How Zalando Tries To Make Instagram Images Shoppable (And Mainly Fails)

The emphasis here is on ‘tries’.

Let’s have a look at what challenge Zalando, which just reported spectacular numbers, is facing as explained by Marcel Daake, a mobile product manager at Zalando, on their tech blog:

It became clear that our users love Instagram because it’s personal, populated with high-quality images, and puts fashion items into context (who is wearing what? how do they wear it? how can one combine new items with current favorites?). We also learned that customers get frustrated when they see something they love but can’t buy it directly. Instagram lacks a simple, one-click method of purchasing items.

So, how do you combine images from Instagram and Zalando to create a social shopping experience? At Zalando they are working to ‘hack’ hashtags:

Our new iOS feature shows the best Instagram images to display on our mobile app and connects those images to products from our shop. Our customers already use #zalandostyle or #shareyourstyle to tag outfits they want to share with the Instagram community; using basic image recognition and manual curation, we link these hashtagged images to our products. From time to time, we also include other hashtags in the selection process.

This leads to a sort of sub section with Instagram photos with shoppable content right inside Zalando’s app:

Zalando and Instagram

Our social media team chooses and approves new user generated images every week day. (..)

A new section of our app shows the very best of what users share on Instagram, and is accessible directly from the start page. Tap on a style to see products that are either exact matches or very similar recommendations.

So that customers only see items they can actually purchase, we don’t feature sold-out items. For these, we’ve implemented a simple logic: If there is no product connected to an image anymore, it doesn’t appear.

To be frank this is nice but hardly a feature that will have a measureable impact. But even more damning: It doesn’t even solve the use case quoted above. You see a fashion item in your feed on Instagram and you want to buy it. People using Zalando’s hashtags for some of their photos and Zalando integrating these into their own app doesn’t help you one iota with this.1

But how might Zalando be going to address the challenge posed above?

Zalando can not peek into other apps, may it be Instagram or Pinterest or any other social network where people might get inspiration for shopping. At the desktop you might have offered your users a bookmarklet one can click on so Zalando can scrap and analyze the page one is on right now. Ideally this would have been platform agnostic and Zalando just would have analyzed the content inside the posted images on any given webpage thrown at it this way.2 But such a solution is not possible in a mobile app world.

Since iOS 8 Apples mobile operating system iOS offers share extensions. These extensions enable apps to perform actions inside other apps. In essence users can use one app to interact with the content sitting in another app. An app like Evernote can save text, photos or URLs to its online notebook service if an app has enabled share extensions for example.

There is just one thing with iOS’ App Extension API. Once integrated the host app can not choose which apps are allowed to share and interact with its content. So if a photo app enables app extensions every other photo app can take those photos via the user’s share actions.

This has some strategic implications. It is also almost certainly the reason why Instagram does not have app extensions integrated. And neither does Pinterest. Because if they would an online retailer like Zalando for example could build an extension for its app that would send a shown image to its servers for image processing and item comparison.

You could do the exact same thing Zalando is doing right now with Instagram hashtags but actually solve the ‘I found something nice looking on Instagram and I want to buy it’ use case.

  1. The user sees an item in a photo in their Instagram feed (or on Pinterest for that matter),
  2. hits the share button,
  3. selects “Buy on Zalando” and
  4. gets a push notification about what items Zalando has found in the sent image once the processing is done

It would be a very effective wish list / bookmark feature given todays rising use of mobile social networks.

But why would Instagram or Pinterest want to allow such a feature that would allow anyone to tack buy buttons on top of their user generated content? Pinterest is already experimenting with integrating buy buttons into the platform. Instagram is certainly working on similar features. Why would they open the ‘share’ gates so to speak? They would not.

And therein lies some of their value. Any online retailer who wants to get in on the mobile social action and the distribution opportunities different discoverability paths allow will have to play by the roles of the providers of those networks.

Question one: Instagram already belongs to Facebook. So besides Instagram all this begs the quesion what mobile social networks are suitable for big online retailers to aquire.

Question two: As we can see with the App extension API on iOS the decisions the providers of those mobile platforms (Apple and Google) make do create paths and road blocks for what is possible and for what companies on the app level can do. The question is where will it lead? Benedict Evans of a16z astutely says that “mobile is not a neutral platform” and:

it’s the operating system itself that’s the internet services platform, far more than the browser, and the platform is not neutral.

(..)

All of those enabling layers and APIs are consciously controlled by the platform provider, and they keep changing things. We’re post-Netscape and post-PageRank – we left behind a monolithic intersection model, the web, and a near-monolithic way to find things in web search, and now we have many models and no stabilization around new ones. Apple and Google keep making decisions, enabling or disabling options and capabilities and creating or removing opportunities.

It is an open question right now what that will mean for someone like Zalando. So it is a very good thing they are experimenting.

More on Zalando’s mobile strategy coming soon.


  1. One can tag Instagram photos in comments. So the one tagging the photo does not necessarily have to be the one who published the photo on instagram in the first place. But that does not mean photos get to Zalando via hashtags in comments. Zalando needs the permission of the photo owner to integrate the photo in its app. Using one of Zalando’s hashtags certainly is an implicit permission. And this Instagram integration does look more like a curation play than it does like a personalized social shopping feature. 
  2. A browser bookmarklet is still not a mainstream compatible approach but it would solve a lot of challenges and get functionality to power users. (And Zalando would also get some insights into what exactly its own power users are up to around the internet.) 

11 comments

  1. […] How Zalando Tries To Make Instagram Images Shoppable (And Mainly Fails) […]

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  2. […] Zalando’s own event and its open source strategy and startup programs have to be seen in this context as well as its failed attempt to make Instagram photos shoppable. […]

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  3. Thanks for this great article! With our startup chatShopper we get many instagram pictures from our users and our experts try to find the pieces. We’re working on a different solution here, I’m very curious if it will work. Testing many ideas is the best (and only?) way to find out, it’s great that Zalando still works like many startups!

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  4. […] all this with a grain of salt. It is rehashing initatives (like the mostly failed attempt of making Instagram images shoppable) and advertising what Zalando is doing, naturally. But having this published on Zalando’s […]

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  5. […] How Zalando Tries To Make Instagram Images Shoppable (And Mainly Fails) […]

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  6. […] How Zalando Tries To Make Instagram Images Shoppable (And Mainly Fails) […]

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  7. […] Zalando has been toying with image recognition since at least 2014 and uses technology by Cortexica. Zalando also used “basic image recognition” for making Instagram images shoppable. (Which is mainly a failed attempt for other reasons.) […]

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  8. […] on Instagram by the brands they follow, with the clothes being shown listed below for purchasing. (Second time’s the charm.) The app also uses the users location (either via GPS or manually provided) to make suggestions for […]

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  9. […] (To be clear, I am not questioning the ability to execute, but rather how much the context allows here. As in: You can only do with Instagram what Instagram itself allows. And you can only do within iOS what Apple allows. And so on. I went over a lot of this back in October of last year in “How Zalando Tries To Make Instagram Images Shoppable (And Mainly Fails)“) […]

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  10. […] To be clear, I am not questioning the ability to execute, but rather how much the context allows here. As in: You can only do with Instagram what Instagram itself allows. And you can only do within iOS what Apple allows. And so on. I went over a lot of this back in October of last year in “How Zalando Tries To Make Instagram Images Shoppable (And Mainly Fails)“ […]

    Like

  11. […] How Zalando Tries To Make Instagram Images Shoppable (And Mainly Fails) […]

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