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Exclusive: Instagram Gives Email-Like Messaging Tools To Businesses

The Facebook-owned social network is also partnering with platforms like OpenTable and Fandango to let customers make reservations directly.

Exclusive: Instagram Gives Email-Like Messaging Tools To Businesses
[Photo: Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash]

If you spend as much time on Instagram as I do, you may have run into the following problem: You’re scrolling through the app when you discover an amazing bakery in Soho called Flour Shop. The shop makes the most gorgeous cakes you’ve ever seen.

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There are cakes that are full of confetti, so when you cut the cake open, a stream rainbow of edible sprinkles trickles out. There are cakes in the shape of your other favorites foods, like sushi, pizza, and tacos. You immediately want to know if the bakery owner can create a cake in the shape of a bunny using the potty–an image from your daughter’s favorite book–to celebrate that she is done toilet training. It’s the kind of whacky thing you think she’d be into.

Here’s where the problem comes in: There is no good way to coyly contact businesses on Instagram. If you write a comment in a post, everybody can see it. And do you really want to be known as the woman who ordered a bunny potty cake? Moreover, since the business doesn’t follow you, it doesn’t get alerts if you send a direct message—and so your attempt will likely end up in the dreaded “pending” folder.

Now Instagram is hoping to dramatically increase these kinds of interactions between customers and brands. Today, it unveils a major update, including new email-like messaging tools that will make it easier and more efficient for any brand with an Instagram business account to communicate with people who want to reach it.

“Until now, direct messaging for brands was a lot like messaging between any two other users,” says Instagram’s Susan Buckner Rose, director of monetization product marketing. “We wanted to give them tools that will help them stay on top of their relationships with customers, and prioritize important conversations.”

The new messaging system has tools that you might find in, say, Gmail, but incorporated into the workings of Instagram. Instagram will help filter messages so that communications from new customers rise to the top. Brands will soon also be able to create quick replies, such as the customer service number, or store locations, that can be edited. And messages from users the brand does not follow will no longer live in the “pending” folder.

Buy an event ticket [Animation: courtesy of Instagram]
In the research that Rose and her team did before this rollout, it was clear that customers expect businesses to respond quickly. If they don’t, it is unlikely they will re-engage. “What entrepreneurs need most is time,” Rose says. “We designed all of these tools to allow them to be as efficient as possible when they communicate, so they never miss out on business.”

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More than an inconvenience

For customers, not being able to communicate with a brand is an annoyance. But for businesses–particularly small and mid-sized ones–it’s a lot of lost revenue. Flour Shop’s owner, Amirah Kassem, for instance, grew her business largely by sharing pictures of her colorful cakes on Instagram. “Instagram was Flour Shop’s first home,” Kassem says. “Instagram has been my CMO since day one.” And yet, Kassem struggled to keep up with incoming orders and questions from customers, so she’s missed out on potential sales.

[Images: courtesy of Instagram]
With more communication tools, a brand’s Instagram page becomes more like a shopfront. Until now, many businesses have relied on Instagram as a way to create brand awareness or build community. They’ve focused on creating beautiful content, from images to elaborate storytelling. But in order for Instagram to become a place for brands to drive sales, they need to be able to have one-on-one customer interaction. The hope is that Instagram users will increasingly see the platform as a way to go beyond simply learning about new brands and products to actually making a purchase, or at least starting a conversation.

Back in November 2016, Instagram made it possible to make purchases directly from posts, allowing customers to tap on an image of a product to go to a new page within the app where they could purchase it. Before that, other companies, like LikeToKnowIt and LikeToBuy, had used image recognition technology to let users take screenshots of images to buy products within a post. This new messaging technology should give customers more confidence to buy directly from a post, because they can now ask questions about products or bring up customers service issues directly from the app.

Reserve a table [Animation: courtesy of Instagram]
This is all part of Instagram’s broader effort to make it easier for customers to move from discovery to action. It’s also been partnering with other companies to streamline the reservation or ticket-buying process on Instagram. Underneath the bio, next to buttons that take you to the brand’s phone number or website, you can now make a booking through Eventbrite, Fandango, or Yelp, among others. Soon Open Table, Vagaro, and Square Appointments will be integrated as well.

All of these services will be totally free to companies with an Instagram business profile and have the potential to boost their bottom line. But there’s no doubt that customers will also rejoice. No longer will we have to switch back and forth between the app and the web browsers. We have better things to do. Like design bunny potty cakes.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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