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Instagram’s IGTV was supposed to be the “next generation’s TV-viewing experience.” What happened?

The beloved photo-sharing app stumbled earlier this year in launching IGTV, its YouTube-like product. Here’s where it went wrong–and how it’s fighting back.

Instagram’s IGTV was supposed to be the “next generation’s TV-viewing experience.” What happened?
[Illustration: Timothy J. Reynolds]

“I’d love to see a show of hands,” says Ashley Yuki. “How many of you have heard of IGTV?”

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The 30-year-old product manager in charge of IGTV, Instagram’s long-form video platform, is standing in front of a small crowd of twentysomething digital editors and content creators on a warm September morning at Rosaliné, a bistro in West Hollywood. Tucked among trendy boutiques and overpriced salons, the space features ivory tiles, mid-century modern furniture, and cascading green flora, giving it a distinctly “Instagrammy” feel—to borrow a term used by Instagram employees to describe the composed, art-directed aesthetic that defines the image-sharing app.

Most hands shoot up, and Yuki, who has the enthusiastic energy of a camp counselor, looks relieved. “Okay! That’s good! Lots of hands. Keep your hand up if you’ve actually used IGTV.”

Sensing the crowd’s trepidation, she soothingly urges, “It’s okay. Be honest.”

Several arms descend, but Yuki keeps smiling as she assures the crowd that today “will hopefully inspire you to try it.”

IGTV is Instagram’s five-month-old bid to become more than just an app that you scroll through during life’s in-between moments to see photo and video snippets of your friends. It aspires to be a “lean back” experience that users tune in to for long stretches of time. Like YouTube, the platform that it’s most trying to ape, IGTV allows creators to upload video—up to 60 minutes for certain influencers—onto a “channel.” But unlike YouTube, IGTV requires all of its content to be shot and viewed in a vertical format, to complement the way people actually hold their phones. This behavioral change is a risk that Instagram is very aware it’s taking: “In the whole history of humankind, we haven’t shot video this way or looked at video this way,” Yuki tells the crowd. (This is true but for Snapchat’s efforts to create this habit, which has been successful in limited doses but not for TV-length programming.)

As a next step in Instagram’s evolution, IGTV makes strategic sense. Instagram’s 1 billion users already watch 60% more video on the platform than they did a year ago, and it has amassed a creative class of influencers that it would like to retain as exclusively as it can. Although Instagram doesn’t directly make money from influencers, they drive up the platform’s audience and engagement. Also, as advertising dollars continue to migrate from traditional TV, a new video advertising product could lure marketers who already love Instagram and are increasingly wary of YouTube.

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But for IGTV to power Instagram—and Facebook—into the future, it needs to continue Instagram’s heretofore unblemished record of rolling out unequivocally adored (and adopted) products: video, direct messages, time-lapse videos, GIF-like videos, non-square photos, and Stories. Just two months after Instagram launched Stories in 2016, for example, the company hit 100 million users. (Snapchat, which originated the Stories format, reached 100 million users overall about 18 months after launching it.) Instagram hasn’t released any IGTV viewership numbers, but individual video views tend to be disappointingly low, in many instances garnering tens of thousands of views while the same clip gets millions on YouTube. Executives at the company insist on referring to IGTV as a “work in progress.” Creators, brands, and financial analysts have not decreed it a bust, but they are a little flummoxed thus far. “Lots of promise,” says BTIG media analyst Rich Greenfield. “Not lots of execution to date.”

The IGTV stumble comes at a particularly inopportune time for Facebook, which acquired Instagram in 2012. In late September, Instagram cofounders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger abruptly announced that they were leaving the company, where they had reputedly enjoyed unusual independence. Reports in the wake of their departure noted that their status there had shifted, and that the pair had had to fight to get a green light for IGTV because some Facebook executives were reluctant to divert focus from Facebook’s own struggling video platform, Watch.

