Instagram Ads vs. Influencer Marketing: Deciding What’s Best for Your Brand

To thrive in this space, your brand must skillfully balance the ability to tell its story in the most authentic way while also leveraging all of its capabilities to drive customer conversions.

As the largest and fastest growing social network, Instagram is a hotbed for advertising; however, it’s also been somewhat of a battleground for marketers who are eager to tap into its pool of savvy consumers, but were met with resistance by way of Instagram’s limited ad capabilities.

That all changed when Instagram announced that they will now offer an improved ad solution that enables brands to make use of direct response buttons such as, “Shop Now,” “Install Now,” and “Sign up.” Instagram will also enable interest and demographic targeting and allow brands to use Instagram’s API for managing large campaigns.

Furthermore, these offerings will be accessible to more brands as Instagram previously was more selective with the brands it enabled to advertise. Plus, with recent reports that Instagram ad revenue will reach more than $2 billion worldwide by 2017, the ad-route is becoming more and more attractive to brands.

However, prior to Instagram’s announcement, many brands relied on influencer marketing to target potential new customers and reach fragmented audiences. So now, for many brands, the question becomes: how do we decide what’s best for our brand’s marketing: ads or influencers?

The first question to ask yourself is what do you want to achieve? Brand awareness? Customer engagement? More followers of a certain type? Drive traffic to points of purchase? The answer to this question ultimately drives your marketing decision. Here are a few considerations to make:

Brand Awareness vs. Affinity

Ads are great for increasing brand awareness. You can push ads to a desired target group and immediately see results. The very first Instagram ad from Michael Kors received four times the usual number of likes compared to non-promoted posts; and it also reached a global audience of 6.15 million. The company also received 33,000 new followers, 16 times more than usual. Furthermore, Instagram’s business tools captured the progress showing exactly how each brand is performing with each ad and each objective (e.g. brand awareness), measuring impressions and reach to show how each target group responds to ads.

However, while ads are great for increasing brand awareness, brand affinity is a different goal that speaks more to a user’s sentiment when engaging with brand content on social media; and capturing brand affinity through ads is not done easily.

While the Michael Kors ads produced the numerical results necessary to prove ROI for marketers, the sentiment didn’t fair as well as many people in the Instagram community weren’t happy to see the ads and some saying they were “super annoying” and others demanding that they “JUST STOP.”

The idea that Instagram will soon be opening its ad platform to accommodate more brands, sends red flags to users who don’t want to be bombarded with ads any more frequently than they already are, particularly when there’s a chance those ads will have no relevance to them.

One of the strong suits of influencer marketing is its perceived authenticity. Users following influencers have a different outlook than many users who follow brands on Instagram because influencers are not always pushing out ad content; therefore, when influencers do share promotional posts, it comes off more genuine and organic. This is the difference between awareness and affinity. Awareness can be instant but affinity speaks to a positive sentiment and longer-term relationship between consumer and brand.

So the question becomes what’s more of value to achieve your brand’s desired outcome: raising brand awareness to see immediate results for a specific campaign, or building long term relationships and affinity through influencer marketing?

Cost of Ads vs. Finding the right influencers

Instagram maintains that ads will be open to more small to medium businesses, but the cost is still somewhat of a mystery. Instagram has always remained mum on exactly how much a direct ad campaign costs.

One post from Quora claims that figures between $350,000 and $1 million per month have been mentioned by executives. Whether this is true or not, a figure anywhere in that ballpark is probably not cost efficient for the average small business.

Influencer marketing can be much more cost efficient and in some cases, cost nothing as was the case with fashion brand Zara, which built their Instagram presence to over five million without the ad spend. However, finding the right fit of influencers to work with is an ongoing challenge for many brands.

Understanding what qualifies an influencer and how to effectively leverage their audience takes time and research along with negotiating contracts and scheduling time to analyze results and return; although, influencer networks have helped brands bypass these issues by developing a network of pre-vetted influencers and brands that are matched through a central network that manages everything from campaign goals and initiatives to legal contracts, compensation and results.

A Winning Strategy:

It’s clear that developing a winning Instagram strategy is not black and white. Determining whether to use ads or influencers should be addressed on a case-by-case basis as there are pros and cons to each solution; and in many cases, an ad-approach coupled with an influencer-approach to Instagram marketing can achieve desired results. Ads are great for getting eyeballs on your brand content at a fast and far-reaching pace while influencers help boost engagement, bridging the relationship and affinity between consumers and brands.

Brands can benefit greatly from adopting Instagram’s new ad offering into their current strategies; however, with 84 percent of consumers noting that they trust people they know over direct advertising, according to a Nielsen study, it’s clear that influencer marketing on Instagram still has it’s rightful place. The best strategy would be to use the best of both worlds to maximize results.

For example, brands can use content from influencer marketing campaigns and select the best performing images to create an Instagram sponsored post campaign. Incorporating authentic experiences into promotional content can add a flair of authenticity to your Instagram ads.

Brands can also try running ad and influencer campaigns in parallel to combine Facebook data-driven targeting with consolidation from the trusted source of influencers. Instagram’s new trending tags and places features also have potential to increase ad opportunities for marketers allowing them to build content and campaigns around what’s trending.

Instagram’s new ad offering opens a lot of doors for marketers, but nothing will replace the authenticity that makes Instagram Instagram. The platform is defined by the generation that dictates what’s cool and authentic; therefore it’s core users can easily sniff out anything that’s contrary. To thrive in this space, your brand must skillfully balance the ability to tell its story in the most authentic way while also leveraging all of its capabilities to drive customer conversions.

Francis Trapp is CEO of Brandnew IO, the world’s leading technical platform for Instagram marketing. The Brandnew platform enables advertisers to run global influencer marketing campaigns and additionally delivers key insights via Instagram analytics.

Image courtesy of tulpahn /