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Instagram Hones in on Publishers’ Turf With Shopping Recommendations

A new account called @shop, spearheaded by Head of Fashion Partnerships Eva Chen, will spotlight fashion, beauty and home goods brands.
  • Chantal Fernandez

NEW YORK, United States — Instagram is making it easier to shop on the platform. Now the company wants to show you what to buy, too.

A new account, @shop, will feature fashion, beauty and home brands selected by an editorial team based out of Instagram's offices in New York. It is the third human-curated feed to come out of the company, and the boldest attempt yet to steer users' purchasing decisions. (The @Instagram account started nine years ago and posts inspirational content, while the year-old @design account showcases architecture and interior design).

The new @shop feed, which goes live Thursday, is launching as part of Instagram’s escalating push into online shopping.

The company introduced its Checkout feature in March, which allows users to buy directly from about two dozen brands' feeds. Starting on Thursday, a test group of influencers and celebrities including Gigi Hadid and Aimee Song will also be able to use the product. Some 130 million users already tap shoppable tags that lead to brands' websites, a feature introduced in 2016.

The new @shop account also marks another step by Instagram into publishers' territory. The platform has already cut into fashion magazine audiences by becoming a place where designers, brands and influencers share news and create original content; trends are born in its online communities.

Meanwhile, media companies have invested in shopping content as an alternative source of income as advertisers migrated to Google and Facebook. With so many products available to shop online at any given time, both giant marketplaces and digital direct-to-consumer brands want to encourage publishers and customers to recommend their products to their audiences and friends (the titles earn a cut whenever a reader buys a product via an affiliate link). New York Magazine launched The Strategist and The New York Times acquired Wirecutter in 2016. For Bustle, e-commerce generated over $4 million in revenue in 2017.

Now, Instagram is getting into the recommendation business, too.

"I think most of us who love to shop like hearing about the background of a product because it makes you appreciate it more," said Eva Chen, Instagram's head of fashion partnerships. "Fundamentally on Instagram, whether you are a person or you're a brand or you're a publisher, people want to hear human stories."

With nearly 1 billion users in total, about 200 million of which are visiting the “Explore” page and about 80 percent of which follow at least one brand account, Instagram has an engaged, massive audience with an appetite to interact with businesses and influencers.

Rachel Bogan, partner of product at technology and design company Work & Co, said that Instagram has a special place in many consumers' minds, and that they associate Instagram with shopping inspiration. "As Instagram, it makes a ton of sense to build those capabilities in their platform," she said. "There are a lot of other tech platforms that are trying to capitalize on that — aggregating social content and making that shoppable." And Instagram has the potential to do that in a seamless way. But she said consumers will likely never see it as a primary shopping channel, but instead as a place for "retailers to use for certain product lines or special drops."

Regardless, the potential is huge. Deutsche Bank predicts Checkout on Instagram could generate $10 billion in annual revenue for Facebook in 2021.

The new account @shop taps Chen's editorial point of view in a more public way than her other roles at the platform over the last four years. The former beauty editor spent 10 years at Condé Nast before joining Instagram in 2015; she was previously the editor-in-chief of the now-closed shopping magazine Lucky from 2013 to 2015.

To lead @shop’s content, Chen hired Leigh Belz Ray, who was most recently an executive director of branded content at Condé Nast overseeing Vogue, GQ and W.

Belz Ray was also the executive editor at Condé Nast's shopping magazine Lucky, during Chen's tenure there, when the magazine doubled down on its focus on street style and influencers. The title was founded with an approachable tone and featured small businesses and emerging designers alongside mass retailers.

Chen said @shop will have a friendly and celebratory editorial voice and cater to an audience of working women in their 20s and 30s. And while the remit can include any size or type of brand within the fashion, beauty and home categories, the account will focus on highlighting businesses that “built their voice on Instagram,” she said, including brands founded by influencers.

Early @shop posts will feature brands such as jewellery line Brinker & Eliza, founded by a mother and daughter and handmade in Connecticut; Stevie Dance’s The Feel Studio Inc., which sells one “perfect” fit of jeans; and vegan, cruelty-free lipstick the Lip Bar, founded by Melissa Butler in Detroit.

Mented Cosmetics is another featured brand. Co-founders KJ Miller and Amanda Johnson started an Instagram account for the direct-to-consumer beauty brand before they were even ready to start selling products. By the time Mented went live in March 2017, it already had a couple of thousand followers. Today the brand counts more than 85,000 followers.

“We like to say we were born of Instagram,” said Miller, adding that the founders are actively responding to comments and feedback on the app, as well as showcasing influencer and customer content.

Instagram’s @shop will highlight Mented’s newest product, a foundation stick, which the founders released after a two-week “whisper campaign” on the app.

The content on @shop will also be informed by Instagram’s Community Lab team, which researches larger trends that are emerging on the platform.

Most of the images and videos published by @shop will be produced on mobile, and Instagram plans to help some brands create content.

For now, Chen’s plan is to spotlight one brand per day and focus on telling founders’ stories. She said that the most successful brand content on Instagram brings potential customers behind the scenes of the business.

Now with over 1 million followers on her own account, Chen has become Instagram’s de facto editor-in-chief, frequently posting links to the products she wears on Instagram’s Stories.

“People discovering a new brand and being able to support a business owner — that was always my favourite thing about editorial,” said Chen. “I hear from business owners every day that they wouldn’t have a business without Instagram.... Now to have a place to help spotlight that — I’m really excited.”

Disclaimer: Chantal Fernandez reported to Leigh Belz at Lucky magazine from December 2013 to November 2014.

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