What's in this session?

  • #1: Instagram engagement rates are down considerably (1:10)
  • #2: IG Stories engagement down considerably (5:50)
  • #3: No major new features in last 30-60 days; Aug-Sep 2019 (8:40)
  • #4: Manicured aesthetic is done (9:40)
  • #5: IG working on a TikTok copy called ‘Clips' (14:15)
  • What should you do? (17:05)

Show notes and resources

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The Transcript

Brady Shearer: For the last several months I’ve been seeing the signs, Instagram organic reach is dropping and the decline is considerable. It’s happening in the feed, but it’s even happening on Instagram Stories as well. So in this episode we’ll take a closer look at this Instagram decline and what it means for your church going forward.

Alex Mills: Well, hey there and welcome to Pro Church Tools. This is a show to help you share the message of Jesus while we navigate the biggest communication shift in 500 years. I’m your host, Alex Mills, joined as always by Brady Shearer.

Brady Shearer: Two years ago at the peak of its power, Snapchat was usurped by Instagram, starting what I think has been the golden age of Instagram. As the platform has come to maturity, Instagram Stories has changed the way that we approach social media. And now here we are a little bit more than two years later and Instagram is hitting that point that Facebook hit a couple of years back where it’s not as exciting as it once was. And we’re starting to see the troubling signs, organic reach on the decline, engagement rates on the decline, and there are a number of different things that we’re looking at here. So let’s dive right in.

Firstly, Instagram engagement rates are down considerably. This comes from an article that was published on Medium. We’ll have it linked in the show notes and the YouTube description. This study looked at more than 3,500 brands on Instagram, so make note. They did do a little bit of looking at influencers, but this is brands which is notable for us because we’re working with churches and our church accounts on Instagram are brand accounts. So more than 3,500 brands and almost 1.5 million posts were analyzed from the very beginning of 2019, January 1st through June 24th, so basically the first half of 2019. And there is a clear decrease in engagement and it is really a sharp decrease around May, which is interesting because obviously that’s just an arbitrary time. But I don’t know if you’ve been experiencing this at all it seems like at least for our accounts, we’re still growing followers wise at a similar clip. But it does seem like engagement is harder to come by. And the things that used to work are not necessarily working as well as before.

Alex Mills: Yeah, I find that to be true as well. I think there’s a few reasons for that. I’ve noticed, at least on my personal account, which I mean now I guess would be maybe categorized as a brand account because [crosstalk 00:02:22].

Brady Shearer: Well, you’re an influencer.

Alex Mills: I know but I sell products so I might’ve been categorized as a brand account for the sake of this study. As my follower number grows, I haven’t noticed my engagement rate growing with it. So it’s not like I’ve seen a sharp decrease in engagement. I still have good engagement on the platform, but it’s not growing at scale with my audience. Does that make sense?

Brady Shearer: Yeah, it does.

Alex Mills: Yeah. So I guess that it’s also true that my engagement is dropping because my followers are growing. But, yeah, it’s been a-

Brady Shearer: When you say that do you mean like the number of people that you’re reaching volume wise is the same or percentage wise proportionally it’s the same?

Alex Mills: The volume of people I’m reaching is higher, but the engagement isn’t getting higher at the same pace. So I still get the same amount of comments or shares or interactions on a post that I would X amount of months ago but now I have an audience that’s 1,000 people larger. So it kind of has been a frustrating season for me on Instagram and I’m sure it’s true for a lot of other brands or influencer types and definitely for churches where we’re doing what we think is all the right stuff and it’s stuff that used to get results in the past. A lot of the accounts that you see now that are personal influencer brands of follower accounts of maybe a few hundred thousand, the stuff that those people were doing at the beginning that earned them their audience doesn’t seem to be working anymore. And we’re grasping for straws trying to figure out what it is, what’s the next thing, what’s the next feature that Instagram wants us to be using or what have you? But we haven’t really found anything that’s been working to garner more engagement. So it has kind of been a frustrating season on Instagram, which is especially frustrating for me because Instagram is my favorite social media platform hands down.

Brady Shearer: And I will say that this is pretty par for the course when it comes to the life cycle of social media platforms. You have a new platform comes out. We’ve seen almost the full life cycle with Facebook at this point. New platform comes out, young people adopt it before anyone else. It’s really exciting. It’s pushing the limit of what we thought was possible and we’re creating digital community online in ways that we never did before. And then it’s such an awesome platform that it reaches maturity. Older folk jump on, it becomes monetizable and so you’re getting a bunch of ads.

