month, photo-sharing app/hipster lifestyle accessory Instagram is changing its terms of service, and as expected, it’s caused the usual round of shouting and boycott threats to emanate from users.

Personally I don’t think it’s any great shock or cause for outcry, but I do think it may be indicative of a deeper problem within the marketing and advertising industries: underestimating our customers…

[EDIT: Since writing this post it now appears that Instagram may have decided to retract the changes to their terms – we’ll provide full details soon. – Matt]

For those of you who don’t live in Williamsburg or Hackney, here’s the section of the new terms that’s causing the most consternation: 

Instagram does not claim ownership of any Content that you post on or through the Service. Instead, you hereby grant to Instagram a non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to use the Content that you post on or through the Service, except that you can control who can view certain of your Content and activities on the Service as described in the Service’s Privacy Policy, available here: 

In short, Instagram can now sell or use, in perpetuity, any pictures you happen to have put on Instagram, (Which, in addition to raising ad revenue,  may have the knock-on effect of transforming the service into a massive stock-photo archive). Technically, this means that anyone could buy my image, and use it on an ad, whether I use the service or not.

In practice that probably won’t happen. My face is unlikely to sell many packets of rich tea biscuits, and the point here has to be to link social connections together. More on that in a moment.  

There are also a few other clauses that have caused a reaction:

1: Underage users are included in this as well

Although you have to be 13 to sign up for Instagram, teenage users are implicitly acknowledging that parents/guardians are aware they are sharing duckfaces and pictures of cats, and they are not exempt from being used in social ads. 

2: Social ads 

So important I wrote it twice. If you put your images on Instagram, then you might see them pop up in a social ad on Instagram or across the wider Facebook ecosystem.

These ads might not be labelled as ads.

3: What if I don’t agree?

Opt out. Close your account. Use it or lose it pal. Possibly a bit harsh, but hey, it’s their service, it’s free to use, and they can take it home if they want to. 

[These are paraphrased – You can read the full terms here.

So far, so typical

Re-appropriating content has long been a part of Facebook’s strategy, so it’s unsurprising to see the rules extend to services owned by the social giant. 

For marketers this is currently a bit of a non-story. So far Facebook has largely refrained from using branded content without explicit company permission. If this should change, it’s unlikely that the possibility that one of your images may wind up in a social ad will affect your overall strategy. 

One actual worry at the moment is that a raft of account closures may affect revenue for those using Instagram heavily as a channel (or that images are available to competitors, in which case it’s probably time to delete that picture of you, asleep in a dustbin after the office party). 

When you seed content on any social platform, you make a covenant with the service; you know that your content may find itself in unlikely places.  Just as in your private life, if you don’t want it to appear online, don’t put it there in the first place.

In business, if it’s a genuine concern, slap a logo on it Tex

Who knows how many new subscriptions that image could drive? 

It’s highly unlikely that Facebook/Instagram would allow rivals to buy up images of their competitors for campaigns in any significant way. They’ve tried these things before and they know what they can and can’t do (at least in the short term…).

They’re too smart to alienate their customer base that way. 

But are the rest of us? 

Something this does highlight is the increasing thought-gap between social marketing services and general users.

Every time there’s a change in terms (Expect more fun when Facebook updates next year), we see a new round of hand-wringing and calls for boycotts.

They never work.

There is usually a blast of misinformation surrounding changes as well. Currently every single Instagram user seems convinced that they’ll be featured on the Times Square Jumbotron by the end of the week.

Once people realise it amounts to seeing an ad with “Your friend Steve likes Johnson’s Pickles” written on it, the worries go away. 

How smart are your customers?

What I find interesting is that Instagram would specifically mention that ads may not be marked as such. To do this highlights something that is increasingly noticeable on all the major social networks:

A lot of marketers seem to think their customers are stupid. 

Yes, the histrionics over this are generally misinformed, but frankly I don’t understand the full implications of a change in the recipe for my favourite soup either. That doesn’t mean I’m stupid, it just means I don’t spend my entire waking life immersed in the Heinz website.  

We spend hours on social media, trying desperately to get customers engaged with our brands, but we still go to lengths to try to sneak ads past them, to see if we can half-trick them into liking our pages, or buying our products and services, simply because that guy you went to college with ten years ago also bought them. 

This shows a complete lack of regard for users.

Do we honestly feel that someone who “Likes” a product page on Facebook doesn’t expect to see any marketing messages from that page? More importantly, are we so terrified that they might unfollow us that we are actively scared to say “Here’s an advert for our company”. 

It pays to (explicitly) advertise

Users know an ad when they see one, and they expect adverts.

The thing they don’t appreciate is ads in places they aren’t expecting.

Look at our recent post on the biggest social media fails of 2012. Snickers caught an incredible amount of flack for inserting ads into celebrity Twitter streams. Likewise, 70% of users say that they find mobile ads more annoying than TV ads. 

Social media is supposed to be about uniting genuinely interested people with your brand, about creating community and two-way value, not randomly chasing loosely-connected people in a numbers game.

What message are we giving out by relying on social ads? Yes, targeting is important, but by and large people don’t mind that adverts exist, they just don’t want to be swindled into something without their explicit consent. 

If you want to do social well, then be honest with your customers, be transparent.

It’s fine to link them together, but I don’t see this kind of ad as the future for any platform. I’m interested in seeing my connections, but I want to see them on my terms. If someone takes a picture of a model drinking Coke and uses it as an ad, fine. Just don’t try to fool me into thinking I get to be friends with the model at the same time. 

This is just my initial take on this, and I realise that for private users there may be some concern over where their images are used,  but I think it’s a mindset that social platforms and marketers in general need to move beyond if they want to be truly social. As always I’d love to hear your comments on this below.