IGTV product manager Ashley Yuki is a new type of leader within Facebook, one with both business and product chops. [Photo: Anastasiia Sapon]
How Yuki and her boss, Adam Mosseri—who was elevated in October from Instagram’s product chief to running the whole service—address IGTV’s deficiencies will be crucial for the future of both Instagram and Facebook. Instagram’s stature as “the most important visual platform for anyone under 30,” as Gabrielle Rossetti, SVP of strategy and innovation at Havas Media, puts it, has made it invaluable to Facebook, as the world’s largest social network struggles to retain younger users. Meanwhile, Facebook’s advertising growth has slowed (while Instagram’s skyrockets), and the parent company is also facing heightened scrutiny around its security and data-collection practices and their societal implications. Two years ago, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that Facebook would become a “video first” company, and reports in the fall of 2017 suggested that the company could spend up to $1 billion on original content to support this effort.

IGTV is arguably Facebook’s best shot to get long-form video right, and in the process take a bigger share of the $170 billion global video advertising market. If Instagram can become a one-stop social and entertainment platform, then Facebook will have a growth engine to help the company through its crises.

But first? People need to know IGTV exists.


“We sat down and were like, ‘All right, what is the next big thing for Instagram?'”

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Krieger is effusive and chummy in mid-September as he recalls how IGTV came to be. It was October 2017, and he and Systrom made a list. “We were imagining what the future could be. It was fun.” One idea: “The next generation’s TV-viewing experience.”

The leap felt natural given the success Instagram had been having with Stories. According to James Whatley, a strategy partner at Ogilvy U.K., Facebook recently told the agency that “40% of time spent in Instagram is now spent in Stories.” But Stories segments can only be 15 seconds apiece. Instagram’s Live service, which launched in November 2016, was another proof of concept: Users often went back to rewatch live streams. IGTV was initially just a code name, but it stuck.

IGTV’s mission may be similar to Google-owned YouTube’s, but Krieger and Systrom wanted the likeness to end there. They latched onto vertical video and tried to keep things simple and intimate. When users tap into IGTV (via a small button to the right of the In­stagram logo), full-screen video immediately starts playing. A single swipe starts the next one. To navigate around, there’s a single-row tray that displays more clips. “So it’s not like, ‘I’m going back to a guide,’ ” Krieger says. “You’re still in the experience.”

By December 2017, the internal pitch presentation was ready. By February, the team was in place. Four months after that, IGTV launched at a splashy event in San Francisco with avocado toast, selfie stations, and IGTV clips by Kim Kardashian and beauty influencer Manny Gutierrez playing on huge, portrait-mode screens. Tellingly, the videos had to be reformatted minutes before the event was supposed to begin after a technical snafu deleted the files, delaying the affair by an hour. Sources say that the overall rollout of IGTV was affected by the “political shit show” going on between Facebook and Instagram.

Krieger acknowledges that the development time for IGTV was unusually fast. “I’ll tell you what went wrong in Stories and what went right in IGTV,” he says, leaning forward in his chair. “With Stories, we were in there for every single decision, which meant that we had a hand in that product at a very detailed level.” But often, that meant when Krieger and Systrom’s attention had to be elsewhere, Stories’ developers would be stuck waiting for answers. The cofounders stepped back during the IGTV build in order to empower the team. Another expediting factor was that Systrom was on paternity leave. “So if you were gonna call him, it had to be really important,” Krieger says, laughing.

[Illustration: Timothy J. Reynolds]
Despite reports of tensions between Instagram’s leaders and their Facebook overlords, Krieger was magnanimous when discussing the role Facebook played in IGTV’s creation. Although IGTV ultimately competes for attention with the year-old Facebook Watch, Krieger says the IGTV team had weekly meetings with Fidji Simo, Facebook VP of video, where “it was like, ‘Here’s all we’re learning. Anything that stands out from what you learned?’ ” In addition, “We had [Facebook’s] world-class video infrastructure just waiting to be integrated with,” he says.

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Once IGTV was live, there were issues. Content jumped from low-quality DIY videos of teens in their bedrooms to sleek Mercedes-Benz–branded clips. (Worse, graphic videos depicting child abuse were discovered in September as being algorithmically recommended to users; Instagram apologized and removed them, though it didn’t ban the users who posted them.) The lack of any playlist or curation features made navigation within IGTV difficult.

Krieger doesn’t flinch when reminded of any grievances. Instead, he smiles and reveals another gripe: Shortly after launch, his wife told him, “ ’That little banner [that comes up at the top of Instagram when someone you follow posts an IGTV video]? I never tap on it.’ And I’m like, We clearly have work to do.” He admits that IGTV’s presence within every aspect of Instagram—the feed, Stories, the Explore tab, and user profiles—needs to be better thought through. “Those are [version] 0.5, not even [version 1 issues], because we’re just getting out there to learn,” he says. “And now it’s a matter of figuring out how it integrates with the rest of the system.”

