Author   |    Speaker   |    Chief Content Officer

If you’ve seen me speak in the last few years, you know I’m a huge fan of Instagram, because of its understated simplicity that makes for a rich story platform.

You might’ve even seen me present one of my favorite examples, of the Toronto Silent Film Festival’s 2013 effort to promote the silent film experience to a brand new audience of potential fans. Now, the Festival is back, releasing its 2014 effort that uses Instagram in an interactive, genius way to spread its message and grow its audience.

As I’ve written in the past, there are five reasons I love Instagram for content:

Instant content. Instagram, at its core, allows you to tell stories visually, but with a simplicity and immediacy and elegance that’s hard to beat.

But artful content, too. Instagram allows you to create visual stories with an artfulness and elegance and a special kind of gravitas that’s at the heart of good content. (Art and content are another favorite mashup of mine!) Instagram is one of those platforms (there are others, like Vine and Wordeo) that puts magic wands into the hands of us Muggles. It gives any one of us the tools necessary to create great stuff—even if you aren’t much of a photographer.

Honing your content chops. Instagram allows you to hone your storytelling skills by giving you the necessary—and instant—feedback by how your followers respond (or don’t) to your posts. I’ve learned a lot about what kinds of “stories” resonate in a broader sense—what truly gets my point of view across effectively—just by seeing how my followers there react and what they respond to.

Content moments everywhere. Companies so often fear that they don’t have anything interesting to share. In truth, every one of us has a great font of inspiration right in front of us, if you only train your eye to look for it.

Personal but universal appeal. A key to a good story from my journalism days is this: Be specific enough to be believable, and universal enough to be relevant. The images on Instagram are at once intimate and broadly appealing, at once personal and universal.

Over the past 3 or so years, some companies have done a tremendous job with tapping into the power of Instagram, among them Ben & Jerry’s (with 350K followers), General Electric (161K followers), DunkinDonuts (95K followers), NASA (610K followers), NPR (272K followers), and (probably my favorite) The Onion (176K followers). You can see many other brands, news outlets, journalists, nonprofits, sports teams and charities on Instagram on its “Notable Users” page.

But few Notable Users have completely reimagined the platform with the same thought and creativity as the Toronto Silent Film Festival, an annual celebration of silent film history and art.

Working with Toronto’s Cossette, the Festival uses Instagram in a surprising and genius way, replicating the silent film experience for a new age of film buffs. In three different feeds created entirely for the 2013 festival, Cossette replicates the experience of three different silent films – you can scroll through the feed, turning your smart phone into a kind of DIY projector. Here’s the 2013 effort:

In anticipation of the 2014 festival in April, Cossette earlier has reinvented Instagram yet again, releasing a Chalrie Chaplin retrospective “timeline” to celebrate the iconic star’s 100th anniversary. This time, the feed takes advantage of the ability (as of 7 months ago) to include video, embedding trailers from various Chaplin films.

You can scroll the timeline here (note: It’ll only make sense on a mobile device), or you can get a sense of it here:

Cossette’s concept is rooted in what I think of what I think of as extreme empathy for the customer – another hallmark of best-in-class content. (I just debated whether I might capitalize the Es in Extreme and Empathy – because it’s that important!)

The agency and client thought beyond the obvious content play to consider how the user might interact with the content. In other words, it put the customer first, and in doing so told an inherently richer story.

Why Extreme Empathy Matters

Many companies “only see the ‘instant’ ability of the technology, not the way someone would like to interact with it,” Cossette’s Co-Chief Creative Officer Matthew Litzinger told me. “I like the idea of taking an ‘instant’ medium and trying to make it immersive — less instant and more lasting.”

The effort to reimagine Instagram to promote silent films is ironically relevant, because it reconsiders what’s possible on the visual sharing platform just as the silent films themselves did, generations ago. “In his time, Chaplin and silent films were as innovative as it got…and every new film broke through some technological barrier and used the medium differently then the films previous to it,” Matthew said. “So that’s what we’re trying to do as well.”

Added Festival Director Shirley Hughes: “A happy coincidence has occurred between early film — which was blazing trails with new technology as a means of telling stories — and the latest technology — which is attempting to tell stories through another type of platform. Both were ‘new’ at their respective times; both tested the limits and altered that technology to suit their needs.”

(I love that characterization of a “happy coincidence,” by the way.)

Then What? Quantifying Results

The goal of both content programs, Shirley said, was to build awareness for her festival specifically and silent films generally with a younger, hipper audience – exactly the kind of people who tend to be active on Instagram. Silent films have enjoyed a resurgence of sorts worldwide since 2011’s Hugo and award-winning The Artist, she said. So the timing seems right to introduce the classic film art form (and the need for preservation and restoration) to new audiences.

