What’s On

Show, not tell your story on Instagram

Just look around you. Commuters making their morning journey to work on the trains, the ‘uncles’ and ‘aunties’ hanging out in kopitiams (Singapore’s colloquial slang for local coffee houses), or even that annoying glare you see in the corner of your eyes when inside a theatre, Facebook is everywhere.

There’s few who would dispute that Facebook is the greatest monolith of social media channels to date, but even fewer recognise that Facebook has evolved into an increasingly passive platform. And by passive, I really mean, that people today are simply scrolling past your post.

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that folks out there don’t want to listen to stories – they want to see them.

And that’s where Instagram masterfully excels in – showing mini-stories in the form of pictures (and sometimes short videos). A recent study by Locowise reveals that organic engagement per post on Instagram is at 2.61 per cent, which admittedly, might not seem like much, but is five times that of Facebook’s, which is at a meagre 0.55 per cent. Engagement rates are at 4.21 per cent per follower, which is a staggering 58 times higher than Facebook.

In less than five years, the undisputed king of ‘snap and share’ has crushed the 300 million users milestone to smithereens. This was largely attributed to Instagram being conceived as the anti-thesis of Facebook – staying focussed on visual storytelling and keeping users within the platform, instead of redirecting them to ‘viral’ posts on external sites.

In fact, in the example below, Red Bull pushed out a Facebook post and the exact same Instagram post. A few days later, out of the 43 million Facebook fans, only just 2,600 (a 0.006 per cent likes-per-fan rate) liked the photos, while its 1.2 million Instagram followers had liked the video more than 36,000 times (a three per cent likes-per-follower rate).

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Recognising this paradigm shift in user mentality, brands now chase after higher ‘likes’ and visibility on Instagram, which has become a coveted commodity among users mastering the platform as a means to build a following.

One brand that has found enormous success with Instagram is the National Geographic Channel (@NatGeo). In about three short years, they have become the most-followed non-celebrity account on the platform, with just over 29 million followers. They’ve become so successful on the platform that each picture they push out will garner an average of more than 50,000 ‘likes’ within the first 10 minutes.

This success is no fluke though – it was born of a strategy that was intricately formulated to capture the best moments of the brand. Sensing much to learn from the media stalwart, I decided to analyse their Instagram strategy and find out what makes it tick.

1. (Little to) No call to action
People are ostensibly inundated with content everywhere they turn, flick or tap – often in the form of ads or a call to action. National Geographic opted to deviate from that – instead of having marketers or community managers or even an editor dictate the content, the keys to the account are shared between their official photographers. All 110 of them.

They recognise very early on that Instagram’s potential goes way beyond selling magazines. Their followers were there for one thing, and one thing only – to see amazing photos. Which is why the pictures posted needed to…

2) Delight the community
Ensuring that each piece of content they push out, matches the core belief that they have held for decades – capturing the very best places and images from Mother Nature that the world has yet to, and needs to see. Just look at it.

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3) Show a story with picture and captions
Now that the pictures have successfully captured the users’ attention, @NatGeo uses the captions to explain the story (and in true National Geographic fashion, educate the user) or simply ignite conversations.

A report from Social Bakers, a social media analytics company, reveals that only 38 per cent of @NatGeo’s posts have less than 300 characters. And surprisingly, almost a third of its posts had more than 500 characters – which is a rarity on the platform.

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4) Diversify and cross promote
Besides their main @NatGeo handle, they also have accounts that cater to specific interests like travel (@NatGeoTravel), adventures (@NatGeoAdventure) or even wildlife (@NatGeoWild), all of which again, are driven by their photographers.

What is lesser known is that the @NatGeo photographers also contribute to another Instagram handle called The Photo Society, which often promotes the other handle, and vice versa. This cross-pollination is achieved in a very subtle way – tagging (in the example above) and helps to generate quality content daily, increase user engagement, and mutually expand their audience.

5) Controlled use of hashtags
Unlike Twitter, with its 140 character limit per post, Instagram has no such limit. And that means users can add as many hashtags as they want. After all, the more you hashtag, the higher the chance of discovery, right?

Instead of adding hashtags uncontrollably to get attention, @NatGeo practices restraint. A good number of posts on @NatGeo have between five to seven hashtags at most, and they often get the highest level of engagement and ‘likes’.

And the hashtags don’t necessarily need to be extremely unique or creative. The example below shows exceptional use of simple location hashtags (#Cuba) to set the scene and when used in conjunction with the text in the caption, informs the user about the historic opening of a U.S. embassy in the country.

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The lesson here is that while hashtags are a very powerful tool, when wielded with a heavy hand, it can severely detract from the user experience. But when used masterfully and sparingly, the results can be awe-inspiring.

Engagement is incredibly underrated in social media and it is something that should be valued more than just pure reach. After all, there’s no better way to tell your story than to show it to your audience. And in the examples listed above, @NatGeo clearly embraces Instagram and their strengths to great success.

Perhaps John Stanmeyer, a photographer at National Geographic, said it best when he said this in an interview about social media, “It only becomes social when you interact with the people who are writing to you.”

Samson Lam

Bringing years of content production experience to the PR industry, Samson Lam leads the digital direction for The Hoffman Agency as the Digital Strategist, developing and carrying out numerous creative publicity endeavours and award-winning campaigns with traditional media outlets, and on social media platforms.