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August 24, 2012

Instagram Emerges as a Political Communications Medium


What social media tool is dominating the numbers game right now? Most people wouldn't guess Instagram -- but that's the one. In the four months since Facebook acquired the company, it has blasted from 30 million users to 80 million.

Politicians were quick to jump on the bandwagon in preparation for election season. President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney were two of the first to secure accounts.

Zac Moffatt, Romney's digital director, explained in a phone interview that their team joined Instagram to give citizens a different, behind-the-scenes look at what you might not see on other platforms.

"We need to be... where people are spending their time," Moffatt said. "Some people might never go to Facebook but they do go to Instagram."

Instagram's strategy rides the coattails of another of this year's fastest-growing social networks, Pinterest, which has also sparked political attention. The trend proves once more that the future of media is in visual applications.

Obama and Romney aren't alone in the mix. Rep. Paul Ryan, Rep. Steny Hoyer, Sen. John McCain, Sen. Claire McCaskill, Sen. Kay Hagan, Rep. Connie Mack, Rep. Peter Roskam, Rep. David Schweikert, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Gov. Buddy Roemer, Rep. Sandy Adams, The Heritage Foundation and CNN have all signed on as well.

"[Instagram] is a different type of conversation," Moffatt said. "People are very creative and you find really interesting things. ... I'm always amazing at how many people have taken pictures of their [Romney] bumper stickers, it's non-traditional and develops a new kind of engagement."

Other popular social media are pushing hard on the image front to take control of the conversation as well. Along with Tumblr -- an image-heavy platform -- Facebook has also added more illustrative-focused features such as the timeline cover photo and new options to highlight selected photographs. Twitter, too, produces maximum results with embedded photos and video.

With Instagram, you can create that perfect photo to adapt to one or all of your social networks in their own capacities. A once ordinary shot with bad lighting or dull colors can be immediately transformed into something better with a filter key -- and then copied and implemented to each of your social mediums as it best fits.

The trend may be grating on the nerves of professional photographers, but for the amateurs, amplifying their messages in a more attractive way just got a lot easier.

The Instagram app began as a funky new tool for iPhones, jokingly described as "hipster," and it took a couple of years to catch on. With the "1977" and "Nashville" filters, photos can certainly take on a vintage look.

Once a photo is sufficiently "instagrammed," it can be immediately shared on various social networks straight from the app -- including Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr and FourSquare. If you want to get really fancy, you can add quotes or branding with a photo editing app such as Phonto or the website PicMonkey.com.

Social media power users have the ability to multiply a message or image to potentially millions of people, and politicians know that. By jumping into already-buzzing communities such as Instagram, political leaders can harness fresh energy by getting personal and taking advantage of possibilities to connect with both influential personalities and everyday Americans. Even news personalities are getting on board; Soledad O'Brien and Anderson Cooper, for example, are both avid Instagrammers.

"It has to be authentic, the Governor [Romney] has to have a role in it," Moffatt said. "We don't want to do it just to do it."

It took a lot of coaxing to get most politicians to embrace social media. Now, it's the center of any smart communications plan. We've yet to see how Instagram will develop as a power tool of the future. But for now, it's quietly speeding to genuine relevance.

First appeared in The Huffington Post.

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