And the platform becomes more powerful and more powerful, eventually to the point where there’s this tipping point where usually what happens, at least in the short history of social so far, is that an algorithmic change is introduced. The platform has to say, look, the chronological algorithm, it’s just not working anymore. This happened many years ago with Facebook and then a couple of years after we saw, okay, it’s just not as exciting as it used to be. The Instagram chronological algorithm was not introduced super recently. It’s now like 18 months, 24 months, whatever it is ago, and now we’re starting to see the effects of that I think.

Now, I’m not saying that the chronological algorithm in any way is the reason for this decline. What I’m saying is that the chronological algorithm is usually an indicator of a tipping point on a social platform because the ones that created the platform are saying, we used to just be able to show our users everything. We cannot do that anymore because there are too many people on this platform creating too much content. We’ve got to create some type of robot that decides what people see and when, and that’s usually an indicator of maturity on a social platform, which has led to this.

Now, it might not come to a surprise to a surprise for you. Oh, the Instagram feed with the chronological shift and the maturity of the amount of people on the platform, it makes sense that decline is happening with engagement, but it’s also happening, at least in my experience on Instagram Stories. Now, this is just a single individual user’s anecdotes. But at this time last year when I first got the Swipe Up feature on Instagram Stories, whenever I used that, it was pretty crazy. I’d see 10 to 20% of the people that view a story swipe up.

Alex Mills: Which is a great conversion rate.

Brady Shearer: Insanity. So let’s say there’s 2000 views on one of my stories last year, I would see 100 or 200 or 400 people swipe up. I have been testing this in the last month or so, and it’s about 10 times less than that in just one year. I’m doing the exact same things that I was before and I’ve been testing it, trying to figure out, okay, was this just a blip? Was this just something that people didn’t care to swipe up on it? I’ve been trying different things and the swipe up rates are just way, way less. Why? Well, because when Swipe Up first happened, it was really cool. And to quote Gary V, marketers ruin everything. Eventually everyone was swiping up and swiping up and we as users had swiped up enough and not been rewarded for our Swipe button. We had been bamboozled, led astray to the point where we have just stopped that behavior with you’d love for me to swipe up, wouldn’t you? I can see right through this.

Alex Mills: Yeah. It feels like the way we consume content on Instagram now… So we noted in the drop off and engagement and so the same is true for you when you offer a call to action for somebody to take a next step on Instagram, we’re seeing that drop off as well. It seems that people are maybe either just consuming content differently or maybe consuming more content than they ever thought that they could or would and they’re not willing as much to comment or to take that call to action to swipe up. They’re not willing to engage. They’re just there to consume, not really to give anything back. And I don’t know why that is, but it really does seem that that’s kind of where we’re at right now with the platform.

You said something earlier that kind of piqued my interest and it seems like it happened with Facebook. When Facebook became a little more exclusively like pay to play, that’s when we saw organic reach really fall down for church pages and Facebook kind of made a statement that they’re like, “We don’t want to be putting so much of this content in your users’ feeds anymore, we want to be more relational. So, if you want to get in their feeds, you have to pay to do it.” And I think you see a lot of that as well on Instagram now. You see the new paid promotions feature and people are paying more to play and that just results in, like you said, more ads, more opportunities to buy a tee shirt you don’t need or whatever. And it’s like, well, this isn’t what I came here for. And so maybe feel better just getting a little fed up with it.

Brady Shearer: Another sign that Instagram is on the decline, there were no major new features between August and September of 2019. There was a good 30, 45, 60 day period where no new major features came out. Now, since then we’ve seen the new Instagram app that’s been released called Threads. But, when a platform like Instagram that was leading the way in innovation for so long, when you start to see their releases decline less and less, the frequency has decreased, that to me is a sign that we’ve reached, again, peak Instagram. Maturity in some respect where we’ve created everything that we possibly could within this platform and we have lotted Instagram for so long for its vast array of features and native capabilities, specifically within Instagram Stories, the ability to to create directly within the app. But that increase in features is starting to dip, which to me is a another sign.

