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Instagram has built itself a huge audience over the last five years but the threat of ad overload looms

As Instagram turns five this week, the billion-dollar photo sharing app is in danger of unravelling its premium positioning now that its seemingly accepting ads that aren’t of the same high standard that made it a special place for brands and users.

From selfies to celebrities, the Facebook-owned social network has enjoyed meteoric success since its arrival in 2010, boasting a global user base of 400 million. People love it because it feels real; it’s about creativity and most importantly community building. Marketers love it because they can use the app to build awareness and reach new audiences because it doesn’t filter out brands or users’ posts.

But Instagram is now at a crossroads. Within days of making it easier for more advertisers to buy more ads last month, users have noted branded posts appearing in their feeds minus the creativity and relevancy that defined its early advertising. The decision to open is floodgates to all advertisers means Instagram now has to balance an increase in ad frequency with continued audience growth.

“If you live your life on Instagram and you are addicted and you check it every 10 minutes then those ads start to annoy the crap out of you pretty quickly,” said co-chief executive and brand director at Innocent Dan Germain.

“The ones that are good at that will find a way to make it work. These things tend to take about a year before people really get it. You have the people who want to just say yes we were first on Instagram, and say to their boss yes advertising on Instagram is the future and then do it blindly and screw it up and then you’ll find some brands whose product and message was made for that medium, not every brand has a right to make a 15-second Instagram ad that will automatically work.”

Instagram is going to have to work with advertisers to "maintain a level of artistic integrity to have people understand it," said  Bartrem, VP communications and marketing at West Jet.

“That user experience will pull back as more marketers try to do it but not in the way that has allowed Instagram to grow. 

“There’s going to be a concern from marketers who are doing a good job of trying to maintain the visual integrity, despite it being a commercial platform, But they will be on the right side of the distribution curve. You will see there’s going to be a mass in the middle who don’t get it right and turn off some of the people who use it.”

Instagram’s affair with ads is well documented, dating back to 2013 when the first sponsored posts elicited grumbles from annoyed users. Since then advertisers have had to abide by tough guidelines to appear on the app until now. More ads means less control, which Instagram hopes to offset by offering better tools designed to encourage creativity.

In an interview with The Drum last month, business operations director Amy Cole downplayed concerns that ads will now flood the site. “I think what we’re doing is really giving that access to more varied types of advertisers,” she 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.”

It would appear that some advertisers agree that more ads from more brands are the impetus to push their creative harder on Instagram. For instance, Universal Music Group is turning to influencers to promote its artists on the social network, partnering with Brandnew IO to tap its 1,600-strong pool of popular individuals.

"The increasing number of ads on Instagram only means that brands have to try harder to catch the attention of someone scrolling through their feed, but we have over 1,800 influencers in our network who know how to do exactly that," said Brandnew IO’s chief executive Francis Trapp.

“The popularity of ad blockers is on the rise -- particularly on mobile with blockers now available on Apple's iOS 9 operating system -- but this is why we see that influencers are the key to an engaging, successful campaign. Promoting Universal's artists with natural, creative content produced by relevant influencers is the best way to grow a real, dedicated fan base. In turn, Universal's talents are ideal choices for brand's who want to leverage reach to existing fans.”

The social network is undoubtedly a powerful ally for brands with targeting options now as good as Facebook. Similarities between the two are fast becoming more commonplace as Instagram’s advertising model fully forms, although some industry experts fear it signals the imminent death or organic engagement on the platform.

"[Instagram] has built itself a huge audience and is as brand safe and magazine quality ad environment as you'll find online…but they seem insistent on ruining it,” said Tom Wnbow business development lead at creative agency Ralph.

“Whether Instagram like it or not, the ads that people see on the platform, directly impact the perception of the Instagram brand and product. They need to decide what kind of brand they want to be and exert some editorial control on the paid content displayed, or their premium positioning will be eroded, along with their audience."

Tim Pritchard, head of social at Manning Gottlieb OMD, argued that “it’s still relatively early days in the monetisation of Instagram” and the advertising options will continue to develop as they learn more about what users want and how they use the platform.

“We’ve seen some very successful applications – both organic and paid and users have become accustomed to seeing advertising on the platform remarkably quickly,” he continued.

“A key challenge for the platform is whether they can balance an increase in frequency with continued audience growth. Coupled with this, the Instagram teams will want to consider the importance of protecting the credibility of the platform among its audience and the communities that use it to ensure it continues to grow its importance in the marketing mix. Further development of targeting options within the platform, combined with greater focus on branded creative be key to realising this.”

Instagram is faced with a challenge every digital platform must face. The opening of Instagram's API is double sided. While it does open up targeted reach to advertisers, it also holds the risk of ad quality, and hence ad engagement declining. Marketers need only study the followings of brands like Nike and Sony Music to see what people want and expect from Instagram.

Featured by The Drum

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