Op-Ed: Will Ads Ruin Instagram?

By Kiran Aditham Comment

Virginstagramsminia Alber-Glanstaetten, group director of planning at Huge, has returned with her monthly column for this here site, now discussing a rather hot topic that would be ads on Instagram? Will it be good or bad for the Facebook-owned service? Well, without further ado, let’s see what the author thinks. Take it away.

Last week, Instagram teased its plan to introduce advertisements into users’ feeds with a few tasteful shots: a gauzy, Americana-inspired photo from Levi’s and a quirky and colorful bird’s eye view from Instagram itself. Commentators are justifiably focused on what the ads look like on a platform that gained popularity in large part because of its emphasis on great images. Instagram has pledged that ads will conform to the high visual standards expected by the community and reassured users that the privacy and ownership of their photos will continue to be protected.

We’ll see. As an Instagram user, I’m irritated that my feed will now involve brands pushing their agenda in my face amongst the folks that I have selected to follow. Of course, it’s no surprise that Instagram decided to monetize its platform, or that yet another social media network is touting the advantages of data at its fingertips, especially the ability to target ads more effectively. And media planners will seize on a new opportunity for ad placement—while InstaAds might not drive a lot of revenue, they will boost brand reach and exposure.

But brands should be careful. So far, their presence on Instagram has felt organic and in many ways user-driven. Brands of all sizes—from huge global ones to personal ones—were forced to offer great content to keep us interested. As users, we’ve enjoyed an experience that has been clever, fun, and unrivaled in any other social network. Netflix has helped increase exposure for actors with clever Instagram contests. Small vintage shops use it as their e-commerce platform. We’ve been taken behind the scenes on movie sets, in huge factories and even on Air Force One. An iPhone photographer created an entire book based on tagged Instagram images of dogs. The community managers at my agency, Huge, have scoured hashtags and awesome fan content to repost and share, connecting brands to their loyal followers.

This unobtrusive and fun experience could be marred by sloppy ad content or placement. I think of walking through Rome—an Instagrammable city if there ever was one—and stumbling upon a big, ugly McDonalds right next to the Spanish Steps. McDs is an aggressive real estate company—they are in Rome less because they want Italians to indulge in Big Macs and more because they know the value of a great location.

I have worked in this industry too long to think there is such a thing as a free lunch, Big Mac or otherwise. At some point, we all have to pay to keep good experiences alive. At the same time, I worry about how InstaAds will change the way we experience and use the app. I wonder whether savvy brands will continue to use Instagram in the way that it has been evolving, or whether the lure of more followers, more data, will cause them to add Instagram to their media planning portfolio.  What is the alternative? A tiered membership program? An exclusive buy-out by one specific brand? Instagram branded channels/feeds along the lines of a YouTube channel? Time will tell. For now, I am cautiously grateful that the images will stick to the visual ethos of the app rather than becoming polished, retouched “advertisement-y” images rushing by on my screen.