Moving onto something else. Now, this is a positive one. We predicted this last year around this time. We introduced this idea to Pro Church Nation, stop the scroll. The idea that you need attention on social to communicate your message and for the longest time, especially with Instagram, the ideal aesthetic has been this manicured feed, this perfectly tailored on brand, on message, everything fits together delightfully into a picture perfect feed and we were like, no, what you want is attention and if you are creating the same type of beautiful post over and over again, that’s just going to lead to the people in your church ignoring it because it looks at the same over and over again. Repeat equals defeat, you need to stop the scroll.

Well, now we have an article from the Atlantic, and we’ll have that linked in the show notes in the YouTube description, but I just want to read a couple of excerpts from it that I found particularly interesting. Why? Because they agree with what I predicted. Essentially, the thesis of this article is that influencers are struggling because their beautiful pictures of them scantily clad on a beach are no longer earning the type of engagement and rapid account following that they used to. And I quote, “Every trend has a shelf life, and as quickly as Instagram ushered in pink walls and pastel macaroons, it’s now turning on them. Avocado toast and posts on the beach, it’s so generic and played out at this point, you can Photoshop any girl into that background and it’ll be the same post,” said Claire, a 15 year old who asked to be referred to by a pseudonym because of her age. It’s not cool anymore to be manufactured.

Another point in the article, previously influencers used to say, “Oh, that’s not on brand,” or, “We’re only posting shot in a certain light or with a commonality,” but for the younger generation, those rules don’t apply at all. Thanks gen Z, it’s your fault. Many teens are going out of their way to make their photos look worse. Look, we chastised millennials for this web brutalism trend and apparently we didn’t take it far enough. Gen Z is coming in here, they’re taking photos and purposely making themselves look worse. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this type of photo where someone will put the flash on taking a photo of themselves in the bathroom into the mirror. Yeah, so it’ll be like a selfie, but instead of holding the phone facing you, it’s facing the mirror and they’ll put the flash on and it will dis-

Alex Mills: As if we did it in 2004.

Brady Shearer: Exactly, yes. And it will distort everything, like light beams in random places. It looks terrible and everyone’s like, nice, wow, raw. Authentic. That is genuine.

Alex Mills: It’d probably stop my scroll.

Brady Shearer: Why is there a light leak here that just? Finally, what worked for people before does not work anymore. Still quoting from the article, “For the first time, influencers are coming up against this problem of how do I continue to grow as tastes change. A year ago an influencer could post a shot with manicured hands on a coffee cup and rake in the Likes, but now people will unfollow. According to Ford, 60% of influencers in his network with more than a hundred thousand followers are actually losing followers month over month. It’s pretty staggering. He says, ‘If you’re an influencer in 2019 who is still standing in front of Instagram Walls, it is hard.'”

At this point I want to reiterate what I said earlier. This is part of the life cycle of social. And because it’s so new, like less than a decade old, it can sometimes be hard to understand what’s happening and you can feel like your favorite social platform is being taken away from you and that’s generally what happens with these. As social is going to continue to evolve, we’re going to see attention start to just jump from one platform to the next in these two to five year cycles. And that doesn’t mean that these platforms will disappear. Facebook is still absolutely influential and is massive, but the demographic is continuing to skew older and millennials have latched onto Instagram. It’s unlikely that we as millennials are going to go anywhere. We’re probably going to keep staying on Instagram. And then, we did an episode on it last week, we’ll see Gen Z make TikTok their platform until it hits maturity and it becomes over advertised and over marketed.

And then the next one, my daughter’s generation, they’ll come up with a new social platform. It’s just part of the life cycle. And, if you can be aware of that, if you can recognize it, then what will not happen is you won’t become the equivalent of that person who has never changed their style and dresses the same way they did during the best time of their lives. To quote Jerry Seinfeld, “Like every dad dresses like during the best decade that they lived.” You don’t want that to become you. You don’t want to become a relic on social and stay with the one platform where it felt great to begin with. Sure, it’s going to be uncomfortable when you jump to TikTok. And, look, Instagram is trying to create their own replication, it’s an app called Clips. I’m skeptical. We saw Facebook tried to replicate certain features that Instagram had. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t know too many people that use Facebook Stories. It’s pretty few and far between. But what Facebook did was they just said, “Let’s buy Instagram.” So there is the potential of that happening. But I’m skeptical that Instagram over the next five years will be able to make the shift and replicate TikTok within its interface. I don’t see it happening.

