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What Entrepreneurs Can Learn from Instagram Copying Snapchat

On August 2nd Instagram released a new in-app feature that mimics the episodic “Story” feature of Snapchat.

Essentially… Instagram copying Snapchat.

Similar to Snapchat, the Instagram Story feature allows users to edit and publish to their profiles a series of photos and videos that will expire after 24 hours. The update has resulted in an a bit of outcry against Instagram for too closely copying the functionality of a core component of their direct competitor’s app.

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I personally think this move by Instagram was incredibly instinctive and will prove crucial for the longevity of the app.

I think there are also lessons from this update and ensuing controversy that apply more broadly to the arena of entrepreneurship.

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1) Differentiate on Experience

On a basic level Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and many others provide a very similar service to their users – the opportunity to engage in an online social environment. Each of these apps has found a way to distinguish themselves through various features and social environment customizations that have led to each becoming successful in their own right.

What I think Instagram did really well with this update is that they noticed a flaw in a competitor’s product and decided to innovate something within their own social environment that was similar, but more intentional in its user interface and experience. Since it’s very early days Snapchat has been noted for being difficult to pickup and quickly navigate, especially for non-digital natives. The story feature in particular requires knowing which direction to swipe to continue viewing or reply. Instagram’s Story feature replaced Snapchat’s confusing navigation with very clear, easy-to-use labeled directional buttons for fast viewing, replying, and publishing of your own stories.

As Owen Wilson of The Next Web wrote earlier this morning:

“To reduce confusion Stories focuses on obvious, labeled buttons instead of swipes and offers information on where you are exactly in the app right now. There’s always context for what you’re looking at and where to go next, something that’s frequently lost in Snapchat.”

As entrepreneurs I think this lesson of choosing where to differentiate is critical. I chose to build Spoke as an agency that competes and differentiates itself on the intimacy of the client experience. As a small shop I knew this was a clear value that we could bring to the table that would be more difficult for a larger, maybe more cumbersome big-box agency.

2) Competition as Inspiration

Beyond improving upon the experience of the feature, what Instagram did really well here is approached their perspective on the market and on their competition as a source for inspiring innovation. As entrepreneurs we can get too caught up in the “eat or be eaten” mentality associated with buzzwords like “market disruption”, “growth hacking”, and “the hustle”. In reality, by looking at other entrepreneurs and leaders within our industry we can learn a great deal.

I’ve tried to integrate this into my own business by reaching out and meeting with some of the executives of our most frequent competitors for coffee. I’m constantly surprised by how much these individuals are willing to share about their own journey as leaders and about the pitfalls that their companies had to overcome. This “rising tides” approach also encourages more industry-collaboration and the establishment of best practices that inevitably lead to improvements in the successful delivery of services to our clients.

3) Customer First Mentality

There is no way around the fact that as business owners we will constantly remain in competition with others. What we can do, and what Instagram did so well with this update, is to focus attention on end users and customers. An important segment of Instagram’s customer base are businesses, ad agencies, and marketers that manage company profiles and purchase ad space. Instagram’s Story update will be particularly appealing to this group because the feature also includes analytics around who is viewing each story and how many times.

As entrepreneurs we must divide our attention and energy between an overwhelming number of projects and tasks but we can reduce the amount of options before us and grow our businesses more effectively if we chose to intentionally seek out opportunities that further invest in our customer base.

The growth of live-streaming video and “snapshot” views into our friends, families, and coworkers lives is a well established trend from the last twelve months of app releases and updates. In making this move towards the Story update, Instagram took an intentional step towards an improved customer experience and a social media environment that more holistically reflects the trends of app users across the entire market. Some may see this move as too close to copying, but I would say it’s simply smart business.

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Written by Sam C. Bays

Sam is the Founder and CEO of SPOKE, a digital and creative agency based in DC, where he oversees company growth and works closely with clients to set strategic project goals. You can find him on twitter @samcbays.

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