Vanessa Hudgens didn’t really understand the appeal of Instagram when it popped up seven years ago. “I remember when Instagram first came out — I was totally against it,” she says. “I thought, ‘No one wants to see me getting my hair done.’”
Now Hudgens, like many of her celebrity and generational peers, is hooked. The 28-year-old actress connects with more than 27 million fans on Instagram on a near-daily basis, sharing a stream of snippets from her life on the social network. At some point, she says, “I realized I had this direct contact with my fans, to engage them in my life in a way that’s real.”
And she believes Instagram has changed the dynamics of the entertainment biz: “Studios can look at that and see who people are actually engaged with,” says Hudgens. She’s currently shooting romantic comedy “Second Act” starring Jennifer Lopez and the Ken Marino-directed comedy pic “Dog Days.”
Over the past few years, Facebook-owned Instagram has become the preferred app for many celebrities and digital stars, thanks to the app’s visual-first design, relatively low controversy, and a culture that emphasizes positivity — not to mention Instagram borrowing Snapchat’s popular Stories feature. (See related story, “Instagram CEO Positions His Company as Safer Alternative to Controversial Rivals.”)
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It’s where Beyoncé has posted heavily art-directed photos of herself, famously posing pregnant with twins, and Taylor Swift has surprised unsuspecting fans by lurking on their live video streams before direct-messaging them. Instagram also is the primary outlet for young digital-native stars like Cameron Dallas (20.6 million followers) and Lele Pons (19.7 million), who are building their careers with new forms of programming on the platform.
That doesn’t mean they ignore other social networks. But the narrative that emerges is that each platform serves a different strength. Twitter is for news and opinions. Snapchat is for communicating with friends. Facebook is for keeping up with family and friends.
Instagram, on the other hand, is where you follow the people and things you love, according to actors and digital stars.
“Twitter is brains. Instagram is heart,” says Dove Cameron, star of Disney Channel teen sitcom “Liv and Maddie,” who has 15 million Instagram followers. “Instagram stimulates the creative side of my brain. Even if I weren’t an actor, it would be my primary platform.”
The camaraderie that exists among Instagram users is unlike any other social network, says Cameron Dallas, a top influencer who became famous on Vine. “My fans are engaging with each other on all platforms,” he says, “but I feel like on Instagram they’re able to create a community.”
Unlike YouTube, Instagram doesn’t provide a way for top users to make money from their content directly. “I don’t know that Instagram is a platform we think about for monetization,” says Lisa Filipelli, founder of talent-management firm Flip Management. “It’s a place to connect with people you are following you – it feels authentic and organic.”
But top Instagrammers (as on other platforms) can make big bucks through branded-content deals. “Instagram has become a really critical platform for brands to use for influencer marketing,” says eMarketer analyst Debra Aho Williamson.
And Instagram is a natural outlet for stars to promote their current projects. Ansel Elgort, star of this summer’s action-thriller hit “Baby Driver,” used Instagram to share photos of himself hanging out with director Edgar Wright; video from the red carpet with Lily James; outtakes from the movie in multiple Instagram Stories; and used Instagram Live to surprise fans in Brazil. Whether “Baby Driver” burnished Elgort’s image more than the other way around is beside the point: His honestly enthusiastic promotion of the film on Instagram undoubtedly was marketing fuel for the film.
“I can be very genuine on Instagram,” says Elgort, who previously starred in 2014’s “The Fault in Our Stars.” “If I feel like someone’s Instagram isn’t genuine, I don’t follow them.”
To some young movie and TV actors, Instagram is their face to the industry as well as their fans. Kira Kosarin, the 20-year-old star of Nickelodeon’s “The Thundermans,” says her Instagram account (3.1 million followers) has become like her business card.
“When somebody hears my name, they’re probably going to go to my Instagram before they even go to IMDb,” says Kosarin.
Instagram’s addition of Stories, with perishable content that goes away after 24 hours, has been a popular tool, a way for creators to supplement the photos and videos they post that stay up for good.
And by providing more of an all-in-one app, it’s pulled many stars away from Snapchat. Filipelli says that among her talent roster — which includes Tyler Oakley, Ingrid Nilsen, Amanda Steele, Kian Lawley, and Jc Caylen — “they’re all either not using Snapchat or barely at all.”
Colleen Ballinger, creator of the odd adolescent YouTube character Miranda Sings and star of Netflix’s “Haters Back Off,” says she used to post frequently on Snapchat. “I was really into Snapchat. I thought it was awesome,” she says. “But what I loved about Snapchat is now on Instagram. Now I can post a photo, story and live-stream, all in one app.”
Hollywood agents and talent say another difference between Instagram and Snapchat is that Instagram is more proactively engaged with its most popular users, with a 30-member team dedicated to reaching out to top Instagrammers. Snapchat is more focused on cutting content deals with media companies rather than promoting creator content, says Shots Studios CEO John Shahidi, who reps influencers including Lele Pons and Rudy Mancusco. “I think Instagram is going to be the only social platform out there for premium user-generated content on mobile,” says Shahidi.
One example of how Instagram has incorporated feedback: Instagram Stories can include links (which aren’t allowed in regular feed posts), so users can drive fans to e-commerce or off-site content. It also created new real estate at the top of the news feed to promote Instagram Stories, helping influencers gain new followers. “Once Instagram started folding in links [in Stories] to swipe up and move off-platform, for verified clients that was a game-changer,” says Andrew Graham, an agent in CAA’s digital talent and packaging group.
Instagram also got a lift when Twitter announced it was shutting down Vine last year, prompting top Viners to flock to Instagram. And a year ago, Instagram rolled out live-streaming video. “Instagram has the two mediums people want to communicate in: video and static photos,” Graham says. “It’s kind of the killer app.”
Actor Colton Haynes, who has 6.4 million Instagram followers, has a presence on Twitter and Facebook. But he says Instagram is where he shows his true colors. “With my Instagram, I’m very candid — it’s not curated,” he says. It’s a place, he adds, where “you can really gauge how people are feeling.”
Still, Haynes, who currently appears in “American Horror Story: Cult” after roles in “Teen Wolf” and “Arrow,” says he’s not sure whether his social-media status has helped him professionally. “I’ve been hired because of my Instagram… then I’ve gotten cut out of the movie except for one scene,” he says. “It’s disappointing. Some people see you only as big on social media.”
Ross Butler, a former Disney Channel star who appeared in Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” and “Riverdale” season one, says Instagram is an expression of both his personal and professional lives — that the two go hand in hand. “Obviously, yes, I want people to watch my shows. But if people truly believe in you as an artist then they’ll support you,” he says. Adds Butler, “I play a lot of assholes on TV — and I don’t want people to think that’s how I am in real life.”
Sharing an Instagram post with his 2.4 million followers, says Butler, “speaks 1,000 words” about his personal life, with hobbies that include cooking and board games. Compared with other platforms, “it’s a lot more appealing. You get more instant gratification.”
Pictured above (l. to r.): Vanessa Hudgens, Cameron Dallas, Dove Cameron