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Both are ads. But one is not like the other.

Last month Instagram opened its platform to all advertisers and is continuing to develop ad-supported ways of monetizing its global audience of more than 400 million monthly active users. Any platform that commands that size of an audience will automatically be of interest to a wide swath of marketers especially given the granular targeting opportunities that would be available. So how does this all look to the end user today?

The two posts above are both ads – the one on the left is the ‘official’ Instagram ad that you would buy through the Instagram platform. It carries a well-executed ‘sponsored’ logo and tagline in the upper right and for now sports more formats than regular posts do (for instance in this one you can swipe to reveal more photos from the campaign). Is it targeted well? There’s no easy answer because everyone’s Instagram feed is different. For some it’s a social network and a way to interact with people from their social circle. For others, it’s an interest graph meant for discovering and following topics, places, people or things you are into. Then there’s the use-case in the middle where it’s both a mix of social activity and larger discovery, with likely many other sub-flavors emerging.*

The post on the right is the true native ad format on Instagram: it emerged as followings grew and has produced some really interesting collaborations between famous brands and the proverbial ‘woman on the street’ view of the world, coated in authenticity that has been so absent from marketing lately. The brand and the poster arrange a price that’s heavily dependent on the number of followers a poster has as well as typical engagement levels and collaborate on the content of a post. In this case, the poster has clearly identified this as a sponsored post via the #sponsored tag. Most of the comments I spied were complimenting her on her shoe choice (She’s wearing boots and balancing a package of EmergenC on her soles) and were skating right past any mention of EmergenC, the product she is actually pitching.

A couple of things to bear in mind whether you’re a brand, an agency buyer or an Instagram user:

1. Targeting is key

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No thanks

As compelling as the ad monetization opportunity is, from a user perspective poor targeting on a device in your hand, inches from your eyes is so much more jarring than on other media. Platforms like Instagram will need to carefully walk that fine line and make sure they don’t alienate their highly engaged (and growing) user base. If it means seeing more and more ads for app downloads, retargeting, direct response and presumably soon other direct response greatest hits like teeth whitening and belly fat elimination ads (the kind we’re seeing on Twitter) then brands would be wise to withhold their ad budgets for other platforms and channels.

2. What’s an ad and what isn’t

There’s a lot of variance among authors on how to label and identify sponsored posts, ranging from no mention, through ‘I’ve mentioned it on my blog but not so much in the post’ to using certain hashtags like #spon, #ad, or #sponsored. Instagram could help here by enabling a slightly different background or badge for account owners (perhaps similar to their own sponsored one) that would allow authors to subtly distinguish between sponsored and regular posts. Authenticity and transparency go hand in hand.

Another yogi account, same sponsor but a very vague mention of working with the brand.
Another yogi account, same sponsor but a very vague mention of working with the brand.

3.  Find the right spokespeople

If you’re looking to reach an audience with your message someone’s follower count shouldn’t be your only frame of reference. Depending on the vertical you’re in you may be better off with smaller accounts that command more engaged followers. Likewise if you’re an author you want to make sure you’re surfacing partnerships that are not only financially lucrative but also something your followers would enjoy. Companies like MuseFind could help with this type of matchmaking while also providing benchmarks on payment, terms, etc.

There are many underlying challenges of making a successful ad-supported platform where each user can configure their own content experience. There’s no ‘right’ or single way to use Instagram and there will be no right or wrong way to buy and target ads on it either. Here’s hoping that it will remain the domain of brand advertising that supports and enhances overall user experience.




*Mine is the 2nd type: it’s an interest feed and I mostly follow a group of yogis, athletes, high fashion brands, photographers, street artists & art aggregator accounts. In that sense, the creative looks good although somewhat puzzlingly it’s showing me men’s clothing first (the last two images in the carousel out of four are female).

**MuseFind were part of the most recent cohort at Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator and I had the pleasure of mentoring them when they were first accepted. I’m a big fan of their leadership team and their platform is wonderfully straightforward and easy to use. Check them out.