Complex Made Simple

7 key elements that led Instagram to billion-dollar success

Instagram's success is a multi-faceted one, built on smart, timely concepts and philosophies.

Instagram's integration of photography editing with social media set it apart from the competition Unlike many of its rivals in the market, its user experience was simple and streamlined The app was also helped by strong word of mouth and celebrity adoption

Just last week, Instagram turned 10. We wrote about the new features that the company was releasing to celebrate the milestone, as well a strategy focusing on simplicity and a streamlined user experience led them to success. 

In this final article commemorating the app’s decennial celebration, we wanted to look at the exact elements of the Instagram experience and the hype surrounding that helped the company become what it is today: a multi-billion dollar firm.

1. Focus on photography

Back in 2010 when the company launched, the app landscape was completely different from today. The biggest hitters of Apple’s App Store were apps like Cut the Rope, Fruit Ninja, Skype, and Facebook. This was before Snapchat, Zoom or TikTok had been launched, and social media use on smartphones was just a fraction of what it is today. 

In came Instagram, a social media app like no other, one focusing solely on photos taken using smartphone cameras. Around this time, the iPhone 4 had just been released, and the quality of smartphone cameras had been improving in the years since the debut of the original iPhone in 2007. Not content with the photo offerings of platforms like Facebook and Twitter, Instagram dedicated its sole existence to perfecting that, so much so that it even forced all photos uploaded to the platform to adhere to a 1×1 aspect ratio, to create a unified visual experience, unlike Facebook where users would share images of all dimensions and orientations, creating a visual mess of sorts. 

2. Filters
While filters were not exactly new by any means – they’re just photo editing presets after all -Instagram is what helped popularize them. Again, around this time, phone cameras had improved, but they were still far from great. However, with the rise of social media and the obsession with taking photos of everything (breakfast, lunch, dinner, dogs, cats and everything in between), filters seemed like the perfect way to make all the wannabe-photographers inside of us feel validated. When you could slap an Instagram filter on any badly-lit selfie or dim landscape shot and call it a day feeling like a bona fide social media photographer, it was only a matter of time before over-sharing millennials and (soon after Gen Z’ers) would mass adopt the app. 

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3. Mobile photography

Again, we can’t reiterate the importance Instagram put on mobile photography itself. The app only allows you to upload images from your phone (even to this day), and while some people (often influencers) would work around this by copying photos from their PC to their smartphones beforehand, the core philosophy of sharing photos you had taken with your phone persisted. With the help of a filter, you didn’t have to feel bad anymore if your unfiltered image looked bad. 

This became so prominent that a #nofilter trend would eventually emerge, where people would unabashedly brag about a photo having no filter. Regardless, Instagram wasn’t complaining, as these photos would make their way onto the app regardless.

4. Social media integrationInstagram wanted to stand out among the competition, and succeeded.
While other photo apps existed in the market before Instagram’s debut, like Hipstamatic, none had such a robust social media integration as it did. Co-founders Sytrom and Krieger made sure that the app would have social media functions since day one, which helped it stand out from the competition while letting users do the marketing for them by sharing it on bigger and more popular platforms. 

5. Simplicity
Before it was called Instagram, the brainchild of co-founder Kevin Systrom was a location-based social media app in the vein of Foursquare. When co-founder Mike Krieger got on board, the two realized that the current app was too cluttered and decided to strip it down to a few basic functions such as photo uploading, liking and commenting, and sharing on other social media platforms. 

Unlike rivals like Facebook and Twitter, the Instagram photo sharing experience was streamlined, simple and very easy to use. Even the visual identity of the app was much more pleasing to the eye. In the long run, this paid off for the two co-founders, and to this day, while a bit crowded due to Facebook shoving in more features, the app remains mostly easy and simple to use. 

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6. The unbeatable price of free

Like Facebook, Twitter, and many other apps before them, Instagram realized that to truly make a dent in the market, it needed to be free. After all, when celebrities and high-profile individuals would use your platform, their fans would have zero barriers to entry. 

7. Word of mouth

This is exactly what happened when Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and artist Justin Bieber used the app in its early days, inadvertently bringing hordes of followers onto the app with them. This, coupled with compounding word of mouth, allowed Instagram to gain 1 million users in just over 2 months. 

Instagram, while experiencing a slow start by most measures, had a solid PR foundation, following strong networking efforts by its co-founders during the app’s beta stage. In its first 24 hours since launch, it gained 25,000 users. At the end of the first week, Instagram had been downloaded 100,000 times. 

Strong PR and a solid premise propelled the app to worldwide fame.