This week will go down in the history of the photo tech space ( if such a history is ever written) as a milestone. While predictably anticipated by even the laziest followers, both Instagram and Pinterest  announced the addition of a “buy” button next to images. The latter has gone a step further, as it made it live for iOS devices with web and Android in the pipeline.

The war of the buttons, Instagram on left, Pinterest on right
The war of the buttons, Instagram on left, Pinterest on right

Why a milestone? Because ever since both platforms grabbed our attention by gathering massive active users ( 300 million for Instagram vs 50 million for Pinterest *est.),  observers have been waiting for them to turn on the monetary switch. A “buy” button has been such an obvious option for Pinterest since its launch that it almost seems ridiculous that they have waited so long to add it. Primarily used by women posting pictures of items they wish to purchase or recommend to others, Pinterest is the quintessential referral platform.  When first launched, the company was even generating revenue by automatically  including affiliate links via, a practice that CEO Ben Silbermann killed after it was made public and generated a backlash. However, it seems that the negative noise was more about the sneaky approach than the fact they were generating revenue. 

The new Pinterest
The new Pinterest “buy” button


 The company now valued at $11 billion needs to prep for its IPO and generate substantial revenues if it wants to attract Wall Street investors. And by all estimate, the additional button should be successful since the platform already generates 5.5% of all internet referrals. Along with promising advertising revenue forecasted to bring $500 million by 2016, the addition of the “buy” button should help confirm that Pinterest can be a highly profitable business.

For Instagram, the story is a bit different. First, the “buy” button ( renamed “Shop Now”) is part of a series of options for advertisers, the three others being ” Install now”, “Sign up” and  “Learn More”. Unlike Pinterest, Instagram doesn’t need to prove profitability since its parent company does it for both of them ( Facebook revenue for the first quarter of 2015 totaled $3.54 billion). However, it cannot let the opportunity slip away. Already at work on Facebook, along with valuable analytics, it is hardly an effort to add it to Instagram. However,  unlike Pinterest, the backslash here could be dramatic. Users of the photo platform consider it an artistic exchange and the arrival of such a mercantile disfiguration might upset many.

In the past, Instagram’s CEO Kevin Systrom has been extremely cautious at not causing waves that would upset his 300 million users and thus we might experience a very subdued version. According to a recent announcement, the “Shop Now” button will only appear on carefully vetted items that will appeal to viewers, based on behavior analytics. In other words, if you liked a lot of pictures of shoes, you will see shoes for sale, not lipstick. It’s also worth noting that the buttons don’t take you away from Instagram. Instead, they open a mini-browser within the app, so once you have done your shopping you’ll be returned to Instagram. All to preserve the experience ( and the heavily gated community). Again, since there is no urgency of profitability, expect a very slow, very cautious roll out.

Instagram buy button will be called
Instagram buy button will be called “shop now” and will be one of 4 options

One we haven’t heard from yet is disruptor Snapchat. Their recent partnership with Square which has, for now, been limited to friends paying friends, could ultimately be the backbone for an integrated payment solution. Adding a “buy” button to a 10-second image would allow brands to offer instant fire sales to a very digital, mobile shopping savvy user base. Think Gilt on steroid for teens. Ceo  Evan Spiegel has made no mention of it, for now, but it wouldn’t surprise us if the company rolled out a version before year’s end, especially if Pinterest and Instagram show success.


Photo by skippyjon

Author: Paul Melcher

Paul Melcher is a highly influential and visionary leader in visual tech, with 20+ years of experience in licensing, tech innovation, and entrepreneurship. He is the Managing Director of MelcherSystem and has held executive roles at Corbis, Stipple, and more. Melcher received a Digital Media Licensing Association Award and is a board member of Plus Coalition, Clippn, and Anthology, and has been named among the “100 most influential individuals in American photography”


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