Applying a playful approach to social media strategy  - IMD Business School
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Applying a playful approach to social media strategy

Businesses looking to get the best out of Instagram should view it as a place where they can quickly test out strategies and engage with consumers, says Gord Ray, product marketing director for Europe, Middle East & Africa at the social media platform.
November 2021

Ray (IMD MBA 2002), who started his career in advertising at Leo Burnett in Toronto, then worked as marketing director for Danish design house Georg Jensen and as publishing director at Wallpaper, says he was fascinated when he first started at Instagram by the speed at which the platform can provide data and intelligence.

While large companies would come to him asking for case studies and best practices on how to use Instagram, small, digitally led businesses would inquire about the technical possibilities and then use those to test out their own strategies, says Ray.

He cites the example of one fashion company that in a single day made 12 different advertisements to run on a new Instagram feature.

“They put a small amount of money behind each one and would differ things like the text on the top or the bottom, or whether the model looked left or right, and they changed the colors. Then they ran all 12 and within 24 hours, they had data saying – that’s your best ad. And that’s what they ran,” says Ray.

Founded as a photo-sharing platform in 2010, Instagram now has more than a billion users and 90% of those follow at least one company. In recent years, Instagram has rolled out new ways to share content, including Stories, IGTV and Reels. In June it launched a new shopping feature that allows users to make purchases directly in the app.

With a captive audience who want to hear from businesses, the big question is how you go about engaging them, says Ray.

Highly visual companies such as fashion brandsBurberry and ASOS, which have 18 million and 12 million Instagram followers respectively, have understood the potential of the platform to communicate with followers and grow their overall brand presence, says Ray.

But other less obvious companies such as French health insurance startup Alan (avec_alan) and US bank  Capital One have also successfully used their Instagram pages to develop a personality around their brand and share useful information. For example, Alan creates content such as Buzzfeed-style lists, like “8 tips to really disconnect during your holidays” and “9 tips to sleep well without medicines” to get followers to engage with health issues. Capital One produces short-form explanatory videos on “how to reset your password” and “how does 0% APR work?”

Augmented reality

Ray expects companies to continue to experiment with video. He also sees growth opportunities in the field of augmented reality – users are already able to add filters to themselves and the images they are looking at. In October, Instagram’s parent company Facebook renamed itself Meta as part of founder Mark Zuckerberg’s ambition build a metaverse where people are connected in a live and virtual universe.

October’s Facebook outage – which also affected Instagram – underscored how dependent the world has become on social media platforms, not only for sharing information and communicating with friends but also for running businesses and raising questions about whether we have become over-reliant on certain platforms. Ray, who has worked in print and digital media across his career, said it was important for individual businesses to work out how they can use different forms of media to engage with their audience.

Moving from the print world to a technology platform himself meant Ray had to adapt to the fast pace that comes with working in a hi-tech growth industry.

“I think the pace of change is something that you either thrive on or might find frustrating,” he says.

The furious pace of growth and hiring has continued at Instagram throughout the pandemic. As an early adopter of video conferencing tools and a global company, Instagram was fully prepared for remote working, says Ray. However, the crisis has led some people to change their leadership style, for example by organizing more regular check-ins with junior staff. One unique realization for Ray is that he is often the only person on a team who has ever set foot in the office.

“We don’t use the terminology, ‘return to office’, because it makes it sound like most people on the call have been there before.”