In early November, the first ads started appearing on the beloved Instagram platform. Cue the exclamation-laden industry headlines, unreasonably passionate consumer backlash, and excruciatingly elaborate analyses of early adopter campaigns. We've all seen this dance before around other platforms that enter the advertising fray, and it's playing out for Instagram as history suggested it would.
With only a few weeks under our belts and only a small handful of case studies to examine, it's hard to provide a definitive guide for the do's and don'ts of Instagram ads (though dammit if we marketing writers won't still try). However, in an industry where shiny objects lose their luster increasingly quickly and first movers get all the glory, you'd be doing your brand a disservice to not already be considering if and how this new opportunity might benefit your broader paid, owned, and earned media strategies.
Here are some basics to keep in mind as you eye this new visually rich ad option.
Walk before you run
This might seem obvious, but it needs to be said: If you haven't already figured out how your brand can participate organically on Instagram in a meaningful way, then you need to focus there first. Instagram ads aren't a means of jumping onto the platform and buying your way to a million followers. You need an established presence on the platform before you consider entering the world of Instagram ads. In other words, earned media before paid on this one.
And that's not just me spewing obvious advice. In fact, Instagram isn't giving just any old brand the keys to its ad castle quite yet. The company reports that it's proceeding with caution and "working closely with a handful of brands that are already great members of the Instagram community." Those initial partners include adidas, Ben & Jerry's, Burberry, General Electric, Lexus, Levi's, Macy's, Michael Kors, PayPal, and Starwood. So if you want a starting place for determining what Instagram considers "great," there's your short list of players to check out.
Get in early
I know, I know. Easier said than done, right? Beyond the fact that Instagram is only working with limited partners at the moment, it's hard to get budget approval for relatively untested ad opportunities. But when Instagram ads hit prime time -- and they will -- you should be ready to move if you want to truly capitalize on the boom period of a new ad opportunity.
It's no secret that new ad formats see their best results in the early months. But this appears to be especially the case for Instagram. Only days after the first ads appeared, Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom reported that more than 5 percent of the ad impressions served led to "likes" on the ads. Analytics company Nitrogram conducted an analysis of inaugural Instagram advertiser Michael Kors in which it compared the impact of regular Michael Kors Instagram posts with its sponsored counterparts. It found that non-sponsored Michael Kors posts carried a significantly lower conversion rate than the paid ads when it came to "likes."
The first Instagram ad by Michael Kors gained more than 34,000 new followers for the brand in only 18 hours. Most marketers would consider that a rousing success. That said, that didn't stop the ad from garnering headlines describing it as "widely hated." Which leads us to the next point.
Have a thick skin
Look. Haters gonna hate. This is the internet, for goodness' sake -- a place where we've had to coin the phrase "haters gonna hate." People love to freak out when something changes on their favorite social platforms. And those freak-outs are amplified significantly when the changes relate to the addition of ads. To read the comments on an early Lexus Instagram ad, you would have thought the brand posted a photo of kitten genocide instead of the benign piece of high-quality photography you see below:
You see, new ads lead perhaps otherwise reasonable humans to post comments like, "Lexus you officially suck!!!" and "Gross. F***k you @lexususa." And yes, such comments are an inevitable part of playing in the social marketing world. The white-hot fiery hatred currently being directed at Instagram ads will wane. So if you're early to Instagram ads, just hang in there. Like Lexus, you can count the 28,000 "likes" that you garner in mere hours and quietly chuckle to yourself.
Keep your standards high
Now that Instagram is offering an ad option, don't make the mistake of thinking, "Phew. Finally I can stop worrying about all this providing value crap and just use the platform to shill product like I really want to." Sorry. That's just not going to fly.
Instagram ads aren't an excuse to throw best practices for engaging on Instagram out the window -- quite the opposite, in fact. Given the aforementioned consumer backlash against initial Instagram ads and the platform's stated commitment to "make any advertisements you see feel as natural to Instagram as the photos and videos many of you already enjoy from your favorite brands," you need to be working perhaps even harder on delivering value and authenticity in your Instagram ads than you would when crafting a regular unsponsored post.
Maintaining best practices in your Instagram ads also means not neglecting your hashtags, as they can help your brand categorize its ads and sponsored content, which can effectively give a campaign legs beyond the official run.
GE, a titan of behind-the-scenes Instagram magic, does a great job of keeping the look and tone of its ads consistent with the content users have come to expect from the brand.
Don't be afraid to get a little crazy
Yes, brand consistency on Instagram is key. You'll need to play nice on the platform to avoid running afoul of the ever-vindictive photo-sharing masses. That said, that's not to suggest you shouldn't experiment. Instagram ads are brand-spanking new, and that's exciting. They're a place for testing and refinement -- a place where bold moves, even if they flop on the surface, are likely to at least earn you a few headlines and some street cred among the social marketing elite. So be bold. Have fun. And for the love of Pete, don't take every comment on Instagram to heart.