While it’s hard to quantify what this year’s Instagram effort (and corresponding social programs in Twitter and Facebook) really means in terms of our ticket sales (post-festival analysis will tell), Shirley said that audience numbers are growing, especially among younger viewers (ages 20-40). “Our audience ranges from small kids, who adore the comedy shorts, through to people who have never seen a silent film before, to fans of the era.

“We want our audiences to go away from the experience wanting more and realizing that a good story, excellent cinematography, direction and acting to make a good film is what is needed to connect with them,” Shirley said. “When I have teenage boys come out a screening of the Black Pirate 1925 with Douglas Fairbanks and exclaim ‘that was the coolest!’ you know you are doing the right thing.”

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45 Responses to How to Use Instagram in a Genius Way (and Grow Your Audience)

  1. Asenath says:

    Brilliant. Love the instant feedback myself, but overall, I get the sense of storytelling. I also love the personalization and the real time that comes with Instagram.

    Thanks for putting this together.

  2. Heidi Cohen says:


    I love how you’ve explained how photographs (aka Instagram) are content marketing that tells real stories.

    I particularly like that you discuss specificity making the story universal.

    Thank you for adding to our collective knowledge.

    Happy marketing,
    Heidi Cohen

    • Ann Handley says:

      Thanks, Heidi! It’s so true — you need enough specificity to make it rich, but enough generality to make it broadly applicable. That’s true of all content, actually.

  3. I love Instagram for storytelling, too. And the TSFF timeline is genius. Any idea how they did it? I guess there must be an API to allow stuff like that?

    • Ann Handley says:

      Good question for Cossette’s Matt Litzinger – I didn’t ask him about the how specifically, but perhaps he can enlighten us here. I’m guessing the team merely storyboarded/loaded clips. Not sure an API needs to be involved…

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  5. Diane H. says:

    Great article, wish I knew how to do some of these amazing things!

  6. Ann, I love Instagram too. What I appreciate most is its simplicity. Their ability to make our pictures look like they came from the lenses of a seasoned photojournalist amazes me. And, that’s just one part of it’s magic (as you have so eloquently described).

  7. Instagram is such a powerful tool for brands who understand how to use it. My friends published beautiful photos and videos of how their hand made products come to life. When Instagram decided to share their work with their audience on Instagram blog, it was such a turning point for the business. Instagram followers are loyal and engaged with brands.

  8. Susan says:

    Thank you for this post! I love following businesses and brands on Instagram. It’s so interesting to see how businesses are finding ways to tell their stories in this still relatively new medium. Working for a CPA firm, it’s a little challenging to find ways to tell a story in an all-out visual medium. But I’m trying!

  9. Samuel says:

    I love to use Instagram personally.

    I haven’t created an Instagram account for my brand, that will probably change soon.

    Simplicity is what I really like about it.

    Thanks for the post!

    – Sam

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  14. Lisa says:

    Ann, great info on Instagram, I love the ease of using it but to use it for a brand or website is hard to grasp at times. It’s different that most social sites as it does not link to anything. One has to be creative as you have shown here. Thanks for sharing!

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  21. Elizabeth says:

    Is it good to keep my personal and brand Instagram’s separate? I personally have more followers than my brand does, so I’m always wondering…

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  23. Cyril says:

    Hello Ann, as you are a big fan of Instagram, I am becoming a crazy fan of your Instagram posts. It is surprising how a simple thing like a photo-sharing application can play a very effective role in education, in Business, social marketing and most in entertainment.

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  27. Amrish says:

    After reading this post, I might just try out Instagram for a start. Normally, I use Facebook, Twitter and Google+ now and then. Instagram will be a new platform for me

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  31. big obsession with Instagram! It has been great for business. thanks for your article 🙂

  32. Peace says:

    I really appreciate your effort in making us understand the huge importance of instagram. I don’t know if you are conversant with Afriff (African and International Film Festival). How can intragram play an integral role in achieving its mission

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  35. I started using Instagram earlier this month and the immediate response blew me away. It’s simple & I can share the art images & photos on #halbartonpaintings with others and see their response. My favourite image received little response while a photo of another artwork received max responses. That taught me a lot.

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  39. KatarinaKate says:

    You gave a super useful advises. If I had all of them, when I just create my Instagram account, it it would’ve been much more popular not. I’ve been trying some of them, but after first thousand it stops working, and I start to try different automatically mass liking and following. Have you ever tried them? If yes, which one is better in your opinion. I like most. Have you tried it?

  40. HD Wale says:

    Hi Ann,
    Thanks for this great and very useful article, I am agree with all your points. Instagram is a great tool to drive huge amount of traffic, use of this tool in a right way do serious things to drive traffic.

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