Does Instagram work for writers and bloggers?
I was slow to adopt Instagram. A shy introvert, the concept of sharing selfies and broadcasting breakfast was alien to me. With encouragement from friends and family, I caved in December 2016, signing up for the ultimate vanity project. Apparently the world couldn’t survive without my pixelated panoramas and random snapshots of Tranmere Rovers struggling against Guiseley.
At various times through the subsequent years, I have been baffled, frustrated and outright confounded by Instagram. Even to this day, I’m unsure if it holds any real value and, if so, for whom? I don’t even know if it is a social network, to be entirely honest. Instagram is the one promotional tool I can never seem to figure out.
A beginners’ guide to blog metrics
Recently, I stopped to analyse my marketing efforts, hoping to hone my focus and pour my energy into the platforms, techniques and outlets that are most conducive with maximising reach and engagement as a writer. The metrics were startling.
Twitter and Facebook are huge drivers of traffic to my website. Engagement rates among my followers on both platforms are excellent, while the ease of access to links - and thus content - is phenomenal. Instagram and LinkedIn, meanwhile, facilitate just 5% of my blog traffic despite accounting for 32% of my social media following. This made me ponder the very purpose, potential and pertinence of Instagram in particular. I was determined to dig deeper.
The problems with Instagram for bloggers
From my perspective as a humble blogger and self-published author, Instagram has many limitations.
Firstly, it is a marketing tool, not a news-breaking platform or a microblogging infrastructure. Instagram is all about tailored branding, spreading carefully curated messages and amplifying unique selling points. It is the acceptable face of propaganda, awash with bath bombs nobody cares about, honey-drizzled pancakes nobody eats and Botox nobody can afford.
The true definition of marketing as a discipline seems to have been blurred, faded and entirely misconstrued in the Instagram age. Marketing isn’t playing around with social media in a vacuum. Marketing isn’t blogging to express your passions. Marketing is the highly skilled action of promoting and selling products or services through a variety of means. Social media is just one tool that helps towards that end. Merely participating in social media does not constitute marketing innately.
Where marketing is a collection of actions that allow you to promote and sell products or services, one must logically have products or services in order to succeed as a marketer. Similarly, where Instagram looms as the predominant marketing tool of our age, one must have produced something, or multiple things, in order to succeed on Instagram.
For a writer aiming to derive anything more than recreational pleasure from the app, merely posting random photos of your vinyl record collection to absolutely no end is a severe waste of time, energy and focus. You would be better served writing a blog about your love of vinyl because on Instagram, nobody really cares what you have to share unless it broadcasts your intention to participate in the feral fight for engagement.
On Instagram, there are no users so much as there are customers, and there are no posts so much as there are strategically conceived bursts of marketing, pure marketing, towards a capitalist end.
Is Instagram a social network?
In this regard, I’m not entirely convinced that Instagram can seriously be considered a social network in the purest sense because, quite frankly, there is very little sense of community or networking anywhere within the app.
More than any other social media platform, Instagram skews its distribution infrastructure towards the minuscule segment of global users who just happens to follow you. Tweets allow us to contribute to a movement, trend or discussion. Facebook statuses encourage us to empathise, interact and inquire. Instagram posts just kinda sit there in self-congratulation, waiting to be seen and appreciated by the same group of people for the same infinitesimal amount of time.
Aside from the aesthetic pruning of a particular image, fraught with insincerity, there is very little external value or purpose to the standalone Instagram post of your average everyday user.
Instagram suffers from the lack of an easy post-sharing function of any real worth or visibility. Sure, you can now effectively syndicate any story that mentions you, but Instagram’s content-user interface is stiflingly one-dimensional. You can capture a great shot of a local skyline, tweak it with filters, pepper it with hashtags and wait for the optimal rush hour to share it with the world, but your masterpiece can easily fall into a black hole regardless of its content. It just isn’t visible enough to those who don’t follow you.
Traffic from Instagram to your blog
As a writer, it would be nice if people read my work. Not essential, but definitely a happy coincidence. In the modern world, getting people to read your work starts with driving traffic to your blog, book or other written content. Social media is one of the greatest ways of achieving that.
Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn are typically great for engagement, the fancy name for somebody doing something with your post, be it clicking on a link or sharing it among their followers. Those platforms share the same one-click gateway to your blog. The link is literally there, right before the user, waiting to be accessed with minimal fuss.
