Instagram: A golden opportunity for the European Commission

William Bernard
Researcher at GOPA Com.,
Board member at Protagoras,
Master in PR and European communication at IHECS and ULB

This article is the result of a joint applied-research programme launched by ICF Mostra and the think-tank Protagoras.

ICF Mostra - Protagoras


Young people1 represent almost one in every five Europeans – an age group more likely to favour the European project than any other generation according to most reportsi. Still, less than one-third of the youth participated in the May 2014 European elections (compared to 51% of the +55-age group)ii. A bizarre fact, and one that has been verified by an LSE2 study focusing on young Europeans’ attitudes towards democratic lifeiii, demonstrating a clear desire to participate and take part in EU debates. In this communication paradox, what matters seems to be the very nature of the dialogue.


Recent studies show that young people are ready to engage in two-way dialogues. However, this dialogue actually takes place within the pre-determined frames of social media platforms. In fact, more than four out of every five young Europeans (EU-28) use social networks or a smartphone application regularly3iv.

There is therefore an opportunity for the EU to meet younger citizen’s desire for democratic participation by continuing to reflect their communicational habitsv. In short: find young people where they are.


Connection, presence and participation


In a research report for the Oxford Internet Institute, Nicholas Westcott, former Managing Director of the EEAS Africa and Middle East division, highlighted the three crucial elements for reaching an online target: connection, presence and participationvi.


When it comes to EU online presence, the European Commission alone has over 190 Facebook and more than 100 Twitter accounts4, as well as extending its corporate presence on at least six other social media platforms. Presence is obviously not a problem for the Commission, demonstrated by its global rank of 16th among the best-connected world leaders in 2017. But presence is just one corner of the triangle; both influence and participation are just as important.


Instagram: the younger place to be


Each social media platform possesses its own characteristics and implicit code of conduct. While Facebook and Twitter still appear predominant in the digital ecosystem, for younger users, the highest penetration rate concerns image-based messaging and applications such as Instagramvii. This platform is better adapted to young people’s current digital needs, favouring visuals over texts with an emphasis on ephemeral content, i.e. stories lasting, according to standard settings; a maximum of 24 hours before disappearing. Users are therefore encouraged to check their feed more regularly. Innovative devices have thereby been recently introduced to maximise user’s time spent on the platform. Other recently developed features exploit personalisation, or the eagerness for personification5.


In most EU countries, Instagram is the second most popular social media platform in terms of the daily share of users’ timev. While Facebook’s growth within the first quarter of 2018 has not met expectations6, Instagram is expanding rapidly – now having over 800 million active monthly users worldwideviii. Instagram is the second-best platform for youth penetration vs. marketing engagement – a fact to remember when considering paid campaigns. It is also the dominant leader when it comes to interactions per 1,000 followers. A study by TrackMaven – analysing more than 50 million posts from 40,000 different companies – shows that Instagram has between 50 and 70 interactions per post per 1,000 followersv, far more than any other leading social media platform7. Moreover data shows that 60% of young web users are currently interacting on the social media platform. Hence – from the average 90 million young Europeans with web access –, 48 million young Europeans are active monthly users on Instagram.


A strategic adaptation


While one can witness an active presence of the Commission on Instagram – using all possible tools the platform has to offer (including the regular posting of stories or the use of opinion poll stickers), there are further methods with which the institution could maximise the potential of the medium. Two particular considerations should be kept in mind within any Instagram-related EU communication strategy.


1. Personifying the institution

Over recent months, we have begun to see Jean-Claude Juncker on the Commission Instagram’s page more often. Continuing to feature President Juncker in Instagram posts, thereby personifying the European Commission, is crucial if it is to continue building a relationship with young people. Providing a persona to embody the Commission will help them recognise the human face of the institution, making it more tangible.


2. Opting for tailored contentix

Because Instagram is mostly used by people under 34 years old, it is necessary to keep in mind that all messages should be adapted for this target group, not merely replicating content found elsewhere. The agenda setting should therefore differ, pointing towards specific initiatives, using an adjusted tone.

Besides, with online initiatives praised by internationally well-known social media studiesx, the European Parliament offers best practice in this field.


