Is Instagram the Future of E-Commerce?
Is Instagram the Future of E-Commerce?

It's been an interesting year for Instagram; the platform crossed 1 billion monthly active users, released IGTV and made even more impressive iterations to Stories. Unfortunately, these milestones were mixed in with the news that its founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, would be departing after more than eight years at the helm, serving as both CEO and CTO, respectively.

However, when we think about some of Instagram's biggest feature releases over the past 12 months, none might be as significant as the launch of shoppable media, a product that will undoubtedly transform how e-commerce brands utilize the platform going forward. Back in March, Instagram released Shoppable Posts, a feature that now allows brands to tag products within a post. With three clicks, a user can now go from that post to the brand's Add to Cart section on their website.

This was then quickly followed up with Shoppable Stories Stickers, a feature that allows you to shop your favorite products directly from stories. However, the biggest indication that Instagram is making a big play into the world of e-commerce came in September, when The Verge reported that Instagram plans to eventually launch its own standalone shopping app, called IG Shopping.

What does all this mean for small e-commerce brands? Below are some of the most commonly asked questions about how businesses can utilize Instagram as a medium to scale their business.

For small businesses selling products online, how important is Instagram as a marketing/sales channel?

It's clear that Instagram is building the tools that will eventually make it seamless for users to purchase directly from their feeds, and if you have an already established presence on the platform, it will certainly give you a head start on your competitors. Right now, when looking at big brands like Glossier, Gap, and Nordstrom, they've optimized their feeds for shoppable media, and it will be the small brands that adapt quickly and deploy similar strategies that will probably have the most success long term.

What are some of the biggest benefits of shoppable media?

Historically, Instagram has allowed one link on an account. For retailers wanting to drive traffic to their store, they resorted to the now infamous phrase "link in bio." Shoppable media changes all of that; the ability to tag a product in an image is an absolute game-changer for brands. From now on, if you liked those Vans you saw on your timeline, you can tap them, and with just a couple more clicks, you can purchase them straight from the Vans website. In short, the user journey has been completely transformed and has now become much more seamless.

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What steps should startups and small businesses take that to build a brand on Instagram?

Keep it simple. Create great content that you know your ideal audience will love, write captions that are truly unique, and speak specifically to your customer, and, finally, research and use the best and most optimized hashtags. If you do this, you will gain traction. In addition, choose four to five hashtags that your ideal customers use on a daily basis, and engage with the posts under those hashtags regularly.

Once you see that community forming, you can then integrate some shoppable posts into your feed. You don't want to saturate your feed with product shots; a good percentage of shoppable posts to have in your feed is about 20 to 30 percent, as you don't want to lose sight of what influenced those people to follow you in the first place.

Is there a fear that Instagram might turn into one big call to action and lose the qualities that made it popular?

The short answer to this is no. Instagram just passed 1 billion monthly active users, and of those, 25 million are businesses, and you have to remember that you must be a business to utilize Instagram's shopping features.

As a brand, it's important to be conscious of what enticed your followers to follow you in the first place. If you lose sight of that, and your feed loses that entertainment factor, engagement will eventually drop off and that trust that you worked hard to develop with your customers will inevitably decline.

If Instagram launches a stand-alone shopping app, what will it look like?

Reportedly, it will be set up in a way in which the user can browse collections from brands they already follow, and they will be able to purchase products associated with those brands directly within the app, just like you would on a regular e-commerce store or Amazon. Similar to IGTV, you will be able to access this shopping app straight from your everyday Instagram app. For now, these are just rumors.

What is the No. 1 tip for a small business that is starting to use Instagram as a marketing channel?

Hire a part-time photographer/editor. The first step to standing out on Instagram is having crisp, professional-looking photography, and if you do this, the rate at which people pay attention to your images on their timeline will certainly increase. After that, it's imperative to write great copy, and use and engage with the best hashtags, but none of that matters if your images aren't top quality to begin with.

