Instagram Shed Some Light on Its Game Plan for Branded Content in 2019

Platform will test a new ad product, and all advertisers will gain access to its tools

As Instagram continues to roll out branded content, to inform its decisions, the company focuses on four principles: transparency, integrity, measurement and authenticity. Getty Images

Ashley Yuki, Instagram’s interests product lead, kicked off a press event in New York on Tuesday with an obvious truth: Instagram is making big investments in branded content in 2019.

Pointing to a recent survey, she noted that 69 percent of users said they come to Instagram to interact with celebrities, and 68 percent said the same about influencers, adding that Instagram is “committed to working with regulators, brands and creators to make sure that we’re doing this in a way that’s safe for our community.”

Yuki was joined at the event by several creators, publishers and advertisers, who shared their experiences regarding branded content on Instagram. But not all of them were high on the concept from the start.

Christine Yi, a food blogger with more than 230,000 followers on the platform, said that she didn’t want to do branded content when she started her account. “It felt like I was selling something,” she explained. “I love small brands, family-owned brands—these are people I want to get behind and support.”

Plus-size fashion and beauty blogger Katie Sturino, who has amassed 287,000 followers, added that since she doesn’t have a blog for revenue, she relies on branded Instagram content. “It pays my rent,” she said.

Publishers, naturally, have a more complicated relationship with branded content. Refinery29 creative director Lydia Pang said that while the site’s audience is aware the company uses branded content as an advertising mechanism, it also “hold[s] us to high standards.”

Instagram sees an opportunity to refine those high standards as it’s testing a new ad format to help advertisers, brands and creators deliver branded content. Yuki said that last year, Instagram began testing the ability for brands to run branded content as advertising, expanding its reach beyond organic audiences. It received positive feedback from participating brands, so Instagram plans to roll out this offering more broadly this year to all advertisers, saying that it wants the process of disclosing paid partnerships to be as seamless as possible.

The tool—which adds a “Paid partnership with” sub-header to branded content posts—debuted in June of 2017 for a “small number” of creators and businesses.

Instagram began beta-testing last December with creator accounts, which provide insights to help them track the growth of their accounts across the Instagram feed, Stories and IGTV, as well as filters to manage Instagram Direct messages and optional labels allowing them to provide contact information and to assign categories to their accounts.

Eyal Baumel—CEO of Yoola, a video network and distribution platform for creators—was bullish on branded content ads. “It will help increase the reach for influencers’ content so they get free promotion, and Instagram will have new inventory to monetize,” Baumel explained. “It was just a matter of time until social media platforms tried to grab part of the branded content/influencer marketing pie, as they see billions of dollars in transactions that happen on their platforms, and some currently aren’t getting any of that.”

As Instagram continues to roll out branded content, to inform its decisions, the company focuses on four principles: transparency, integrity, measurement and authenticity. Authenticity drew the most reaction from panelists at the event, with several of them stressing the need to move past the transactional nature of branded content and showcase real relationships with people who are true fans of the brands and their products.

“It’s important for people to know when they’re being advertised to,” Yuki said on transparency, adding that the tag created by Instagram’s branded content tool discloses paid partnerships. ” … [And] brands should feel confident that the creators they work with are real people.”

Yuki also highlighted the initiative Instagram unveiled last November to use machine learning tools to identify accounts that are using third-party applications to generate inauthentic likes, follows and comments.

Edlynne Laryea, director of Neutrogena global equity, digital transformation and sustainability at Johnson & Johnson, was emphatic about Instagram’s need to boost its measurement efforts. “That’s one of the things I wish you guys would work on. I don’t want to hope—I want to know,” Laryea said. “If Instagram could provide better measurement—and the ability to tie engagement to sales—I would love you. We have a lot of channels that we invest in, and it would be great to have concrete measures for branded content.” David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.