A guide to best practice: the ‘Do’s and ‘Don’ts of Instagram


• Do’s:

1. Authentic visuals. Image bank pictures tend to be swiped through quickly, they no longer catch the user’s eye. Behind-the-scenes pictures or short footage could be used instead.

2. Real people. A selfie-video story of a Commissioner can be eye-catching. Spontaneity is the key. Try personifying the institutions with ‘Our President takes over the Instagram account for a day!’

3. Platform tools to engage with followers. Continuing to use features such as the opinion poll on Instagram is an effective way to engage followers.

4. Trigger emotions.

5. Keep it short and try some humour. For example, in 2016 the US White House account published a picture of Barack Obama sitting next to a little girl eating an apple in the Oval Office with the following caption: “Lunch meeting.” The picture got a lot of engagement and was used to promote the participation of youth in decision making.

6. Soliciting the audience. For example, the EP insists on messages/photos “worth sharing” and pushes for more people to engage with them.


• Don’ts

1. Launch polls on Instagram if you are not planning on using the results (or at least, not often). Remember that the younger audience – a generation accustomed to immediacy – are motivated by the innovative and proactive use of content. Remember this: the opportunity for this opinion poll feature is to concretely engage in a two-way communication scheme and to use the results to show that the dialogue is fruitful.

2. Excessive use of logos. People following your account know who they are following.

3. Overtly top-down/corporate material. Instead, multiply angles and behind the scenes footage (rather than the “official handshake of presidents”).


Addressing the concerns of young people


These considerations along with a focus on institutional content that a young citizen can engage with, in addition to tailored embodied messaging, could lead to consolidation of the current support for the European project predominantly found in young voters’ circlesxi.

It is even more important not to lose touch with young people in these crucial times.

Instagram presents an excellent opportunity for the Commission to continue defining a new, meaningful framework for online dialogue with its young citizen base.


1 16-29 years old
2 London School of Economics and Political Sciences
3 This figure is 36 points higher than for the entire EU-28 population.
4 The sum represents accounts in all languages, from the EC; the EC national representation offices’; the Commissioners; the spokespersons; the DGs; the programmes, etc.
5 In 2016, Snapchat and the company Bitmoji fused to allow Snapchat’s users to create their look-alike avatar called Bitmoji. The avatar can be integrated into hundreds of pre-made stickers to be added in snaps and Snapchat stories.
6 Linked to the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the #DeleteFacebook movement that followed.
7 Facebook (average of 6 interactions), LinkedIn (average of 3 interactions) or Twitter (average of 1 interaction).
8 President Jean-Claude Juncker’s State of the Union Address 2017. Online:
9 Emotional branding refers to the practice of building brands that appeal directly to emotions, needs and aspirations.
10 The citizen's initiative was founded by the German lawyers Daniel and Sabine Röder, using their private network of friends and social media.

i Eurostat (2017). Being young in Europe today - digital world, European Commission. Retrieved from
ii Directorate-General for Communication (2014). Post election survey 2014 – European Election 2014, European Commission. Retrieved from
iii Cammaerts, B., Bruter, M., Banaji, S., Harrison, S. & Anstead, N. (2014). The myth of youth apathy: young Europeans' critical attitudes toward democratic life. American Behavioral Scientist, 58 (5). pp. 645-664.
iv Chaffey, D. (2018). Global social media research summary 2018, Smart Insights. Retrieved from
v Holt, K., Shehata, A., Stromback, J. & Ljungberg, E. (2013). Age and the effects of news media attention and social media use on political interest and participation: Do social media function as leveller? European Journal of Communication, 28(1), 19-34.
vi Westcott, N. (2008). Digital Diplomacy: The Impact of the Internet on International Relations. Oxford Internet Institute, Research Report. Retrieved from
vii Pew Research Center (2018). Social Media Fact Sheet. Retrieved from
viii York, A. (2017). Social Media Demographics to Inform a Better Segmentation Strategy – Instagram Demographics. Retrieved from
ix Gausis, E. (2017). European Institutions on social media – shaping the notion of European citizenship. Riga Technical University, Economics and Business, April 2017, pp. 27-39.
x Burson Marsteller (2017). Twiplomacy Study 2017. Retrieved from
xi Vesnic-Alujevic, L. (2013). Young people, social media and engagement. Center for European Studies, December 2013, pp. 255-261.