And so it begins…

True to the photo-sharing app’s word in April, Instagram has begun rolling out actual paid-for adverts, the first couple of which began appearing in user’s feeds this week, including my own.

As I was mindlessly scrolling through photos of food from around the world when I should have been paying attention to which tube station I as arriving at, I was struck by something different, something… branded.

Presenting AudiUK’s straight out of the gate set of sponsored photos… 

As you can see the differences are subtle, but obvious. The ‘Sponsored’ notice is clear but unobtrusive, as it replaces the text that normally says how old the post is.

The ‘swipe to see more’ and ‘carousel indicator dots’ (there’s probably an official term for those, but if there isn’t then please feel free to use mine) are the only other additions to the classic Instagram look, but again they’re thoroughly unobtrusive.

In fact the ‘swipe to see more’ disappears after a couple of seconds.

Let’s take a look at some more images…

It’s not until you begin swiping that you’re presented with the ‘learn more’ call-to-action.

Clicking this button opens YouTube and fires up a related video all about the Audi RS 3, where the images have been taken from.

This wasn’t the only ad I saw this week. Here's one from Burberry…

This ad features a good, varied collection of images from its Summer 2016 fashion show.

Engagement

From the couple of examples above it seems that Instagram users have reacted warmly to the ads. In fact Burberry achieved a 16,500 likes and a few hundred positive comments (or at least not outwardly negative ones), however this is only half the number of likes its posts normally receive (between 30,000 – 40,000).

Audi on the other hand managed to blast its engagement with its advert’s 6,000 likes. Typical posts from the car brand only receive an average of 400-500 likes.

User experience

From my point-of-view, a user dreading the encroaching ubiquity of sponsored posts in a previously safe-haven, I’m actually surprised how fine I was with these ads.

They don’t jar with the Instagram experience, as they use the basic functionality and design of the app with only a few small twists. They are also clearly-labelled sponsored ads, so there is no ambiguity here for the user.

Native advertising is a difficult balance between commerce and trust, but I think Instagram has achieved a rare thing here and made it work to its advantage, especially in terms of remaining unobtrusive.

On Instagram you can scroll past images at a rate of two or three per second, so as long as the ads remain true to the Instagram experience, they will never be too conspicuous. That’s the strength of the ‘carousel feature’, it’s the user’s choice to explore further.

Frequency and repetition also need to be paid attention to. Out of the many times I’ve looked at Instagram this week, only twice have I been served an advert. And only one advert per use. Out of the many hundreds of images flickering past my eyes this week, two ads is a pretty user-friendly average.

Compare this to Twitter, where for the last few months the experience has suffered thanks to the unrelenting appearance of the Kate Upton Game of War sponsored tweet. Instagram needs to be mindful not to get carried away by presenting the same advert multiple times to the same user.

There are user-friendly features in place to ensure this doesn’t happen, and feedback from these features will be recorded by Instagram.

The ‘hide this’ button is easily accessible, and you can choose to hide the individual photo, or even the entire account.

The ‘About Instagram Ads’ information is easily accessed from the sponsored label, and this does state directly that Instagram decides which ads to show users based on their activity and who they follow on Facebook and Instagram.

I’m not terribly convinced by this, as I have absolutely no interactions with car brands or luxury fashion brands on either platform. Again though, any possible obtrusiveness just wan’t felt.

I think I know why this is, and why I think ads on Instagram will work effectively. The majority of people I follow all regularly take photos of products they buy or use, whether it’s a delicious sandwich, a weird album cover, a book they’re reading or something they’re wearing. I do it too.

Therefore most Instagram users are completely used to seeing a parade of cool stuff that their friends have bought and loved. Adverts are a far more natural progression on this platform, more so than Twitter or even Facebook.

Before this, succeeding on Instagram for brands was only indirectly linked to sales. Instead it was all about driving equity, creating and building relationships, improving loyalty, raising customer lifetime value… All the nebulous metrics that are terribly difficult to measure, but are absolutely crucial to your business.

Now that Instagram has allowed adverts, brands have much more of a free-reign to ‘bring the hard-sell’ The key for succeeding in this environment though is remaining just as interesting, down-to-Earth and visually appealing as all the other Instagrammers who manage to capture a user’s attention.

Christopher Ratcliff

Published 25 June, 2015 by Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff is the editor of Methods Unsound. He was the Deputy Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

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