Worth A Thousand Words: How to Use Instagram to Market Your Magazine

By Braden Alexander

In April of last year, Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion USD1, setting the blogosphere alight with speculation. By September, the photo-sharing app crossed the 100 million-user mark,2 and those numbers continue to climb. Despite a few initial limitations – it was only available on iOS until recently – Instagram is still picking up steam, with growth that digital consultant Kat Tancock calls “steady rather than meteoric.”3 But what’s behind the social media mechanism’s slow-but-sure success and how can magazines harness its power as a marketing tool? Let’s take our cue from some general Instagram best practices, as well as what some of the biggest magazines are doing right with the app. But first, what is Instagram and why should we care?

The Story of Instagram

The company was founded by Kevin Systrom, a Stanford University grad who, according to Inc.com4, interned at Twitter and worked for Google before starting Instagram in March 2010. His initial idea was to combine the GPS-based “check-in” ability of Foursquare with the points system of a game called Mafia Wars. The ability to share photos was almost an afterthought. He called the app “Burbn” and received $50,000 USD from investors to start the company.

With a small team of developers coaching him, they decided to strip the app of everything but the ability to share photos, comment, and like. Essentially, users take photos with their iPhone, filter them to look like vintage Polaroids, then share them with a network of followers who are able to like and comment on the photos. Systrom renamed it Instagram, an amalgam of “instant” and “telegram.” He and his small team released the product via Apple’s App Store to immediate popularity and steady growth. The app had over one million users after their first month online. More investment money followed, Instagram managed to nudge out its early competitors (Hipstamatic, anyone?) and eventually Facebook bought the company, rewarding investors with a 100% return.

Why It Works

Instagram was essentially destined for success. Since its inception, digital communication has been trending toward being easier, quicker, and more visual. Instagram owns these in spades. Add to that the ability to share your photos (read: brag about stuff), plus the vintage-looking filters and square shape, and you’ve got an undeniable success. Especially after making the app available on the Android.

As of yet, however, the app is not monetized. Facebook doesn’t make a cent off of it. So why would the company buy it for so much money? According to Om Malik5, the answer is: fear.

“Facebook was scared shitless and knew that for first time in its life it arguably had a competitor that could not only eat its lunch, but also destroy its future prospects,” Malik writes. “Why? Because Facebook is essentially about photos, and Instagram had found and attacked Facebook’s Achilles heel — mobile photo sharing.”

What magazine marketers (and really, marketers everywhere) need to know is that Instagram is popular, free, and backed by one of the biggest companies in the world. Its connection to Facebook means that photos shared on Instagram can instantly be shared on users’ Facebook walls at the same time, exponentially increasing each photo’s exposure. So if your magazine isn’t harnessing the power of this trendy app to share your content and build your brand, you’re missing out. If you’re new to the Instagame, let’s begin with some simple steps for how to do it right.

Instagram Best Practices

Before we get started on how the magazine publishing industry should be using Instagram, let’s consider a set of best practices for all content marketing, as defined by SocialFresh6. Author Jason Keath spent a week following 23 big brands to see how they were using the app. Here’s what he suggests:

  1. Post interesting images. This goes without saying, and should be simple for any magazine. You are, after all, in the business of interesting images. Mainly, you should try to avoid annoying clichés like photos of feet, decorative fingernails, or whatever you’re having for lunch.
  2. Post consistently. Don’t suddenly flood your followers’ feedwith 15 photos after forgetting to upload all week.
  3. Post often. But not too often. SocialFresh recommends 5-10 photos a day as a good standard, but I would suggest 1-5. If you only have one interesting photo to share that day, stick to that.
  4. Involve the community. Use your photos (and the descriptions you write for them) to start a dialogue within your community, and make a point of replying when someone asks a thoughtful question.
  5. Use themes. Just like you have recurring features in your magazine, try posting recurring themed photos on Instagram, using #hashtags. Vanity Fair (145,000 followers) regularly posts photos of vintage covers, tagging them with #classiccovers.

Vanity Fair's #classic covers on Instagram - vintage cover featuring Tom Hanks


Magazines On Instagram

Marketing magazines is a subtle art; you have to build the title’s brand while supporting your advertisers, all without compromising your editorial integrity. So, more than any other business, magazines must offer value to their followers. Reward them for being part of your audience.

Ethan Klapper, writing for 10,000 Words, suggests four ways that news organizations can use Instagram7: give users a behind-the-scenes view, display the work of photographers, share breaking news, and crowdsource. With these in mind, here’s an adapted list that any consumer magazine can follow to use Instagram to their advantage.

Pull back the curtain: Klapper’s advice to give a behind-the-scenes view of the action is perfectly applicable to all magazines. Get your audience involved in your brand by giving them a taste of what goes in to making your magazine come to life.

Nylon (260,500 followers) gives a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes goings-on during their cover shoots, like this one with Lucy Hale.

Nylon's Instagram photo of a cover shoot with Lucy Hale

Sneak a peak: Sharing the content from your magazine on your Instagram feed is a given. But try creating some excitement by previewing material from an issue before it’s released. It will help build anticipation for the release, and possibly create a bit of buzz in your community.

Teen Vogue, who leads magazines on Instagram with over 370,000 followers, does this well. Here, they snap a pic of a photo shoot with Zac Posen happening in real time.

Teen Vogue's Instagram photo of Marc Posen

Break the print cycle: The immediacy of social media can be used to level the playing field between long-lead magazines and daily blogs. Use it to discuss important, timely events as they’re happening, before going into them in more depth in your next issue.