What's the best parting advice for a small brand that wants to eventually become a huge brand on Instagram?

Experiment and see what resonates with your audience, and what the most successful levers of growth are. Get extremely creative with Instagram stories, partner with some microinfluencers, dabble with some original video content, and because it's such a marketing whitespace at the moment, why not try producing some vertical video content on IGTV? A brand that is great at experimenting with every feature that Instagram has to offer is Away; another one is Casper, following these two and seeing how they utilize these features would be a very good place to start.

Overall, it's apparent that Instagram is making significant moves into the world of e-commerce, but will they become a large player? We will have to wait and see.

Mid-Market Companies Have a Distinct Edge in Disruptive Innovation

Middle-market, entrepreneurial companies are poised for dramatic growth and market opportunities in coming years if they can embrace disruptive innovation, according to former Silicon Valley engineer and now Florida-based venture capitalist and private equity investor Mike Wetzer.

At the recent International M&A Partners (IMAP) Fall conference in Miami, Wetzer told an audience of middle-market merger and acquisition specialists from around the globe how the innovative companies that they frequently represent are sought after by the largest companies in the world. Wetzer emphasized that streamlined, smaller companies can innovate quickly while big companies can't innovate fast enough.

Those companies that focus on disruption stand to make it big. Wetzer recounted organizations he is currently and was previously involved with as prime examples. While a consultant at Accenture, Wetzer worked with a team at Raytheon that turned aircraft design and construction on its head. Private jets were traditionally designed and built in sequential development phases, but this team instead chose to bring designers and builders together under one roof, leverage advanced 3D all-digital design and utilize state-of-the-art composites. The result was a lightweight aircraft constructed in two carbon composite fuselage sections which were connected to the wing with just a few bolts in a fraction of the time and cost. The project was completed in 38 months, shedding years off the typical design and construction process.

Another disruptor is a new entry to the on-demand economy, Dallas-based Pickup. The app-based service helps consumers and retailers deliver heavy or bulky items around town, like those occasions when you might borrow a friend's pickup truck. Pickup executives originally thought its customers would solely be individuals but have since worked with retailers like Pier One, Williams Sonoma and Crate & Barrel. It has now expanded to 39 cities and is changing how larger goods are delivered from retailers to consumers' homes.

By hiring what it calls "good guys with trucks" to do the moving, Pickup actually owns no trucks, following the lead of other disruptive companies, like Uber. Pickup doesn't own vehicles, Facebook doesn't own content, Airbnb does not own real estate, and Alibaba does not own any inventory.

For small and mid-sized business, Wetzer sees remarkable opportunity for innovation and disruption. He points to a 2015 Vanson Bourne survey done for EMC which shows that many organizations fail to innovate in an agile way, predicatively spot new opportunities, deliver a personalized experience, operate in real time or demonstrate transparency and trust. These shortfalls open the door for companies to take advantage of current trends.

Entrepreneurs should explore three main areas for opportunities to disrupt:

Technology, including 5G, artificial intelligence, blockchain, autonomous vehicles, the internet of things and others The shrinking planet and opportunities surrounding globalization and the competition for resources Society, including social media, privacy, crowdsourcing, the millennial powershift and others

According to the Center for Creative Leadership, the following activities can harm innovation: 

Discouraging creativity Not evaluating fully Pushing a top-down agenda Forcing structure Confining innovation to R&D Criticizing first Derisking/scaling back Rejecting ambiguity Acting like a know-it-all

One of the main takeaways of the IMAP conference is that innovation is not necessarily a clean business. Disruption is, in fact, says Wetzer, raucous, and even the current processes for innovation used by companies are open for disruption.  

It's clear that disruptive innovation is a major differentiator for startups and middle-market companies, as large-cap companies struggle with innovative growth. Small and mid-sized companies are nimble enough to innovate in a meaningful way, Wetzer says, while large-cap companies can't innovate fast enough – though they are willing to pay handsomely for it.

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