Two weeks later, though, he and Systrom were out.


Facebook was once defined by the bifurcation at the top of its leadership: There were product people, like Zuckerberg, Systrom, and Krieger, and businessfolk, like COO Sheryl Sandberg.

IGTV product chief Ashley Yuki represents a new wave of leader within the organization, one with experience in both disciplines, much like Simo, her counterpart at Facebook Watch. Yuki studied business and engineering as an undergrad at the Wharton School, and she’s shifted between advertising and product roles since she joined Facebook, in 2013. At Instagram, which has been her focus for the past four years, she ran the ads team, developed the monetization strategy for Stories, and is credited with launching Instagram’s support for non-square images.

“A lot of the time, I’m a really diverse perspective in the room,” Yuki says, picking at a plate of glass noodles at the Slanted Door, a famed Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco’s Ferry Building. “I connect with the business differently than a lot of the men [do].” She’s wearing white skinny jeans and strappy heels that show off a French pedicure, a Marc Jacobs bag slung over her chair. “I shop, maybe, more than some men. That could be a stereotype, but it’s true in my case.”

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Yuki studies Sandberg during the Facebook COO’s weekly Q&A sessions, calling it “leadership in action,” and says that as a result she’s developed more confidence, particularly in addressing gender imbalance issues in tech. (She once changed a company off-site venue from a paintball park to a pumpkin patch.) Yuki’s point of view makes her incredibly valuable at Instagram, and her enthusiasm for the celebrities and fashion brands that have helped drive its growth is genuine. She casually references the fashion and nail-art vloggers she follows, and she can walk you through the latest workout routine that Taylor Hill, a Victoria’s Secret model, posted to her IGTV channel.

The video service is off to a slow start, but celebrities, internet stars, and brands are experimenting. Six to click:

Like Krieger, Yuki readily engages on the topic of IGTV’s challenges, saying that her primary focus is helping users discover IGTV videos they’ll like. “Quite frankly, there’s such a better job that we could be doing of showcasing content in the right way,” she admits. Then there’s the trick of making sure the app notifies users about that video at appropriate moments. “Right now, the only time we’re doing that is the second you open up the app,” she says. “That might be actually one of the hardest times for you to have a moment to go watch a [longer] video.” One idea is to send out IGTV alerts later in the evening, when “you’re unplugging and trying to sit back for a little bit longer with something.”

Launching IGTV as its own separate app (in addition to within Instagram itself) was the original answer to the watch-or-scroll confusion that IGTV presents. Yuki had believed that users would “just tap it and be like, ‘Okay, I’m in. I’m in IGTV mode.’ ” But according to the analytics company App Annie, downloads for the dedicated video app were middling upon its debut and have since trailed off significantly.

Even before Adam Mosseri was promoted to run Instagram in October, Yuki’s team had begun implementing tweaks to IGTV. The banner that Krieger’s wife had thought was too small? It’s now bigger and includes a thumbnail clip of the video it’s promoting. As Instagram amasses more data on what people actually watch, higher-quality videos are commanding a more prominent place in the “For You” lineup. Mosseri, in a statement to Fast Company, pledges to continue this momentum and says he’s “committed to investing more time and effort” into fine-tuning IGTV.

Yuki has placed her faith in what Jeff Bezos often refers to as the “flywheel” effect, meaning that IGTV will require a lot of effort to gather momentum but will eventually propel itself. She says that if she can foster the connection between creators and their audiences, then the videos will get better, users will make IGTV a habit, and everything will work out. “Our whole job,” she says, is, “How do we create the petri dish where that really takes off?”


IGTV’s comeback effort starts with creators, which is why Yuki is courting them at events like the one at Rosaliné. On hand that day were Jayden Bartels, a 13-year-old dancer, singer, and gymnast who goes by MissJaydenB, and Paula Galindo, aka Pautips, a Colombian beauty guru. “On Feed, you can just put 60 seconds of video,” Galindo says after the event, pushing a long strand of highlighted hair out of her face. On IGTV, “you can show detail, how to blend the products, and tell the brands that you’re using [their products].”

