Vox Media’s Curbed, MeUndies, Outside and Whisper discuss their early strategies and success with linking to their sites from Instagram Stories.


Tim Peterson on December 8, 2016 at 9:00 am


Instagram may have arrived late as a traffic source for brands and publishers, but it’s already showing early signs of success, driving new visitors to their sites and even outperforming its parent company, Facebook.

For years brands, publishers and other have tried to push people from the Facebook-owned photo-and-video-sharing app to their sites. Outside of ads, and excepting a recent test with some retailers, Instagram didn’t offer much help to companies looking to use it to drive traffic. So they had to find workarounds. They put links in their Instagram bios. They scrawled short-code URLs on their pictures. And they typed out links in their captions.

Then last month, Instagram finally introduced an official alternative to these hacky workarounds: the ability for verified profiles to insert links in their Instagram Stories.

Almost a month after the launch, 15 to 25 percent of the people who see a link in an Instagram Story are swiping on it, according to a handful of brands and publishers that have been experimenting with the feature.

Within the first two days of adding links to its Instagram Stories, “we saw over a quarter of a million views” for those link-laden slides, said Jay Rockman, director of marketing and business development at anonymous social platform Whisper. As of Wednesday, Whisper’s total view count had hit 1.25 million, with 15 percent of those viewers swiping on the links to visit its site.

Clothing brand MeUndies has seen similar success, with swipe-through rates averaging 15 to 20 percent. Each day the brand gets around 350 clicks to its site from the link in its Instagram bio; from the links in its Instagram Stories it’s getting 400 to 600 clicks, according to MeUndies’ head of brand marketing, Steph Young. “We’re seeing a lot more clicks probably because of the convenience; it’s right in the Story,” she said. It’s not only that Instagram is driving more traffic to MeUndies’ site, but that most of that is new traffic. Of those people who swipe through to the site, 90 percent of them are people who had never visited its site before.

And outdoors magazine Outside is averaging 20 to 25 percent swipe-through rates for the links inserted in its Instagram Stories. According to Outside’s online editor, Scott Rosenfield, roughly twice as many people are swiping on links inserted in an Instagram Story as are swiping on links inserted in a Facebook post on a per-post basis.

These brands and publishers, as well as Vox Media’s home site, Curbed, explained how they’re using links in Instagram Stories, what works and what doesn’t, how they’re performing and how they may be able to capitalize on the new Instagram-specific segment of their sites’ audiences.

Curbed engagement editor Mercedes Kraus had an early feeling that links in Instagram Stories would work. Even before the feature was announced, Curbed had already seen a willingness from its Story viewers to go beyond the ephemeral content format.

Every Thursday, Curbed produces a Story that teases the new episode of “The Curbed Appeal” podcast being released that day. To up the chances of the Story viewers turning into podcast listeners, early on, Curbed would insert a call-out in its Story prompting people to send a direct message through Instagram to Curbed for a link to the podcast. And people did. “Once the link option came out, it was a natural progression from the behavior and relationship we had been trying to create with our Instagram audience on Stories,” said Kraus.

But getting people to swipe on a link in an Instagram Story — and keep doing so — requires more than appending it to a Story slide.

For starters, a lot of people may not be accustomed to swiping on links in Instagram or even aware that it’s an option. Instagram teases the links by adding “See More” and an arrow at the bottom of Story slides carrying a link for people to swipe down to see the attached web page. But the callout is small, small enough to not obscure the slide but also small enough to go unnoticed. And people may not know what more there is to see if they do swipe down or that swiping down will open Instagram’s in-app browser.

How Whisper, MeUndies and Curbed tease links in their Instagram Stories

How Whisper, MeUndies and Curbed tease links in their Instagram Stories

To make people more aware of their links, brands and publishers have resorted to drawing arrows on a slide pointing to a link and adding text summarizing what they’ll see after swiping. Outside has even tried using an image of the article being linked to as the Story slide, but that tactic didn’t really work, and the reason why is the most important element of Outside’s and the others’ swipe-through success.

“When we’ve told a little bit of the story and given viewers the option to see more if they’re interested, those have a higher conversion rate,” said Rosenfield.

Links cannot compromise the Story; they should supplement it. They are “giving people the opportunity to go further,” said Curbed’s Kraus.

Recently, Curbed produced a Story offering tips for how to use white paint, which highlighted things like shades of white paint whose hue can change based on the time of day. On Instagram, Curbed presented its top five tips, but it linked to an article on its site that listed five more tips. If people wanted to go deeper, they could swipe on the link, but those who didn’t want to go deeper could skip the swipe without feeling short-changed.

“We don’t want people to feel like in order to get the story they want they have to go somewhere else,” said Kraus.

Even with the understanding that links serve the Story and not the other way around, there are questions like when to insert the links in a Story, against what type of slides and how often. To these questions, some answers have surfaced, while others are still being explored.

Whisper realized that it stood a better shot of people swiping on its links if they were attached to videos, not photos. Why? Because Story images only stay on screen for three seconds, but Story videos can last up to 10 seconds, said Rockman.

As for how often to include links in Stories, some companies have found a cadence that works. Whisper inserts three to five links per day in its Stories, so that “almost every story has a link,” said Rockman. And MeUndies typically includes a link by the second or third slide into a Story and then sprinkle in more through the rest of the Story, said Young.

Curbed has gravitated toward using six to eight slides to tell a Story, with a compelling first slide to create interest, middle slides that build interest and a final slide that delivers that interest into a conclusion and carries a link to more on Curbed’s site, said Kraus.

But that doesn’t mean Curbed will keep to that cadence. On Wednesday evening, Curbed produced a Story that showcased Austin, Texas, and — aside from two introductory slides — every slide carried a link to a separate article on Curbed’s site that was part of the series.

Since links are supplementary and not clickbaity, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to withhold them. “Ideally where we’ll end up is you’re getting something on Instagram but we also give you the option to get more in almost every single case on the website, if you’re so inclined,” said Rosenfield.

If these brands and publishers continue to attract from traffic through Instagram Stories, they see an opportunity to cater to that traffic and increase the value of those visitors. Since sites can encode their Instagram links in order to identify when someone visited a page through Instagram — without being able to identify specific individuals or access any of their Instagram data — they are able to track how these Instagram visitors compare to their average visitors.

As an example, for the Instagram traffic on Outside’s site, “session duration and pages consumed per session are a little bit lower than our site average,” said Rosenfield.

That makes sense. If an Instagram Story focuses on a specific topic and links to an article on that topic, the people swiping on that link may only be interested in that topic. Which opens up another opportunity. Remember Curbed’s white paint Story and corresponding article? That was part of a larger how-to Handbook on Curbed’s site. If Curbed sees that its Instagram Stories audience is really interested in that Handbook content and willing to swipe through to related items on Curbed’s site, it could tailor how it highlights other Handbook entries on those pages to up the chances of the Instagram audience clicking through to more articles.

Maybe it turns out that there’s not enough upside to customizing a site’s pages for Instagram-driven visitors. These brands and publishers have still seen plenty of upside in cultivating an audience from Instagram, as well as on Instagram. And for Instagram, that can translate into an upper hand in its growing rivalry with Snapchat, which originated the Stories format that Instagram has copied. On Instagram, brands and publishers can drive traffic from their Stories; on Snapchat, they can’t. The difference may be major.

“This was a big reason for us to start posting to [Instagram] Stories regularly,” said Whisper’s Rockman.