It’s nearly Black Friday, and we’re gearing up with a podcast about shopping, of course. This week on Why’d You Push That Button, Vox’s Kaitlyn Tiffany and I discuss Instagram shopping: why do we buy stuff? I’ve never bought something from the app, but that’s mostly because I’m discovering that I have expensive taste, not because I’m not tempted.
We chat with Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel about all of the horrible gadgets he’s bought, as well as Vox reporter Rebecca Jennings about how the Instagram algorithm learns what we love and then targets us with it. Then we talk to Choosy, an Instagram-made company that uses software to figure out the hottest clothing trends to beat other brands to market. It’s wild, truly. And finally, we take every question we’ve ever had to Layla Amjadi, a product manager for Instagram Shopping, who explains the shopping product to us and how Instagram is building a “personalized mall” for everyone.
Listen to the podcast and follow along with Amjadi’s transcript below. Of course, feel free to subscribe anywhere you typically get your podcasts. You know our usual places: Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and our RSS feed. Subscribe your friends, too! Steal their phones and just sign them up for the podcast; they’ll love it.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ashley Carman: Alright. So we are back with Layla Amjadi, product manager at Instagram, specifically in shopping, right?
Layla Amjadi: That’s right. Thank you so much for having me.
Ashley: Of course. So to start things off, we’ve been talking about Instagram shopping, but admittedly, I’m kind of confused about what that even means because I feel like there are a billion different ways to shop on Instagram. So when I reference Instagram shopping, what does that mean?
That’s a great question. So I think it starts with a little bit of the history of how Instagram shopping as a product area came to be. And I used to work on the Explore tab for several years at Instagram, and it’s all about helping people connect to your interests to keep up with your interests. And in talking to people, it was very clear how big of an interest shopping is for people on Instagram. You’d be like, “what do you like to do on Instagram?” “I like to shop,” and it’d be like, “Oh really? Interesting. Please show me how you shop.” And then you’d hear all these various ways, to your point of how people are finding paths to shopping on Instagram.
You follow a brand you keep up with them in your feed. You then search for them. You keep a story. But while there are so many various ways or hacks of shopping on Instagram, one thing that was very, very clear is that there is a big pain point that everyone shares. No matter what path they’re using, and that is figuring out what exactly is that product in that post or in that story that’s inspired me. And so as a shopping product, what we’re trying to do is really just help people do what they’re already trying to do on Instagram and all these memories of shopping, but reducing that friction and specifically focusing on the question of, “What is that product? What is that particular thing that’s inspired me?”
And so the way that the products manifested in this first version is helping businesses just as you would tag your friend in a picture, tag that exact product that’s in that picture so that people can tap and actually go deeper and explore that product on Instagram. So when we say shopping on Instagram, that’s what we mean. It’s that ability to discover products specifically off of these inspirational posts.
Kaitlyn Tiffany: Is that different than in Stories? Is there a difference between grids and Stories?
Yeah. So we start off with shopping in posts, and you’ll see people be like, “Oh good, now I don’t have to ask questions in the comments anymore. I could just tap right there.” But then it was still the case that people wanted to know in Stories, as more and more businesses are investing in Stories and video like, “What is that skirt? That’s a really cool Story.” And so we introduced product stickers recently to let businesses tag, just as you would a hashtag or location, the product. And then again, you can tap through and go straight to exploring what that product is on Instagram.
Ashley: So you consider this the first version?
Yeah, I think to your point, there are so many ways that people are shopping on Instagram, so many of these different types of journeys. And our job is just to meet people where they are and ease that journey at any given time. So as we’ve been talking to people about shopping on Instagram, we’ve realized there are actually three types of shopping that are taking place. On one end of the spectrum, we have what we call “serendipitous shopping.” And this is the equivalent of, you’re going to meet up with your girlfriends for coffee, maybe in SoHo or something, and then they’re late, and then you have five minutes to kill, and there’s a CB2 right there. And you’re like, “You know what, that looks really cute. Let me pop in and see what they have.” And so in that moment, you didn’t have the intent to shop, but you were inspired to do so, and that’s the serendipitous case, and that’s where we are today with shopping and feed. You open up Instagram for a whole host of reasons, and then you’re inspired to explore more based off of the brands you’re following in your Feed.
On the other end of the spectrum is what we call, “intentful shopping.” And this is the type of shopping you do when you’re moving, and you know you need a coffee table, and you go straight to CB2 and look up that coffee table that you need.
And then there’s something in the middle that we’ve been calling “window shopping,” which is a type of shopping you do when you just love the activity in and of itself of shopping. It’s a hobby for you. You make time for it as you would make time to go to the gym or play a sport. And that’s the type of shopping we’re trying to focus on now. So really continuing to focus on serendipitous shopping in the feed, but introducing the ability to window shop specifically and explore. And that’s where we’ve introduced the shopping channel in Explore, giving you a place to go when you’re in the mood to shop.
