Oh the humanity! Anyone might've thought, by looking at the streams of disappointment, consternation, and even vitriol spewing forth in the comments sections of tech sites such as Engadget, TechCrunch, and the the Verge this morning, that the team behind Instagram had been responsible for the flaying of puppies and drowning of kittens in their own private pleasuredome. The revelation was in fact far more mundane than that: Instagram has announced that it will be introducing advertisements into its subscribers' feeds on a phased basis. Given that we knew this was coming, it was hardly revelatory. And indeed, contrary to wails and huffs of some of its subscribers, it's a perfectly acceptable course of action. A few of the commenters appear convinced that the move to include 'a small number of beautiful, high-quality photos and videos from a handful of brands that are already great members of the Instagram community,' is entirely the responsibility of the nefarious Facebook, which bought Instagram for $1 billion last year. While the specifics of the advertising programme might well have been the brainchild of members of Facebook's staff as opposed to Instagram's, and Instagram would have needed to prove itself profitable to justify the sale, it could hardly have remained either free or ad-free as an autonomous entity. It would have been forced to monetise its platform through some means. Its developers cannot sustain themselves on airballs and its servers do need to function. This requires cash, with or without Facebook.
What then, are the options to raise these funds, aside from advertising? First, Instagram could have opted for a subscription-only model, which would almost certainly have been corporate suicide. Or second, it could have implemented a freemium model, more on which later.
Rather than ask its users to part with their money directly, it's asking companies to part with their cash in order to place their brand in front of Instagrammers' eyeballs. This is sensible. The particular benefit of switching to an ad-supported revenue model is that apart from the aesthetics of the interface, nothing changes for the user. There are no forms to be filled out and importantly, no money needs to be exchanged. From Instagram's perspective, advertising means that it doesn't need to determine an appropriate subscription price-point that makes it attractive to subscribers but simultaneously sustainable.
Presented with the choice of the occasional advertisement appearing in your feed and having to do nothing to continue posting photos of your cats to your legions of followers, or having to pay up front to use a service that has heretofore been free, what's easier and more appealing? Unless you are heavily invested in your Instagram feed, you might think quite carefully about subscribing. A great many people will decide that it isn't worth their money, others will simply not be bothered to get out their credit cards; either way, it would be disastrous for Instagram. Advertisements might deter a few embittered users, but inertia will be the dominant force.
This then, brings me to the freemium model: advertisements for those who aren't prepared to pay at all, and a fee for those who'd prefer their Instagram experience to be ad-free. It's possible this is something that Instagram might consider implementing when advertisements have been rolled-out world-over (at present they're US-only), but if it hasn't, it should.
Instagram, if you're listening, there are plenty of people out there who do understand that you can't survive on hope and feathers. We're generally fine with advertisements, provided that it's obvious they are advertisements and it's easy for us to ignore them. We would, however, prefer to be able to pay a minimal yearly subscription fee or a slightly larger one-off payment in order to avoid the ads. We're reasonable and appreciate the virtues of hot dinners, running water, and rooves over our heads.
For anyone who's disgusted by the notion of Instagram including advertisements, please pause for thought. How do you expect the service to sustain itself without an income? And what are your proposals for an alternative model?