Instagram's Priya Patel-Chomel on what it takes to leave a mark on social media

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Photo by Juidin Bernarrd
Photo by Juidin Bernarrd

Dubai - Instagram's first employee in the Middle East lays out the rules


Anamika Chatterjee

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Published: Thu 19 Aug 2021, 1:46 PM

Instagram is a social media platform that has taken a life of its own in this region. The celebrity of the digital age is the influencer/content creator who puts out content that manages to acquire a following. It is also a platform that not only keeps innovating, but demands creativity from users too. Priya Patel-Chomel, Instagram’s first employee in the Middle East and now the Product Growth Lead of Middle East, Turkey and Africa for Facebook’s various apps and services, decodes what it takes to make an impact on Instagram.

What were your formative years like?

I grew up as a second generation Brit to Indian parents in a city called Stoke on Trent, England, a former industrial town best known for its pottery, such as Wedgewood. My family and network were strong with a deep sense of culture. I was equally exposed to both British and Indian cultures, celebrated both Diwali and Christmas, holidayed both in India and in Wales! I was a pretty good student with a passion for music and arts. My parents instilled an ethos of work hard to be able to achieve what you’d like in life and so at 18, I circumnavigated the societal pressure to conform to a career in medicine and opted to move to London to study Media & Society. During my time there I was fortunate enough to get a taste of what it was like working in the media industry with roles working at Sony Records and the show Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?. It was this that piqued my interest in wanting to pursue a career in media full-time.

Even though I’ve now lived away from home longer than I was there I’m fortunate to still be close with my school friends and often think back to all the hard work, fun and life lessons I learned.

What brought you to Facebook? What are the perks and perils of the job?

I joined Facebook in December 2015 after working at Google for five years (in Singapore and Dubai). I was looking for a new challenge and saw that Instagram was looking for a Brand Development Lead, and turns out, it was for the first Instagram employee in the Middle East! In this role, I was fortunate to be able to shape the direction that IG was taking both from a brand and commercialisation perspective, spending time evangelising the platform and working with advertisers to ensure they were getting the best out of using it. Two years ago, the role transitioned into Product Lead across all of Facebook’s family of apps and services. I now run the product marketing team responsible for growing product adoption, solutions and activations.

Facebook is a fantastic place to work, it encourages you to be bold, think big and take risks. It’s fair and inclusive and colleagues are extremely supportive. In terms of the perils of the job, I’d say that there is always so much information that you spend a lot of time reading. Also, in a social setting, a lot of people have an interest or an opinion about Facebook and so often you find yourself fielding questions and essentially working, during your off time.

Social media has turned out to be a game changer in this part of the world that has nearly 100 per cent Internet penetration. What makes it a lucrative market for you?

Our community in the Middle East has always been passionate, vocal and curious. They love to explore, express, discover and learn. The youth (age 15-29) especially use our platform actively to engage with the things they love — from music and skateboarding to philosophy and poetry. They also use our platforms to show support, call their followers to action and to create. They also avidly experiment with different types of features and content type, which is why we constantly have our ears to the ground to adapt our platform to meet their needs.

All our features, such as Stories, Shop, Reels, IGTV and IG Live are geared towards enabling expression, discovery and creation.

The pandemic was a turning point in terms of our collective consumption of social media. What have been some of the defining changes you observed during this time?

Social media consumption was at historic highs during the lockdown, but it emphasised the positive role social media plays in bringing people together. It provided everyone a metaphorical window into the world. It eased the sense of isolation and provided support to those that needed it. This role as a facilitator of expression and exploration is one that we will continue to build on.

Instagram was created with the aim to connect people and during a time when physical contact was not possible, we saw people come together on our platform. During Ramadan — a period known for its close sense of community — those observing used the platform to create new Ramadan traditions. There were virtual Suhoors and Iftars, people used Instagram to promote charities, families shared recipes and prayers. People used the platform to spread hope, lift spirits and share a smile during a very difficult time.

Job aside, what is your own relationship with social media like?

I love social media and the ability to be able to connect to friends and family plus tap into my interests and passions. For me, Facebook and Instagram are for different uses.

I use Facebook to stay in touch with friends and family abroad and see what they’re up to. I use communities, for example my Villa community in Dubai or a Mums group, for questions and advice. I also love Marketplace and recently have been buying quite a few things for my toddler there.

On Instagram, I love to browse through accounts which showcase my interests such as fashion, food, travel, interior inspo and Formula 1! There is just an incredible amount of content out there. I also use it to provide my friends and followers a window into my lifestyle and interests.

My relationship with social media runs deep, and once upon a time I worked for MySpace!

One of the outcomes of the social media boom is the rise of influencers. But it’s also often seen as a grey area. What is your personal take on influencers? What makes them relevant to our time? How do we sieve truth from hype?

