Instagram's $720 Million Print Button

If Instagram added a print button to its app, how much revenue could it generate?

If Instagram were to add a print button, allowing its massive community of shutterbugs to order physical copies of their photos right from the app, how much revenue could that drive? According to CanvasPop cofounder Adrian Salamunovic, a conservative estimate would peg that number at around $720 million annually.

Salamunovic's back-of-the-envelope calculation comes just a week after Instagram announced its plans to monetize. In a blog post entitled "Instagram as a growing business," the Facebook-owned photo-sharing service outlined its advertising program, promising that only a "handful of brands" would produce ads designed to be "enjoyable and creative in much the same way you see engaging, high-quality ads when you flip through your favorite magazine." Predictably, the announcement was met with a certain measure of protest. But given that Instagram has eschewed going after myriad other business opportunities such as photo printing--however enticing they may now be at this scale--it's all the more clear how committed the company is to its ad-based approach.

Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom has long avoided letting business strategy trump user experience. From the beginning, his disciplined team was laser-focused on designing the perfect app--they weren't distracted by short-term, revenue-generating tactics. Of course, as a lean startup flush with capital, it's a luxury--if not now a Silicon Valley cliché--to say you're focused on product rather than profit.

But with more than 150 million users, and with revenue expectations forever ballooning, it's especially impressive that the company has managed to remain undistracted. "You could throw almost any feature at that many users and monetize it," says Salamunovic, who has built a multimillion-dollar business from social media services like Facebook.

In his view, printing alone--of items such as canvases, postcards, or photo books--would be a massive business, even if it were outsourced to companies like CanvasPop or Shutterfly. If Instagram introduced a print button in its app, Salamunovic estimates that even if the service saw only a 1% conversion rate, with an average monthly transaction of $40, the company could help to generate $60 million a month, or $720 million a year. Salamunovic stresses that this is an extremely conservative approximation; the conversion rate and average monthly transaction on CanvasPop alone is significantly higher. (To be clear, Instagram would only take a cut of this revenue from third-party services; it would certainly be a headache to handle its own printing, though it would likely be more lucrative.)

Salamunovic realizes a partnership like this is a fantasy. But that hasn't stopped him from "creating the what-if scenario." He's been in touch with Systrom about it over the years, and recently even connected with Instagram business operations director Emily White. "Emily is super friendly and polite, and basically said that they are 100% aware of us but that there are no immediate plans to add this [print button] feature," Salamunovic says.

In other words, not much has changed since the early days. As we described in our recent profile of Instagram:

Quick-buck schemes abounded, but none distracted Systrom. The fervor around the service started a burgeoning economy of companies turning its treasure trove of digital images into everything from coasters to T-shirts to canvas prints. Polaroid even announced plans to roll out a physical Instagram camera in 2014. Systrom didn't want to be in the photo tchotchke game. "It's not the next $1 billion business," he said.

The fact is, however, such schemes are rapidly becoming $1 billion businesses. And that figure would be significantly higher if factoring in selling potential premium photo packs or branded filters, which, in the past, Systrom has hinted he's open to experimenting with.

But, unlike ads, he and his team have decided they're simply not worth the cost to the user experience.

[Image: Flickr user Johan Blomström]

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11 Comments

  • Rob

    Standard valuation is ten times earnings. Ten times $720m = a $7.2b company. 

    If they could source a vendor that just did maybe two or three print options very well, why not couple that with standard digital ads that are certainly forthcoming?

    And seems like this feature would ensure the high quality they want, in terms of what their users feel is high quality, and that's their own best work. Much easier than creating ads that are seen as high quality, which to this audience would likely need to be work that's museum quality.

  • gbacoder

    "enjoyable and creative in much the same way you see engaging, high-quality ads when you flip through your favorite magazine." maybe, but there is the wider issue that while we "enjoy" them, they do make us more materialistic and vain on the whole. Promoting unattainable beauty, and repeatedly associating it and expensive new shiny things with a great lifestyle / happiness / being respected. Is it actually worth this for a "free" service...  As it ends up polluting our minds subconsciously over time, we end up spending more than we should on things we don't need and that don't really bring happiness. Is it no wonder most Americans have their credit cards maxed out yet are less happy than people in South America, for example.

  • @bladt

    So an average of $4.80 per user, per year, in profits (instagram would only be taking a cut of each order) from printing. Not exactly conservative. 

  • Katie Forsyth

    Why wouldn't users want this?  I think it would make users THINK more before posting.  If your instagram feed suddenly becomes your album for printing, perhaps more thought would go into it.  I would be happy to have the option to print my photos directly from the app.  Also think it's important to partner with a company like CanvasPop to ensure QUALITY and consistent GOOD user experience.  

  • baldjake

    If this print button ever happened, I'm pretty sure they would only let you print your own photos due to copyright, and a whole host of other lawsuit issues involved with using other people's stuff.

    I for one would love a print button for my photos. +1

  • onlineprintme

    Their API is only allow access to your Instagram photos so for example if I want to print instagram photos on foxgram.com they will only let me to choose my photos for print (because of Instagram Privacy Policy and copyright issues).

  • Andrew McKenna

    So let me get this straight, they want to focus on enhancing the user experience by disturbing and interrupting us with advertising instead of allowing us to do more with our photos?

    Can anyone else see what's wrong here?

  • Photo Printing API

    It is not actually advertising Andrew. You see, it is just a Print Button that would allow you to take a photo, edit it with the app then print the image straight from instagram onto a big beautiful canvas. Any photo app can install it with the CanvasPop Photo Printing API

  • Christopher Wilkie

    I believe Andrew was making a point of the fact that Instagram want to inject advertising into the user experience, but not let users do more things with their photos, like print them...

  • Andrew McKenna

     Exactly Christopher.
    They want to interrupt the user experience rather than enhance it, despite saying the opposite.

    Is that everybody's brilliant idea these days, "let's have more advertising"
    Don't know about you but I'm becoming increasingly ad blind.

  • acarr

    Thanks for the note, Andrew. Interested in getting everyone's thoughts there. I can see how a lot of people might find it less disruptive, especially if you hide it in the ellipsis button.

    At the same time, you also must consider that the margins on digital advertising are extremely high (much higher than dealing with physical goods); that digital advertising is in Facebook's core competency; and that there is the possibility that the ads will be something you enjoy, though I'm skeptical. 

    Plus, I do think it cheapens the experience if Instagram starts selling magnets and coasters and what-not, especially if you can already get that via third-party services.

    But interested in getting everyone else's thoughts.