A beginner's guide to hooking audiences with Instagram Reels

People in rowboats fish as they float on blue water. Golden fish congregate around a star attached to the fishing line of the person in the center.

(Emily Whang for NPR)

Short-form video has long been an easy way to grab audience attention. What started with Vine spread to Instagram as video posts and IGTV. In 2020, Instagram introduced Reels to compete with TikTok.

Reels are vertical videos that can last up to a minute. Instagram has integrated Reels throughout the app: on profile grids, in feeds and on the Explore page.

Given the way Instagram’s algorithm is pushing and promoting Reels among other content, they can engage your existing Instagram audience and expand your reach to new users. Plus, you can crosspost content on Instagram and TikTok since the formats are so similar.

Here are some things to think about when developing Reels for your brand account.

To start, what should you consider?

As of now, Reels isn’t great for content creators behind the scenes: It’s hard to cut and rearrange clips and sounds in production mode. Editing video clips outside the app may save you some trouble. Software like Premiere Pro is better suited for cutting and rearranging the footage, even if it’s just casual video selfies of a reporter breaking down a topic.

When posting a Reel, you can also decide whether you want the video to appear in your main profile and in the feed as a post, or only under the Reels tab and in Reels sections of the app. For best results, opt for it to appear as a post. (It will still appear in the Reels tab.) More people will see and hear it that way.

What makes good content for Reels?

Keeping Reels informative and lighthearted will make the algorithm and your followers happy.

The two Reels below tell stories that need more than your average Instagram text post. Think about which stories your newsroom creates that may need that, too. Maybe there are transportation delays or construction — make a montage of the impact. Does your audience area have exceptional fall leaves or spring cherry blossoms? Show them! Is there a local parade or event that may not warrant a full news feature, but deserves coverage? A Reel might be perfect.

 

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A post shared by latimesplants (@latimesplants)

The Reel above, from @latimesplants, features a local plant business and its owner. The topic is visually appealing, and putting a face to the owner’s name in a casual way makes it feel personal.

 

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A post shared by The New York Times (@nytimes)


This Reel, above, from @nytimes is an example of a story that warrants both a visual and an audio element. It’s a clip of an all-female, all-Roma hip-hop group from Serbia.

What will users hear?

Users have to opt in to hear a Reel. This means you should make sure your visuals can stand alone. Put text on the screen and make those first few shots really engaging, so whoever’s viewing it will tap to hear the audio and watch the whole video.

As you’re creating, sift through some of Instagram’s suggested audios. You can see them by tapping Audio when you start a Reel. You can also search for just audio from Explore — after entering a search term, you’ll see an Audio option for narrowing the results.

Users can browse by audio, too. In the app, the very bottom of a Reel shows the audio it uses; on desktop, this appears under the username. Tapping the name displays Reels that use that audio.

If you notice a certain song or audio is showing up frequently in the Reels you’re watching, consider using that same audio. When people look at the Reels on that audio’s page, they’ll see yours. Using popular songs is a simple way to elevate Reels content that doesn’t need voiceover narration.

What will they see?

While Reels are full-screen vertical video clips, when they appear in a user’s feed the top and bottom will be cut off to make a shorter rectangle. A user needs to tap to see the full version. So, keep the most interesting visuals and text in the center. This way, no matter who’s seeing it, or in what part of the app, they’ll be drawn in.

 

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A post shared by NPR (@npr)

This Reel from @npr combines person-first footage with quick cuts to fun imagery. Note the positioning of the speaker and the captions — it looks just fine when cropped.

Check out more Reels on NPR’s main account here, and happy creating!


Emma Grazado is the NPR Training team's writing and reporting intern.