Instagram is now fully open to all advertisers as it pushes ‘seamless’ integration with Facebook

Instagram is opening up to all advertisers in a push to scale its advertising business that’s underpinned by the creation of a “seamless backend” for marketers to invest more readily in it alongside Facebook.

The social network’s business strategy is shifting gears from cautiously slow to the revenue-spinning mode behind its sister Facebook’s mobile growth. Instagram’s audience is vast (over 300 million monthly active users) and the platform itself is arguably the closest any social media channel has got to replicate a brand safe, magazine quality media format.

It’s no wonder then that Instagram is now looking to grab ad revenues from all brand owners whether they’re Coca-Cola or a flower shop. “We’re open for business for all advertisers”, business operations director Amy Cole told The Drum. “We’re also rolling out to 30 new markets specifically here in EMEA, including Italy, Spain and Turkey by the end of the month.”

More importantly is that by 30 September, Instagram will be available in all the global markets where Facebook is. It’s important because, while marketers will continue to be sold the virtues of using each platform in silo, they are increasingly being sold the benefits of using the two together. Cole described the two networks as being linked by a “seamless backend” – another way of saying that Instagram is shifting over to Facebook’s ad structure. This includes all the Facebook buying interface, Power Editor and its ads API.

What Instagram’s push for ad budgets means for marketers

“Being able to use the same tools across both platforms, having some creative portability and reaching a wider audience across both platforms is incredibly powerful from the advertiser perspective,” said Cole. “We’re seeing Facebook and Instagram emerge as meaningful platforms to drive different media objectives.”

While the reach proposition is a potent one for the social networks, for Instagram it could also help fuel its bid to become more of a direct-response channel. Brands such as Nike have talked up their early attempts to link social and commerce via the channel while Made.com (see below) has seen a 10 per cent higher order value over the last month from those customers visiting from Instagram and a surge in new followers.

What was once a channel that intimidated many brands, is fast becoming one they understand could play a key role for a variety of different campaign types; from brand awareness to direct selling. What’s more, 44 per cent of Instagrammers say they turn to social networks when researching brands - putting them ahead of active users of Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Tumblr, Twitter and YouTube claimed Global Web Index.

To make sure it can track and optimise the different campaign types, advertisers are being handed new tools. People can now post photos and videos in landscape and portrait mode, bringing it more in line with other major social networks. Rather than have to reshoot images specifically for Instagram, advertisers could use the same image sizes they use for most of the other social channels they post to. One commercial avenue this could fully open is to movie studios if the popularity of the latest Star Wars trailer is anything to by. The trailer for the upcoming film has already been shared more than 207,000 times and got over 40,600 comments since it was shown for the first time on Instagram two weeks ago (27 August).

Then there’s the Marquee ads, which are being pushed to those seeking high awareness over a short period. Imagine a retailer at Christmas or Black Friday using the ads to reach shoppers up to three times per day with different pieces of creative around the same event. All the Marquee ads are done on insertion order and on a CPM basis.

While neither is groundbreaking, the formats can be seen as another concession by Instagram to be closer to its peers – particularly Facebook - in terms of features now that it’s built a strong library of best practice case studies.

The Facebookifcation of Instagram

“I would hope that the sophistication of Facebook’s targeting on Instagram means its users will definitely see more ads but that that what they do see are still relevant, interesting and useful as oppose to just spamming the hell out of people,” said TMW’s joint chief executive Chris Pearce, a digital agency that recently developed an Instagram campaign for Unilever. “The sharper targeting off the back of using Facebook’s tools should hopefully soften the blow of Instagram changing.”

However, Cole and Facebook’s director for the UK and Ireland Stephen Hatch don’t think it’s time to start calling the Facebookification of Instagram just yet. In an interview with The Drum, Hatch stressed the potential of Instagram in its own right. “It means were now able to make it so much easier for advertisers to do the things that they’ve wanted to do in terms of reaching and targeting,” he added. “Whilst they’re incredibly powerful together, they’re so strong alone.”

That strength is reflected in the speed og growth of the channel. Instagram continues to post quarter-on-quarter growth and is currently one of the fastest rising social networks globally, according to Global Web Index. Monthly active usage rose from 13.6 per cent in the first quarter of 2015 to 15 per cent, while membership has slightly slowed from 28.8 per cent to 27.7 per cent. Over half of Instagram’s active users say they are following brands on social media, making them more likely to be brand followers than active users of Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Tumblr, Twitter and YouTube.

Commercial quality versus commercial needs

Advertising agencies are split in their opinions on Instagram’s move into the big league. Some are concerned that the social network is at risk of flooding the site with ads and consequently collapsing its carefully built user base. The fear was compounded last month when the social network turned on its advertising API platform, allowing third-party companies to plug in their software so that marketers can plan their campaigns in a more automated manner.

“By opening up the platform for anyone to advertise, they run the risk of turning it into some sort of mobile-first classified channel with a few stylish filters thrown in,” said Tom Winbow, strategist at creative agency Ralph.

“Instagram need to be very careful about how they balance the commercial needs of the business, with the visual quality and creativity that users want and expect. After all, what’s the point of creating the ‘art gallery of the future’ when one in every ten picture frames you look at contain an ad for a sofa that you don’t want?”

But digital agency Roast’s strategy director Kieran Bass argues that the changes spotlight the onus on Instagram’s advertisers to ensure their creative is reflective of the community.

“The nature of the platform should encourage brands and advertisers to push their visual identity,” he added.

“Basic visuals paired with long winded CTAs just won’t cut it, and there’s undoubtedly excitement about creative executions meeting hyper-defined targeting through Facebook’s advertiser interface, but observers should note that success should not be defined by the performance of Instagram over other channels, but by brands understanding how to successfully engage with Instagram users as part of a greater campaign or mobile journey.

Asked by The Drum whether Instagram shared some of these concerns, Cole shifted the argument to creativity on the channel and how it’s the best way to ensure the proliferation of ads doesn’t knock the user experience. It’s a pertinent point given the fact that Instagram won’t be doing as much hand holding now that it’s opening itself up to all businesses.

“I think what we’re doing is really giving that access to more varied types of advertisers,” Cole added. “I think that inspires more creativity and I think as we scale it puts more onus on them to develop the right kind of content. Also with the tools we’re providing, we’re giving more relevance so brands will need to be able to deliver ads to people who are more interested and more likely to want to see that type of content.”

Instagram may not have the billion users Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said was needed to be an “interesting business” just yet but judging by its own plans and the opinions of the market, it is set become a key component of Facebook’s ad business in the coming years. Emarketer predicts Instagram generated revenue could account for as much as 10 per cent of Facebook’s total ad revenue by 2017.