What I’ve learned about publishing news to Instagram

Research.

A struggling engagement with young people has resulted in news organisations experimenting with their use of social media as a way of addressing a widening gap in their audience. In a series of blog posts, I have examined the use of Instagram as a platform for distributing news content. I found some common trends and good practices.

The most important aspect of social media I learned, however, is that finding one set of rules or guidelines for publishing content to Instagram, or any social media platform for that matter, has probably a detrimental impact to the objects of posting to social media.

What I mean by this, is that social media sites are always under development. During the time I’ve been blogging on Instagram, an entirely new feature was released – a feature I believe opens up huge opportunity for news publishers to develop new content ideas.

Quite ironically, as I researched the use of social media for publishing news, most academic articles I found about online journalism, both in books and online, are written before 2005 – before most social media sites were even founded. And few recent publications are also to a degree out of date with the technology; though the principles and point are still valid.

Nancy Shute, when speaking to Ken Doctor in his 2010 book Newsonomics, said: “I wish I’d made myself learn one new digital skill a month, even if it was just a tiny one like cropping in PhotoShop. Since the skills and tools are constantly evolving… it’s too easy to let my awareness of new tools slide, and then feel overwhelmed.”

“It’s too easy to let my awareness of new tools slide, and then feel overwhelmed.”

The social media manager at the University of Surrey, Jade Beckett, said in a blog post: “Social media is always changing. It’s one of the reasons I love it — there are always new features to experiment with or new channels to learn about. But this is part of the problem. It’s hard to keep on top of it all if it isn’t your full-time job.”

So with development being the primary set back, where did I begin?

My research into news on social media began quite broad: I looked at different uses of video across multiple platforms. A couple of the items were Instagram embeds: video news on a social media platform primarily known for its users sharing photos of pets and food. I wanted to explore how this platform can seriously support news content, and so I started my search for the best news content.

I noticed one common trait of an Instagram news video: no presenter, more text. Everything was captioned.

This was new territory for me, in terms of production, as my video production skill set was based around voice-overs and presenter on-screen. I decided to take some footage of Donald Trump, caption it, and upload it to a new Instagram account specifically for news experimentation (read here). The tools I used were the same as ever, only the timeline didn’t include my face. I didn’t need to script a voiceover, and instead wrote to read. I wrote captions for what Donald Trump said, in a style that echoes those from news publishers. I then cut up other clips to extend the video to fulfil the 60s time limit. This asked for some precision slicing to really make the most of every second.

In total, I spent about half an hour producing the 1 minute video. For one single video, it is difficult to judge the worthiness of spending this much time in production. However over time and with regular contributions, producing video in this format will naturally become quicker. The larger collection of videos seen on BBC News also shows the value of continuous posting.

Helen Kennedy, from the University of Sheffield, noted in a guest lecture about data journalism, that  “static data visualisations are quicker the make, quicker to view and quicker to read” than other forms of visualisation that require more production time, but also take longer to digest.

“Static data visualisations are quicker the make, quicker to view and quicker to read.”

The same principle applies to not just data visualisations, but also news content on social media.

Features of Instagram.

And this led me onto the individual features of Instagram. I touched on the traditional static image and video posts indirectly in the earlier blog posts, however I turned some attention onto Stories.

Stories is Instagram’s answer to Snapchat. As Owen Williams points out, “The addictiveness and popularity of Snapchat’s Stories feature continue to this day, but the company finds itself at something of a crossroads: Facebook’s cloned the entire thing, and it’s doing it better than Snapchat ever could, and innovating at a faster clip…Frankly, Instagram has made Snapchat better faster than Snapchat could make Snapchat better.”

“Facebook’s cloned the entire thing, and it’s doing it better than Snapchat ever could.”

Stories for publishers[1] has recently added the functionality of ‘swiping up’ to link straight through to a website of choice. What this means, a news story within Stories can link directly to a news article on the publishers website. This direction of traffic is a huge consideration for any publisher, but Mark Frankel, social media editor at BBC News, said: “we measure success by looking at a range of engagement metrics – from video views and likes to volume of positive comments and the retention rates of audiences through a live story.”

The Stories feature has been used by a number of different outlets, and is being utilised more and more, however just as I started to look into them, Instagram introduced its carousel feature. As I referred to earlier, there is a need to keep up with the features of each social media platform and falling behind can entrap you.

This carousel feature, which at the time was unnamed to me, allowed for a combination of up to 10 pictures and videos to be shared within one post, with one caption. I took a look, on my personal account, at a few possible uses.

Experimentation.

