Media Fortune Fame & Folly

Why Instagram matters

Instagram may no longer be the fastest growing social media platform for magazine-media, but arguably it’s still the most important. The tiny startup stunned the tech-media worlds back in 2012, when its twentysomething founder, Kevin Systrom, sold the two-year-old, 13-person photo-sharing mobile app to Facebook for the then-unheard-of-price of $1bn. It still holds sway today as arguably the single most important social media platform for visual media. 

Scroll forward to the end of 2020 and Instagram’s value was estimated at US$100bn – delivering a 100 times return for Facebook and Zuckerberg. 

In the past decade, Instagram has given a masterclass – not just to social media platforms but to all digital platforms, and, indeed, why stop at digital? –  in how to pivot, constantly adapting to outclass the many upstarts that have parked their tanks on its lawn; launching Stories in 2018 when Snap threatened and, more recently, Reels to take on TikTok. And, while Instagram also competes with Twitter (2020 annual revenue $3.7bn), LinkedIn ($8.1bn) and Pinterest ($1.7bn), it vastly outstrips them, with revenue projected to exceed $18bn in 2021, up $5bn on 2020 and almost double its 2019 revenue of $9.5bn. Only its adopted parent, Facebook, is more profitable.

Even the explosion of TikTok which dominates the Gen-Z audience (in March 2021, teenagers accounted for 25% of its user base), has only wobbled the social media giant. Still comparatively embryonic, TikTok barely contributes to its Chinese parent company ByteDance’s profits, with revenue in the region of $540m (Reuters). And although, by the end of 2020, TikTok boasted 689m monthly users, it still lags behind Instagram’s 1bn+. There’s no doubt, though, that TikTok is catching up fast.

But whatever is thrown at it, Instagram still seems to be Teflon. By the end of 2020, users were spending nearly as much time on Instagram as they were on Facebook – according to a recent report that’s about 53 minutes a day for Android users, and 63% of Americans say they check Instagram daily. Couple this data with Australian research conducted, which found the average Instagram user spends at least seven hours a week on the platform, and you’ve got some serious engagement. Still.

So do media companies need to be on Instagram? That’s a no-brainer. It’s where your audience is – often at the expense of browsing your own sites or reading magazines. With just under 1.1bn users worldwide – 62% of whom are 18-34 – throw in 35-44 year olds and you’re topping 80%. And that audience is predominantly female.

If you wanted to find 18-44 year old women as recently as a decade ago, magazines would have been your destination. That seems like the Dark Ages now. Add to that the fact that Instagram is visual-first and it could scarcely be more vital for magazine publishers.

The most visual magazine brands have excelled at using Instagram (if you judge success in terms of mere follower numbers – and even in 2021, when we are well aware of the power of engagement, we largely do). National Geographic Travel leads with 43m followed by US vogue with 32m. If you were to combine Vogue’s global editions, its followers would exceed 100m.

It’s just as critical for news brands: The New York Times is substantially in the lead with 13m, followed by New Yorker and Vanity Fair on 6m and the Economist on 5.5m. And even B2B – which until recently eschewed Instagram in favour of LinkedIn – is getting in on the act. According to the Content Marketing Institute, 46% of B2B content marketers used organic Instagram in the last year. Still substantially behind Linkedin (95%) but worth keeping an eye on. 

To put it bluntly, to not participate in Instagram is to not participate in 21st century culture. Its power in creating brand awareness, building engagement and driving word of mouth are unquestionable. (Not to forget that most of your commercial partners now absolutely expect it as part of any creative solutions deal.) But what about actually turning it into a revenue stream, a real business opportunity?

In a media world where e-commerce is playing an increasingly important role in the P&L of most magazines, Instagram is a key element of the e-commerce lexicon. Last year, approximately 130m Instagram users tapped on a commercial link for more details on a product. Something even the most niche of brands can utilise, as you only need 10k followers to link from stories – to sell products, tickets or to drive traffic back to your main site. Of course, Instagram is first and foremost a storytelling and community channel. So, while it would be remiss not to maximise your affiliate relationships, its key power is in discovery. (According to Investopedia, 70% of “shopping enthusiasts” say they turn to Instagram for “product discovery”.) Also – and this is no small thing – directing customers from Instagram to your own (or a partner’s) site means you (not Instagram) own their data. 

But, ultimately, Instagram is about content, community and monetising that. Instagram created the influencer economy, so if you’re looking for someone to blame for the way individuals have usurped the role of magazine brands in consumers’ lives, look no further! Yes, US Vogue’s 32m followers is impressive, but one Michelle Obama has 46m…

Instagram has always understood that its most valuable relationship is with the creators who bring eyeballs and brand deals to its platform. (From the start, Instagram has had a policy of not paying creators. But unlike, say, Apple, it has also allowed them to keep 100% of anything they earn.) But, as other platforms (Spotify, Facebook, Apple, Substack et al ) start to facilitate subscriptions and monetise the relationship between the creator and the fan, Instagram has had to look for ways to incentivise creators to stay.

Like its competitors, Instagram is now exploring subscriptions that will allow users to collect payment direct from their followers, in conjunction with Stripe.

And this is the point. Legacy media companies need to sit up and pay attention, assuming you haven’t already: of all the digital platforms, Instagram is the one with the greatest potential to cut you out of the conversation altogether. As the peer-to-peer economy grows, it sidelines the gatekeepers more than ever. If Instagram can find a way to monetise “kinship” – allowing its users to pay each other (while taking a small cut itself, of course), it is opening up a whole new avenue to circumvent brands, gatekeepers – and legacy media.

Do you want to risk it?