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Facebook has reportedly acquired Instagram for $1 billion in a mix of cash and shares. The photo-sharing service was launched in October 2010 and recently launched its Android app having been exclusively on iPhone before that. According to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook will be “keeping and building on Instagram’s strengths and features rather than just trying to integrate everything”, but it is certain that we will now see a new level of integration between these two services.

That Facebook has made this acquisition will not come as too much of a surprise to many. Indeed their had been rumours that they would announce a tool similar to Instagram alongside the changes to Timeline and apps at the F8 conference late in 2011. Also there should be no surprise that it would be interested in a service with more than 30 million users sharing over a billion photos (and all this when it was restricted to just iPhones).

But perhaps more notably, the rise of Instagram, and its acquisition by Facebook, reflects the growing importance of images in the social media mix.

There is, of course, nothing new about us sharing messages through images. We know that we’ve been doing it for over 32,000 years. That’s a lot longer than we’ve been sharing things with the written word. But until relatively recently sharing images online was not as easy. It has been facilitated by the rise of mobile devices with cameras (to take the images) and mobile and wireless data connections (to allow us to share them online). Services like Instagram then help us to make these photos look beautiful.

With this increasing ability to take and share photos online we are seeing a shift from the written word being the main means of communication in social media. Facebook has slowly integrated photos into all actions (from events to status updates); with its most recent implementation of Timeline we have seen photos take primacy in the way that the “Matt is…” status updates used to. Twitter has also made it easier to share and view photos, buying photo-sharing services and then changing their web and other services so you can see images inline with written updates. Finally, we only have to look at the role of Pinterest and Tumblr to see how images can lead in social media.

For brands this requires a real shift in the way that many have been using social media. Many have focused on engaging people through words – status updates, questions, discussions, Q&A. For others social media has been closely aligned to their SEO strategies – creating written content in blogs and forums, and sharing links back to their site. The job of a search engine is to find good written content, and social media has provided brands with a way of creating such content. Win-win. Of course, with images search is less of a benefit, and less useful (as anybody trying to search for a particular image they have in their mind will know.

But the rise of images in social media should help brands to focus on using social media as a tool for truly engaging with your audience. The success of Instagram shows that people like creating and sharing images, they engage round images from friends but also round images in topics of interest. They are easy to reshare and provoke just as many discussions as the written word.

Brands that are truly engaging their audiences in social media will find that the rise of images supports and promotest their tactics. It will give them another way to engage their audiences in terms that they understand and care about. Those brands who are just promoting their content or using social media as just another channel for the same messages will find this changing landscape more challenging.