Publishers are treating Instagram Stories like episodic TV


If Instagram ever adds its version of Facebook Watch, Bustle will be prepared. The publisher is among the media companies independently producing episodic series for their own Instagram Stories and selling brands on sponsoring these shows in the same way TV networks pitch their programs.

Bustle posted its first Instagram Story show within a week of the Facebook-owned app’s replication of Snapchat’s Story format in August 2016. Since then, Bustle has produced 11 episodic series, and its sibling sites, like Romper and Elite Daily, have produced nine. Airing those 20 shows all at once would clog the publications’ Stories feeds, so Bustle splits them up into seasons, the way TV networks do. Now, Bustle is applying the strategy to how it pitches its shows to brands.

Bustle is creating an editorial calendar just for Instagram Stories that it will go to market with, in the same way the networks and YouTube do, said Bustle CRO Jason Wagenheim. The company has already made “several million dollars in revenue” by selling sponsorships against its Stories, he said.

Ulta has sponsored one of Bustle’s Instagram Story shows, “Beauty Call.” The cosmetics retailer was interested in the show because it features Bustle editors testing beauty products. But also aiding the investment decision was the fact that as Bustle’s first Instagram Story show, “Beauty Call” has an established audience. The weekly series accumulated more than 20 million views in 2017, according to Sarah Stroller, vp and associate media director at Ulta’s media agency Mediahub.

Ulta’s three-episode sponsorship of “Beauty Call” garnered more than 1.5 million views, the retailer’s svp of brand marketing Shelley Haus said in an emailed statement. “We are definitely looking for more ways to engage with Instagram series in the future,” she said.

That these episodic series encourage appointment viewing can make them safer bets for brands versus one-off branded Stories. “With a series like ‘Beauty Call,’ it’s a show that our users are already frequenting, so it eliminates that need to have any promotional traffic drivers. The traffic’s really built in,” said Stroller.

The Infatuation, a publisher of restaurant reviews, is similarly looking to establish an audience for its new slate of Instagram Story shows. Its first episodic series, “Restaurant Review Ride-Alongs,” debuted in August 2016 as a way to chronicle its editors’ critiques and market itself as more than an account for food porn. Starting last month, The Infatuation has premiered shows including “Cheat Codes,” “Eighty Ate Dates” and “Top 10 Fridays,” and it plans to start pitching these programs to sponsors. But before it can pique a brand’s interest, The Infatuation will need to prove it has viewers’ interest. To that end, it has begun publishing programming schedules on Sundays outlining the shows that will air the following week.

Such appointment viewing is a tough ask of audiences accustomed to on-demand viewing, though.

“That’s not really how users work on Instagram. They’re not going to be like, ‘Oh, it’s Monday. I’m going to travel to Curbed’s Instagram page and see what’s over there,’” said Margaret Lin, Curbed’s social media manager.

Nonetheless, Curbed produces a weekly episodic series called “House Calls” that is published to Instagram Stories every Monday. The series does a better job of keeping viewers through the last clip than its average Instagram Story, according to Lin, who wouldn’t share specific numbers.

That higher than average retention rate can be especially important in light of the algorithm governing Instagram’s Story feed, which takes completion rate into account when ranking Stories in people’s feeds. Lin monitors how Instagram’s algorithm affects the reach of Curbed’s Stories and compares notes with her counterparts at Vox Media sibling publication Eater about how different types of Stories fare. “We’ve seen episodic things have done well,” she said.

Audience retention also factored into GQ’s foray into episodic content on Instagram Stories. Stories that span 20 clips typically “see a massive drop-off” in viewership, said Jon Wilde, digital director at GQ. As a result, when the magazine prepped a style advice series called “Flex 101,” GQ decided to split it up, posting a handful of clips four times over the course of a month.

“It’s not exactly episodic. We’re not shooting ‘Atlanta’ for Instagram Stories. But it’s episodic in that the whole thing is broken up. It’s programmed. It’s something that people are coming back to,” Wilde said.

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