In a bid to engage younger readers, The Economist has been promoting visual storytelling through Instagram, a platform dominated by 18-34 year olds

"We are predominately looking to cultivate a broader audience, and Instagram is a fantastic place to do that," said Ria Jones, digital and social media picture editor, The Economist, speaking at newsrewired on 11 July.

"It is essentially a visual representation of our brand, with graphs, images, and videos, and we use the platform to drive deeper engagement with our audience and have more of a conversation."

Indeed, The Economist has found that the platform not only serves as a place to post its best visual editorial content, but also as a destination to promote initiatives.

By developing a conversation with its audience on the platform, the news organisation has found that Instagram serves as its most engaging outlet, asking audiences to give their opinions on issues and get involved in the conversation. 

Jones explained that they have found posting at the correct time for their audience plays a key factor in this, as audiences are more likely to see your content in their newsfeed if they are active on the app at the time.  

“Think about the timezones your audiences are in – it’s a simple yet key tip for driving engagement,” she said. 

“Also, it is important from the outset to think about what you want to do with each post, and the account as a whole – are you driving traffic or are you wanting to spark a debate? You need to have a goal so that you can look back and see if you’ve achieved it with that particular piece of content.”

She explained that rather than focusing on the amount of likes, it is important to focus on the quality of the engagement. This can be achieved by using Instagram’s in-app analytics to monitor factors like interactions, discovery, and audience demographics.

Although driving conversations is all very well, part of building a community lies in the moderation of posts, Jones explained, as trolling can often surface on controversial posts. 

"We take a gentle touch with our moderating, and decide when to be the adult in the room," she said, explaining that they once had to step in after personal comments about people in a picture on gun control was published, asking them to stay on topic and be respectful of other readers.

"We want to spark intelligent debate and conversation, and don't want trolling – we step in when we need to. It's not just an audience, it's a community."

With striking pictures and videos, the news organisation is developing an engaged community on the platform

Owning up to mistakes is also key in building trust and rapport with your audience, Jones explained, as although the publisher has rigorous checking of all its content, something may slip through, in which case “it is gracious to acknowledge the mistake and thank the person who flagged it up”.

As well as a mix of images and videos on its feed, the news organisation regularly posts Instagram stories, not only pushing out its content, but asking its followers to engage with them and tell them about themselves – something the publisher has only started doing this year.

"We want to find out what they think too – not just us telling them what to think, but to find out their opinion on really divisive issues,” she said.

For example, The Economist has been using its new initiative, Open Future, as a tool for experimentation in this area, trying new ways of interacting with readers through online debates and Facebook discussion groups, and testing new formats like getting commentaries from outside contributors.

However, Jones explained that her team are constantly learning new lessons and finding out what works best with their audience as part of its experiments.

For example, when they tried a new format where journalists spoke directly to camera about different issues and asked people to get involved, it did not go down well.

"It bombed. It was disappointing but was a good lesson," she said, explaining that they went on to do an A/B test, where character-driven stories did much better, with more attention and click-throughs.

"We think that people want to be taken along for the journey, involved in the narrative. It gave us a big indication of what we should do to move forward — to show, not tell.

“And we found that the same content doesn't work everywhere — keep your audience in mind, and ask yourself how they want to consume information on the platform.”

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