Instagram: Four Lessons For a Wildly Successful App

With Apple’s App Store and the Android Market now literally filled with hundreds of thousands of apps, it’s getting increasingly hard for apps to stand out.

And yet, every once in a while, an app will break out to become quite successful – at which point, we all start to wonder what’s so special about this particular new application and how others might replicate its popularity.

Something of that sort is now happening with new and rapidly rising photo app Instagram, a photo sharing app that adds a retro style to the pics you take. It’s getting popular fast – it’s only been around for about a month and it’s already at half a million users. Pretty impressive stuff.

But what’s so special about a simple photo app? And what lessons does it hold for those seeking similar levels of success?

 

A Small But Important Twist

Instagram’s core concept is super simple. You take photos with your iPhone, apply a filter, and then share them. There are other ways to do this, whether with the built-in camera, Flickr or a hundred other apps and services.

The key difference here is Instagram adds a couple of simple, interesting twists to a standard idea to make Instagram stand out: first, it adds retro filters, which provide something different that normal snaps; and secondly, you can update to all your social services at once. Not a huge deal, right? I mean, that’s only ever so slightly different than other apps, yes?

But that’s exactly the point. People already take and share photos; Instagram adds just enough of something new to make it worthwhile by providing: 1) a different look and; 2) making social super easy.

 

Tap the Zeitgeist… Dude.

So, sure, Instagram adds a very simple new feature – retro filters – that may seem baffling to some. But what’s important is not that “oh, I can make a photo look old and cool”. It’s that Instagram has tapped into a increasingly popular retro aesthetic – and in doing so, have made their app the ones ‘the cool kids are using’. No, really, I’m serious.

Know where that look is really booming? On the thousands of Tumblrs of eighteen-year old girls, who post photos either from the fifties, or ones taken last week to look like they are from the fifties. And you know how we know that look is becoming big? It was used in Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” video. So whether or not the developers of Instagram meant to, they’ve connected themselves with a look more and more young people and ‘hipsters’ are getting into.

Can you plan that kind of thing? Maybe not. But the more you try and align your app with what’s going on now, the more chance it may suddenly take off.

 

Have You Heard of this “Social” Thing?

Although it is undeniably an annoying buzzword, being social is also, ya’ know, core to being human too.

But the key to Instagram’s social aspects is not simply that you can post to Twitter or Facebook. Instead, it’s the ease with which you can favorite others’ pics, comment on them. You can add a location, comments, captions etc. all with the utmost simplicity. And in making things easy, Instagram is an excellent example of how removing barriers to being social is key to an app’s success. (Think of how easy the most popular Twitter apps make it to connect to other services like Twitpic etc.)

 

A Mini-Platform, Not Just an App

What should be key, however, is that truly successful apps are not simply a piece of software on one person’s phone – they become little miniature platforms.

Instagram allows you to comment on photos and share with a set group of friends quickly. And that functionality encourages a kind of circular loyalty: once you start sharing your own photos and commenting on others, you tend to get sucked into it. By making Instagram what you might call a ‘destination app’ – the kind of thing you want to visit and use regularly – Instagram demonstrates the advantages of making your app like a platform, rather than just focusing on functionality.

By tapping into the retro zeitgeist and making their app simple to use and compelling to stay on, Instagram is an excellent example of an app that is popular for a reason.

Written by Navneet Alang

Navneet Alang is a technology-culture writer based in Toronto. You can find him on Twitter at @navalang
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