What Did You Buy on Instagram Today?

Social Media Explained with DonutsI’ve always loved this picture explaining social media through the medium of doughnuts. As you can see it is a little out of date – FourSquare has since pivoted its business model – but I’ve often thought that adding ‘doughnut eating’ as a skill on LinkedIn is a sure fire winner!

For a long time Instagram was, to me, just a load of vintage/filtered pictures. It has always had a cult following and when Facebook paid $1bn for it back in 2012, we all knew it was here to stay.

Fast forward to today and I couldn’t imagine my personal social media consumption without it. I definitely check and post most days and using Instagram is something I do personally, as well as to build my own personal brand.

As I mentioned in my last post, I love a good virtual coffee. I think this definitely informed my choice of format for my podcast – Follow Me: Social Media Perspectives. I’ve not dedicated enough time to it as I would like in the first quarter of this year, so expect more on it soon. In the meantime my thoughts about Instagram were sparked by something Jacqueline Jensen, my guest in Episode 2, and I were chatting about when we recorded together.

Are There Ads on Instagram?

One of the things that we chatted about was our shared love of Instagram. Jacqueline uses it to document her wonderful travels as she lives and works remotely. I have gravitated towards the platform after gradually reducing my personal Facebook use. Something she said really struck a chord with me ‘I don’t mind being sold to in my Insta feed.’

This has had me thinking ever since. With Instagram’s mobile-first platform the newsfeed is one long scroll. In order to place ads into the feed they have chosen to go with a format that looks a lot like any other post on your feed.

Couple that with the fact that advertising on Instagram seems to be very targeted. I often see ads in my feed from accounts that are so close in look and feel to ones that I already follow. The tiny ‘sponsored’ text under the account name – usually where the location on any other post would be – is often the only way I can tell whether it is native to my feed or not.

There are more direct, formulaic ads coming through in my feed recently. These do stick out more and are clearly more along the lines of the more spammy ads people dislike on the Facebook feed. This is a real shame and I think could become a problem in the future.

But for now the ads seem pretty targeted. Back to Jacqueline again ‘it’s usually something I would definitely buy anyway.’ Instagram has always seemed to be set apart from other social channels and they’ve continued this trend by treading lightly when it comes to ads.

The rise of the influencer

Alongside this kind of subtle advertising there is something else going on in the Instagram feed. One of the key trends on recent years: the rise of the influencer. And I would add to that: the rise of the micro-influencer.

If you think about the things you buy, what influences those decisions? Word of mouth sells. You want to see what you are getting and hear a real person that you identify with and trust try it out.

That person often used to be a friend. You would complement something they were wearing ‘Oh, this old thing? It’s X brand.’ You might comment on a book they are reading or a service they use. ‘I’ll send you the link.’

This kind of influence takes place in dark social, a term to describe social sharing and recommendations that you can’t measure because you can’t see them happening. It is the idea that if a friend sends you a link on WhatsApp, you trust them so you click the link. If the link were somewhere on a social feed, or in an ad, you might scroll by thinking it wasn’t worth your time.

So far, advertising on Instagram seems to model this word of mouth feel. It looks like something you invited onto your feed, so you have an added level of trust before you’ve even read the caption.

To take this one step further, influencers are looking to make the gap between scrolling on past a brand link and clicking straight on it that bit smaller. If you think about who you follow on Instagram I’m sure bloggers/lifestyle blogs and small niche brands make up a proportion of your follows alongside friends and family.

You start to see these people as friends too. The platform encourages us to all mirror the same chatty way of captioning. Photos have an instant intimacy as a window into someone else’s life. So if someone is in your community, is on your feed, I think you are more likely to take their recommendations.

Your community on Instagram, the people that make up your feed, have been invited into your world by you and their influence really does have weight.

When is an ad not an #ad?

I’m sure we’ve all seen a post on Instagram with the little #ad at the bottom. The first time I saw it I had to go back and read the caption again – what about it was an ad?

There’s a great piece on #ad by Mother Pukka, an Instagram favourite. As she rightly points out, as long as these posts are signposted, getting your style advice from someone you follow anyway, alongside posts about their bin collections, makes sense.

As we’ve just discussed, these are the people you’ve invited into your feed. So more often these days brands are reaching out to bloggers with a large or niche following and paying for #ad posts. I have to say I don’t find them too worrying. Provided that paid-for content is properly signposted, I’m happy to see ad spend going to bloggers like Mother Pukka.

Another side to this advertising trend is something that we all respond well to: insight and honesty. Having someone not just model a new bag, shoes or the latest gadget but chat engagingly on Stories, show us the unboxing, give top tips and how tos, gives us a sense of just how these products will fit into our lives. That’s always a sure fire winner when we’re considering whether to make a purchase.

I’d have to say that one of the only places where ads really are not working for me on Instagram is in Stories. Having my Stories feed interrupted by a (usually) loud and not at all subtle ad doesn’t encourage me to keep checking my Stories. I’ve taken to clicking on Stories individually and not going on to the next in order to make sure I don’t come across too many.

I’m also not sold on the ‘Swipe Up’ feature currently being trialled on verified accounts. Gary Vee is using it to sell merch as well as to link to content in other channels. I find it a bit too jarring, with Instagram having been such a contained world (with its ties to only uploading from mobile, making it difficult to provide links except in your bio etc.) to suddenly have frequent links to other places.

Monetisation vs Brand Awareness

The other key thing to note here is where the money paid for this advertising is going.

Where ads appear in our feed, or between Stories, Instagram is the winner. Monetisation of platforms is the way they are kept free to access. People pay Instagram to get to our feed.

In turn Instagram will make more money the more targeted the advertising they can offer. The more they know about you, the better targeted the ads will be. Their growing data on their users is also what gave the company its $1bn price tag – the value of their data is what Facebook paid for.

Data driven advertising like this is a win/win. As we mentioned earlier, well targeted ads don’t feel like ads and companies are paying to get directly into the feed of someone more likely to click and buy.

On the flipside brands pay influencers directly for ads on their feed. This puts influencers in control and the increasingly inventive ways that I’ve seen people bring #ads and brand awareness to their feeds can be great fun.

So, what did you buy today on Instagram?

So what have we learnt from this quick round up? Advertising is certainly more subtle on Instagram than other channels. People don’t feel so marketed to, which means they are still engaged with Instagram in a way that contrasts to Facebook feeling increasingly quite ad heavy.

And does it work? Well, I’m the first person to shun a direct ad but I follow and have bought from countless small and ethical businesses I’ve found through my Instagram feed. Whilst I still scroll past ads in general, I have to admit I do take recommendations regularly from those that I follow as well as buy from them. It feels nice to be in the know, part of a community that supports small business and each other, that marketing works on me and I have the pile of cute stationery to prove it!

What are your thoughts on advertising on Instagram? Where do you think it’s going and do you like/dislike its place on your feed? It would be great to hear your thoughts.

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