Reinventing the Reel
Reel-haters, this one is for you!
Do you remember when Instagram was a simple app?
Actually, maybe you don’t. If you weren’t there in the early years you may well have missed it; there was a time when I recommended Instagram to people in part specifically because of it’s super simple interface and tight limitations on posts. Creativity loves constraint, I’ve always found - just ask your brain to write about anything, versus writing about your earliest childhood Christmas memory, and see which comes first. Old Instagram was the perfect expression of this: you could post a photo, and it had to be a square. You could write a few lines of caption. You could apply a filter from a limited range.
With such tight parameters in place the creativity had only one way to flow. And so it poured out - in people’s photography, in those little Instagram squares. New genres, trends and movements. A whole new visual vernacular of photography was born (which I teach, if you’re interested, as part of my Instagram masterclass The Insta Retreat) that valued the power of story and emotion over having the right kit. We learned what we loved to look at in a way that we’d never really had chance to before: one tiny, small square at a time.
It’s hard to imagine now, on the platform where video, photo, carousels and stories all noisily clamour for our eyes and our minds. Once a trailblazing space for creative humans, Instagram now notoriously follows instead of leads, with the slightly desperate air of a balding man rearranging his comb-over. Its dismaying - especially from an app that taught me personally, and so many others that we could find success by carving our own unique path in the online world.
Few Instagram changes have been more unpopular than their full-throttled push towards Tiktokification in recent months. Short form video is the future, they’ve declared - a remarkably confident bit of crystal-ball gazing from a company that instead sunk all their time and energy into long-form video content (the now-abandoned IGTV) just a few short years ago.
Reels are where it’s at they’re telling us at every opportunity. Reels are what audiences want to see. All of which can be roughly translated into: ‘Reels are what we want audiences to see, so we’re showing you all little else right now’. Over and over again.
It’s a lot to adjust to if you loved that old, quiet, photo-sharing app. And I know so many of you are feeling this way as my inboxes overflow with distress.
You don’t want to make Reels.
You don’t even like Reels.
Video is so much more time-consuming and exhausting to create.
It just feels so wasteful to spend hours making videos at the expense of the work you actually want to be doing in the world.
You’re most definitely not alone. But the more I dig into the Reels problem and hear how its confounding creators, the more I wonder if there might be another way of looking at it.
Instagram dictating our creativity isn’t anything new.
It’s always asked us to squeeze ourselves into its preferred mould, one way or the other. It’s always required an element of game-playing if we want to reap the largest rewards.
Following trends, posting at the right time of day. Aggressively engaging and replying to comments, planning hashtag strategy like it’s a military code. Changing the coffee we drink, the holidays we take, the ways we dress and eat and decorate our homes. Having sold over £1million in Instagram education, I can confidently tell you: there was never a time when Instagram was as easy as just throwing up a post.
We’ve always had a degree of choice in how we respond to those demands - a continuum running somewhere between ‘artistic integrity’ and ‘popularity’ where we all get to find our own tipping point. It’s the compromise of pretty much any artistic pursuit - would you rather be adored by millions and commercially successful, or stay true to your unique and potentially unpopular creative voice?
Every time Instagram has changed there has been resistance and panic amongst our community. And every time - to date, at least - we’ve ended up finding new ways to overcome. Regardless of what new barriers are inserted, we’ve continued to be seen and heard. Maybe not as much as we’d like; maybe not as easily as we’d like.
But enough to still make it worth our time.
And that, I think, is the bottom line.
The question isn’t really ‘Reels or no Reels?’ - as much as we might like it to be. It’s, ‘Reels or nothing?’ - and nothing seems like an awfully empty thing to choose.
Because, where else can you have this? Billions of people inside of one little app? The potential to communicate visually to anyone on any topic, anywhere in the world? Sure, there’s Tiktok and Facebook and Twitter, but none have the breadth of demographics that Instagram attracts. No matter how niche your interest, you can pretty much guarantee there are people who share it with you on Instagram.
Whenever I lose sight of that, I think of my great grandmother. Born under Queen Victoria - in the actual 1800s, she lived in a small Northern fishing town to the age of 103. And I knew her. She lived into my teens, telling me stories about her unmedicated tonsillectomy over the kitchen sink as a child; adopting an orphaned boy under a lamppost during the war.
Remembering her always gives me a jolt of clear perspective and a reminder of just how new all this is. My great grandmother was a matriarch; independent and hard-working, a force to be reckoned with. She was a mother to 8, burying 6 of them in her own lifetime. She was a widow. She saw three different centuries.
She must have had so much to say, but she never had a voice.
At her funeral - at the church she’d attended for 80+ years - all that was really said was that she made a great apple pie.
Now I can post a selfie in my pyjamas and reach two-hundred and twenty thousand people without getting out of bed. I can rant about my political beliefs on Twitter and offend random strangers by saying I’m not emotionally attached to the Queen (oops). I can write this whole email to you from the comfort of my kitchen, and you can write back to me, from anywhere in the world - all of us being heard in a way that, just a couple of generations ago, was barely even an impossible dream.
And ok, so the price I have to pay for that now is an annoying video format.
But it’s still worth it, to me.
