Both Twitter and Instagram announced similar-sounding new features that were compared to Snapchat last week. Twitter now allows you to include photos in direct messages to your followers (and not just public/semipublic tweets). Instagram now allows you to send photos to a small group of Instagram users rather than making them either fully public or only available to your entire group of approved followers. While adding images to Twitter DMs is a useful feature, Instagram has implemented their version of private messaging in a more intriguing way, and presents a stronger case for many businesses to add an Instagram account to their social arsenal if they haven’t already done so.
Although Twitter now supports photos in direct messaging, there are limits to using these photos based on how Twitter DMs are set up. When you send a Twitter DM, you can only send it to one person at a time, and only if they are following your Twitter account. If you do not follow that person’s account, you need to direct any private discussion to an alternate venue such as email. A change of venue may be useful to navigate around Twitter’s character limit for more complex exchanges, but it is an extra hoop for your followers to jump through that they may not like, and a risk that you will lose the conversation if your follower does not care enough about you to switch channels. And you can’t send links through Twitter DMs anymore, though this is also true of Instagram.
If you’re already familiar with Instagram posts, Instagram Direct messages use the same format, but you can choose a small group of up to 15 people to view it rather than the general public. You can send an Instagram Direct message to any Instagram user as long as you know their username. These two factors make Instagram Direct function more like email than like Twitter’s messaging style. Instagram Direct messages must start with a picture, but after that, both the sender and the recipients can comment on that picture and have a more involved discussion among the group. Currently, the Instagram Direct inbox badge on your front page will only update when you send or receive a new photo. To see when you’ve received new comments on existing photos, you must go one layer deeper, into the inbox, where a blue speech bubble icon will appear alongside any photos with new comments. For Instagram Direct messages to be really useful, Instagram should tweak this functionality so that it is easier to tell when a conversation you started has generated further commentary.
Despite this small usability flaw, Instagram Direct represents an opportunity to build a brand’s community. With its small group capabilities, you can not only communicate with your followers, but you can encourage your followers to communicate with each other. By making these introductions, you put yourself in the middle of authentic conversations about your company, and you can get more organic and in-depth feedback than you could by surveying these followers one-on-one. Social media isn’t just a broadcast medium; social media is about fostering conversations and relationships, and Instagram Direct offers a more intimate “third space” to host these chats. This isn’t 1:1, like WhatsApp or other pure messaging apps. This isn’t 1:many, like tweets or Facebook posts. This is 1:several, and Instagram has figured out how to create these spaces best.
People are getting distracted by the new hotness of private messaging apps such as Snapchat and making surface-level comparisons. Instagram Direct is unique because it offers something that none of the other large social networks are providing: the opportunity to have limited-access substantive conversations among multiple people in a neutral space – with pretty pictures that people find engaging.