Instagram Ads: The Good, the Bad, and the Paradoxical

Over a year ago, Instagram quietly introduced ads to its 300 million–user platform. Whereas previous advertising opportunities on channels like Facebook and Twitter have been met with opposition, the promoted posts have been welcomed (or maybe overlooked) by Instagram’s user base.

But why? Is it because the content is so engaging that users are welcoming posts from brands they don’t follow? Or because, Instagrammers find the ads less intrusive than pushed posts on other mediums? In all likelihood it is a combination of factors that makes ads work. But as much as the platform breeds success for brands, there are a number of less-than-favorable elements to the new ads on the block.

The Good: Instagram ads are rolled out right.

Unlike its predecessors, Instagram is rolling out ads from an “off-the-shelf playbook,” perfected by its parent at Facebook and friendly competitors at Twitter. Prior to ad launch, Instagram had already ticked the first box in successful advertising: get brands to use the platform. According to Simply Measured, 86 percent of the world’s top brands are on Instagram.

The platform has also, until recently, been selective in choosing its ad partners. Rather than bombard users with promoted posts at every opportunity, Instagram began offer advertising to only a select number of brands — with its first partners being adidas, Ben & Jerry’s, Burberry, General Electric, Lexus, Levi’s®, Macy’s, Michael Kors, PayPal and Starwood. (As of early June, advertising has been made available to all brands.)

Plus, Instagram has a near unlimited data resource in its owner at Facebook. Because Instagram uses information gathered from both channels, the social media site is better able to deliver relevant, interesting content direct to users — making the ads seem like a more natural part of each visitor’s feed.

The Bad: Instagram ads present few metrics and clumsy calls to action.

Visit an ad agency for a day and you are likely to have the importance of calls to action and measurable activity quickly drilled into your brain. For brands and marketers, these two aspects of advertising are the bread and butter of making a company succeed in the digital day.

Instagram has become such a successful platform in part because of its beautiful and simple-to-use interface. The negative side of that coin for brands, however, is ad dollars spent on Instagram are not as measurable. The platform offers likes and comments — that’s it. (Tagging users not actually in a post is considered taboo and therefore not a worthy measure.)

There is also no clickability on Instagram captions, meaning brands cannot drive users to another post or website. Sure, brands can always measure activity via a hashtag — but such a metric depends on the user to actually use the tag correctly, leaving much of the measure out of the brand’s hands. Essentially, while brands can measure factors like on-page time, shares, and clicks on other social mediums, Instagram offers nothing of the like — making ad spend harder to justify on one of the most popular platforms.

The Paradoxical: Plenty of brands are engaging with users for free.

Go back to the 86% stat from Simply Measured and compare it with the small initial list of ad partners on Instagram. It’s clear that plenty of brands are, and have been, successfully delivering content to Instagram users without spending a dime. Take @Zara_Worldwide, the Instagram account for one of fashion’s favorite brands. Without spending a cent, the brand has built a following of nearly five million.

Scores of other brands have done the same, mostly due to the fact that many brands were on Instagram long before advertising was even an option. As such, the intrigue of Instagram ads, especially for those marketers whose brands have already built a successful profile on the platform, falls flat. It remains to be seen if, in time, Instagram will pull back on such free exposure in the interest of further monetizing their business, just as Facebook did.


Pros and cons aside, Instagram has done what many social mediums have failed to do when it comes to advertising: maintain the integrity of the platform — overall, making promoted posts a win for all parties.