How to use Instagram as a storytelling tool

Photo Credit: #StoryPortrait, via Instagram Inspiration

Social media has provided new ground for storytellers, and the king of visual storytelling is Instagram.

According to Facebook, brands fuel a cycle of creation and discovery on Instagram — aiding its rapid growth. The social network hit 400 million monthly users this fall, surpassing Twitter’s and LinkedIn’s reach. 80 million images are uploaded to Instagram daily. And it’s increasingly popular with Millennials — 63 percent of Millennials use the social network to learn about products and services, with 74 percent of them taking action after finding inspiration from a post.

Instagram began publishing ads in 2015, and by August, users were seeing many more ads than they were before. In a recent article for Digital Trends, Mike Flacy questions whether Instagram’s ad velocity will hurt the network and lead them to losing users.

“If users dislike the uptick in advertisements, they may start looking for alternative apps to Instagram or simply just stop using the app entirely,” Mike Flacy writes. “Facebook hasn’t reported on growth in Instagram users since hitting 400 million users during late September 2015.”

I wouldn’t write off Instagram ads just yet. The ads allow publishers to do something regular posts do not: attach links. Some ads lead to the App Store, others to articles that open right on Instagram so users stay within the app. Instagram is a good segway for publishers trying to get more eyes on their content and are already investing in sponsored Facebook posts. Creating an Instagram ad is as simple as pushing one more button while creating a paid Facebook campaign.

Even without paying for advertisements, there is ample opportunity for brands to be successful on the platform. NASA is one of the most popular agencies that has seemingly caught on to Instagram’s storytelling capabilities. They’ve connected with people who may not otherwise be familiar with their work by showing the beauty of the universe through their social accounts.

In July, NASA published the Pluto flyby image on Instagram first.

“We made an editorial decision to give the world a sneak peek of the image on Instagram,” NASA social media manager John Yembrick told WIRED. “We feel it’s important to engage new audiences.”

Since the image was posted more than six months ago, NASA’s Instagram account has reached eight million followers, more than doubling its audience. The photo alone received more than 360,000 likes.

The famed image of the Pluto fly-by.

Instagram’s visual component can be a creative feat for organizations that aren’t equipped with exciting photography or data. But, when it comes to making an impression, the story behind the photo matters as much as the image. Organizations that aren’t inherently visual can capitalize on Instagram by focusing on the story they are uniquely able to tell.


Using Instagram as a storytelling tool can be essential for engaging a new audience.

Water.org focuses on the people who lack clean water and sanitation. Through their “water gives _____” campaign, the organization highlights how having access to clean water can benefit people living in poverty.

The story of Sabina and her son’s future.
“Less time gathering water means more time in school.”

If you didn’t know what water.org has accomplished before, this campaign shows where your donations and volunteer hours go. The campaign extends water.org’s mission and beliefs, while incorporating storytelling elements that pull at audience heartstrings.


Build a community based on your unique offerings.

The New York City Public Library shares the library’s history as an iconic New York institution. Through their Instagram account, they share an old question card every Monday, using the hashtag #LetMeLibrarianThatForYou.

A relatable caption can go a long way.

They also take submissions for #BookFaceFriday. This one is fairly self-explanatory.

Celebrate their audience’s sense of humor and creativity.

By using fun hashtags, they are not just engaging with their audience by challenging their creativity.


Don’t be afraid to tell your personal story, as it can inspire others in your community.

Sheryl Sandberg, author of “Lean In” and COO of Facebook, has expanded her campaign for equal pay to Instagram. Through her Instagram account, she’s able to expand her message beyond her core supporters. She also uses it as a platform through which to tell her community about other inspiring women and the stories they have shared with her.

Sheryl shares a photo from one of her advocates on Women Equality Day.

In keeping with her campaign, she’s not afraid to gush about her own success. Her story has become the narrative for her organization, her employer, and women who have chosen to follow her lead. Her Instagram activity is a reflection of that.

Celebrating Facebook’s success.

Instagram’s storytelling capabilities and advertising features could turn it into a core piece for organizations’ broader social strategy. The platform is inviting for Millennials, exploring the world through their smart phones and seeking opportunity where they are needed.

By sharing stories in Instagram, you’re giving the world an inside look into what truly drives your organization’s mission.

I’ll let the inspiring words Neil Shea wrote for Nieman Lab close this up:

Shorter stories, sure, but also the app asks for a deeper consideration of photographs and the rich, nuanced ways that words and pictures work together. Over time I realized that beneath the selfie surface, Instagram provided a powerful, unexpected, and mostly underutilized storytelling tool. But those who wade in will find that storytelling on Instagram is an awesome hack: a purpose for which the thing wasn’t intended, but at which it excels.

Tell us about your own experience with Instagram! Leave a comment or write us a response. Want to stay in the loop on emerging tech and media trends? Sign up for the Atlantic Media Strategies weekly newsletter, the Digital Trends Index, and get in touch on Twitter.

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