Instagram Shopping Tags: is this just another way for Facebook to take our money?

As Instagram offers in-app shopping tools, we ask: are they terrific or terrifying?

Shopping from Creators is an in-app tool that allows influencers to sell products they promote online. Photo: Instagram 
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If, like 99 per cent of the UAE population, you are active on social media, then you probably spend, on average, two-and-a-half hours a day browsing, swiping and / or liking. And like nearly six million people in this country, you probably use Instagram to explore, garner information and, most recently, shop.

Introduced to this region in April, ­Shopping Tags is an Instagram tool that allows brands and businesses to tag their products, enabling users to click to learn more about them, and, with another click, be taken to the company’s website, to buy the product and checkout, all without ­leaving Instagram.

The Instagram success story 

Wildly successful since its inception in 2010 (when it debuted with a photo of a Mexican dog and a woman’s foot), Instagram is the ­brainchild of Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, who came up with the staggeringly simple idea of a platform for sharing images.

If Twitter was created to condense news into 140 written characters, then Instagram was about letting a single picture paint a thousand words. It was an immediate hit, and downloaded 100,000 times in its first week, reaching the one million mark within two months.

April 2012 saw the roll-out of a version for Android, which was downloaded a cool one million times on the very first day, and soon images – with little or nothing by way of explanatory text – of breakfast bowls, shoes and sun-tanned selves were uploaded, all captured in a perfectly square format.

The buzz caught the attention of Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg who, on April 9, 2012, bought the company for $1 billion (Dh3.6bn), despite it having generated zero income. Instagram began to broaden its capabilities to allow multiple images per post and adding short videos, and even debuted Instagram Stories in 2016, a carbon copy of Snapchat, with content that vanished after 24 hours.

Today, less than a decade after launching, Instagram boasts more than a billion users and is worth an estimated $100bn.

Shopping Tags: shop without leaving Instagram

Shopping Tags by Instagram

The new in-app shopping function, Shopping Tags, was piloted in 2016 across select companies, including Burberry and Huda Beauty. It is meant to provide a way for companies to communicate directly with customers and potentially turn likes into sales, in exchange for an undisclosed fee to Instagram. For the customer, finding out more about a shoe or bag no longer means having to leave Instagram and search for the relevant website.

With 800 million active monthly users, and 500 million daily users, Instagram is growing five times faster than any other ­social media platform. Sixty per cent of users now turn to Instagram to find new products, while 70 per cent of users follow their favourite businesses online. For ­example, high-street fashion store Zara has 33.9 million followers, H&M has 31.5m, while Nike and Adidas have 90.3m and 24m respectively.

When shopping Tags arrived to the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, Facebook declared in a statement at the time that the tool "­facilitates on-platform shopping by ­creating more opportunities and simpler ways for Instagrammers to discover and explore products".

In the Middle East, digital uptake is extremely high, with 61 per cent of the population on Instagram (versus 37 per cent of Americans) and, as such, Shopping Tags is expected to make a considerable impact here.

What's in it for me?

As Michele Robusto, vice president of performance marketing at Namshi, explains, “Instagram is one of the fastest-growing social media platforms for Namshi, especially in the UAE, and to introduce Instagram Shopping was a natural stepping stone for the business. As a fashion e-commerce brand, we invest a lot with Instagram as they provide a visual storefront to our customers, making it easier for them to shop the looks on our website. The effortless access to the product tags and prices makes it convenient for the shoppers [who don’t have to] scroll through thousands of products online.”

Namshi offers its products via Shopping Tags on Instagram 

Priya Patel, product marketing lead at Facebook Middle East, offers further insight. “Instagram has always been a place where people came to get inspired, and discover new products and brands. Given that [the majority] of people follow a brand on Instagram, we want to tap into this natural habit of serendipitous shopping. That’s why we built a number of shopping features, like Shopping Tags, which allow people to tap through and buy an item straight from the brand or retailer, without leaving the app.

“These new features turn Instagram into an immersive storefront for people to browse products and offer a new way for brands to capitalise on their social media reach. We want to simplify the shopping experience by shortening the path to purchase. Shoppers can now go from product inspiration to product information in just a few taps. As more and more people visit Instagram to shop the brands and ­products they love, we’ll continue to explore new ways to enhance the overall shopping experience.”

Independent figures are hard to find; however, Instagram claims that 90 million users a month are already using Shopping Tags, across 25 million businesses. The new function is said to be driving up traffic by a staggering 1,416 per cent, resulting in a 20 per cent increase in revenue.

Robusto adds: “Customers are not just shopping for a product, but they are also shopping for the lifestyle and culture that resonates with them on our feed, and we hope this feature will drive incremental revenue to our business.”

Shopping from Creators

Shopping from Creators by Instagram

In addition to Shopping Tags, there is another new arrival entitled Shopping from Creators, which works in the same way, but lets individuals – rather than companies – sell online. Aimed at ­influencers, beauty bloggers and those paid to promote brands, the tool allows users to sell straight from their Instagram feed. Presumably, this is in line with the announcement in October 2018, by the National Media Council in Dubai, stating that those engaged in “electronic advertisements in social media” must be registered and have a licence.

At present, there are 25 million business active on Instagram, but only two million that have purchased advertising space on the platform, meaning it is potentially a huge untapped revenue stream for ­Facebook. Zuckerberg has never been secretive about his wish to increase commerce across Facebook, WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram, and with previous attempts having failed to take off, no doubt he is eager for this latest iteration to succeed.

Instagram already tracks and stores our browsing patterns, using that information to power the ­complex algorithm that directs relevant content to our feed. Like rated dogs or huge hats? Search for them once and they will stalk your feed forever. Apply that same technology to shopping, and that same code will now flag new drops at a favourite high-street store or a new lipstick being used by a beauty influencer – all available to buy right that moment, of course.

Using social media means agreeing to personal data being harvested, stored, used and now monetised. Imagine a scenario where countless stores and products are foisted your way, each with an easy shopping option, catering to your every mood, whim and want, all without requiring you to move from the sofa. In effect, this transforms Instagram into the perfect shopping mall, which we didn’t even know we needed.