The pros still outweigh the cons when it comes to Instagram. It’s still a place where thousands of like-minded humans who I want to connect with are hanging out. Where I can speak to enough people to make or break my business in a single, throwaway post.
Where I can hear my own voice.
And of course, that might change one day. Everyone will have their own personal tipping point, where the demands outweigh the rewards. I have plenty of frustration and critique for the direction they’ve chosen to take things in - dozens of drafts here where I rant on exactly that.
But there’s no power in staying in that place of passive frustration.
Yes, it’s lousy. So, ok then. What’s next?
IT’S JUST SO HARD…
Maybe you’re rolling your eyes in frustration at me right now. Because it’s one thing to be willing to play the game - it’s another to actually be able to do it. So many creators and businesses have seen their IG engagement tank in recent months, and no amount of Pollyanna positivity can make up for that.
I’ve held off on educating around Reels too much until now because I’ve struggled with this conundrum. I know this community. I know the struggles being faced, day to day, in showing up on the app. And I know that your struggles with Reels go much further than ‘remember to look at the camera, not the screen’, and ‘try using trending music!’.
For many of us, it feels overwhelming to even consider switching from photo to video. There’s no desire, no drive, no compelling spark of creativity to ignite.
So, I’ve waited to teach on Reels until I had a practical answer to that. A way to make Reels as comfortable and small a change as possible, and still capitalise on your existing skill set.
It’s important to remember that the demand for what you shared before hasn’t just disappeared. The people that liked your grid posts, your photographs - their tastes haven’t changed. That interest didn’t dissolve. People still want to hear from you; Instagram just isn’t showing them things in the way that it was, which is a problem we can work with.
Indeed, the biggest complaint from casual Instagram users right now is that they’re not even seeing the kind of content they like.
Also worth reiterating, is that a post that performs poorly on Instagram is not an unpopular post. It doesn’t mean nobody likes it, or wants to hear what you have to say. Low engagement tells you one thing and one thing only: how well your content is currently playing the Instagram game.
PLAYING THE INSTAGRAM GAME
So, how do you play Instagram’s game? You find the sweet spot for your audience and the algorithms, and then you just rinse and repeat.
To be seen on Instagram you really only need to know 3 things:
1. What topics will resonate
2. How to present things in an engaging way
3. What formats work best in the current algorithms
The really good news here is you probably already know the answer to number 1: it’s whatever was working for you before! This might sound obvious, but I see so many people who are missing this point.
Reels is just a form of packaging - same as Stories, Carousels, grid posts etc. The germ of your idea - let’s say its my pears in a bowl at the French house - can live in all and any of those formats. You don’t need to reinvent the Reel. You don’t need to dance, or talk to camera, or become a videographer overnight.
There are so many simple, gentle and easy ways to pivot a grid-post idea into a Reel with minimal effort and energy. I’m talking super minimal. Y’all know how I like to conserve all my spoons!
Because yes, the answer to question 3 on that list is currently, most definitely, ‘Reels’.
So, now all you need is an answer for question number 2.
In the interests of brevity and practicality, I want to show you what I mean rather than attempt to tell. So, I’m sharing a free (and hopefully fun) Reels workshop, and I’d really love for you to see it. I’ll show you some of the ways to make super simple Reels content with skills you already have, and talk you through my preferred apps and tips to make them zing.
Sign up here to get instant access, this isn’t a sales pitch or one of those sneaky selling webinars. My hope is you’ll genuinely come away with absolutely everything you need to go and get to work.
And if you’d like more support, take a look at my class The Insta Retreat which kicks off again in a little under two week’s time. You get six weeks’ of lessons, coaching and unlimited support, as I take you through my tried-and-tested techniques for finding your Instagram voice and connecting with an audience that loves you and all that you do.
Finally, please remember that we’re still in a time of transition. Like the friend who always changes herself to match with her newest boyfriend, Instagram usually comes back to her prior self, more or less, once the love affair fades.
It’s ok to feel wobbly. It’s ok to not have it all figured out just now. If you did, you’d probably find that you didn’t once it all changes again in a matter of months anyway.
All of the best things take time ❤️
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"With the slightly desperate air of a balding man rearranging his comb-over" - what a perfect description of what these changes have felt like 😂 As always, love your grounded and thoughtful perspective Sara. I think the pressure to fit into the popular trends of Reels is what gets overwhelming for me. I'd much rather find simple ways that I can make them that fit into my own artistic style and require less effort to film, even if they don't reach as many people. I've kind of come to the decision that it doesn't matter if my IG stays small, so long as I like what I'm sharing. It has to work for me first.
One of my biggest takeaways with all the changes on the app has really been realizing that you can't put all your eggs in one basket. We don't own these apps, and as we can see they'll change them on a whim to suit their own interests and bottom line. I think it's really important to have a separate space that you own, like a personal blog or website, where you can share in whatever format works best for you. IG can then just be a way to share snippets of what you have elsewhere, so you don't feel boxed in by the format restrictions. Like you said, it's just packaging.
Well I definitely feel calmer after reading that, youve definitely simplified it and taken the fear away ☺️ and I will definitely be signing up for the zoom class!! Thanks Sara