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Other creators, though, are struggling to get traction. Makeup tutorials, for example, traditionally rely upon graphic overlays that use the horizontal aspect ratio to detail the products being applied. “There’s a way that a video speaking to an audience is supposed to look,” says 22-year-old beauty influencer Eleanor

Barnes, whose Instagram handle is Snitchery, “and now that’s breaking.” She’s posted two IGTV videos, both related to her tattoos. One garnered more than 500,000 views, while the other received less than 35,000. “Nobody has a blueprint.”

Since the video service launched in 2005, many competitors have aspired to knock it off its throne. Here’s how they’ve tried.

As a result, many creators who have embraced IGTV use it merely to post vertical trailers for their YouTube channels–certainly not what Instagram has in mind. “Why would I shift my time and effort from YouTube, where some of our top talent makes six figures a month on [Google ads] alone?” says Adam Wescott, a partner at Select Management Group, which represents such social stars as Gigi Gorgeous, Tyler Oakley, Jay Versace, and Tré Melvin. Wescott says that none of these clients have used IGTV in a significant way to engage their followers even though they frequently use Instagram itself. Even lower-budget video formats—direct-to-camera setups that require little to no editing—aren’t migrating to IGTV because there’s no money in it yet. Instagram had originally planned to start rolling out monetization before the end of 2018, but it’s been delayed until the product is further refined.

Still, Wescott acknowledges that the platform can’t be ignored. “If [Instagram does] one day turn on the faucet for advertising, why not be a step ahead of it if you have the resources and the bandwidth?”

This impulse has inspired brands and digital media companies to experiment. Warby Parker sees IGTV as a platform to “tell a long­er, more coherent story than one that is a patchwork of 15-second clips,” says co-CEO Neil Blumenthal. The company has created the IGTV series #WearingWarby, which showcases talent like Marley Dias, the #1000BlackGirlBooks activist; food blogger Molly Yeh; and Joffrey Ballet dancer Parker Kit Hill–all talking about their lives and their glasses. Blumenthal says that the company sees the greatest engagement on Instagram’s regular feed, followed by Stories and then IGTV, but thus far he’s satisfied. “From a business strategy perspective, we’ve found that being an early mover on a social platform always pays off.”

The activism-oriented digital media brand Attn: debuted a series on IGTV in September with a major get: Joe Biden. The former vice president hosts each episode of a weekly talk show called Here’s the Deal, and it airs exclusively on IGTV for 24 hours before being uploaded to other social outlets. Attn: cofounder Matthew Segal says he’s operating in good faith that Instagram will provide some kind of revenue in the near future—with heavy emphasis on near. “We’re putting on a show that we’re paying for ourselves because we believe in it,” he says, “but ultimately we want [Instagram] to fund shows. If you want good quality content, it costs money.”

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The platform has a long way to go to establish itself as a destination, but there are things it could be doing to speed things along. Certain types of content, such as fashion lookbooks, which would benefit from IGTV’s verticality, could generate easy wins. Hollywood agents are hoping IGTV develops into a portal for content that would otherwise be sold to Adult Swim or FX, making it a powerful proposition should the ad market support it. (In October, Snapchat added 12 original short-form scripted series and docuseries to its lineup of shows.)

Instagram’s own efforts also hint at how IGTV might differentiate itself. In a September research meeting, the assembled analysts discussed how “emerging” digital stars see IGTV as a place to show off a different side of their creativity, such as an actress who’s aspiring to be a musician. Instagram can spotlight and drive viewers to the people who are trying to invent the formats that might define IGTV. “Everyone does makeup tutorials,” one creator told them. “I want to be more original.” Newer, less-proven influencers also have less of an issue with the vertical format, presumably because they haven’t spent the past 5 to 10 years shooting horizontal video. Also, because they’re so new and eager for exposure, they care less about monetization.

“Everyone’s trying to figure it out,” Yuki says. “That’s why we’re encouraging everything, because who’s to say?”

Free-for-all experimentation has never been part of Instagram’s DNA. The app’s aspirational tone and sense of careful curation has always separated it from its peers. It’s what makes Instagram, well, Instagrammy, and IGTV–at least so far­–feel like a code name.

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