Kaitlyn: I guess what I’m curious about is when people talk about fashion on Instagram or brands on Instagram, they’re talking mostly about brands that built themselves on Instagram, so like Revolve or Glossier or something like that. Do you see those brands using these features as you introduce them, or is it a different type of company?
Yeah, absolutely. I think what’s been exciting to see is the breadth of the types of businesses that are adopting shopping. There’s so many businesses on Instagram — there’s 25 million, I think, was the last number we shared — and people are really connecting to them on their own accord. I think like 80 percent of people on Instagram follow at least one business, so there’s lots of businesses, lots of diversity, lots of people connecting to those businesses. And so we’re seeing a whole range of businesses using shopping on Instagram. Everyone from Glossier to Kylie Cosmetics to Nike to H&M. And so it’s been interesting to see how they all are using the product and learning and adjusting.
Ashley: Does Instagram take a cut if someone tags the product and then you buy it through that tag?
We’re not financially involved in that. The main thing that we’re focusing on is just really building a consumer experience that people love. All of our products, and while this is very much a product focused on also helping businesses, we’re starting all of our thinking with thinking about the consumer, and what does the consumer want that shoppers need. And we think if we build a really great consumer product, it’s going to just pay off for the businesses, too.
Ashley: So Nilay, who is on the show, was saying that he gets served ads that he then buys from. So how does that relationship work? You clearly have this clear shopping product, and then you have advertisers who can do like “swipe up.”
It’s amazing to me how much I hear people talk about how they love their ads on Instagram, like, “I found this amazing thing and this really quirky slime,” or whatever, “this really cool jacket.”
So I think people are really finding that their ads are really relevant to them, and so one of the stories that you really hear a lot when you ask about people and shopping on Instagram is actually about something from an ad. So what our product is is an organic product, so you have to pay for it. It’s free to businesses. And really, what that gives us the opportunity to do is build out an experience for people that is readily and reliably available to them that they can seek out. Currently, these two products, I think the way that you can think about it for from business perspective is shopping on Instagram, the organic experience that I work on, is about deepening the relationship with my existing followers, people who already love my brand, keeping them in touch with what’s new. And ads are a way to also then expand your user base and your follower base and reach more people that maybe you’re not otherwise reaching in feed.
Ashley: So are you not at all touching ads that have shopping functions to them? Is it a swipe up that people are buying from, typically?
So there’s various types of ad formats. We’re not an ad product, so I don’t work on ads, despite how awesome ads are. But yeah, there’s swipe up ads that people use, retailers use for shopping. There’s shop now ads that people use, but this is a product, in particular, that’s focused on really helping people have an organic shopping experience on Instagram that they can seek out when they love shopping in and of itself, or they love a particular interest, and they want to go one step further. So for example, cake baking is a huge interest on Instagram or beauty tutorials, and shopping in that instance can really support your interest and go one step further, like, “Oh actually, how can I get that palette and re-create that look?” We want to show up there, too, and help you take that home with you, so you can really bring that interest home and manifest it for yourself.
Kaitlyn: So a little bit ago, like when Instagram’s co-founders left, I spoke to a bunch of people who ran smaller businesses or artists. And the people we spoke to recently from Choosy also talked about this a little bit, feeling like they didn’t understand the algorithm and how their stuff was being prioritized in the feed, particularly in Explore. I wonder, are there any changes coming to that algorithm in light of Facebook being maybe more intimately involved? Or what kind of changes are happening there?
Yeah, so I don’t work on Explore anymore and feed, but what I can share is that all of the focus of feed is to just to really make sure you’re seeing all the things that are important to you that you said you want to see. So with the launch of feed ranking, I think what we saw is that people were really actually catching up finally on all the things that they wanted to see in their feed.
Explore, in particular, is really personalized experience, and it’s about helping you discover and keep up with your interests. And so every person, it’s really tailored to them. The advice that we used to share when I was working on Explore, for any account that has an interest-community associated with it, is just be consistent in what you’re sharing, so that people know what they’re going to get when they follow you, and really adhere to that particular community’s interests. And if you’re consistent and on-theme, I think that tends to help build an audience that has a shared interest and is engaging similarly and that always helps grow your audience.
Ashley: Instagram lately has been rolling out features, like “you’ve reached the end of your feed,” trying to do this “time well spent” stuff that’s like, “Okay we want to cut you off from only being on Instagram every day.” In your dream situation, how much time would an average user be using shopping versus scrolling through their feed versus all of the other things like watching Stories? It seems like there are a lot of options for people when they’re looking at the app. How are you thinking about where people’s time should be divided? Do you think shopping should become the main focus of Instagram? Is it going to become a main focus of Instagram?
