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Why Instagram is climbing aboard the subscription bandwagon

Cover image for Why Instagram is climbing aboard the subscription bandwagon

Photo: Alexander Shatov

Photo of Ashleigh Millar
by Ashleigh Millar

Meta has announced that, following the success that came from its ‘fan subscriptions’ (now called ‘Subscriptions’) trial in June 2020, it will be testing the subscription model on Instagram via a select number of US-based creators.

Instagram subscriptions will allow creators to set their own monthly fee for subscribers to access exclusive content that they create. This is not, however, a new concept, as creators have used subscription-based platforms, such as Patreon and OnlyFans, to charge their members a fee to be added to their ‘close friends’ list on Instagram (a feature on the social media platform that allows the creator to curate a selective list of followers who have permission to view their private stories) in addition to accessing the exclusive content on their Patreon / OnlyFans pages.

The issue with this approach is that despite Instagram’s functions being used, the platform does not receive the money for its services in this arrangement. In addition, Instagram has over 1.074 billion monthly active users (MAU), and over 200 million businesses using the platform. Contrast this with the over six million monthly active supporters found on Patreon (and over two hundred thousand creators), and there is clearly a significant opportunity for Instagram to successfully introduce a similar model, since it is already a widely-used, widely-understood platform.

Creating a self-sufficient social media career

Unlike Patreon, Instagram’s ‘exclusivity’ of the subscription service is limited to:

  • Lives: where the creator can host live videos that are exclusively for their paying subscribers
  • Stories: similar to the ‘close friends’ feature, but it is only able to be viewed by subscribers
  • Badges: paying subscribers will be flagged as such to the creator via a subscriber badge. This will appear when they leave comments or send messages to the creator’s page 

For more extended and permanent content exclusivity, such as videos and photos that last for more than 24 hours on a story, subscribers are most likely to prefer platforms such as Patreon and OnlyFans. However, this creates the friction of leaving the Instagram app, which is where most users will spend much more of their time. This makes it an attractive model for businesses – imagine how easy it would be for fitness content creators, for example, who could share recipes and daily workouts with their subscribers, in addition to monitoring the content that their paying members engage with the most.

On the flip side, while the comparison between Patreon and Meta’s Instagram is important, the likelihood is that this new subscription service will, in fact, compete most heavily with TikTok. Looking at the creator economy and the desire from content creators to be self-sufficient, especially following their sudden clout and niche fandom communities on the short-form video app, Instagram has found a gap in the market to make social media influencing a subscription-supported career, instead of a sponsorship-supported or donation-supported career.

But will Gen Z like it…?

Even Twitter has joined the subscription race by introducing ‘Super Follows’ in September 2021, allowing subscribers to access exclusive tweets from their chosen creators. And so continues the battle of the social media platforms. Each trying to be the most attractive avenue for content creators.

However, with the TikTok algorithm being a draw for content creators, due to the increased odds of discovery compared to that of Instagram, in addition to the coveted creator fund offered by the platform, the challenge will be to convince the internet-dominating demographic, Gen Z, to buy into Instagram’s model.

With the rise of popularity in authentic content and online transparency, will Gen Z appreciate their creators making them pay for subscriptions to their content instead of giving them the option to donate when they can? Will the new subscription model isolate members of creators’ online community that they have worked so hard to build? Is it a risk worth taking for a relatively stable monthly income, or are they better off, in this authentic social media age, being more inclusive and thus continuing to rely on sponsorships, donations, and other money-making side projects (gigging, merch, Cameos, etc.)?

The probability is that this will be a good move for businesses where subscriptions are expected, but it will not be as successful with audiences of content creators who have built a platform through being relatable and transparent online.

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