Does Instagram hold the clues to the next US president?
'I’m a terrible photographer,” admits Marne Levine, the boss of Instagram. “I feel all this pressure to post, but my photos just aren’t that great.”
She may lack photographic talent, but Levine runs the most powerful visual social network in the world. The fast-growing company, based in Menlo Park outside San Francisco, now has 400m users worldwide.
This month, she celebrates a year as chief operating officer. Under her stewardship, the company has ramped up its revenues, rolling out its advertising platform across 200 countries last September.
By 2017, Instagram’s global mobile ad revenues will reach $2.81bn. It is still a minnow compared to parent company Facebook, which turns over $4.5bn in three months.
Nevertheless, Instagram is now growing faster than its owner. Facebook has grown its monthly active users by 50pc to 1.5bn in the three years since it acquired Instagram from founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger for a cool $1bn. But Instagram’s user base has quadrupled over the same period.
Commentators said at the time of the deal that it was a classic example of keeping friends close but enemies closer. However, Facebook claimed that the two businesses would be run as separate entities. That’s already begun to change, Levine reveals. “We’ve integrated with Facebook’s system,” she says. “We use its self-serve auction platform for our ads.”
Facebook was the only social network to experience a decline in the rate of people actively using the site each month in 2014, according to GlobalWebIndex research, but Levine is keen to dodge any suggestion that Instagram might be cannibalising Facebook’s users.
“People come to Instagram for a specific reason,” she says. “They come to experience the world through imagery.”
When Levine doesn’t want to respond to a question, she’ll change the subject or deny knowledge of the issue. One example: have the recent Twitter outages driven users to Instagram? “I don’t know, because I’m paying attention to Instagram.”
She no doubt picked up this tactic as a policy wonk in the White House, working for Bill Clinton and later for the Obama administration. This is how she landed a job at Facebook, as the social giant’s global policy head.
She keeps her finger on the political pulse now, for good reason. “Political candidates have embraced Instagram as a way to show other sides of themselves and connect with voters,” she says. “It’s not enough to say where they are on issues, people want to know what they had for breakfast, what they do before they go on stage for a debate.”
Could Instagram follower numbers be an indication of a candidate’s chances of winning the presidency? Donald Trump has 900,000 followers to Hillary Clinton’s 710,00 and Jeb Bush’s 50,000. “This election will be the most visual election we’ve had to date,” says Levine.
She may have been in the tech industry just five years, but Levine is being hailed as the new Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer and author of the hit business book Lean In, which boasts a linked charitable organisation, of which Levine is a director.
In 2013, just 26pc of tech jobs in the US were held by women, down from 35pc in 1990, according to the American Association of University Women. On being a rare woman at the top in tech, Levine says: “I feel really fortunate to have this experience. It’s been fantastic and my hope is that we’ll get lots more women working in Instagram.
“The world of technology offers women the opportunity to have so many interesting careers. I joined Facebook to lead global policy after a career in government.
“If seeing me in my role can encourage other women to think more broadly about the opportunities available to them, then that’s fantastic.”
Around 75pc of Instagram’s users are based outside the US and Levine is on the last leg of her whistlestop tour of Germany and the UK, where she is preaching the gospel of Instagram to Europe’s small businesses.
This is the new sweet spot for the company, she reveals. “Businesses have always been part of the Instagram community but when we first launched ads, it was only to a handful of big brands,” Levine says. “Small companies used it to grow their businesses organically but this is the first time ads have been available to them.”
Instagram used to be a shop window where you could admire products but never buy, she explains.
She’s preaching to the converted in many cases. “We were desperate to try Instagram advertising when we heard it was coming out,” says Aron Gelbard, founder of London flower delivery firm Bloom & Wild.
“Instagram is the network we invest most in as a visual brand. When we trialled an ad, we acquired thousands of customers, although it’s relatively expensive. If it were cheaper we’d do more.”
Instagram has 14m users in the UK and the increasing popularity of the app in far-flung places has proved tricky for the company, which still employs only 300 people. “It’s been a little challenging,” Levine says. “There are people in the Middle East, for example, who are loving Instagram and I want my team to have the resources to serve that community. It’s a challenge to move fast enough with so few people.”
Facebook isn’t sharing too much of its £5bn cash pile with its stablemate. “We’re limited by the size of our team,” admits Levine.
Over the next year, Levine is focusing on launching more tools to help users “tell their stories”.
Boomerang, which Instagram launched late last year, allows users to make one-second videos. “It was number one in the App Store for more than 70 countries,” Levine says. “The line between photo and video is blurring and people are using motion more and more. We need to give them those tools.” Levine claims that there is a significant overlap between her roles at Instagram and in government.
“Working in government was a chance to be mission-driven and use policy to make people’s lives better,” she says. “What I hear about Instagram is that it is also making people’s lives better. That’s a big deal.”
Would she ever consider returning to politics? “I wake up every day excited and daunted by all we have to do here at Instagram,” she replies.