Alex Mills: No, I don’t see it happening either. And I think it’s interesting because although Facebook… The kids in our church, when we were trying to organize our youth group last year, we tried to get the kids together on a Facebook group for our youth group and they were like, “Yeah, we don’t have that.” It’s like, “Okay, so you don’t have Facebook.” But Facebook still remains essential for popular culture, right? It’s one of the best platforms to advertise on and it’s necessary, it remains necessary. I see Instagram being the same way, although we’re not going to be able to grow as much or at the pace that we used to and maybe engagement will continue to drop. Who knows, maybe they’ll make some algorithmic changes to kind of feed us some more dopamine to keep us around. I think I really do believe that Instagram is going to remain essential. I know so many people whose livelihoods depend on that app, and I think there’s enough opportunities to advertise on Instagram that it’s going to remain essential.

But we see TikTok picking up at kind of the height of where Instagram left off. So you mentioned it, we talk all the time about how innovative the Instagram Stories platform was, and then TikTok was like, “Okay, how about we take that but just have way more features.” Right? Like TikTok is amazing for video creation features and you and I are are on it. We still don’t understand it. We tried to pretend last week on the podcast that we did understand it.

Brady Shearer: Oh, we read a bunch of articles.

Alex Mills: We’re still trying to figure it out. But there’s an allure to TikTok because of the engagement that you can get on that platform that you can’t get on Instagram right now. Right? So I can post a video that I think is really good to IGTV and I have an audience of 4,000 people on Instagram and it’ll get maybe a thousand views. I post a snippet of that video on TikTok and it’s approaching 25,000 views. So that engagement is alluring. It’s enough to make me go there and start posting. I think that’s really interesting and it’s going to be very, very stimulating to watch how Instagram responds to what TikTok is doing right now. See if they try and replicate it, see if they try and go another way with some new features that maybe we’ve never thought of before. Or, if they just sit back and realize, okay, we’re Facebook now. This product remains necessary to culture, but it doesn’t necessarily need to innovate in the way that it has in the past.

Brady Shearer: What should you do? Well, with Facebook, we stayed committed to the platform, but we did start investing more money into it because we couldn’t just continue to invest time and hope that that would parlay into results.

Alex Mills: The return on investment for investing time is just not worth it on Facebook and it seems that it’s not worth it on Instagram anymore either.

Brady Shearer: Yeah, absolutely. And just recognize that the golden age of Instagram is over. We had a really good two years once Instagram Stories happened and there was a golden age before that that was a different type of golden age, especially for these influencers that are now realizing that is gone. That’s okay. That doesn’t mean that the platform is suddenly like disappearing. Not at all. There are hundreds of millions of users that are on these platforms every single day, so they’re not going anywhere, it just means the golden age is over. But, if the golden age is over somewhere, that means it’s open somewhere else. Eventually, we always use the real estate analogy to describe this, to create a parallel, eventually, all the land on California’s west coast that was not yet California was taken up, but if you went a bit farther north, hey, eventually we found Seattle. They’re still great places, they’re just going to be different and they’re going to continue to evolve as social changes.

Another important thing is to always have land that you own and focus on that above all else. We don’t talk about email marketing nearly as much as we should, which is why we’re going to do an episode on email marketing again as our next episode, but you got to think of social as land that you rent. It is not something that belongs to you. Whereas your website and your email list, those are entities that belong to you. And as much as we don’t talk about email marketing because it’s not nearly as exciting and there are only so many tips and tactics that you can provide, it is still the most important platform for us here at Pro Church Tools by far. It is 100 times more important to us than Facebook and Instagram and TikTok and Snapchat all combined because it’s an entity that we own and we continue to invest money in it and time into it to build it up because we know that there’s not going to be a day that email will be taken away from us. Even as it has changed and it has become different and we’ve had to adjust our tactics, it is still so, so important.

So recognize the life cycle of social platforms like these. It’s always going to exist and that’s okay because you’re just renting space there. And, if you ever need to lift up shop and go rent space elsewhere, that’s fine. Focus on the space that you own. Realize these life cycles are okay. Sure, the golden age may be over, but there are a lot of good things that come with a mature platform as well that being more people. And the more people that are there, the more people you can still reach, even if engagement isn’t rapidly increasing like it was before. We’re going to have a link to our email marketing playlist. We have done episodes on it in the past if you want to take a deep dive into that to improve your church’s own email list and emails that you’re sending out. And that’ll do it for this episode of Pro Church Tools. We’ll see you next time.

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