A digital answer to an old question

How The Economist uses Instagram Stories for quizzes

At The Economist, we’re in the answers business. Every week, our writers and editors produce pages and pages of answers about what’s going on in the world. We also publish an explainer every weekday, and a daily chart—an explanation in visual form. So it’s only natural that we should have a healthy appetite for quizzes, which offer an obvious way to help readers discover and enjoy our coverage. Last year we even published the first quiz book in our 175-year history. And for several years we’ve been running a weekly news quiz on economist.com.

But to adapt to the changing digital landscape, we recently decided to rethink this particular weekly fixture. Buried in an obscure corner of our website, and with a rather outdated design, the quiz was struggling to engage and retain users beyond a committed bunch of fanatics. We wondered if it might prove more popular elsewhere—so we laid our old quiz to rest for the time being, and revived it on a social media platform.

On Instagram, we are constantly thinking about how to tell stories to our 1.5m followers. So when Instagram launched its polling function last autumn, we leapt at the chance to use it for quizzes. Though not perfect, our first prototype proved that the format worked. Quizzes quickly became our most popular type of Instagram Story.

Quizzes give us a fun way to engage our readers and showcase the breadth of our content, from prescient reports to whimsical anecdotes about everything from cryptocurrencies to pangolins.

Today our quizzes on Instagram drive readers to our website at the same rate as Facebook posts. This is especially impressive considering that we have nearly six times as many followers on Facebook (8.4m of them).

Each quiz is born through a collaboration between the social media team and the picture desk, which runs our Instagram account. The social media team writes questions based on the newest issue of the newspaper, and the picture desk wraps it all together with images. After some initial attempts and setting up this workflow, the quiz underwent a major cosmetic revamp at the beginning of this year, with new design elements inspired by our Snapchat Discover edition.

Pretty sleek, right?

We’re still figuring out some of the finer details, such as hitting the right tempo and not cramming the slides with too much text. And while each quiz has to be newsy, we don’t want to trivialise terrible events such as attacks in Syria or school shootings. Being tone-deaf on social media is never right, no matter how playful the platform.

Our success has inspired us to think outside the classic quiz format. As we develop our storytelling on Instagram, perhaps quizzes could focus on specific themes such as oceans or women’s rights, or crowdsource readers’ ideas and opinions. Quizzes have also been a good lesson on getting creative with the different tools that social platforms offer news organisations. And they offer a reminder that our 175-year-old voice doesn’t have to feel antiquated, but can be adapted to new platforms and new formats as they emerge.

Melissa Heikkila is a social media writer at The Economist.