How The Washington Post’s new Instagram editor will try to boost its subscription business

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In a sign of the times, “Instagram editor” is now an official title at The Washington Post and a key cog in the newspaper publisher’s subscription business.

The Washington Post promoted Travis Lyles to the new role to oversee its main Instagram account full-time as of Feb. 1. He will build out a team to ramp up vertical, visual storytelling on the platform and expand the Post’s identity beyond its publication. And ultimately — convert some of its Instagram followers into paying subscribers.

“The biggest end game is to grow our subscribers,” said Mark Smith, director of social and operations at The Washington Post. Instagram “is where we can introduce The Washington Post to people that will be a big asset going forward.”

The Post has around 3 million digital subscribers, and its Instagram audience tends to be “a younger and more diverse audience than our current subscribers,” Smith said.

The Post has experimented with reaching that younger demographic elsewhere, such as with its popular TikTok account. The publisher has used the page, at times with humor, to break down top headlines, to market its brand and push its subscription business. The Post did not say how many subscribers it has previously attracted with its social channels.

The Post’s Instagram account had its most engaged month this past January, with more than 12 million engagements (likes and comments), according to a Post spokesperson.

Typically, a presidential election would have brought in a record audience, but the Post’s account “is growing so fast” that it is has only continued to increase since November, said Mark Smith, director of social and operations at the Post. He also attributed the surge in engagement to big news events in January, like the Capitol insurrection, the inauguration and the actions of the new administration.

“What’s become apparent in the last year and a half is that Instagram is the fastest growing platform by far” for the Post, in terms of followers and engagement, Smith said. (The Post receives more site traffic from its Facebook page than from Instagram, in part because link sharing is a more established activity on that platform, he noted.)

Since Lyles joined the Post in 2017 from the Virginian-Pilot, he has run the publication’s main Instagram account, focusing on “shareable headlines” that have been its main source of growth, according to Smith. Under Lyles, the Post’s Instagram account went from 675,000 followers to 4.5 million.

“When [Lyles] took on the account, he ran it like a news editor,” Smith said. Rather than focus on the visuals, which is what a platform like Instagram is known for, content shared on the account “feels like a newspaper delivering news.”

The Post should share more video on Instagram, Smith said. That requires formatting vertical video and adding captions for users to watch without sound. IGTV, Reels and Instagram Live all “need a different content stream,” he added.

Lyles’s team will ultimately include a social producer, a video producer and a designer.

“This team will aim to move with speed and set the pace for what a news account is on Instagram,” Lyles said, adding: “A priority of this team will be not only informing people about what’s happening in the world but also breaking down complex news topics.”

The Post is not the only legacy publisher to dedicate someone to their Instagram account. Last year The New York Times hired Tyson Wheatley as Instagram director to oversee the curation and strategy of The Times’ main Instagram account.

In October, the Times added two new roles to its Instagram team: Liz Pierson was named Instagram weekend editor, (she was previously a photo editor at The Times), and Bianca Clendenin became Instagram editor for video (she was previously at Group Nine Media’s NowThis).

The Post’s Instagram team will work with its Stories team, which is focused on vertical storytelling across platforms. The team was originally formed to produce breaking news for Snapchat’s Discover platform for publishers. Now, the team can also help produce content for Instagram Stories.

“The ceiling is higher than we know,” Smith said. “Truly I don’t know what the number [of followers] will be at the end of the year.”

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