Été: Instagram as a Storytelling Tool to Drive Audience Engagement

Making sure an audience finds and watches digital content is not an easy task. An increasing number of projects are therefore developed to be told directly on the social networks that are used by the public. There have already been a number of experiments on Facebook and Twitter, but somewhat less on the Snapchat and Instagram platforms, seeing as they are more recent and their content is more codified.

It’s on Instagram that Été (or “summer” in English)—coproduced by ARTE France and Bigger Than Fiction—was presented daily last July and August. The operation was very successful: more than 78,000 subscribers in the space of two months and a total of 3.8 million views.

Bidirectional reading

This graphic serial presents Olivia and Abel, a couple that decides, before moving in together, to part ways for the summer and live all sorts of individual experiences. Each member of the couple has their own bucket list of things to do.

On a daily basis during 60 days, a nine-frame episode tells the story of an adventure. Unfortunately (spoiler alert!), during the summer, the couple distends itself and ends up separating. But rejoice, because Été is a “palindrome strip” that can be read from beginning to end or from end to beginning! And if you reread the 60 episodes from back to front, the story will instead end on the image of a couple that has been strengthened and brought closer together by its summer of unbridled permissions.

Those who followed the episodes on an ongoing basis last summer experienced the story’s initial version (in which the couple ends up separating). Conversely, if you missed the episodes during the summer and make your way today on Été’s Instagram account, you’ll tend to read the serial in the opposite direction seeing as the most recent episodes are displayed before the older ones.

Été therefore grants a sort of “bonus” to its initial readers by having them live a singular reading experience (and direction)—which is no longer the norm.

From concept to story

This bidirectional reading experience corresponds to the way content is structured and presented on Instagram. It is at the heart of the concept that was presented a year earlier, during the summer of 2016, by interactive screenwriter Camille Duvelleroy to Julien Aubert, producer with Bigger Than Fiction. “At this stage, everything starts with a narrative architecture. But for such an architecture to exist, we needed a story,” explains Duvelleroy, who coauthored and developed Été.

The team then welcomes two writers, Thomas Cadène and Joseph Safieddine, who come up with this couple and its out-of-the-ordinary summer. The initial writing tests confirm that the palindrome is a viable option and the project is therefore set in motion.

Design artist Erwann Surcouf and the team are rapidly supported by two major allies: ARTE, as co-producer and main distributor, and the Delcourt publishing house, that wants to propose a hard copy version of the work.

“We at Delcourt asked ourselves if it would make a good book. Can something initially developed for the web translate well to paper? That led us to ask ourselves questions about rhythm seeing as library goers are often older than Instagram users. We were therefore interested in establishing if we would be able to propose a truly different reading experience.

And it’s intrinsically the case! If certain readers did not appreciate the characters’ fates, we can recommend that they read the narrative in the opposite direction. It’s magical!

We nevertheless added a few pages in to provide readers of the hard copy album with a few flashback episodes and a few more keys to understand certain of the characters’ reactions.

Therefore, if you read the book, your experience will be close to that of the Instagram serial but also somewhat different. That’s real transmedia.”

Yannick Lejeune, editor of Été for Delcourt

There are numerous creative constraints. In particular, the episodes cannot call upon excerpts of prior episodes—because what precedes will become what follows—and the dialogues must sometimes be ambiguous enough to satisfy readers in both directions.

Also, the episodes need to be told in as few frames as possible. Finally, a nine-frame format is chosen for the episodes. Why nine? Because Instagram albums can contain a maximum of ten images or videos. However, seeing as a hard copy version is in the works, it is simpler to use a rectangular page with nine frames instead of ten…

The team also wants to adopt social network codes, which it considers as a key to success as well as a source of coherence and credibility with the public. The use of hashtags, geolocalization, legends and so forth must therefore be an integral part of the writing process.

“The objective was to invade users’ timelines. Instagram is the second [most highly used] social network in France and most of its users visit the site several times each day. Users expose their lives online and try to embellish it. It is known that Instagram photos include a graphic code enabling users to sublimate their life....

We wanted to stick to that image. The bucket list, the list of must-do activities that corresponds well to what we share on Instagram.”

