Sponsored ‘Grams

And So It Begins…

A few months ago I heard Instagram would start advertising within its newsfeeds. I was uncomfortable with the idea not just because it felt intrusive, but because it would be a complete disruption in the experience. Whereas I’ve learned to zone out Facebook side bar ads or sponsored content, the simple design of Instagram meant sponsored ads would be unavoidable as I used the app. But, like every other change to our social media platforms, I complained silently and continued to use it just as much as I did before.

For those who aren’t familiar with them, advertisements feature a “Sponsored” burst that, while recessive, does stick out more than the grey time stamp you typically see as you’re scrolling. You can tap the “…” button to hide the ad or provide feedback about what you didn’t like so that Instagram may better target you in the future. Instagram explains it uses information gathered from both its own app as well as Facebook (its parent company) to cater its ads. Instagram claims,

Our aim is to make any advertisements you see feel as natural to Instagram as the photos and videos many of you already enjoy from your favorite brands.

The first brands to introduce ads with Instagram include adidas, Ben & Jerry’s, Burberry, General Electric, Lexus, Levi’s, Macy’s, Michael Kors, PayPal and Starwood.

A Pleasant Surprise

Last week, as I was really getting into the holiday spirit, I scrolled through my Instagram and saw this:


Teddy PJs

Meet my Teddy Bear!

I smiled, double tapped, and kept scrolling. It wasn’t until a minute later that I realized, “Hey, I don’t follow Banana Republic!” After all the hints in my blog posts, here’s the big reveal: I have a pet that is more of a stuffed animal than a dog. He’s the cutest. And I do things like take photos of him in flannel pajamas to entertain myself (and annoy anyone who follows me on Instagram).

So naturally, I follow an embarrassing number of dog accounts. I didn’t even pick up on the little “Sponsored” icon that appeared at the top right of Banana Republic’s #HolidayTruth post. The brand’s logo, content, and caption were recessive and just flowed into my overall feed. I was so impressed that I pointed it out to my friend. “Look how well done this Instagram sponsored post is!” After one semester in Social Media for Managers, I’ve officially become a social media nerd…

Some Not-So Positive Experiences

I think part of my surprise to this post was due to the terrible experiences I initially had with the advertising.

Example 1: McDonald’smcdonalds1

I can’t remember the last time I ate fast food. I hate bacon (I know, I’m the only person in the world who hates bacon). I follow accounts like Bon Appetit and Smitten Kitchen. So when I was interrupted by the golden arches, a flashy image of a big burger, and a #Bacon hashtag this summer, I have to admit that I felt invaded. With all the data out there, McDonald’s really thought I was a target for these ads?

lexususaExample 2: Lexus

I had a similar experience with Lexus. I’m the furthest thing from a car aficionado. I currently drive a Hyundai Elantra and thought I was really treating myself to luxury when I bought it (it has heated seats and a sunroof, folks). So when I saw a fancy car in my Instagram feed, it stuck out awkwardly. It looked something like the image to the left (full disclosure: my first thought seeing this is “That’s a terrible color!”).

The photo sat awkwardly in my feed of puppies and donuts.

An Exciting Turn of Events

stella-artois-instagram-04-2014I recently read about an Instagram ad that I’m actually looking forward to seeing in my feed. Stella Artois just announced that it will be the first beer company to start using sponsored ads on Instagram.

Given the commitment to artistry and sophistication that defines the Stella Artois brand, we thought featuring imagery supporting the brand’s holiday campaign, ‘Give Beautifully,’ would be the perfect fit.

-Lucas Herscovici, Vice President of Consumer Connections, Anheuser-Busch

Unlike the McDonald’s ads that seemed forced into a platform, Stella is relying on their foodie vibe to appeal to the typical Instagram user. The company is also leveraging Facebook data so that it will only appropriately target users over 21.

Key Takeaways

So what made Banana Republic’s ad work on me? What makes Stella’s advertising sound cool? Here are a few things I think are important to a successful Instagram sponsored ad:

  • Design it with followers in mind. Look at what is trending on Instagram. Does it align with your consumer? Don’t force your brand into Instagram if the app’s culture doesn’t work with your brand.
  • Don’t overdo the branding. Keep product placement and logos recessive to make the experience less intrusive. If a consumer likes the post, rely on the content to bring them in further.
  • Drive engagement. I liked how Banana Republic started a fun hashtag that encouraged users to engage, either with their own posts or by liking the sponsored ad. It gave a clear CTA to click through if you wanted to see more of the campaign.