On Instagram, that is not the case. On your entire profile, you get one place to embed a URL, and that is in the bio, far away from mass consumption. You can’t include a URL link in a standard Instagram post, making it two, three or four times more difficult to access an external webpage from that app compared to its traditional competitors. The gateway from Instagram to your blog is so verbose as to spark debate regarding its practical worth to any writer. I’m still grappling with the answer.
Do writers use Instagram?
Stephen King is on Instagram. J.K. Rowling is not. Margaret Atwood is on Instagram. Bill Bryson is not. Ultimately, however, that does not tell us a great deal. I’m more interested in the grassroots blogger, the self-published author and the passionate writer dressed as a start-up entrepreneur.
As a keen baseball blogger, I have a sharp point of reference here. Ken Rosenthal, the greatest baseball news-breaker on the planet, does not use Instagram. Buster Olney, the baseball figurehead of the largest sports news organisation in the world, does not use Instagram. Jeff Passan, the fastest-rising star anywhere in baseball journalism, has just 15 posts and less than 4,000 followers on Instagram. These guys are my role models.
Jon Heyman hasn’t broke the 1,000-follower barrier on Instagram yet. Neither has Craig Calcaterra. Joel Sherman is barely over 500. Dan Shaughnessy and Ken Davidoff haven’t even downloaded the app.
This interests me because these writers rank at the very top of their profession, working for gigantic media outlets. They have a guaranteed pay check every month. Somebody pays them to write. Their abilities to live in a house and eat food are not reliant upon clicks. A marketing intern for the employing newspaper or website will look after that. Instagram is therefore a personal luxury for such writers, not an existential necessity.
What about the little guys? How about the used car salesman who blogs about the Montreal Expos when he gets home from work, hoping to one day make writing his career? Where does Instagram fit in the strategy of such a side-hustling blogger with designs on a sustainable future of reliable self-employment?
Again, let’s delve into baseball for some realistic examples and tangible success stories. Jared Carrabis, the ultimate bedroom blogger turned writing professional, uses Instagram to great effect. By contrast, Chris Cotillo, a student who aggregated baseball news on Twitter before becoming a Red Sox beat reporter, has just over 800 followers on Instagram, languishing in relative anonymity.
Brett Taylor, an Ohio lawyer, quit his job in 2016 to focus on growing Bleacher Nation, his Chicago Cubs blog, from a pleasant hobby into a full-time profession. The blog now has over 30,000 followers on Instagram, coalescing into a spin-off ecommerce project selling custom t-shirts to sports fans. Instagram certainly works for writers at such a scale and angle.
However, Robert Murray, the other high school dynamo of Baseball Twitter, rose to fame in a similar fashion to Cotillo, aggregating the heavyweights before graduating to breaking news himself. Murray is now a Milwaukee Brewers beat writer for The Athletic. He has 342 followers on Instagram. That’s only 65 more than me! There is hope yet.
The ideal Instagram content strategy for bloggers
Ultimately, your optimal use of Instagram is predicated on the things you want to accomplish in life. A very convincing argument can be made that writing is an intrinsic good that should not be diminished through pursuit of monetisation. Yet by the same token, we live in a capitalist plutocracy that tethers our mere survival to the generation of financial profit.
If, like me, you enjoy writing for the beautiful escapism and wonderful freedom it provides, you probably wrestle with the monetisation dilemma a lot. Sometimes, making writing from home your full-time job seems like the greatest idea imaginable. Other times, cynicism teaches you that, under capitalism, any form of work is destined to make us tired, anxious and miserably dependant on other people parting with their hard-earned cash. Why would you want such a fate for your happiest passion?
In the end, it’s easy to settle in the grey zone, stuck in the middle, saddled with just enough external responsibility to talk yourself out of risking everything in pursuit of the life you truly want. That’s where I am right now. I’m not ashamed to admit it. Perhaps the best Instagram content strategy for me is simply posting promotional posts every time I publish a blog, including a link in my bio. I will maybe stretch to creating graphics with headline quotes from each article, but what more can I really do?
Three percent of traffic does not warrant fifty percent of energy. Concentrate on writing, then promote your work on Instagram without expectation. Remember that, on Instagram, if you are not bringing anything to the market, you may as well share your photos from Knowsley Safari Park in the family WhatsApp group. At least that audience cares.