Julien Aubert, producer of Été

Finally, Instagram proposes two ways of publishing content. The first consists of publishing it on the account “wall” in the form of individual photos/videos or albums (containing up to ten pieces of content). The second format is the “story,” a short-lived format that deletes the content after 24 hours (just like Snapchat does).

The major difference between both formats is this one: the first requires square images, whereas the second (stories) uses a vertical format. It must therefore be possible to reframe the graphics...

This is quite a challenge as the creators only have until the beginning of the following summer to complete their production. It’s an unusually tight timeframe for both the new media creators and those responsible for the hard copy. All in all, the creation of Été—from writing 60 episodes to producing hundreds of graphic frames—requires a total of six months.

The team works in close collaboration, meets regularly for group work sessions that alternate with “individual” work sessions by the writers followed by the designer. The idea is to design, think and create together and to then trust that the individual talents will “deliver.”

The urgency is a constraint, but a necessary one. Waiting until the following summer would be taking the risk of no longer being as innovative or seeing the social network evolve in both form and function. In a context where there are so many unknowns, it is important to remain alert and agile. As proof of that, until the end of February, the team waited impatiently but could still not count on the albums!

“Initially, we had planned for 595 publications over a 60-day period. So, luckily for us, the albums arrived. It was very good news for the project!”

Camille Duvelleroy

Meeting the public

All pioneers must prod about in the dark and it is difficult for the team to predict who will answer the call and follow the daily episodes. What will their consumption habits be? Will they tend to follow the albums or the stories? When should new content be uploaded? Will the public be predominantly male or female?

But before being able to take stock and answer these questions, one first needs to have a public. ARTE obviously gives the project a lot of exposure. Its social network accounts are very popular and its artistic aura is undeniable with a certain public. However, and contrary to its habits, the public channel decides for two reasons not to publish the episodes on its Instagram account.

First of all, ARTE is well aware that this work has the potential of attracting a different public, whereas its normal public would certainly be disoriented by the daily publication of atypical content… The second reason is of a rather creative order: such a concept needs to develop over time in a dedicated space and continue to exist in the future without being buried under the channel’s newer publications.

Every daily episode is posted at exactly 11:00 a.m. such as to set up a meeting time and create a new habit among readers. The album and story versions are published at exactly the same time. It quickly appears obvious that each format has its distinct followers: two thirds read the album version and the last third follows the story.

To support publishing, certain episodes are also reposted and published through ARTE’s account.

“It’s what we refer to as cross-posting, meaning that the same content is published on several accounts. It’s also what we did with partner media outlets: Inrocks, Konbini, My Little Paris and Madmoizelle, four web media outlets that are also very influent on Instagram.

We had an agreement with them: they would publish four preview episodes and, in exchange, their logos would be displayed in five episodes.”

Julien Aubert

This overall strategy pays off seeing as the @ete_arte account ends up with close to 80,000 subscribers at the end of August. The public is very faithful, very female (75%) and very Parisian (also 75%). It’s also a public that interacts a lot, with an average of more than 2,000 Likes per episode and anywhere between 11 and 462 comments depending on the episode…

The conversation was driven by the project’s community management teams, who reacted to the public’s comments seven days a week.

“Our strategy was to embody, to be present and to show the public that its comments were read. We answered some comments and thanked those who made positive comments. Users greatly appreciated our presence—and, therefore, ARTE’s presence—as well as our sympathetic contribution.”

Julien Aubert

Été, which began as an experiment, became proof that there exists a public for such social narratives. The creative and formatting constraints are numerous, but direct publication on a social network makes it possible to more “easily” solve the equation of meeting up with the public.

Today, Été presents much more encouraging perspectives for the future and provides its creators with a finer knowledge of this particular world, of the formats that operate well in it and of the users who are interested in it. “If this project is to continue, we now know who our public is,” says Aubert.

Benjamin Hoguet
Benjamin Hoguet is a writer and a designer of interactive and transmedia works. He has contributed to many interactive documentary, fiction and comic strip projects. He has also written for Éditions Dixit four books on new forms of storytelling that make up the La Narration Réinventée collection.
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