At a press conference in New York City Thursday morning, Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom introduced a new feature called Instagram Direct, which enables Instagram users to send photos to one person or a select group of people. Although those photos don't disappear as they do with Snapchat, the new feature is quite obviously Instagram's (and its parent company Facebook's) answer to the ephemeral photo-sharing app. The Direct feature will make Instagram, now used by some 150 million people worldwide, less static, and lead to more two-way conversation.
According to Systrom (who, of course, made no mention of Snapchat's influence on strategy), the idea for Direct dates back to the original concept he and co-founder Mike Krieger had for Instagram. "At the time we started it, we said it would be a new way to communicate and share in the real world," Systrom said. "What a lot of people associate with us is beautiful photography. [But] a new way to communicate and share in the real world doesn't strike a chord with beautiful photography." Direct, he says, completes the puzzle.
Using Direct looks easy enough. Users take and filter photos as they normally would, only they have the option of sending it out to all their followers, or sending it to selected ones. Direct photos appear in Instagram's newly introduced Inbox. Users can only send photos and videos to people who follow them, but, Systrom notes, "if you don't follow those people that doesn't mean you can't receive photos and videos from them, it just means it will go into your pending requests."
Systrom said that "it’s way too early to talk about advertising and Instagram Direct,” but it does seem as though the new feature could help bolster Instagram's ad business by enabling advertisers to directly reach out to selected users. For now, Systrom suggested, brands might use Instagram Direct to power photo submission contests with users.
Just as people guessed that Instagram video would be a Vine killer, they will inevitably say that Instagram Direct is bound to take down Snapchat. After all, there's no denying that Instagram videos are more aesthetically pleasing than Snapchat photos. But Direct lacks a little of the fun that Snapchat's disappearing act promises. In the near term, it seems likely that Instagram Direct will drive further engagement with existing users, who generally represent a slightly older demographic. Snapchat's chokehold on younger audiences isn't going anywhere just yet.