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Instagram: beating Facebook at the job it's hired to do

By now, everyone who reads the Wall Street Journal knows what Instagram is:

Instagram's Wall St. Journal cover story

The article covers the surface level details, which (to oversimplify) are as follows:

  • Two Stanford whiz kids made an iPhone app that uploads cameraphone snapshots to the Internet.
  • The app generates no revenue, but is growing so fast that big-time VCs invested, valuing it at $500 million.
  • The founders sold the app to Facebook for a billion dollars.

Those are the key facts, though the article sheds precious little light on the subject—especially if you’re creating a product and want to replicate their success. The Journal makes only the briefest mention “removing a rival” as a possible motivation for the purchase.

Let’s stipulate that taking a competitor out of your market might be worth $1 billion and look at how, exactly, Instagram competes with Facebook.

Competing = Doing the same job

If I asked you to picture Facebook in your mind, I’d wager you’d conjure up an image like this:


The primary focus of this page is the News Feed (highlighted in yellow below), which is a stream of “status updates” posted by your friends indicating what they’re doing or what’s on their mind.

Facebook's News Feed

Having a textual description of what you’re friend is doing is great, but a picture is worth 1000 words, right? So, something like this might be more engaging:

Popular photos on Instagram

The above is a sampling of the popular photos right now on Instagram. Now, I’ll add annotations to call out some of the more interesting stories:

Popular photos (annotated)

I’d say it’s clear the concept of textual status updates is rather dry and geeky by comparison. If a friend told me she was rooting around in MTV’s archives, I’d think that was pretty cool. If she showed me some photos and gave me a real sense for what it was like, I’d be much more engaged. Also, notice that an image doesn’t have to be a photographic masterpiece to tell a story that your friends might find compelling (see cats wrestling above).

If I want to communicate to you what I’m doing or thinking about, it will almost always be more effective to show you, not just tell you. So by this logic, Instagram is not only doing the same job for me that Facebook is, but it’s doing it better.

Get better by focusing on the Job-to-be-Done

Looking at product based on the “job” it does for the consumer is a useful analysis tool for this type of post-mortem. Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor most famous for his work on disruptive innovation and The Innovator’s Dilemma, has written about this technique and will publish a book on it soon. If you’ve never heard of the Jobs-to-be-Done theory, start by watching this short YouTube video where he tells a great story about why people hire milkshakes. To dive deeper, check out the work of the The Re-Wired Group.

If you’re working on a product of your own, having a clear understanding of the job-to-de-done is a litmus test that can tell you whether a given feature is core to the user’s experience. If it’s not, consider skipping it. In the case of Instagram, by focusing on the core flow of capturing the moment, adding emotion (via filters), and sharing with friends, they were able to avoid building:

  • A full-featured web app
  • Sophisticated photography controls (exposure, white balance, histograms, etc.)
  • Grouping/sorting your photos into albums or collections

Based on what other photography apps/services do, it would be easy to say that Instagram “needed” those features to be competitive. Instagram’s founders, however, knew all they truly needed to build was a way to shoot, style and share a photo for their users to get the job done and tell the story of that moment in their lives. They could then make the appropriate tradeoffs and divert resources to polishing the smaller, core feature set into a great user experience.

The pace of business is always increasing, and Instagram used focus as a weapon to not only beat their direct competitors (PicYou, Hipstamatic, picplz and many others) but also threaten the 800 lb. gorilla known as Facebook.

What job do your customers hire your product to do?

References (6)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.

Reader Comments (2)

Your post really got me thinking about the different jobs that Instagram does for me and how value is perceived going in (trial), and over time (repeat).

You've done a great job of outlining how Facebook and Instragram compete for the "share my life with others" job (for lack of better language). This was the job that I initially hired it to do.

What's interesting is that my repeat consumption has had more to do with Instagram's ability to play my life back to me in the form of a grid that displays the pictures that I've posted. The grid does the "playback" job far better than Facebook (I can see everything quickly, and tap pictures to get more detail).

If I judged Instagram's value on what my perception of it was before I hired it (playing out the consumption in my mind before I downloaded it), I would have fired it after using it for a few times because for me it doesn't do the sharing job for me nearly as well as Facebook. However, after trying it for a few weeks, I realized that it had pulled itself over to do a different job, and did that different (unexpected) job very well.

I see this as a good example of why it's always important to conduct some deep Jobs-based interviews to understand how people are using the product and what the value is from the consumer's perspective.

May 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChris Spiek

Great points, Chris. This really is a deep rabbit hole…

Marketed as a “smart journal”, Path seems to be competing with Instagram for that self-retrospective job you mentioned. At the same time, it would like to be hired for the job of letting you keep tabs on what your close friends and family are up to, taking on Facebook. I actually set up some family members on Path who don't want to be on Facebook, because of the baggage and wide audience that goes with that. (There's the anxiety force kicking in.)

That setup works for me, because the job I hire Path for is to cross-post those cute kid photos across multiple social networks. Still, Path is asymmetrical and “post-only” for me right now, since I post there but the audience is elsewhere. That's probably not great for their business.

I hire Instagram for a similar post-only job, and don't make a regular habit of looking at interesting photography others have shared. For that job, I turn to Flipboard, since it pulls in Instagram feeds along with major media content like National Geographic. I also hire Instagram to practice my photography chops, and in that way it does the same job as Camera+.

It's a complicated picture, and that plays right into your point: only well after the fact can you perform the analysis, tease out all this customer behavior, and understand how customers are innovating in their own ways.

May 24, 2012 | Registered CommenterRoss Belmont

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