Flying Blind: How Instagram Measured Success In the Pre-Analytics Era

A scant five years ago startups didn't have access to the analytics commonly available now. The Instagram team improvised ingeniously.

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By John Rampton

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If they made a movie about the founding of Instagram, it would be dramatically different from the dueling biopics on Steve Jobs' life. As co-founder and technical lead of the social photo-sharing site, Mike Krieger admitted in an interview at a startup event in San Francisco that the team's work is fairly boring.. Instagram doesn't have the behind-the-scenes drama associated with successful startups, instead choosing to keep their heads down and work hard.

Although its October 2010 launch was less than five years ago, Instagram released in an environment that was dramatically different from what startups see today. Small businesses didn't have access to the wide-scale analytics that are currently in place, leaving Krieger and his team guessing as to how the site was doing.

Counting loyalists.

Within four hours of its official launch, Instagram had already collected 25,000 sign ups. Even then, Krieger was reluctant to believe the site was on a rapid growth path. Because there were no metrics in place in those early days, Krieger didn't realize the value of the retention rates they were seeing, leading him to rely solely on the number of sign ups as a sign the site was continuing to grow.

When he started, Krieger initially hoped the site would have a million users after two years. At the time Facebook acquired it in April of 2012, Instagram had 22 million active users each month. The number of daily users was most encouraging to the site, especially since many of them formed a core group of Instagram enthusiasts.

"One of the things that's changed in five years is that people starting today are able to plug into things far more easily that can track these things for you versus having to build it from scratch," Krieger says.

Related: 4 Free Must-Use Analytics Tools for Social-Media Marketers

Big names joined.

Another mile marker for Instagram was seeing high-profile people join the site. Justin Bieber signed up fairly early on in the site's existence, bringing his large audience over to follow his posts. At the time, Bieber was the first major celebrity to join, helping prove that the site could handle such a large public figure's user base without crashing.

When President Barack Obama used the site as part of his election platform, Instagram saw it as another sign of success. The site was already well established by the time the President joined, but it showed that the site was enough of the social media landscape to be part of such an important marketing campaign.

Related: Look Out: Joe Biden Is Now on Instagram

Growing and adjusting.

When Instagram launched, Krieger was sure it would be popular with people who were making a hobby out of taking high-quality photographs with their iOS devices. However, it became almost immediately apparent that the group wasn't interested at all. If Instagram had focused too heavily on that niche, it would have missed out on the many users they ended up winning over. Instead, Instagram chose to focus on providing a social media site that was easy for users.

"Early on, I think we had the sense of, "The people we thought were going to it aren't the people, so we should find out (from) the people who are falling in love with it, what do they love about it?" Krieger says. "Is that core audience still the one that is going to be in love with you three, four years down the line?"

While Instagram's user base has continued to grow and evolve in recent years, Instagram now has a firm understanding of its customers. By continuing to meet the needs of social media audiences, the site will excel in a highly competitive market, connecting with a demographic that advertisers and marketers across the world are constantly striving to capture: young consumers.

Related: Oh, Snap! Instagram Has More Users Than Twitter.

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John Rampton

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John Rampton is an entrepreneur, investor and startup enthusiast. He is the founder of the calendar productivity tool Calendar.

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