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What Instagram Direct Means for Fashion Brands

Marketers offer some ideas on how fashion brands and retailers can leverage Instagram Direct.

On Thursday, Instagram unveiled Instagram Direct, a new feature that allows users to message photos and videos to up to 15 of their friends at a time, rather than all of their followers. It's like Snapchat, but with a richer featureset: Images and videos don’t disappear seconds after viewing them, and you and your friends can have private conversations about the messages you send to each other in a comments section.

By limiting messages to 15 people at a time, the opportunity Instagram Direct offers for fashion brands and retailers -- which generally want to reach as large an audience as possible -- may not be obvious. During the announcement, Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom suggested that brands could ask users to submit entries for a photo contest or collage via Instagram Direct, rather, or in addition to, submitting entries publicly with a dedicated hashtag. He added that it’s “way too early” to talk about advertising in Instagram Direct. “It’s not the focus right now,” he said. “It’s specifically focused on big branding elements.”

Gap took Systrom's lead, announcing an Instagram Direct contest on its Instagram account less than two hours after Instagram's press event started. The first 15 people who responded to the post were sent a photo of a Gap tablet case, and asked to submit a photo of what they were wearing. The retailer promised the person who took the best photo would win the tablet case.

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It was a smart move for Gap: By being first, it got a decent bit of press pickup, not only from us, but also from Esquire and Mashable. Gap didn't have to pay a dime for those impressions. Later that afternoon, Michael Kors posted on Instagram that the first 50 people to post a pic with the hashtag #MKDirect would receive a message from Kors the next day.

These kinds of contests will get old quickly, we suspect -- but there's still more that fashion brands can do. Here's a few ideas we collected from the experts:

1. Offering coupons. "There's a lot of clever applications you can find for [Instagram Direct] as a brand or marketer, but reach isn't one of them," Ian Schafer, co-founder and CEO of ad agency Deep Focus, says. Brands could use Instagram Direct for distributing coupons that they could then show in store for a discount, Shafer says, adding that those kind of direct conversations might lead to higher sales conversions than mass messages offered through other channels like Facebook and e-mail.

2. Unique treats for super users. Designer Nanette Lepore is considering using Instagram Direct to offer "unique treats" to super users, a la what Michael Kors did with the special message for first respondents. There's certainly more opportunities here in terms of what can be offered and whom it can be offered to beyond just first posters and first commenters -- but rather, the most influential or loyal of those followers.

3. Customer service. Customers frequently reach out to brands on social media in lieu of calling a 1-800 number. "Often, it's much easier for a consumer to communicate an issue they are having through a photo or video message versus [having to explain it over] the phone," Rachel Tipograph, global director of digital and social media for Gap, says. She cited eyewear maker Warby Parker, which early on distinguished itself by sending customers videos to answer their questions and product issues, as an example other brands could emulate.

4. Customer data. By interacting with customers through direct messaging on Instagram, social media teams could gather and pass along photographic evidence and other customer data to customer service teams to address quality control issues, Tipograph says. "Fielding that back to the organization [could] have a much larger impact," she explains.