Five Lessons from the Instagram Fiasco

You know the tale: Facebook acquired Instagram; members inferred from the revised agreement that advertisers could use their photos without paying or obtaining permission; Facebook replied, in essence, “No, no, no, you misunderstand, we would never do that”; Facebook changed (“clarified”) the user agreement; Instagram subscribers left en masse; and pretty much no one blamed them.

A modicum of common sense PR-wise should be required for anyone working in any area of marketing communications. This should be especially true in interactive marketing, given its pervasiveness. But apparently someone at Facebook was running a modicum or two low at the time.

I offer the following lessons from the Instagram fiasco:

Lesson 1: When you acquire a company with high customer involvement, hold off on making changes for awhile. Customers don’t experience much angst when you acquire a coin-op laundry. When you acquire a company like Instagram, which people love as-is, and you’re Facebook, which has a reputation for pushing through unpopular changes, customers might just need time to develop a little trust that you won’t rush in and spoil their fun.

Lesson 2: Don’t expect people to believe the unbelievable. For all I know, Facebook really didn’t intend to let advertisers use member photos. Trouble is, the masses didn’t seem to buy the denial. Facebook would have done better simply to say, “We hear you, we’re sorry, we made the change you asked us to make, and we learned our lesson.” (More on showing “lesson learned” in a moment.) Recall that when the Coca-Cola Company unleashed fury upon replacing Coke with New Coke, they didn’t waste time whining about being misjudged. They apologized and brought back the original—with lightning speed. Only later, to the suggestion that they had masterminded the whole thing from the start, did they reply, “We are not that dumb, and we are not that smart.

Lesson 3: Imagine possible consequences before you act. On the other hand, suppose Facebook truly had intended to let advertisers use member photos. Not much genius would have been required to anticipate objections, re-think the decision and avoid a mass member bailout.

Lesson 4: Find a smarter way to the same end. Throngs routinely and willingly plaster their mugs all over the web. If Facebook really, really wanted to allow use of member photos in ads, chances are all they had to do was offer an opt-in with a modest spiff or payment in return. Participation could well have become the “in” thing to do.

Lesson 5: Show by your actions that you have learned your lesson. As mentioned above, Facebook has a history of making unpopular changes, user protests notwithstanding. In the wake of the Instagram fiasco, it’s not surprising that Facebook’s good faith claims are being met with skepticism.

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