While many social media companies are facing growing pressure over the way they operate, it still looks like business as usual for platforms like Instagram. On Wednesday, the Meta-owned app launched a new test that lets creators offer subscriptions.
Paid memberships bring a new structure to participating accounts, giving them another way to monetize their followings. Sibling app Facebook already allows subscriptions, but the feature has been long-awaited on Instagram. Now subscribers can unlock additional content and videos across Instagram Live and Stories, alerts and a visual badge that distinguishes their comments and DMs from the crowd.
Of course, there’s nothing to stop users from capturing the content and sharing it with others. But it’s against Instagram’s policy, so anyone caught doing that may face some sort of punishment, whether revocation of membership privileges or other measures.
As a pilot program, the test is extremely limited, with only 10 creator accounts in the U.S. participating to start. The list includes actor Alan Chikin Chow, basketball player Sedona Prince, astrologer Aliza like Ibiza, dancer/actress/model Kelsey Cook, digital creator Elliott Norris, Olympic silver medal winner Jordan Chiles, gymnast/actor/model Jack Jerry, artist and spiritual coach Bunny Michael, XR creator Don Allen Stevenson III and digital creator Lonnie IIV.
Based on follower counts, which range from 62,500 to 571,000, the scope doesn’t appear limited to only large influencers, at least so far. But it’s a tentative step built to gain feedback for development, so the final version may work differently.
Creators set their own subscription prices, from roughly $1 per month up to $100, payable through in-app purchases. For now Instagram doesn’t take a cut.
The move fits into its parent company’s stated mission to support creators. Last year, then-Facebook, now Meta, pledged to pay out $1 billion through 2022. It’s not alone. Numerous social media networks have unleashed a broader effort to keep creators happy, with incentives like gifts and tipping. The strategy ensures a bustling community that churns out content to attract and keep users engaged, while fueling ads and shopping on the networks. Instagram expanded on the idea last year with Affiliate Shops, which turns creator accounts into online stores.
The broader concept of social media subscriptions took flight last year, as social audio app Clubhouse revealed intentions to pursue the feature and Twitter rolled out Super Follows.
Such features offer obvious benefits, whether for revenue or to fuel good will in the community. But they can also help tech platforms in other ways. Companies can glean insights into a very engaged and valuable user set, with the data shedding light on what people care about, what they’re willing to pay for and how much. Subscriptions also get around pesky matters like user tracking and privacy, since they’re opt-in by default. Subscribers have to take action to sign up and pay.
Instagram’s pilot arrives as the tech industry faces multiple stress tests over user data. Within the sector, mobile giants like Apple and Google have moved away from user-tracking in iPhones and Chrome browsers via cookies. Meanwhile, legislators are weighing a new bill, brought by House Democrats on Tuesday, that threatens to block “surveillance advertising” across the internet.
If enacted as written, the Banning Surveillance Advertising Act would end the practice of ad-targeting, even opening the door for individual consumers to sue apps like Facebook and Google for as much as $5,000 for every infraction.
These types of efforts could force major changes in how social media platforms work, so they may have to get creative. Instead of surreptitiously tracking online behavior, they would have to entice consumers to willingly hand over their data — perhaps similar to the way consumer brands and stores developed loyalty programs and free or paid memberships.
In that way, tech companies could have a lot to learn from retail.