On Tuesday, Amazon launched Spark, a new feature in its mobile app that allows users to create and shop feeds according to their interests. The Spark feed is similar to Instagram’s, full of photos, captions, and hashtags. But the intention behind Spark isn’t sharing photos, moments, stories, or thoughts — it’s buying and selling.
There are stories and photos and moments on Spark, but the raison d’être of the feature is to highlight products that are sold on Amazon. Users can post content, comment on, and like (or “smile” as Amazon calls it) like they would on a social network, but Spark, at least for now, is a long way from actually being a social network.
Spark is a feature within Amazon, not a standalone app or platform. It joins a host of other features designed to help users discover what they should buy, from outfits to electronics.
Amazon Spark has users choose at least five interests before beginning — things like “Adventure Travel”, “Coffee”, “Action Movies”, “Jazz Music”, “Dogs”, and “Skiing.” Then it curates a feed based on those interests.
The feed is photo-based, just like Instagram’s. Selecting “adventure travel” yields, predictably, photos of people hiking and taking in picturesque mountain scenery, just like the kind you might expect to see if you followed a handful of travelers and photographers on Instagram.
Unlike Instagram, though, Spark has many posts where products are tagged. Swiping up on the photo shows the product, its rating, and a link that will take users to the page where they can purchase it. Prices aren’t included in the Spark view and only appear on the purchasing page.
Just days after launch, there are #sponsored posts already showing up on the platform. Photographers are tagging tripods, travelers are tagging hiking boots, and lifestyle influencers are tagging food, drinks, and more. A visual platform for products on Amazon makes a lot of sense, at least on a surface level. Amazon Spark is looking to provide what most online shopping lacks — context and a personal connection.
Influencer marketing is so effective on platforms like Instagram because it humanizes the way that people shop. Product recommendation feels more natural and organic when it exists in a feed full of creators that users have chosen to follow, even if those recommendations are sponsored.
Spark is after the same idea, but because it’s product-focused rather than people-focused, it’s skipped the glossy veneer that cloaks the capitalism at work on Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, YouTube, and more. Amazon Spark is entirely and unabashedly about buying things, and as Mashable’s Jason Abbruzzese points out, it’s hard to fault a feature so clear in its intentions.
Spark isn’t a social network, but a buying network. It’s ostensibly for finding like-minded people based on your interests, but the major focus and end goal is products. It exists to talk about and share products, and in that way, it feels more like an evolution of the review system and kind of crowdsourced version of the physical catalogs of yesteryear.
There’s no way around it: Spark is clumsy. It’s odd and feels like a strange mix of influencers who were part of a rollout effort and average users who are taking it for a test drive by photographing, captioning, and sharing whatever comes to mind. In its ideal state, it seems like Spark could be like a more shoppable Instagram — a more interactive approach to taste making and transactions. Whether or not it will ever reach that ideal state remains to be seen.
Users have the ability to follow other users, but people don’t seem to be the focus — it’s categories and products that take center stage. It’s hard to say whether or not that’ll always be the case. Amazon has verified profiles for travelers, photographers and the like. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that those people might find an audience on Spark. But for now, at least, it’s difficult to imagine users going out of their way to follow influencers to Spark for the explicit purpose of seeing which products they’re using and promoting.
Spark’s biggest hurdle isn’t necessarily its interface or hammering out the kinks in feed curation and the balance between people and products. It’s deciding what it is and what it wants to be. Right now, there seems to be little incentive to use the feature wise from novelty and the largely unfamiliar sensation of needing to spend money but having very little idea where to dispose of it.
That said, Spark could be powerful. It could be useful for finding gift ideas, for building wish lists, for researching products or packing lists. But those use cases require some degree of focus. For now, perhaps Spark is just discovering how people might be inclined to use it. Growing pains and initial periods of uncertainty are par for the course, and it’s not as if Amazon lacks the resources needed to develop a robust social network around buying rather than socializing.
In theory, if the deal is sweet enough for influencers and brands, Spark might become home to some seriously compelling content. And even in a commerce app, if the content’s compelling enough, the audience will come. Writing off Amazon’s ability to elbow its way into the social media game is a mistake. Until then, though, Spark feels like a strange little feature that’s either going to come into its own or languish in disuse.