Using Instagram To Promote Wild Animal Conservation
Engaging the public and promoting pro-conservation behavior within communities is a critical component in preserving wild animal habitats and preventing plant and animal extinctions in the coming decades. Pro-conservation organizations are leading the charge to slow down the rate of extinctions, but they’re in a race against the clock to preserve biodiversity.
Social media plays a vital role in conveying key conservation ideas and gathering support from an engaged public. As a platform that promotes images with short captions, Instagram is the most popular photo-sharing app in the world. This study looks at the Instagram accounts of pro-conservation organizations in Australia and tries to isolate the role played by different aspects of wild animal images in promoting viewer engagement.
The authors assessed 670 images from 160 randomly selected Instagram accounts with a declared interest in the conservation of wild animals including non-profit organizations, research groups, and museums. Accounts that did not feature Australian animal images within their last 100 posts and accounts that did not post in 2021 were not included in the data.
All images were posted between January 1st, 2020, and August 1st, 2021. This time period covers “normal” life, the Australian bushfires, and the beginning of lockdowns for the COVID-19 pandemic. The researchers did a content analysis on many different variables of the photos, including the presence or absence of humans and text in the images, type of images (cartoon vs. photo), image resolution (high, medium, low, or poor), graphic content (gory vs. less gory images), and the type of animals or taxon visible in the photo. They also included the name of the organization and engagement figures in their analysis.
The data showed a total of 1120 animals from 147 different species. The koala was featured the most, followed by the kangaroo, the lizard, the wallaby, and the Australian King parrot. Photographs dominated the type of images being posted (99%), and 83% of the images had no text associated with them. A majority of the images were of high quality (52%) against a naturalistic background (68%) with no graphic content (98%). 93% of the photos were classified as portraits, meaning the animals were the focus of the photo.
In the world of Instagram marketing, a “very high engagement rate” is defined as more than 6%, which means that even small changes within the variables impact outcomes. The presence of text within images had significant effects on image engagement (without text = 5% vs. with text = 4%), indicating that images with no text were preferred. In considering animal elements, only the type of animal or taxon in the image affected engagement, with mammals being more engaging than birds or invertebrates (images with mammals = 6%, birds = 4%, mollusks = 5%, and invertebrates = 3%). While the authors believe that the popular movie “My Octopus Teacher” released during the study may have increased the sense of connection that the public felt towards mollusks, the overall result suggests a lack of conservation support for underrepresented species such as invertebrates and reptiles.
Surprisingly, images with poor quality had higher engagement (poor quality = 7%, low quality = 6%, medium quality = 5% and high quality = 4%). The authors speculate that viewers relate to low-quality images as they convey a more authentic experience. The study also shows that in the 17% of images where human presence (such as a visible hand or arm) was noted, there was no effect on image engagement.
The lack of access to Instagram user metrics and metadata meant that certain variables could not be studied, including image sharing. Furthermore, the authors did not include comments as part of their analysis to avoid instances where users commented multiple times on one photo. It’s also important to remember that many people may look at and take note of Instagram photos without liking or engaging with them. Finally, as the authors focused solely on viewers who already followed the accounts of pro-conservation organizations on Instagram, the findings may not apply to the general public.
The good news for wild animal advocates is that the most significant factors affecting engagement involved how a photo was framed and edited (e.g., adding text or image quality), and not the physical elements within the photos themselves. As a result, conservation groups have the creative freedom to choose photos that appropriately represent their organization and the animals they help. By identifying a likely combination of the elements that drive viewer engagement, the study provides a potential roadmap for organizations to promote the conservation of underrepresented species across image-based social media platforms.