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Working with Instagram: Insights from The Economist’s head of audience

The platform is a growing source of news for younger readers – and a place for media to build their brand

Instagram is no longer just a place to share food pics and holiday views to make your friends jealous. According to the 2020 Reuters Institute Digital News report, the platform reaches two-thirds of under 25 year-olds, who increasingly use it as a source of news.

This presents a huge opportunity for publishers – who are increasingly building Instagram into their social media (and even monetization) strategies. One of them is The Economist, which increased social media referral traffic by 180% over the past six months, with a lot of this impressive growth coming from Instagram.

Speaking at the European Journalism Center’s News Impact SummitThe Economist head of the audience Kevin Young shed some light on how the publication delivered such impressive results.

The Economist, one of the strongest brands in the world of media, mainly uses Instagram to build long-term relationships with audiences. The outlet now mainly depends on digital subscriptions, so social media presence is part of the strategy to capture and convert younger audiences.

The London-based publication has about 5.2 million followers on Instagram. That’s less than the corresponding Facebook and Twitter accounts, but Instagram consumers are especially valuable for the media outlet – two-thirds of them are aged between 18 and 34

“It means that more than three million 18-to-34-year-olds have a relationship with The Economist, and they are the next generation”, Young told the NIS audience. “They are the people we want to bring into our world”. 

As a rule of thumb, on Instagram, you have just a few seconds to capture a user’s attention and stop them from scrolling further. 

According to The Economist, their followers open Instagram 35 times per day. It’s an app people tend to engage a lot with while they are doing something else, which means you have to post a lot to make sure followers see “something from you” they could engage with. 

“You really have to stand out if you want to get someone to engage with you… on a platform that’s full of people’s photos, beautiful sunsets, babies, and pizzas”, Young says.

Previously the account contained mostly news pictures, most of which weren’t unique. Now, it tailors contents specifically to the platform and is developing its own visual style.

Over the past year, The Economist changed its approach to Instagram management. Young insists media companies should see Instagram as a “shop window” to present the best of their journalism, tailoring content to the platform – coming up with the new formats, testing them, and collecting readers’ feedback.

Here are the formats tested and developed by The Economist:

  • Photos and pictures

Although Instagram is heavy on photos, words are also important and make the images more interesting. The Economist uses simple language to make posts easy to understand and separate text and headlines for a tidier look. “We can also choose photos to show we have a sense of humor as well. A lot of people had a very tough year and sometimes they just need to be able to laugh,” says Young.

  • Graphics

The Economist uses all the resources from their data journalism and graphics teams to create their Insta charts. Young’s advice for Instagram charts – make them interesting, but do not tell the whole story, so people would still click on that link in the bio you are really trying to promote. 

  • Quotes

The Economist sometimes posts updates in the form of short quotes. Using carousels with quotes (one quote per slide) is also a good way to provide followers with different or the opposite points of view.  

  • Stories

Stories are a good way to increase engagement, particularly with tools like polls and Q&As. The Economist uses weekly rubrics, like “Weekly quiz” (a slide with a question followed by a slide with an answer that points to The Economist story) and “Weekend read” (stories highlighting the most important articles of the week every Sunday).

  • IGTV

Instead of producing many ultra-short clips, The Economist uses IGTV to promote long(ish)-form films and explainers. To get more views, they include a preview to IGTV videos in their Instagram news feed. 

  • Audiograms

Audiograms help present The Economist’s audio content and promote podcasts with the sound off. Followers can see the sound wave bouncing up and down, while subtitles explain what’s going on. 

By Nataliia Kindrativ

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with kind permission. The Fix is a solutions-oriented publication focusing on the European media scene. Subscribe to its bi-monthly newsletter here.