Time Magazine (267,000 followers) beat the daily news media at their own game when Hurricane Sandy struck the Eastern Seaboard last year8. Rather than waiting for their next issue to cover the storm, Kira Pollack, the magazine’s director of photography, gave five of Time’s regular photographers access to the Instagram feed and sent them out to share their photos in real time.

Time's Instagram photo of Hurricane Sandy

Pollack said the move was an experiment, not an attempt to follow trends. “It was about how quickly can we get pictures to our readers,” she says.

The effort gained them 12,000 new followers and was responsible for 13% of their site traffic that day (their fourth best ever). In fact, photographer Benjamin Lowy’s Instagram photo made the cover the following week.

Time's cover during Hurricane Sandy

Rather than grumbling about having to use iPhones to do their job, the professional photographers were excited by the experience. “To ‘point and shoot’ has been a liberating experience,” says Lowy. “It has allowed me to rediscover the excitement of seeing imperfections and happy accidents rendered through the lens of my handheld device.

Go with the crowd: Crowdsourcing is a great use of Instagram. Klapper recommends asking your followers for photos on a subject, or searching Instagram to find art for future issues. Go beyond that and ask your readers for interesting stories on a topic, problems that need solving, or unique solutions to a problem. The simplicity of social media makes it easy for people to contribute, and you can always follow up for more details.

Time took the lead here again, using Instagram to ask for photos for the magazine.

Time's call for photos on Instagram

Not many other magazines have used Instagram to crowdsource material, but Levi’s used the app to nab their next crop of models with this photo:

Levi's call for models on Instagram

It is a contest: Rather than asking your followers to give you something, why not use Instagram to offer them something instead? It’s a great channel to give away sponsor packages or subscriptions. Just structure it as a contest to try to get something easy in return: ask followers to repost your photo, submit their email address for a newsletter, tag the magazine in a specific photo, or post your photo to Facebook. Anything to increase your platform.

National Geographic ran an Instagram contest called #UntamedAmericas, asking followers to upload photos of North and South America and offering a prize pack for the winner. And with 917,000 Instagram followers, the magazine must be doing something right.

NatGeo on Instagram with a photo contest


Moving Forward

In the end, Instagram probably won’t make or break your marketing plan – it’s just one tool among many in your digital marketing toolkit, along with Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. However, it does happen to be very simple to use and, actually, a lot of fun. Start slowly, uploading a few photos from your last issue and see what starts to resonate with people. The (marketing) beauty of the internet is that everything you do is measurable – if people like what you’re doing, they’ll tell you.



  1. http://mashable.com/2012/04/09/facebook-instagram-buy/
  2. http://mashable.com/2012/09/11/instagram-100-million/
  3. http://magazinesonline.wordpress.com/2011/06/30/should-you-be-using-instagram/
  4. http://www.inc.com/eric-markowitz/life-and-times-of-instagram-the-complete-original-story_pagen_2.html
  5. http://gigaom.com/2012/04/09/here-is-why-did-facebook-bought-instagram/
  6. http://socialfresh.com/brands-on-instagram/
  7. http://www.mediabistro.com/10000words/instagram-news-organizations_b4503
  8. http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffbercovici/2012/11/01/why-time-magazine-used-instagram-to-cover-hurricane-sandy/

Works Cited:

Bercovici, Jeff. “Why Time Magazine Used Instagram To Cover Hurricane Sandy.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 01 Nov. 2012. Web. 01 Feb. 2013.
Keath, Jason. “Social Fresh.” Social Fresh 23 Brands Using Instagram And What Theyre Doing Right Comments. N.p., 19 Sept. 2011. Web. 31 Jan. 2013.
Klapper, Ethan. “4 Ways News Organizations Can Use Instagram.” 10,000 Words. Media Bistro, 7 June 2011. Web. 31 Jan. 2013.
Malik, Om. “Here Is Why Facebook Bought Instagram — Tech News and Analysis.” GigaOM Here Is Why Facebook Bought Instagram Comments. N.p., 9 Apr. 2012. Web. 30 Jan. 2013.
Markowitz, Eric. “How Instagram Grew From Foursquare Knock-Off to $1 Billion Photo Empire.” Inc.com. N.p., 10 Apr. 2012. Web. 30 Jan. 2013.
Price, Emily. “Mashable.” Mashable. N.p., 9 Apr. 2012. Web. 30 Jan. 2013.
Tancock, Kat. “Magazines Online.” Magazines Online. N.p., 30 June 2011. Web. 30 Jan. 2013.
Taylor, Christ. “Mashable.” Mashable. N.p., 11 Sept. 2012. Web. 30 Jan. 2013.


  1. This is a really useful paper Braden. As someone who discredited Instagram after seeing a series of lunch photos, I now consider it a highly effective tool for marketing, community building, and information sharing. Levi’s call for models via the app was a clever means of uncovering new and fresh talent. It further pandered to its market, who undoubtedly consists largely of Instagram users.

    I’m also glad you covered marketing best practices with the app. The same way that we’ve seen Facebook and Twitter abused, Instagram has been used to display a slough of self-indulgent photos that don’t serve a purpose further than boosting an ego. I appreciated your comment about only posting photos that are interesting or relevant. Far too many times you see people trying to conform to posting “norms” by sacrificing quality for quantity.

    Needless to say, this is something that I would consider using in the future, which means a lot coming from a borderline luddite.

  2. It will be interesting to see if Flickr is able to regain its popularity now that it’s updated its app and luring the people who are anti-Facebook from Instagram.

    A couple of things that Instagram does right is the ability to upload images easily, crop & apply filters (which means even the worst photographer can find a way to make their image interesting), AND share across multiple networks simultaneously. It’s super easy to connect your Twitter, Flickr, Facebook account and more.

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