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Did Flickr Really Miss the Instagram Opportunity?

Chris Spiek // 12.30.10

In the evening on Christmas Day, Kellan Elliott-McCrea put together an interesting response to the question: “Why did Flickr miss out on the mobile opportunity Instagram is winning?” leveraging insights from Clay Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma. 

Kellan, who was a software architect at Flickr, begins to paint a picture using Clay’s disruption framework that positions Yahoo! (owner of Flickr) as the incumbent in online photo sharing, and Instagram as the disruptive entrant to the market.

After reading his answer, here’s my take on the issue.

Did Flickr’s Management Team Miss Something?
How could it be so hard for a site like Flickr (a leader in the online photo sharing space) to break into mobile photo sharing? Is it simply a case of bad management or are there other dynamics in play?

Reading Kellan’s brief account of the strategic meetings in which they “spent *years* debating whether or not to build iPhone apps/iPhone optimized sites or bet on a HTML5/multi-device strategy,” makes me think that their strategy was configured in a way that would lead them to kill ideas related to the mobile photo sharing space, and here’s why.

Clay’s past observations of the behavior of incumbents reveals that the executive leadership’s decision making process was most likely focused on, “how will these new mobile platforms make Flickr even more attractive to our power users (help them upload more photos, create more ‘Sets,’ share more photos), or turn more visitors into power users (users who upload frequently or subscribe to a ‘Pro Account’)?” History and experience has proven that successful management teams have grown businesses by creating products and services that perform better than anything else in a consumer’s consideration set. In short, Flickr’s management team was doing what any good management team should be doing.

To gain a deeper understanding of what the management team at Flickr considers important to its users, we can look at the top three bullet points of Flickr’s Pro offering:

  • Unlimited uploads and storage.
  • Unlimited sets and collections.
  • Access to your original files.

To paraphrase what the management team would say to a user: “We know that you take a lot of photos on your camera and we don’t want to limit what you upload. We also know that organization is important so you can find the photos later. Lastly, we want to preserve quality; we won’t over-compress your photos and force you to store a second copy somewhere else.”

Flickr wants to be the online version of your old photo albums. Therefore, the more focused the management team is on enhancing the product so that it does this job well, the more successful it will be.

Now that we have a basis for understanding how Flickr arrived at this point, the question is “where do they go from here?”

To answer this, we will employ a framework called “jobs to be done,” which helps us explain how consumers pull products into their lives to do a “job” based on the situation that they’re in. A common strategic misstep is to assume that two products in the same category (e.g. online photo sharing) inherently compete for consumer attention. But when we start to understand how situational context drives consumption, we often begin to see that they don’t compete at all.

Understanding the Jobs of Photo Sharing

Let me archive and share my history.
A look back at the recent history of photo-taking behavior in aggregate gives us a feel for how Flickr came to be, and how our past behavior relates to the value that it provides.

The Film Era

  • Fewer photos taken.
  • 99% of photos viewed only once then stored away in a shoebox.
  • A select few photos chosen to be added to a photo album.

The Digital Era

  • Many more photos taken. If I took 24 photos in a session in the film era, I’m taking 240 in the digital era.
  • Space is no longer a premium. Almost all photos can be added to a digital album without cost.
  • This leads to more photos being viewed more than once.

Flickr’s model relates to the fact that people attribute value to the photographs that they take and the memories that they capture. The value is realized in the moment that the photo is viewed in the online album. “Help me save and catalog my memories, and let me look back and enjoy them in the future, and share my history with others.”

Let me share the moment I’m in.
Conversely, the value of Instagram is more about the present than it is the past. “Help me share the experience I’m having right now.” Or, “I wish you were here to experience this with me.” The value in this situation is realized at the moment that the person snaps a picture and adds it to the stream on Instagram, thus sharing their current experience.

If Flickr’s value is realized from the web to the person viewing the photo, Instagram’s value is realized from the mobile phone to the Instagram live sharing stream.

Flickr’s Next Move
Having a clear understanding of the consumer jobs of photo sharing will help guide Flickr as they decide how to address the growing mobile photo-sharing category.

Rolling out a stream-based service such as Instagram to complement Flickr’s current album-based service would require the creation of a new value system for the service so that it could avoid the perils that their past skunk-works project experienced.

Does this also position Instagram as an attractive acquisition target for Flickr? Acquiring it and allowing the team to operate autonomously would enable it to continue its growth without subjecting the product to Flickr’s existing product success criteria that has hindered mobile offerings in the past (such as Flickr’s current mobile offering, and the skunk-works project that Kellan refers to).

Maybe in the near future we’ll all have a “My Life in Pictures” album in our Flickr account, which will contain a stream of all of the photos we’ve taken from our mobile phones using Instagram.

— Written in conjunction with Bob Moesta & Brian Tolle of the Re-Wired Group.