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Instagram Direct: Your data, direct to marketers

Instagram is going to let you send messages and images to small subsets of your friends and family. It's a clever way to get more of your data into the hands of marketers.

By Evan Schuman
December 17, 2013 08:50 AM ET

Computerworld - In an interesting marketing play, Instagram announced last week that it would offer a new service, to be called Instagram Direct, allowing its users to send messages and images to small subsets of their friends and families. At a news conference, Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom tied the rollout to the season, saying, "As we enter into the holidays, it's a perfect time to be able to share with a small group or someone you love." That's true -- as long as the someone you love includes marketers, who will be getting quite a Santa sack full of personal information about you and your friends.

The dirty, not-so-secret secret about social networks is that they are really all about how much data they can collect from users, data that is analyzed and then used to send increasingly personalized sales pitches. (Kind of gives "Secret Santa" a whole new meaning.) And this Instagram service rests, not coincidentally, on the two mother lodes of shopping data: photographs (and their associated metadata) and relationship connections.

Why relationship connections? If you're a consumer goods manufacturer (think Toyota, Nike, Nabisco, Sony), a retailer (think Wal-Mart, Macy's, Target, Amazon) or a marketing firm (think Genghis Kahn, Idi Amin, Mussolini), how much is it worth to you to know which consumers are close friends or close relatives with other specific consumers? As a major gift-giving occasion comes up for one consumer, how would you like to be able to send highly customized pitches to his or her close friends and relatives?

"Hey, we know that you're good friends with Suzy and it's her birthday next week. As it happens, we also know that she's been looking at a certain item on our site. Here's a link to purchase and send it to her. Her address has already been filled in, along with instructions to the shipper that it must arrive on her birthday and not before. If you're as good a friend as Suzy thinks you are, all you have to do is type in your credit card data."

The potential of this sort of thing was hardly lost on Wal-Mart, which paid substantial dollars to buy a small Facebook app called Social Calendar.

Why are photographs such huge data finds? As mentioned above, the sharing act itself provides super-valuable data on relationships, but the photos tell quite a bit. What the photograph depicts indicates things of interest to both the shooter and the recipient. Is it a friend playing basketball? Nike wants to know. Maybe a meadow, along with a text note that says, "Ellen couldn't stop sneezing." Pharmaceutical companies really want to know.

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