Instagram's Video Push Draws Digital Creators

Instagram Creators Lounge at VidCon - Publicity - H 2017
Trevor Muhler/Courtesy of Instagram

The Facebook-owned app says that time spent watching video on the platform is up more than 80 percent since last year.

The Anaheim Convention Center was teeming with teens in crop tops and skinny jeans on the afternoon of June 22, their conversations occasionally interrupted by sudden screams that meant one of the online stars they had traveled to see was nearby.

But two floors up inside the Instagram lounge, there was a very different scene. Concealed from the hubbub, digital creators sat munching on snacks or posing in front of the many picture-perfect sets designed specifically for the event. Tia Mowry of Sister, Sister fame toured the space, later posting a photo of herself inside a mirrored set piece. Lele Pons and Liza Koshy also both stopped by to pose in an installation of brightly colored ribbons. The resulting picture, sent to Pons’ nearly 18 million Instagram followers, quickly racked up 1.2 million likes.

Three years ago, Instagram was the newcomer at VidCon, which was established largely for the stars who have emerged on YouTube. Now, the Facebook-owned app’s Creator's Lounge attracts many of the event's biggest stars, and its CEO, Kevin Systrom, was selected for one of VidCon's keynote-speaker slots. It's the result of more than a year's worth of effort from Systrom and his team to position Instagram as a go-to platform for video by catering to the stars who fill the app with clips and Boomerangs and live broadcasts.

Founded in 2010 as an app for sharing photos, Instagram has evolved into a one-stop shop for all things visual. Over the last year, the company has introduced more new features than in all its previous years combined: expanding video lengths to 60 seconds, introducing stories for more ephemeral dispatches, launching live broadcasts as a new way to communicate with followers and more.

The response has been significant. According to the company, the number of videos produced each day on the app has grown by four times in the last year, and time spent watching video on the platform is up more than 80 percent year-over-year.

While most of Instagram’s 700 million global users are everyday people sharing photos and videos with their families and friends, stars like Pons and comedian Andrew Bachelor are largely driving that growth. “That video consumption, they’re creating it,” says Justin Antony, who, after more than 15 years as a talent and social media executive at Nickelodeon, jointed Instagram last spring as its first head of emerging talent partnerships.

Much of Instagram’s popularity with the YouTubers, Viners, Snapchatters and Musers who make up the digital influencer community can be traced to the introduction of 60-second videos last spring, a feature launched with help from Selena Gomez and Kevin Hart. Today, Systrom considers video just as important to Instagram as static images, telling VidCon attendees that “every time someone refers to us as a photo-sharing startup, someone gets in trouble in the office because we’re so much more than that — there’s video, and then we’ve added stories and live.”

Before Instagram's recent changes, the app was considered one tool in a larger toolbox for online stars looking to engage with their fans. Now, one of its selling points is that it combines many features — the ability to post photos, videos, curated stories and live broadcasts — into one app. Stories, for example, were limited exclusively to Snapchat, until Instagram began offering a similar feature — a move that has drawn some criticism.

“It is quickly becoming my favorite app,” says Pons, who makes sure to post to Instagram at least four times a day. She has been using Instagram for a number of years, but recently made it more of a focus after the shuttering of Twitter’s Vine, where she was especially popular for her six-second comedic clips. The longer comedy videos she now posts on Instagram have helped her grow her audience by more than 5 million in the last six months.

Pons also has 4.7 million subscribers on YouTube and 1.2 million followers on Twitter, but she says she likes to use Instagram because “it has everything.” And her audience on the platform today is much larger than it ever was on Vine.

Other creators experiencing similar growth include lifestyle influencer Bretman Rock, who has seen his fan base on Instagram jump by 1 million over the last six months, and Bachelor, who rose to fame on Vine as King Bach but has gained nearly 5 million followers on Instagram since last August, when he increased the number of long- and short-form videos he posts.

“Instagram as a platform continues to grow, and as a result, it becomes increasingly important for our clients to use for their broader social media activities,” notes UTA partner and head of digital media Brent Weinstein. “Many of the enhancements have made it an exciting and critical place to engage with fans.”

In nearly all cases, influencers are also still using YouTube, Twitter and Snapchat and other social media platforms, but Weinstein notes that Instagram has become a primary platform for many of them — and one where his agency has even started to scout up-and-coming talent. “We’re really looking to Instagram as a discovery platform in a way that in earlier years we weren’t,” he explains, noting that UTA recently signed up-and-comers Chachi Gonzales and Jessie Paege in part because of their large Instagram followings.

But while Instagram usage among creators is on the rise, few count on the app as their main source of income. The app doesn't share revenue with creators, even as other platforms, led by YouTube's decade-old partner program, have started to lure talent with the promise of upfront funding or a piece of ad revenue. Instead, influencers on Instagram make money through branded-content partnerships and paid sponsorships. These deals are often quite lucrative, but aren't exclusive to Instagram, which has been working to make its platform more friendly to sponsorships by recently introducing a new tool that makes it more transparent when creators are sharing branded posts.

Antony notes that helping creators make money is important to Instagram, adding that a person's large following can result in ventures outside the app, too. "It’s amazing to see the expression of their creativity turn into a business opportunity because of the audiences that they connect with," he says.

For now, creators seem content with the opportunities on Instagram, and its lack of revenue-sharing opportunities haven't become a point of contention the way it did with Vine. And for creators like Pons, it's likes and comments that are the biggest measure of Instagram success. “I never skip a day,” she says. “Engagement is the most important thing about Instagram, and you can lose it if you miss a day.”