Credit: Screenshots from The Economist Instagram

The Economist is stepping up its efforts to bring data-driven stories to life on Instagram.

The publisher has a long-standing history of building a community on the social media platform, currently sitting at 3.4 million followers, and is making full use of the Stories feature for effective visual storytelling and audience engagement.

Yesterday's (5 June 2019) story on beer consumption uses recently introduced multi-poll options on the quiz stickers. The story first appeared in the weekly print edition of The Economist a few weeks ago but has now received a new lease of life through mixing charts and animations.

"We’ve been creating a weekly news quiz for a couple of years and that is often our most successful traffic-driver,” said Ria Jones, Instagram editor, The Economist.

"We decided to incorporate the poll feature into other formats. And when Instagram developed the multi-poll option, that freed us from the constraints of a two-way multiple choice poll. This function is great at increasing engagement whilst gauging our audience’s response to the subject matter.

"The next tool we’d like to try is the Q&A feature. By asking our audience to pose questions to our journalists on a particular subject, we can share some of the world-class analysis we’re known for in a bite-sized format."

It follows on from other recent interactive examples on the motherhood penalty, the race to replace Theresa May, the houseplants hype around millennials and a tricky maths test.

The common thread is how the team are transforming data-heavy reports into visually appealing social content.

"Considering audience behaviour from the start is key as we begin scripting the story. Often a question or statement on the first slide will frame the narrative. We think carefully about which information to front-load to best grab attention and where to place poll stickers to get viewers to engage with the story," Jones added.

"We often see better engagement when we use native tools, though we try to balance those with a templated format which gives consistency and keeps us ‘on brand’ in terms of style."

So what has worked and what still needs tweaking? Former Instagram producer, The Economist, Francesco Zaffarano adds that Stories perform well in terms of completion rate and clickthroughs, but they deliberately do not always redirect to the main website or YouTube channel.

"We want to diversify our production between stories that are self-contained and stories that can lead to a more developed piece of content. We have also seen that quiz and polls stickers drive shares and this is another feature we want to experiment with in the future," he said.

What is the secret to getting started? Zaffarano says that no matter how good your design concept is a script comes first.

"We start with selecting a piece of journalism, which might be a long read, a video or one of our daily charts, and then write the script with the help of the author of the original piece and an eye on which visual (charts, photos) and interactive (Instagram’s native stickers) elements can be used to tell the story.

"The design part starts after this process and it can vary from story to story. I usually create a static version of the Instagram Story on Photoshop and Illustrator, which is then added to the script to build a storyboard that is shared with the data team and design team to check everything we publish is in line with The Economist style.

"The storyboard is also the place where we explain every step of the animation that we are envisioning for the story, like a guiding light for the animators who will bring the Story to life.”

Lucy Rohr, Stories editor, The Economist, added that understanding editorial voice and strong visual storytelling skills are also crucial starting points.

"A story needs to be about content that is visual, so more abstract concepts may not always translate well. Once we’ve come up with a subject, we read extensively and, in some instances, will do extra original reporting in order to create a script," she explained.

"This script is written with visuals in mind. Different departments whose expertise may be required — our data department being the obvious example – will be incorporated into the scripting process. Once we are happy with a script, it will be shared with a designer and animator who will help bring the piece to life."

Rohr also oversees the publisher’s Snapchat presence, capitalising on the Story format by creating native content to reach younger audiences. But Snapchat, unlike Instagram, does not give publishers a way to drive audiences to original content.

"Our weekly Discover editions are intended as a way of putting The Economist’s journalism before a vast, young audience who we’d otherwise find difficult to reach," she added.

"Instagram Stories give us the ability to redirect viewers back to We are taking advantage of this feature by regularly inviting our audience to swipe up and read more about the story they’ve just seen. But we are also interested in creating content that is self-contained and doesn’t point back to the site. There is clearly scope to share some of the Stories we make for Instagram on Facebook and other platforms."

Ria Jones also pointed out that there is room to repurpose content on Instagram for IGTV by working with their Films teams.

"It is a balancing act between creating unique content whilst being mindful of where we focus time and resources. The challenge of format is one experienced by all publishers - for example, would this piece of content work best in landscape, vertical or square? How many hours would it take to repurpose this film for this platform? The only solution is effective cross-team communication to establish what assets we have and editorially where they make the most sense to publish."

This article was updated on 14 October 2020, Francesco Zaffarano now works for Will Media

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