There is no social media platform quite so central to the fashion and retail community as Instagram. Yet without the ability to link to products in the feed — unless you’re willing to pay for an ad unit — a chasm continues to exist between the point of inspiration and the path to purchase. The problem has been a particular source of pain for personal style bloggers, who often complain that the growing popularity of Instagram and other visual social networks has diverted traffic away from their blogs, significantly reducing the money they once made from affiliate links (through which they can earn a commission from items their followers purchase).
On Tuesday, ShopStyle is launching a tool to help influencers earn affiliate revenue from the images they're posting to Instagram and other social networks. (Those that know the ShopStyle name are typically familiar with its shopping search engine, but for the past six years, the company has been steadily building a "Collective" of 1,400 retailers and 14,000 online fashion influencers who use its products to generate affiliate relationships in the same manner as RewardStyle.) Dubbed the "Looks & Collections" widget, it's designed to sit permanently in the link slot of influencers' Instagram bios, allowing them to create a landing page where followers can see all of their recent Instagram posts, with links to buy the products featured therein. It's a surprisingly simple solution — which is a large part of its appeal.
ShopStyle is by no means the first to devise a workaround to Instagram's no-links policy. Individuals, brands and independent developers have put forth a number of solutions to date — some more successful than others, and none of them particularly seamless. One of the most simple, and popular, is to post a photo of a product and then prompt users to click over to the bio page to find the link to purchase — but this requires the constant switching out of bio links. Others have devised more complex tools that work in conjunction with Instagram: When the mobile app Dash Hudson launched in 2014, it imported photos from the network and surrounded them with product links — but the young startup has since pivoted into an Instagram insights and analytics platform. More popular has been the affiliate link company RewardStyle's Instagram-tailored solution, LiketoKnow.It, which allows users who have signed up for the service to receive an email with product links every time they "like" a photo with a LiketoKnow.It link in the caption. Because it requires both influencers and users to sign up for the service, its reach remains limited, the experience clunky.
Lee Anne Grant, vice president of business development at ShopStyle, said that growing and monetizing Instagram has long been a big priority for its Collective members. The company originally experimented with an email-based solution similar to LiketoKnow.It's, but ultimately decided against it. "We had heard from some bloggers that it was impacting the number of likes they were getting" — in other words, followers were clicking the "like" button less frequently because they didn't want to get bombarded with emails — "and because engagement is so important to these bloggers, we didn't want to do that." Another bonus? Followers aren't required to register to participate.
ShopStyle's widget won't only function for Instagram: The company is encouraging its influencer partners to develop simple vanity URLs, such as http://www.hellofashionblog.com/shop-instagram, that they can post to other social networks that don't welcome third-party links, such as Snapchat and Periscope.
There's a real need for affiliate link workarounds like those that RewardStyle, Dash Hudson, new app Project September and now ShopStyle have proposed. Will one product triumph over the others? It will be interesting to see.
This story was updated to reflect the correct spelling of Lee Anne Grant's name and the evolution of Dash Hudson's business model.