So with Instagram, our mission is to help you get closer to the people and things that you love. And we don’t have an opinion on what is it that we want you to get closer to. It’s whatever those things are. And so the most important thing that we can do is just to make sure that you have the opportunity to discover all those people and all those things and then help you connect and then give you a really good experience. Once you have decided to connect.
So if you love watching cake baking videos or hip-hop dance videos, which I love, and that’s more important to you, that’s what you should be seeing more of in your Explore, or in your Feed, especially if you’re following. So I think the most important thing with shopping is that there’s some people on Instagram. We ran a survey, and we found that there’s a lot of people who love to shop and would call shopping a hobby and interest in and of itself, like it’s really important that those people discover shopping. From there on, going forward, it’s important that shopping supports your interests, whatever the interest might be. So, again, in the case of like, some people really love these like slime videos. If that’s how you want to spend your time, and that’s interesting to you, and you want to take that home with you maybe, maybe the best path for shopping for you on Instagram is for it to show up in that instance in your slime community. But I think it just comes down to helping people connect to really the people and things that they love. And us making sure that we’re helping people with both the discovery side, and then when they do discover, keep up with that interest in the best way.
Ashley: So then, what’s Instagram’s stake in this? If you’re not getting a cut of people buying through a post, are you just hoping that creators will make enough that they want to keep coming to Instagram in order to make money?
So like any investment that we make on Instagram, any new investment, it all comes down to building a product that people love. And if you build a product that people love, the business model comes. You don’t start with the business model. You start with what is something that is in-demand for people. What’s something that we could uniquely fill well, if there’s a big demand? And then those opportunities always come. So I think that’s very separate from how we’re thinking about shopping. It’s just how can we build a shopping experience that people love, just given the vast number of people who say they already are shopping on Instagram, how much they love it. And frankly, when we hear those stories, how painful it sounds. So I’m excited for us to just nail a really exciting consumer shopper shopping experience and see if we can fill that need and make it a lot easier.
Kaitlyn: So if I were to start a fashion brand tomorrow, in your professional opinion, is it more worth it for me to spend my money on promoting ads in the Feed, or on building enough of a following to end up in the shopping Explore tab and figuring out the algorithm?
I think it’s always both and it also depends on your objective. I think the businesses that do really well with ads have really great investments on the organic side, too. So, for example, I got a great ad for WearLively, which recently set up shop in SoHo, it turns out, and I went to their profile, which is something that people do when they see an ad that’s exciting to them they’ll navigate like, “Oh who is this? What is this account?”
They had all this amazing content for me there that they just created naturally that helped me really understand their brand story and want to connect with them and want to follow them and keep up that relationship and then see that brand and their products unfold and my feet on a more consistent basis. So I think it’s a both. Certainly, there are plenty of brands on Instagram that have built their base and following just off of producing really great content and hearing their community and being consistent, being on theme, like I said earlier. So I think there are so many interesting tools for businesses to build those relationships with people and show up the way that they would if you could walk into their store, even with Direct Message. You hear all these stories about how brands are using Direct Message in really interesting ways to build out these personalized business shopping experiences, like I have a boutique in San Francisco. When I moved to New York, I was so sad to leave my boutique, but I was largely sad to leave that boutique owner because she’d become a friend to me almost. But we maintained our relationship over Direct Message and she pings me like, “Hey I have these new things in store.” She sends a picture and I’ll be like, “Oh that’s interesting,” and then I’ll go on her website and buy it. So I think it’s cool to see all these various tools that businesses are using to both broaden their base and deepen those relationships.
Kaitlyn: Glossier is trying to start its own social platform, and it’s kind of been like being on Instagram, it was useful for what it did for us, and now it’s gotten expensive and we can do our own. Is that something that you are at all concerned about, or have any insight into?
Yeah, actually their head of product used to work at Instagram. He used to run Direct for us. Well, I think what it just speaks to is, we at Instagram are serving multiple use cases, multiple verticals. We have a huge community in beauty, but also the sneakerhead community, et cetera. And so naturally, Glossier has a focus on beauty, and they have an opportunity to really go deep on that vertical and explore products for that vertical, in particular. So I’m excited to see what they generate to really help the beauty community, in particular. I think they’ve been an amazing story for how you can really get your start on Instagram and grow. It’s cool to see when you go to their flagship in SoHo, and there’s a line out the door. It’s sort of like people meeting a celebrity in person because it’s this brand that they’ve come to know and love on Instagram, and then they finally get to meet it in person, sort of like you would a celebrity. There’s an excitement around that. And that’s a story that many brands have had. You know Soludos, Everlane, there’s a bunch of them like that.
