Instagram Takes Long View on Longform Video After Slow Start For IGTV

Instagram Takes the Long View on Longform- Illustration by Travis Millard  - H 2019
Illustration by Travis Millard

Unlike the wildly popular Insta Stories, the social media juggernaut’s new extended video service has struggled to capture the zeitgeist ("digital talent don’t talk about it at all"), but a new generation of creators could change the picture.

Over the summer, Instagram invited tech press to San Francisco to unveil a product it had been developing furtively for the better part of the year. The last time the Facebook-owned app had released a major update was the August 2016 debut of Stories. The addictive feed featuring Snapchat-like short video missives and unpolished photos caught on overnight and racked up 100 million daily active users in just two months.

This time, the company would be showing off IGTV — its longform, vertical video platform — and the June 20 event had all the hallmarks of another massive launch. A dance number featuring some of the biggest creators on Instagram, including Manny Mua (4.6 million followers) and LaurDIY (4.9 million), was followed by a speech in which co-founder and then-CEO Kevin Systrom proclaimed, "It's time for video to move forward and evolve."

For Instagram, IGTV represents a significant opportunity to capture a larger piece of the nearly $16 billion that eMarketer predicts will be spent on mobile video advertising this year. And it's hardly surprising that the company, which launched as a photo-sharing app in 2010 and now offers multimedia product Stories and a tool for broadcasting live video, would add a longform video product, too. Since 15-second clips were first introduced in the Instagram feed in 2013, video consumption has grown steadily, with users watching 60 percent more video at the end of 2018 than they were at the beginning of the year.

If Instagram wants IGTV to catch on with its 1 billion users, it needs the buy-in of creators. And so far, despite that star-studded launch, the influencers with millions of followers who flocked to Instagram's other features have largely been watching IGTV from the sidelines. Of the top 10 most-followed people on Instagram — a group that includes Ariana Grande, Kim Kardashian and Taylor Swift — only half have posted videos to IGTV. Kylie Jenner has been the most prolific with five videos since July. While Instagram has yet to release data around the early performance of IGTV, THR spoke with half a dozen executives and representatives in the creator community who paint a picture of a product that hasn't exactly captured the zeitgeist. "Digital talent don't talk about it at all," says one, while another acknowledges that clients took meetings early on, but "I haven't really thought about it since."

It's a rare hiccup for Instagram, which since October has been headed by Facebook veteran Adam Mosseri. For the past several years, it has charted a meteoric rise in both total users (up 900 percent over the past five years) and overall cachet. Hollywood, especially, has been enamored with the app, with agencies rushing to sign top influencers and Netflix pointing to follower growth as proof that it can mint the next generation of stars. With IGTV, Instagram will have to work harder to get talent to buy in.

"It's hard to appreciate how big of a bet this is, and how much of a brand-new ecosystem that we're trying to establish," says Ashley Yuki, head of interests product at Instagram.

In the seven months since IGTV launched, Yuki's team has been making updates to address some of the earliest concerns about the product, including making it easier for users to find and watch these videos — which at launch were relegated to a small television icon on the upper right of the feed or to an entirely separate app that, per third-party measurement from App Annie, has not been widely downloaded. In October, Instagram began suggesting "IGTV Videos for You" in the highly trafficked Explore tab, which has more than 200 million visitors each day. As of Feb. 7, creators can preview their IGTV posts in their regular feed of photos and videos.

Next up will be luring creators. Multiple sources tell THR that Instagram, as a way of encouraging experimentation on the platform, will pay creators a small sum to subsidize the cost of producing videos on IGTV. It is unclear which talent has struck such deals. Yuki acknowledges that Instagram will cover minor production costs and help jump-start creators in a "lightweight way" but says that, at least for now, the company isn't planning to fund original programming the way Facebook has with sister video product Watch.

One hurdle, especially for talent who have already built big businesses on YouTube, is IGTV's vertical video format. A longer, thinner orientation than what is found on most other video platforms. Vertical video makes extra work for a creator, who must either shoot a new video or reformat an existing horizontal one before uploading it to IGTV. Meanwhile, for most creators, YouTube still offers the potential of a bigger audience.

Ultimately, the biggest draw for talent will be the promise that they can make real money on IGTV, likely through a YouTube-style split on revenue that Instagram makes via advertisements. "Monetization is something that's been top of mind for us since day one," says Yuki, but she notes that it won't happen until IGTV has built up the audience. "At that point it probably makes sense to start introducing monetization layers."

Some creators have decided to experiment with IGTV even as they wait for the kinks to be ironed out. Lele Pons, the comedian and singer who got her start on Vine and has 33 million Instagram followers, started a cooking show on IGTV, episodes of which regularly rack up more than 1 million views. In October, the musician John Mayer began hosting a show called Current Mood that has featured guests David Spade and Bob Saget. Fine Brothers Entertainment, meanwhile, has begun to adapt its popular React YouTube series for Instagram with a focus on talent that will appeal to the young viewers who are especially active on the platform.

"We knew it was going to be a work in progress," says John Shahidi, who produces content for Pons through his Shots Studios. He says he's seen a noticeable uptick in video views for Pons' posts since Instagram improved discoverability. Her latest, a vertical music video for single "Celoso" that she previewed in her feed, is on track to become her most viewed IGTV to date with more than 5 million views. "From a business standpoint, it gives us more confidence to create more for the platform knowing that Instagram is committed to making it better," notes Shahidi.

While signing up established talent will be vital to the long-term performance of IGTV, it's a different set of lesser-known emerging creators who are giving Instagram executives the most hope for the product. Present at that same June event where creators with millions of followers were promoting IGTV was a lesser-known talent — recent UCLA graduate Susie Shu, who under the name Susie Meoww had amassed several hundred thousand views for videos she posted of herself dancing to K-pop hits. Shu had caught the attention of Justin Antony, who heads up emerging talent partnerships at Instagram, and he had invited her to participate in the opening dance. "The first time I saw his email, I thought it was spam," she says. "I couldn't believe that they found me."

Since IGTV's launch, Shu has started posting weekly videos on the platform that regularly get more than a million views. In that time, her follower count has more than doubled to 346,000. Shu also has a YouTube channel, but with just 95,000 subscribers it's not as vital a platform for her as Instagram. IGTV, she says, "has helped me grow."

Antony believes it will be creators like Shu who ultimately define what IGTV becomes: "The most exciting thing is the people that we don't even know right now who are going to really have success on the platform."

This story first appeared in the Feb. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.