In my first post, I shared three hand-drawn plans for a studio design, followed by a panoramic photograph from a nearby park.

Despite working as a format very successfully, the content within these two posts could have been better choreographed. The first told no story: there was no meaning behind the studio plans to anybody else, they were just technical drawings. This wasn’t appealing to many people, and feedback from friends suggested they didn’t realise there was a new feature and that they could swipe between photos. On the second post, the panoramic photo, the interesting piece of content was in the second frame – meaning people didn’t swipe across because they weren’t interested in what was shown in the first frame. This confirmed to me that with any post, the content in the first frame has to matter just as much as a singular picture or video.

Once I understood this, and the wider concept of the carousel feature, I began to experiment with news content. In one of the later blog posts, I showed examples of different styles of news content, from features to headline posts, to put my theories to the test.

I kept the same text font (Lemon Milk, in block capitals) throughout and set a ‘cover’ photo for the carousel. The cover photo used text to summarise the story as briefly as possible, and featured a call-to-action to swipe across to access more information.

One other benefit of using the cover photo was that during my research into how other news organisations publish video to Instagram, without text, the context of the post is lost. As I wrote before, “examples where there is no title page in this format makes it difficult to understand what is going on straight away. Examples from NBC and ABC News, viewers rely on the caption to provide information. In NBC’s case, this made for awkward viewing. Their series opens with a video without context, and so by scrolling down to read the caption you miss some of what is being said in the video.”

Using a still image as the cover photo allows the user to be ready for whatever content that follows, without compromising on any context. One thing that isn’t measurable in analytics (for business users) is the impressions per frame, as you find with Stories, where you could see how many people are swiping through each photos or instead not completing the carousel.

The account I used for this trial wasn’t set up for analytics, and so I am unable to comment on the performance of the posts, however on my personal account just one post is eligible for analytics (analytics weren’t counted for posts in the first few days of the feature being introduction) and the metrics count for the whole post entirely.

It is also worth noting that sharing these posts to Facebook or Twitter only show the first frame too, so having an engaging ‘cover photo’ is even more important. When embedding on the internet, like this blog for example, buttons appear over the preview to allow for moving backwards and forwards through the carousel.

Industry expert.

The final step into my research was to speak to an industry expert. I contacted Mark Frankel, and asked him a couple of questions by email about how BBC News use Instagram. His answers were insightful, and touched on the younger audiences BBC News are trying to reach through social media.

He said: “Instagram skews heavily towards a younger demographic – and audience we often find harder to reach and to interest with BBC News. As a broadcaster we have lots of fantastic visually engaging content that we know will appeal if presented in an appealing way on Instagram. It’s a great opportunity to build brand awareness for BBC News in this space.”

I think it would have been more appropriate to have made use of the platform to present the interview, and used a camera to video his answers. Or better still, interview more than one person about the subject and create a carousel of different experts speaking. And this particular idea gave way to the possibility of using the carousel more like Stories, or Snapchat, where journalists appear in PTC’s in individual frames.

Community engagement.

One of the challenges I faced with my research was engaging with a community of practitioners. There are several groups for photographers on Instagram, bloggers, foodies, but nothing set up for journalists. Instead, I turned to Reddit, and asked the question on r/Journalism “how do we feel about having news on Instagram?”. The response was minimal, as I have not been an account holder on the site for long, my posts were not picked up in the same way as somebody more established.

The first response was: “Good question! I don’t really like it too much. I try to post beautiful photos of feature-y things, since we can’t really link stuff on there.”

The second response was: “I’m against it because instagram doesn’t keep it’s feed in chronological order.”

Both of these were critical of news on Instagram, but without further discussion I don’t know whether any changes are likely to swing their opinion. Taking assumptions, however, it seems to me that the first response is more about linking back to news articles online, as Mark Frankel describes with the BBC’s use of Stories. Meanwhile the second comment takes aim at the order in which Instagram posts appear on a timeline. Rather than being in a chronological order (as it once was), the app uses an algorithm to determine what post you are more likely to like and will subsequently place it higher up. The consequence of this is that any news published as a post would not necessarily be read in a timely fashion – which is one important factor in determining newsworthiness.

Proposal for further exploration.

And taking an idea from an idea, this leads into the second part of this experiment: producing a portfolio of news pieces on Instagram. I will further explore this platform for news content, by using the more traditional formula of producing television packages and instead using them as the basis for carousel posts. Combine this, with regular static and video posts, and the use of Instagram Stories, and my project portfolio will consist of a wider exploration of this specific subject.

References.


1. Only available to a few select accounts at the moment.

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