When Instagram reached 1 billion users in 2018, Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, called the app “an incredible success.” The photo-sharing platform, which is owned by Facebook, was widely hailed as a hit with young people and celebrated as a growth engine for the social network.
But even as Zuckerberg praised Instagram, the app in particular lamented the loss of teenage users to other social media platforms as an “existential threat,” according to a 2018 marketing presentation.
Last year, the problem had become more urgent, according to internal Instagram documents obtained by The New York Times.
“If we lose the support of teenagers in the United States, we will lose the pipeline,” read an October 2020 strategic memo that outlined a marketing plan for this year.
Platform invested millions of dollars to attract young people
Faced with this threat, Instagram acted. As of 2018, the platform has allocated almost its entire annual global marketing budget – estimated at US$390 million that year – to reach teenagers, mainly through digital ads, according to planning documents and people directly involved in the process .
According to marketers, focusing so singularly on a restricted age group is highly unusual, although the final expense went beyond teenagers and encompassed their parents and young adults.
Instagram documents reveal the company’s anguish and dread as it struggled behind the scenes to retain, engage and attract young users. Even when Instagram was heralded as one of Facebook’s crown jewels, it took extraordinary spending measures to get teenagers’ attention. He particularly emphasized a category called “early high school”, which he classified as students aged 13 to 15 years.
Any Instagram slip could have bigger consequences for Facebook. The social network hoped Instagram would attract more young people to all of its apps, replenishing Facebook’s aging user base, according to the documents. But the documents also show that Facebook has abandoned aspirations to become a destination for teens, just as Instagram has increasingly debated how to keep its audience young.
In September of last year, an internal marketing planning document for Instagram showed that the app had increased its number of daily users by almost 24% over the previous year, but some metrics related to teens had started to decline.
Snapchat was the favorite app of best friends who wanted to exchange messages with each other, and TikTok was fighting YouTube for teenagers who shared videos.
“In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, young people are finding the IG’s key sharing features less fun than before, and having nothing to share now remains a barrier to sharing more,” the document said.
The October 2020 strategy paper, “Instagram Marketing Approach 2021,” indicated other red flags. A survey of 13- to 44-year-old users who left Instagram because of competitors showed that people of all ages were using YouTube and TikTok more, with teens going more specifically to Snapchat.
Network is accused of harming teenagers’ mental health
The disclosures come amid concerns from Congress and the public about Instagram’s effects on users’ mental health.
by Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, point out that the company knew that some teenagers reported feeling worse about their body image when using Instagram. Haugen testified at a Senate hearing
In this month. She said that Facebook has deliberately kept people, including children, tied to its services.
Instagram’s fear of losing young users also highlights how much the internet industry values them — and how elusive their attention can be, even for an app that’s young.
Instagram, which Facebook bought in 2012, is less than 12 years old. It has a lot of prestige with teenagers, but rivals like TikTok, the Chinese-owned video app, and Snapchat, the ephemeral messaging app, keep nipping at its heels.