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How can brands use Instagram ads to connect with customers?

26th Sep 2013
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Following the news that Instagram is set to bring ads to the service, asked a number of experts how this will help brands connect with customers.

When Instagram was bought by social media giant Facebook back in March, speculations quickly began about the likelihood that Instagram would follow Facebook’s lead and begin monetising the site. And it wasn’t long before this was confirmed. Last week, Instagram COO Emily White, who joined the company from Facebook, told the Wall Street Journal that the photo-sharing network would start rolling out advertising within the next year.

“We want to make money in the long term, but we don't have any short-term pressure,” she said, adding that the challenge for Instagram would be to integrate marketing without jeopardising the network’s ‘cool factor’.

The details on how exactly the ads will be served are still hazy but it’s thought they could appear in the Explore tab or be displayed to users as sponsored links when they search for a specific hashtag or picture.

But how will the new ad service be received by its 150m monthly active users who are used to an ad-free service? The network famously encountered a fierce consumer backlash when it changed its terms and conditions regarding users’ photo rights and was forced to u-turn on its proposals. Similarly, Facebook faced its own user backlash when it introduced advertising to the network for the very first time in 2007.

User reaction

So, given users’ previous response to change on both networks, are we likely to see a similar backlash when Instagram ads are introduced?

General consensus from the marketing sphere is that whilst there may be some initial protest, users will soon accept the changes and carry on using the service as normal.

Steve Pole, CTO, Alchemy Social, Experian Marketing Service, said: “It’s likely that the new Instagram ad service will see a small user backlash, however the vast majority of users will simply accept the changes and continue using the service as usual.  We’ve seen the same pattern repeatedly following similar Facebook and Twitter announcements.”

Hugh Burrows, head of digital at 3 Monkeys Communications, compared the outcome to Facebook users’ reaction when the network introduced its ad service: “When Facebook first introduced ads there was uproar from its community; consumers didn’t want their social experience infiltrated by brand messages. Fast forward to today and online ads are everywhere, targeting and inviting consumers to engage with brands. This latest development will inevitably cause controversy in the social sphere - however fast forward another six months and consumers will once again be engaging with brands, but just on a new platform.”

Sree Beg, marketing tutor from the University of Surrey agreed, adding: “The main question is will users switch to another photo sharing App in protest.  There won’t be huge numbers of users switching as Instagram itself currently has a strong market position with a growing number of users on a monthly basis. There may be an initial outcry but users are most likely to accept the inclusion of Ads, as has been demonstrated on other platforms.

Engaging users through ads

So once the cries of protest have faded and users return to using the service as normal, how can brands integrate advertising campaigns into their existing Instagram activities to connect with customers?

Jamie Riddell, director of social at Jaywing, said that the introduction of Instagram ads will enable brands to present an engaging image to a relevant audience. He said: “At present Instagram is a 'closed' network which means the only engagement options available on Instagram are ‘likes’ and ‘comments.’ There is no reshare opportunity like tweets nor any traffic/linking opportunity like Pinterest. Initially we'd expect these ads to be boosting exposure from existing accounts and the way brands are currently using Instagram.”

Some have warned that rather that whilst brands such as Red Bull, Burberry and Asos have already used Instagram to deliver creative campaigns, ads must follow a similar format and feed into a wider marketing campaign.

At present Instagram is a 'closed' network which means the only engagement options available on Instagram are ‘likes’ and ‘comments.’ There is no reshare opportunity like tweets nor any traffic/linking opportunity like Pinterest. Initially we'd expect these ads to be boosting exposure from existing accounts and the way brands are currently using Instagram. 

Micke Paqvalén, CEO and Founder, Kiosked said: “It’s important for brands to realise that it takes more than just a thinly veiled sales message to convince consumers to buy. Only by providing experiences which are engaging, relevant and useful will brands be able to cut through the marketing noise.

“Connecting users with their memories and personal moments through image-led advertising is an intelligent way for Instagram to expand but it will need to ensure that the experience for its users is not compromised as a result of restrictive traditional ad formats.”

Beg added: “Building brands online does not solely rely on advertising products and far more on developing a Brand holistically. Instagram is an ideal tool for developing a brands personality and identity through the use of high quality imagery. The brands that have been successful have been able to engage with customers in an unobtrusive manner.”

Death to display ads

Nearly all of the experts told that traditional advertising in the form of static banner ads won’t work on a cerative network such as Instagram.

“A static ad on a web page will no longer suffice, competition is high and technology is changing. To stay abreast of trends brands need to adopt and utilise platforms familiar to their audiences, whilst integrate campaigns with more personalised experiences to provide an immersive and memorable experience,” said Burrows.

He also pointed to the recent introduction of Instagram’s video feature as a new advertising opportunity: “Video ads will most likely be introduced at an early stage, allowing users to opt in and spread brand messages virally across the web, taking full advantage of its social nature.” 

Beg added: “Instagram video will also allow greater creative licence for Marketers, allowing 15 sec of video compared to Twitter Vines 5 sec coupled with more appeal to the masses.”

“As the success of Vine shows, this short video format is clearly something consumers are interested in but how this will be monetized remains to be seen,” added Jon Myers, VP & Managing Director EMEA at Marin Software.

So, once introduced, we’re likely to see those brands that consistently deliver engaging marketing campaigns to take the lead in Instagram advertising, brands such as Red Bull, Burberry, Mercedes and Nike. But for any brand, the quality of the content is key. As Matthew Bennett, CCO at ZAK Media, said: “Without insight and a reason to believe, half-baked Instagram activity will fall flat on its face.”

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