Will 'Direct Response' Ads Undermine 'My Response' To Instagram?

It is with some trepidation that I contemplate Instagram’s more ad-filled future.

We knew it was coming. There have been tests all along with marquee advertisers carefully guided by Instagram itself to maintain the look and feel of the visual and generally inspirational social channel.

My daughter taught me years ago about the different tones and personalities of the various social platforms. She canceled her Facebook account, in part because the conversations among her teen crowd simply became too harsh and argumentative. She fled to Instagram, where people didn’t bicker with photos, and where users tended to capture and share positive moments.

Generally, she was right. Instagram has proven relatively resilient in this regard. To be sure, one gets the Instagram feed one deserves. But even in my deliberately diverse base of subscription to the many media outlets and brands I monitor, my feed is a pleasant jaunt through upbeat posts.

So an eMarketer interview on Friday with Instagram’s Jim Squires, director of market operations, made me a tad nervous. After months of tests, Instagram is poised to release to all advertisers tools for targeting and posting self-serve ads into my feed. They will allow buying through an API, and give advertisers access to targeting similar to that available in Facebook, including custom audience building. The ads will allow for direct-response actions such as app installs, sign-ups and even purchases.

The prospect of direct-response ads on Instagram fills me with a bit of dread. It seems to promise the same irrelevant calls to action that currently junk up my Facebook feed. I know that advertisers often gush about custom audiences and the level of precise targeting the platform allows. And perhaps these are present in the specific campaigns that some advertisers run sometimes. But from this consumer’s perspective, most of the app install crap I see in my feed is just that -- crap. The games, productivity apps and other such downloads are generically targeted and look very similar to the ones that show up in my wife’s feed.

But there is a difference between ads as they appear in Facebook and the prospect of those same ads showing up in Instagram. My Facebook feed has always looked and felt crappy. It is not Facebook’s fault, per se. It may be in the nature of the platform that people post a wide range of things, many of them linked, and so the feed looks and feels like chaotic crowd chatter.

Not so in Instagram. One of the laudable things about this social experience is that posters generally aim for a high bar of creativity and visual appeal that the community itself seems to have set. One of the keys to Instagram’s cleaner experience is that its posts do not link elsewhere. They cannot be used by media or consumer goods brands to drive traffic with a tease. They need to deliver a full visual moment in the confines of the post.

The marketer’s hallowed phrase “call to action” is anathema to Instagram’s core experience. You aren’t supposed to “act” here. You are supposed to lean back and enjoy -- or share the joy.

Squires insists, of course, that there will be rules for posting still in place for adds in Instagram. And of course there will be “algorithms” to determine through engagement and negative feedback rates whether ads are relevant.

I am hoping these aren’t the same “algorithms” at work in my Facebook feed.  

This column was previously published in Data and Targeting Insider on July 20.

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