Creators are essential to every craft and without them there would be stagnation. On Instagram, creators help our community connect to the things they love, whether it is interesting content, products or other content creators. For us, creators are the early-adopters of new features like Reels and Instagram Shops, showing the community the new frontiers that are accessible to them. They are an integral and valuable part of the ecosystem.

Personally, I gravitate towards creators like Vincent_Bal, SupercarBlondie, Marco Andre de Silva and The Bodycoach, who are credible, authentic and very, very passionate about what they do. They are measured in the way they post, and tailor their content so that it resonates with their core followers. They spark or heighten my interest in an area that I like, thus adding value. I believe that is what sets good creators apart — the value they add to our day-to-day lives, be it in the form of entertainment, inspiration, fitness or education.

For those looking to acquire a following, the ever-changing algorithms prove to be a challenge. How can a user navigate this?

First and foremost, there is no master algorithm that governs all of Instagram. We use a variety of algorithms, classifiers, and processes, each with its own purpose. I encourage everyone to read and watch our chief Adam Mosseiri’s blog series — Shedding More Light on How Instagram Works — which clarifies and debunks a lot of Instagram myths, including “the algorithm”.

Secondly, there is no magic formula to acquiring a following. Much like any other craft, your success on Instagram is predominantly influenced by how good your content is and how often you create fresh content as well as engage with your audience.

Social media is also changing every day. New features are being introduced every now and then. Why is constant innovation important to your scheme of things?

People spend a lot of time on social media, including Instagram. We want to make sure that the time spent is a valuable addition to their lives and those of their followers. We are constantly introducing new features like Reels and Shopping to spark connections and creativity as well as help small businesses and creators find an audience.

In parallel, we are also constantly updating Instagram with new features to strengthen our guardrails. A large portion of our community are teens and young adults and this is top-of-mind for us. We want to ensure that they have a safe ground to have conversations, express their opinions and publish their creative output. Instagram is about creativity and connections, yes, but it is also about having full control of your on-platform experience.

This region has a particular affinity towards Instagram. What, according to you, has worked in favour of the social networking site? Also, you were the region’s first Instagram employee when you moved here in 2015. How has the platform evolved in terms of scope ever since?

Instagram is visual and interactive; it tells a story, and this is a region of storytellers, so there is a natural appeal.

We started off as a photo-sharing app and we have grown way beyond that, thanks to our community. Our community has always driven us and through internal research, we found that entertainment is one of the biggest reasons that people keep coming back to Instagram. As a direct consequence, we have expanded our offering in this space, empowering creators to publish different styles of content and their followers to consume it.

Today, a creator in the Middle East (or anywhere in the world) can use the app to publish images and videos on feed, they can browse and discover new creators and trends on our Explore page, create a short-form skit on Reels or a long-form series on IGTV, host a real-time interview or discussion through IG Live in addition to shopping, purchasing and supporting SMEs through our Shop tab.

Many users want to be verified. Apart from spotlighting authentic accounts, why is verification important?

We do a lot of due diligence before we verify accounts, be it for people or organisations. For us, a verification is a stamp of authentic influence. To the highest degree possible, we want to ensure that verified accounts have real influence and that the members of our community following these verified accounts have valid experience in their field.

A common accusation thrown at social network is that it is cutting short the young’s attention spans. Your take?

Different generations consume content differently. My father’s generation is used to watching the news on TV every evening and my friends and I would more likely get the same information from browsing news apps or Feed updates, whilst I’d say that the younger generation gets updates from reels or apps like NowThis News. We are all as equally well-informed and have opinions.

I believe that social media has made informational, educational and entertainment content a lot more accessible and digestible in this bite-size format — if you absorb and assess more information through 30-second videos and real-time interactions (comments and discussions), then that should be encouraged.

What does the future of social media look like?

The future is video. We are seeing more creators and consumers showing preference for this format. We are also seeing more experimentation in this space — be it in episodic form like Azza Zarour’s (@azzazarour) IGTV series or educational Reels content like Blair Imani’s (@blairimani) Smarter in Seconds series. We will continue to expand our offering, helping creators flex their storytelling talents and consumers access what works for them.

Want to make an impact on social media?

1) Play to your strengths and passion: Lean into what you are good at and passionate about. If you love flipping furniture and have your collection on your camera feed, use those to start off. This will ensure that you organically have a stash of content and videos that you are updating. Don’t veer into an area simply because it is trendy or try to replicate something that you have seen. Be unique, audiences would love to see something new.

2) Use all the resources available to you: Don’t shy away from cross promoting your work. Publish that new stash of must-reads on your Feed, use Reels to create a 30-second recap and IGTV to do a longer commentary. Provide reviews and opinions, invite others to join you.

3) Know your audience: Think about who you want to attract and create content that is specific and relevant to them. For example, use IGTV or IG Live to speak to fellow creators.

4) Be authentic and honest: There is no need to be hyper curated in your content. As long as you have consistency, it will resonate.

5) Experiment: Try different formats and styles, colours and frames and use Insights to see what your audience likes and tailor accordingly.

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