Ashley: I follow a ton of fashion brands. And then I find out they’re really expensive brands, once I click on that little tab to shop, and I’m like, “Oh, that beautiful mesh shirt is $500. Awesome.” I love that product feature, but then I start thinking about sort of spon-con. And it’s like if Kim K could tag her fitness tea, like that to me sort of taints the shopping experience because I totally get, “I like what they’re wearing. I want to buy it.” I like Glossier’s perfume. I want to buy it. So how do you think about sponsored content? Are there rules around whether people can tag sponsored content for shopping, if they have a business page?
So right now, only brands can access the shopping feature, so traditional retail businesses that sell their own products. But to your point, there’s a bunch of people that are a big part of people’s shopping journey on Instagram, and we call them celebrities, influencers, creators, and you hear stories of, “You know I was following this particular person, and I follow them because I really trust their taste and their style, and they tag the brands that they’re wearing and that helps me discover new brands.” And so I think it’s a useful thing for people, especially in the areas of beauty and home decor and fashion that we’re focused on to be able to look to the people that they trust to discover these new brands and get ideas for what they might buy directly from that brand or just generally what’s in-season, on-trend that they can emulate based on what’s already in their own closet.
Ashley: What do you think is so effective about an ad that makes people shop? Are there best practices you’ve seen, or is there something that you’ve learned from the ad side that the shopping team is now like, “Oh this is something we can try to integrate into our own product, just learning from even the psychology of how people think on Instagram.”
Two things come to mind. So one is the personalization right. That’s consistent with one of our themes and principles for shopping on Instagram, which is this should be your personalized mall. This is all about what you love and what price point works for you. What categories work for you, your taste. So that’s one key reason why I think people are really enjoying what they’re seeing in their Shop Now ads — just how personalized they are.
And then the other bit is, I think, how inspirational the content still is. The posts are very much like Instagram posts. They’re putting that product in an inspiring setting, and it’s very consistent with what else is surrounding that ad. I think one of the strengths of our ad formats on Instagram is just how much they are consistent with just regular posts on Instagram, and it really helps you really quickly understand, “What is this? How do we interact with it?” And the Shop Now ads are also really clear and consistent, as well, just in and of themselves, so I think both the visual inspiration, that consistency with just organic content, and that personalization is really making them something people love.
Ashley: I know Facebook, for example, with ads, has done reviews, sort of. Like, “Is this a good business? Yes or no. Were you happy with what you bought through Facebook?” Is that something you’re considering taking over from Facebook into Instagram?
So we have a new product coming out that is the ability to save products to help with that consideration piece because when people are evaluating a product in the case of the serendipitous shopping or window shopping, you might not be ready to buy it right then and there. It might be winter and this is a spring look, and it’s not the right time. And so with saving products we’re going to help you actually save that specific product, versus the post with all the products in it, and give you a way to go back to it and find that product when the time is right for you.
Ashley: Gotcha. So no reviews.
Kaitlyn: When you talk about trust, it’s something I’m curious about because when we spoke to Choosy they kind of said, “We still see most people going to our website before they buy something.” Because we are conditioned, I think, to feel that online ads are scammy, or are likely scammy. So ordering directly from the ad was not appealing to people. I assume that’s different when you have bigger brand recognition. I wouldn’t be like, “this Nike ad’s a scam.” Is that something that you guys are thinking about, how to make shopping on Instagram look like something that you can trust?
So all of the links off of ads and off of shopping take you to the website, so you can’t buy directly on Instagram today, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t take trust very seriously. And so we have the ability to report businesses or posts or products on Instagram, so if for some reason you weren’t happy with your experience offsite you can go and actually report that ad. You can report that particular account for a whole host of reasons. We care about safety and well-being, and commerce and a misleading experience is something we absolutely want to make sure is not on Instagram. So we have report flows that can call those things out in particular.
Ashley: What, in your mind, makes someone buy something on Instagram? What’s going on in their minds to make them think, “This is where I want to shop.”
So I think it comes down to that inspiration. I think if we talk about this window shopping experience, which is, “I broadly want to invest in a particular part of my life. I broadly want to invest in my home, or I want to make my closet a certain way. I want to express who I am.” Instagram’s a really good place for getting ideas on how to do that because it’s so inspirational and so creative, and I think naturally if that’s where you’re going to be inspired on how to decorate your new studio apartment, or you want to figure out how to dress for the winter, if that’s where the inspiration discovery is happening, then it’s going to just be natural that people will then want to then go one step further and figure out how do I get this thing.
Ashley: You just see it as a natural extension of, “You’re here for inspiration. You can have the inspo IRL.”
Yeah, and that’s why we’ve been very thoughtful about a one-to-one mapping. It’s not just a black handbag. It’s that black handbag, the exact one that inspired you.