Skip to main content

The last 18 months has provided us with a huge series of challenges, but as with everything, when you look hard enough you can always find a silver lining. For me, one of the greatest things to happen last year was that the nation’s sweetheart (and a personal hero of mine), Sir David Attenborough, joined Instagram. However, in true 2020 fashion, he left again after just two months – but it was good while it lasted!

So, why did he do it? Despite not being active on any other social media accounts, in his first post on the platform, Attenborough explained, “we’re running this account because we believe that we can create change and save our planet”. With around 27 million Instagram users in the UK alone, he definitely found the right podium to reach the masses. Breaking the world record at the time, he became the fastest user to reach one million followers in just 4 hours 44 minutes. Although this record has since been broken again, it clearly demonstrated that there was an audience on the platform that were excited for another way to keep up-to-date with his rallying calls for climate justice.

Alongside finding another platform to spread his message, it is also possible that this foray into social media was used as a marketing tactic. On the 28th of September 2020, his series ‘David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet’ was released in cinemas and available to stream from the 4th of October on Netflix. Unfortunately, the account has been inactive since the 31st of October – although the content is still accessible for users to rewatch. He’s since explained in interviews that he was persuaded to do a message on conservation, but he found it too hard to keep up with this new form of media. It’s likely that he really did prefer connecting with his viewers via post; however, it is also probable that his team saw the power of social media to stir up a marketing buzz around the new documentary release.

Social media in marketing

Globally, there are around 1 billion Instagram users, and over 70% of that demographic is aged 34 and under. With 63% of its users logging in at least once a day and spending an average of 53 minutes online, Instagram and other popular social media platforms present a powerful and free marketing opportunity for everyone, from small businesses to established brands.

There’s no cost associated with setting up an Instagram account, so once you’ve managed to capture your target audience, it’s easy to ‘influence’ those followers. In terms of more traditional marketing of products by brands, around 90% of people with an Instagram account follow at least one brand. Another survey also found that 89% of users said that a brands presence on Instagram was most influential compared to other social media platforms. But why does it have so much influencing power?

Visually appealing

As with every social media channel, it’s important to have a unique function and Instagram found its niche in the market as an image sharing platform. Since its acquisition by Facebook in 2012, the application has evolved to allow its users to post a variety of different types of content ranging from carousels (multiple images in a single post) to videos and the ability to broadcast live videos with up to three other users.

The power of visuals to aid engagement with content and to enhance the retention of new information has been well documented in research. One study found that even after three days, humans can recall over 2,000 images in a recognition test with around 90% accuracy. This is believed to be due to the pathways in our brains that process words and pictures differently when committing them to memory. It also explains why you haven’t been able to stop thinking about that cute puppy video you watched five times yesterday!

Young voices

With high levels of engagement and a generally younger demographic, it’s no wonder that Instagram’s visually appealing way of consuming information is rising as a popular way to target younger audiences – and when it comes to issues related to climate change, this is key.

In the last couple of years, we’ve seen a greater call to action on climate change from younger generations. Sparked by then5-year-old Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg – who gained popularity in 2018 for protesting for climate action outside Swedish parliament in the lead up to their election – we saw the emergence of the Youth Climate Strike and Fridays for Future. These organised events allowed students across the globe to take to the streets and demand their local governments take action to bring climate justice and equality to all.

But it’s not just the younger teens advocating for their futures. In a report published by Climate Outreach in 2014, surveys suggested that 70% of students (aged 18-25) were either fairly or very concerned about climate change. With the heavy media coverage of the school strikes, it’s likely this figure has since risen over the last few years, and more young people are actively engaging with resources that spread messages of environmental justice and hope for a more sustainable future.

Echo chamber

Over the last decade, and as social media usage has risen to new heights, it has begun to highlight the echo chambers it has created on polarising topics such as climate change. Echo chambers refer to situations where views and beliefs on certain topics become amplified by their repetition and reinforcement among small groups of the population.

The concern is that they can obstruct the flow of information, often in fairly dangerous ways as seen through the rise of fake news. However, there is an argument that they can create safe spaces online, for communities to share ideas and stories.

This has been especially powerful in bringing young people together in the fight against climate change. These climate echo chambers have given rise to a number of Instagram accounts dedicated to creating informative and educational resources on environmental topics. Some examples include @Atmos@futureearth and

These same online echo chambers are likely the ones that Attenborough was targeting with his call-to-action videos. However, due to his wider reach, it’s not inconceivable that he may have had the power to introduce long-term fans of his work to a side of the climate debate they may not have otherwise stumbled into on their own. Healing the planet and bringing people together, is there anything he can’t do?

Social media killed the radio star

With a high number of active users aged 18-34, most of whom are likely to already be advocating for similar messages on climate change, it’s easy to see why Attenborough chose Instagram as the social platform to spread his message and promote his upcoming documentary series. Without exact data, it’s hard to conclusively say that Attenborough’s brief Instagram presence had a positive impact on how his latest series was received. Nevertheless, as with most of his documentaries, A Life on Our Planet received a 9/10 rating on IMDb and 95% score on Rotten Tomatoes, helping to demonstrate how his work continues to inspire people of all ages.

As for Instagram, it’s visually appealing nature and popularity among younger audiences serves as the perfect recipe for content creators and influencers to spread informative resources on climate and environmental topics.

Whether it was a marketing ploy or just another way to broadcast a message on conservation, as always, Sir David captured the hearts and minds of young climate activists everywhere, and for that our planet is eternally grateful.