d encourage brands to continue to be inspired by her and by each other.
How do politicians use their Instagram accounts? What audiences of what ages do they engage with using this platform?
M. L.: On Instagram, politicians have the chance to be creative and to share authentic behind-the-scenes pictures from their everyday live. From campaign snapshots and memorable moments from elections, our platform allows politicians to offer a new perspective.
Influential stateswomen such as Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton are also active Instagram users. Are there situations where they contact you with questions?
M. L.: I love Chancellor Merkel’s account because it gives people a glimpse into the daily life and activities of one of the most powerful women in Europe. For example, sharing a view into the preparation for her weekly cabinet meeting, and more recently a unique look into conversations with President Obama, David Cameron and Italian Prime Minister Renzi on efforts to promote peace in Syria.
Instagram is increasingly becoming an essential marketing tool, ranging from sponsored through to personalised advertising posts. How do you see this trend developing?
M. L.: The way that people communicate is always evolving: the shift from desktop to mobile, the shift from text to image. As communications evolve, social media will evolve as people will always want to find ways to connect with others and share the things that matter to them. To evolve with our community, we’re always innovating. Over the last year we’ve created more tools to help people express themselves via video, including Boomerang and Hyperlapse.
Within the global context: how important is the German market for Instagram?
M. L.: Germany is an important market for us with over 9 million people using Instagram every month – and it’s the first European country I visited as COO in January. Germans were early adopters and we’re constantly inspired by the creative ways people here are using Instagram.
In your opinion, how important is it that anybody who wants to head up a global organisation has a kind of mentor who accompanies and supports them?
M. L.: I think it’s hugely important. The biggest lesson I learnt from my mentor is to be open. Openness isn’t something that is often associated with the workplace, but the effect of being open at work is truly incredible. When people are truly encouraged to be their authentic selves, and discouraged from having a ‘work self’ and a ‘non work self’, it helps us build deeper connections, which in turn help teams bond and perform better. As a manager, you can set this tone for your team. Personally, when I make mistakes, I like to talk about them publicly because it helps me and others internalise the lessons and avoid repeating them, and gives others permission to publicly own their failures too.
Who was your mentor? What did you learn from your mentor?
M. L.: Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO. Sheryl and I have been close friends for years and it would be hard to ask for a better role model. She has been a mentor, a friend and a business partner – first with how we scaled Facebook’s policy approach, and now, how we scale Instagram to its potential.
What is your personal and vocational vision for the next five to ten years? How would you like to further revolutionise the world?
M. L.: For me, there is so much opportunity that has not yet been tapped into, as only a fraction of the world has the tools to join the conversation. Today there are so many moments that we aren’t capturing. Stories that aren’t being told because their protagonists don’t have access yet to the technology they need to tell them. We are steadily moving toward a world in which everyone has access to smartphone technology. A world in which everyone has a visual voice, and the power to make their own voice heard. And when that happens, when anyone can literally make history, our world will be more accessible, more connected and maybe even more empathetic. But mostly I hope, a better world.
Marne Levine is Chief Operating Officer of Instagram, where she is responsible for helping to scale the company’s operations globally and oversees Instagram’s business operations, including monetisation, partnerships, marketing, business development, policy, community operations, communications, recruiting, and human resources. Marne joined Instagram from Facebook, where she served as the company’s Vice President of Global Public Policy from 2010 to 2014. She joined Facebook from the Obama Administration, where she served as Chief of Staff of the National Economic Council (NEC) at the White House and Special Assistant to the President for Economic Policy. Marne began her career in 1993 at the United States Department of Treasury under President Bill Clinton where she held a number of leadership positions including Deputy Assistant Secretary for Banking and Finance.
This article was published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue Q2 2016. Picture credit © Instagram