March 10, 2015

A selection of photos from Poynter’s Instagram feed (@poynter_institute)

What’s the point of Instagram if it doesn’t drive traffic?

This is one of the most common questions I hear from journalists tasked with growing their newsroom’s social media presence. It’s also a question I recently faced as I made the case for Poynter’s newly launched Instagram account.

It’s a fair point: when you’re strapped for resources, how do you determine whether a social network like Instagram is worth your time? And, if you do decide to create an account, how do you prove that it’s successful?

Just this week, The New York Times announced the launch of the paper’s primary account on Instagram, @NYTimes. The feed, as described in a Times’ press release, is designed to reach new audiences and boost brand awareness. It says nothing about driving traffic to the site.

When it comes to audience engagement, in which social media plays a key role, it’s difficult to determine where to focus your efforts. There are no pre-written rules to follow, which can be equal parts exciting and daunting.

With a creative, community-driven platform like Instagram, I believe the best route is to jump in, get to know the community, and start testing out new ideas. From there, you can identify which experiments are working and which ones to scrap, and ultimately determine how to measure your account’s growth and value.

Here are a few smart ways that newsrooms, big and small, are doing just that:

  1. To facilitate crowdsourced projects. The Chicago Tribune is using its Instagram account to showcase work from people throughout the city. With weekly creative themes like “Windows” or “Chicago After Dark“, the 168-year-old paper is connecting with its audience in a fresh way.
  2. To tease long-form reporting. Although most of his reporting occurs weeks before publication, CNN’s John Sutter uses his personal Instagram account to document the places he visits and people he meets along the way. Sutter, who reports on social justice issues, later incorporates those photos into his long-form stories, like his 417-mile trek down America’s “most endangered” river. (Full disclosure: Sutter is a former colleague of mine and a pretty great guy.)
  3. To showcase stunning photography. This one’s a bit of a no-brainer, but it’s a surefire win. Instagram is an ideal platform for showing off beautiful photos and reaching new audiences with a passion for photography. There are plenty of examples of news organizations doing this well, including Time Magazine, National Geographic, and MSNBC.
  4. To present news in a new format. Instagram is a natural fit for NowThis, a video news network targeted towards people who consume news via mobile devices and social networks. NowThis’ feed is full of short videos with attention-grabbing text, including one surprisingly intelligent take on #thedress.
  5. To create a sandbox for experimentation. The Instagram feed for Arkansas’ Fayetteville Flyer, an online-only publication, hosts a mix of beautiful photos, questions directed to the audience, and — yes — sponsored content. Best of all, though, is the recent photo that helped identify the driver of a Jurassic Park truck. I’m especially looking forward to that story.

At this point, Poynter’s Instagram account is tiny. As it grows over time, we hope to introduce some crowdsourced projects and in-person meet-ups, which we’ll document and share along the way. And if those efforts don’t work? That’s okay too. We’ll experiment with and learn from another platform.

If you’re also figuring out how Instagram fits into your social media strategy, let us know! We’d love to hear from you.

Follow us @poynter_institute, and share your ideas and feedback on what you’d like to see from the account in the comments below.

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Katie Hawkins-Gaar was Poynter's digital innovation faculty member. She ran the Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media and was one half of the duo…
Katie Hawkins-Gaar

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