Kevin Systrom is presiding over the next-generation of social media, an era he helped spark with Instagram, and now the highly stylized sharing app has 300 million users, many of them younger than 35 years old. Instagram has become an obsession for celebrities and brands, and it is yet another channel for aspiring social media stars to find an audience.
The company announced its big user milestone this week, and Systrom (Adweek's Hot List Digital Executive of the Year) recently agreed to answer a few questions, via email, about the future of the photo- and video-sharing app, owned by Facebook. Here's what he had to say about his growing advertising business and the talent that populates the platform, including his favorite Instagrammers.
The Instagram team is so hands-on with its approach to advertising, and you personally vet all ads. What is the key for a brand to be successful on Instagram and for you to like their work?
We want every ad on Instagram to tell a story and inspire people. We get most excited when we see a brand extend their voice in a way that captures the creativity and authenticity of the Instagram experience. Our process will scale as more advertisers come onto Instagram. Our goal with working closely with advertisers is not to change or influence their direction but to share insights that help make each photo and video feel at home on Instagram.
Mark Zuckerberg predicted Facebook will be almost all video in five years. Could you see a similar path on Instagram?
Whether it's an ad or organic content, video provides a new creative dimension for storytelling on Instagram. Video lets people convey the power and beauty in a moment through sight, sound and motion. Brands, musicians and public figures were among the first to embrace video on Instagram, and we've been impressed with how brands have extended their reach with video ads. We're just getting started.
Who are your favorite Instagrammers whose success could be attributed to the platform? How important are they to a vibrant community?
It amazes me how the Instagram community celebrates and supports each other and their passions. These Instagrammers bring a dimension of craft and creativity to the Instagram experience, and we wouldn't be the same without them.
Who pops to mind?
Hong Yi (@redhongyi), an artist, has found her primary fan base through Instagram and has since been picked up by media all over the world. Kathy Ryan (@kathyryan1) is the director of photography at The New York Times Magazine. Her Instagram feed is a love letter to The New York Times building in Manhattan. Aperture just published a book of her images, and they are truly exceptional.
Jon Lowenstein (@jonlowenstein) is a photographer who came to the South Side of Chicago on an assignment 15 years ago and decided to make the neighborhood his home. He had been photographing his local community for years as a side project but never found an audience for it until he started sharing them on Instagram. Now he has an engaged audience who follows his work everywhere—whether he's sharing everyday photos from the South Side or when he was off on assignment covering Ferguson, Mo. There's this amazing movement happening on Instagram where photojournalists in particular regions around the world are forming shared accounts where they publish images that celebrate everyday life. It began with @everydayafrica and has now grown to include dozens of accounts, from @everydayiran and @everydaysrilanka to @everydayUSA (launched this summer by former AP photographer and TIME's 2013 Instagram Photographer of the Year, David Guttenfelter, @dguttenfelder).
Instagram launched its first standalone app this year with Hyperlapse. What other apps and features would you like to see?
It's important for us to continue delivering tools that enable all forms of visual communication and inspire creativity. Last spring we released a new suite of creative editing tools, this summer we launched Hyperlapse, and in 2015, we hope to deliver more features that bring out the creativity of the community and provide new ways to explore and discover the content being created.
What single moment from the platform really impressed or surprised you this year, whether it was from a brand, artist or regular user?
The World Cup was an incredible moment for us. It reinforced to everyone on our team how global Instagram has become. Everything from the behind-the-scenes images from the players to fan photos from around the world. By the end of the tournament, one in 10 Instagrammers was following a World Cup player. We often talk about the steps we can take to help provide a real-time view into what's happening in the world, and the World Cup brought this to life.
Is there anything you can share about your style as a boss?
I care deeply about craft, the quality of how something is made and the experience it enables. There are a few things we often talk about, and they all come back to simplicity, creativity and community. One is doing the simple thing first. By this, we mean not complicating problems or solutions. Another is around craft and the idea that anything we choose to do, we should do with taste. This means things like being intentional about our work, finding quality in the details and doing fewer things better. We hope all of these come through in how we work and the products we build.
What are your favorite brands on the platform, and what was the most creative post you've seen from them this year?
Some of the most innovative brands were among the first to embrace Instagram (Starbucks, Levi's, Ben & Jerry's, Michael Kors), and they continue to be at the cutting edge of creativity. There are so many great brands doing great things on Instagram, and it's hard to pick a favorite. I've always been impressed with the approach of Burberry and their eagerness to push the boundaries.
We often hear reports that Facebook is not as cool with teenagers, but Instagram is popular with teens more than ever. Is that true? Are you seeing growth among young kids?
The way people communicate is changing, and no one knows this better than teens. We are using images to talk to each other, to communicate what we're doing, what we're thinking and to tell stories. We continue to learn from and be inspired by the way teens use Instagram. For them, it's both an artistic platform, and the place where they communicate with friends and keep up with the world around them. We've seen teen small business owners, photographers, world travelers, makeup artists, sports stars and cancer patients all use Instagram to share a piece of their identity, connect with peers on shared interests and experiences, and discover other worlds beyond their own.
What's next for Instagram—what is your strategy for maintaining relevance well into the future? For instance, what features and core functions must you embrace to grow and stay on top?
Five years ago, the big shift for the industry was Web to mobile. Today, we're going through another important shift from text to images. We want to continue to play a meaningful role in this transition to communicating visually. This means things like bringing Instagram to every person with a phone, and exploring new areas of communication like we did with Instagram Direct and Hyperlapse. It also involves expanding what we do best—giving people simple and fun ways to capture and share life's moments—from the everyday to the spectacular.