Instagram’s Native Advertising Experiment

We’re only a few scant weeks into Instagram’s very limited first run of advertisements. The popular visual media site introduced ads from select vendors, and they’ve been very careful with their approach. Similarly to Tumblr and Twitter, the social site is attempting to create a more “natural” advertising experience by including these images directly in users’ feeds, rather that requiring them to follow the advertiser.

The results have been… unsurprising. It seems no matter what approach companies take, many users loathe advertisements on principle. When they see the now-familiar “Sponsored” stamp, they rebel. It doesn’t matter whether they already follow the brand, whether they love the brand, or whether the ad is exceptionally well done. It’s an ad, and it’s in their previously ad-free space. They don’t want it there.

Instagram Advertising

It’s an interesting conundrum. Instagram has intentionally hand-picked specific advertisers who they feel are already members of the community, who have substantial followings that they built on merit and the quality of their offerings. Their goal is very much in line with Tumblr’s approach – they want to use the culture of the community they built to provide the most natural, unobtrusive experience possible for their users while also monetizing in order to create a successful business model. Tumblr does it with GIFs, and now Instagram’s doing it with high-quality photography.

The first official advertisement, a Michael Kors image that can be viewed here, seems like it should be an absolute no-brainer. It’s creative, simple, high-quality, and is completely in line with Instagram’s theme. It’s a photo the company posted to their own profile, which is already followed by 1.4 million users. The only difference is that pesky “Sponsored” stamp, and the fact that it’s showing up for users who aren’t necessarily following the brand.

But, as the article I linked earlier astutely points out, although the commenters are largely negative nellies, the amount of positive user interaction (hearts/likes, in this case) skyrocketed. As of this posting, 230,000+ users have liked the photo, which is many times more than the business’ average post. So, what does this tell us?

Unfortunately, without access to the analytics of the advertisement (particularly the negative feedback left by utilizing the “Report Inappropriate” option), it’s difficult to say what the effect of the advertisement truly is, and whether the positive outweighed the negative. However, I’d wager that it did.

Instagram Ben & Jerry's

This is the constant struggle with social media and online advertising – the public views these as “free” spaces, and they buck against the idea that they must put up with advertising in their “personal” space. No matter what you do, someone isn’t going to be happy about it. However, the approach is becoming ever-smarter. Going the route of cultivation, creativity, and niche targeting is the next stage in advertisement. Visual media is always becoming more relevant to search engines, particularly with regards to sharability, which is often tied to quality.

Users will never enjoy being advertised to, but we can at least aim to be interesting, engaging, and relevant. Just because it IS an ad doesn’t mean it has to FEEL like an ad. Gone are the days of the low-quality SALE! SALE! SALE! ads. The future is now. What do you think of this experiment in native advertising?

Stephanie Wargin is the Social Media Strategist at Zenergy Works, a web design and SEO company located in Santa Rosa, California. Her friends like to brush her hair into her eyes whenever she talks about Facebook.

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