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November 25, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 9:47am

Instagram for publishers: A billion users, young audience and growing revenue options – why it is a must for news outlets

By William Turvill

Instagram is a tough nut to crack for publishers.

For news brands in particular, it’s difficult to build a large following on Instagram, it’s hard to make money from it, and it’s even a challenge to generate website traffic from the platform.

Nevertheless, as a social media site with three times as many active users as Twitter (one billion a month versus 330m) – and the future promise of significant financial incentives – publishers see Instagram as a nut worth cracking.

Today, in the latest edition of Press Gazette’s Platform Profile series, we examine the pros and cons of Instagram for publishers.

[To receive access to Platform Profiles, and other exclusive content, sign up to our new Media Monitor newsletter.]

How it works: Lessons from the LA Times

Launched in 2010, Instagram is a social media youngster when compared with Facebook (2004), YouTube (2005) and Twitter (2006). Its relationship with publishers is also relatively nascent.

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The Los Angeles Times joined the platform in 2014, by which time most publishers had firmly established presences on Twitter and Facebook.

Today, the LA Times has six different accounts. Its three original pages (@latimes, @latimesphotos and @latimesfood) have hundreds of thousands of followers, while its newer three (@latimesarchives, @coronavirustoday_latimes and @latimesplants – have tens of thousands each.

How do you build up such a large following?

“We believe that because we have chosen to focus on consistency, and we’ve been intentional about the audience we’re trying to reach, we’ve been able to develop a large, engaged following,” Samantha Melbourneweaver, the title’s director of audience engagement, tells Press Gazette.

“Over the years, we’ve experimented with different types of posts, caption styles and strategies, adapting with platform changes and audience needs.

“I think the key to our growth has been posting consistently – multiple times per day, every day – and deciding on a style and focus that everyone who posts to the account can abide by.”

She says that nearly a dozen LA Times employees currently post to the main account every week, “so it’s been vital that we establish a framework for what types of stories we share and how so that every post, regardless of who shares it, is unmistakably ‘LA Times’ in its look and feel”.

Asked about the benefits of having a large Instagram following, Melbourneweaver says: “We don’t think much about the size of our following and try to focus more on the quality of our interactions.

“We think of Instagram as a news source for a certain type of social media user and we aim to be a reliable part of their news diet. We’d like for a casual reader to be able to have a basic understanding of the most important things going on in LA and California just from our posts, so we don’t worry too much about click-through or share metrics.

“We don’t think an Instagram user is logging on with the intention of reading full news articles. If they end up clicking through to an article, we welcome them – and try to make it as seamless an experience as possible – but we care more that they come to recognise us as an outlet that consistently provides them with useful news and information, and helps them navigate life in LA and California.”

Why Twitter is easier than Instagram for news outlets

Unlike Twitter and Facebook, Instagram has so far not established itself as a go-to destination for news. And this is reflected in the size of followings built up by news providers on the platform.

The main LA Times Instagram account, for example, has 650,000 followers. This compares with 3.7m followers on its main Twitter page and 2.9m likes on its Facebook profile.

As the graph below shows, this is a common issue for other large news brands such as CNN, BBC News and the New York Times.

In contrast, as the graph shows, feature-led publications like Time do better on Instagram than their straight news peers. And titles such as National Geographic and Vogue, which both have large libraries of compelling photographs, are even better placed to succeed on the platform.

Show me the money

For publishers, Instagram is undoubtedly a useful channel for building relationships with readers who might not otherwise interact with their brands.

The hope for many publishers is that these young Instagrammers will at some stage begin reading their content on other platforms or even taking out subscriptions with their publications.

For many, though, the long-term promise of future revenues is not enough.

Axios recently reported that Instagram is considering plans to start paying publishers for content.

There are a few options currently on the table. Instagram offers tools to publishers, and other ‘creators’, to help them run branded content, or native adverts, on the platform.

But one of the major limitations for publishers on Instagram is that the platform makes it difficult for users to link directly through individual pieces of content.

So, for example, while users on Twitter and Facebook are regularly encouraged to read more about a post by clicking through to a publisher’s website, the process is far more complicated on Instagram.

Typically, beneath an Instagram post, a publisher will tell users they can read more about the specified topic by clicking a link on their page biography. This link leads through to a website page where all recent articles relating to Instagram posts are collated.

This does not make for a straightforward user experience, and so Instagram is generally seen as a poor driver for website traffic.

For news companies, many of whom have endured a torrid 2020 at the hands of the Covid-19 crisis, further monetisation options on Instagram cannot come soon enough.

[Read more: Upday: Samsung’s curated news app drives traffic (but does not share revenue)]

What can they expect?

One of the biggest money-making prospects for publishers is a new advertising system Instagram is developing for its video channel, IGTV. Axios reports that the company is considering a plan to create a revenue-share programme with publishers, but that this is proving slower than previously anticipated.

In the meantime, it is experimenting with paying publishers to make content for IGTV. For example, Buzzfeed recently launched an exclusive eight-part series on IGTV, which is part-funded by Instagram.

The verdict

As with other social media websites that have featured in our Platform Profile series, the usefulness of Instagram will vary from publisher to publisher.

Consumer magazine brands with access to a large library of stunning photography – like National Geographic and Vogue – stand to do better out of Instagram than news-focused outlets.

The common challenge for all publishers is translating Instagram influence into direct revenues.

But with a billion (mainly young) users and growing monetisation prospects, Instagram is a must-use platform for any large publisher.

Photo credit: AngieYeoh /

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