  1. Great post Katie! Full disclosure your tweet, promising a puppy picture is what drew me into reading your blog. I think you had great takeaways on what makes some companies more successful than others when they are using sponsored posts on Instagram. Part of the success of companies comes from the subtlety that these companies included their posts. The Banana Republic post you mentioned didn’t stick out in your Instagram feed, but blended in among the other dog posts. I think if organizations can get this right and target the appropriate audiences Instagram sponsored posts will become commonplace, like hidden advertisements in movies. When I was done reading your blog post I checked my Instagram feed to see if I had any sponsored posts that seemed out of place. I have a sponsored post for Express Runway; something tells me that I’m not in their target audience. After reading this I feel like I will be more aware of the sponsored posts in my Instagram feed, especially the ones that are out of place.

  2. Great post. I do think there’s sort of an evolution of advertising on SM platforms. It starts with a company applying a model that has worked in another platform (i.e. like TV or another platform). These efforts fall short because they don’t capture the distinctiveness of the platform. Then, some companies begin to create truly innovative campaigns, opening up the trail for others. At least, I hope that’s how it happens.

  3. I have to say, contrary to Gregg’s draw to reading your blog post, I was mesmerized by the hypnotic gif you had displaying on the IS6621 main page and I had to see what your post was all about. And I’m glad I did! Nice Job!

    I also remember seeing a McDonalds Ad in my feed, along with FootLocker. Both are relevant to me (though I don’t really shop at FootLocker) and so I guess my likes have been well tracked. I actually kind of look forward to getting the occasional ad on this platform (similarly to you, since I’ve become an Instagram nerd and like analyzing how well the content marketing is executed and such). This is a good sign for Instagram and companies, because if others feel like me, it shows that they aren’t getting swarmed with ads and therefore will be keen to pay attention when one does actually show up.

    Going back to targeting based on likes, I wonder if someone who sparatically likes a lot of different content, but not in high volume would get more or less advertisements? Another question that your post made me think about was if I follow a company (i.e. Nike) and see one of their regular posts in my feed (as could be expected) and then they paid for a sponsored post, does Instagram have a way to make sure those posts don’t fall too closely together? If not, what kind of affect would that have on the consumer? Would they be more likely to pay attention to the company (more exposure) or would they be deterred by the repetition and overwhelming of the same content?

    Anyway, just kind of some flow of consciousness there. Great job again!

  4. Loved the post Katie, I’m a bit of a nerd myself in learning more about native advertising! Just like you, I would have been so mad if that bacon ad from McDonalds came up on my newsfeed. It definitely would have stood out between the cupcakes and handbags I look at. I wonder if the fault here lies with the company or their marketing agency that chose which consumers it considered for McDonald’s target market. Either McDonald’s or the agency should have started on a smaller scale with testing these sponsored posts to those they knew were loyal customers. I think with something as unavoidable content on Instagram, companies must be wary of how many people they aggressively they push posts out to! It should be treated as a learning curve rather than who has a bigger marketing budget.

  5. alliemanning · ·

    Katie, such a great post! I agree with you that I follow an embarrassing number of “cute animal” accounts.. I stumbled across that same Banana Republic ad and (also embarrassingly) didn’t realize it was sponsored until you blogged about it! I figured it was just another post from “doglovers” ! This brings up the point that unless the ad is obviously trying to promote a product, it is easy to skim right over. The McDonalds #bacon burger is extreme, as most people recognize the Golden Arches right away. For Banana Republic, however, the subtly of their brand promotion in that post is both good and bad. Good in the way that it doesn’t make Insta users feel as if they are being bombarded with ads, but bad in the way that, at first, I had no idea that post was associated with Banana. Maybe there needs to be a happy medium!!

    Agreeing with what others said above, I think it is important that Instagram uses the data they collect from FB to cater their sponsored ads to each user specifically. As Gregg said, he probably doesn’t want to see anything about Express Runway.. while I wouldn’t necessarily love to see something about Foot Locker, like Pat mentioned. If they can get this down and work out a few of the kinks, I think sponsored ads will be extremely successful. Thanks for sharing your insight!

  6. I love this post, Katie! I really enjoyed that you included a personal experience with Banana Republic’s puppy post because I found the goals of Instagram’s sponsorships so much more relatable with your anecdote. It was also incredibly helpful that you used such specific examples for the “mishaps” of their sponsored ads.

    First off, I commend Instagram for providing users with the options to leave feedback and/or hide the ad from your feed. That is so important for Instagram as a brand because it not only shows that they care about the user’s opinion, but also that they have a desire to constantly grow and improve. It feels like that aspect is entirely lost on Facebook. While they have a certain responsibility to their sponsors to promote the advertisements, the user’s opinions and attitudes towards the ads are sort of irrelevant. I feel as thought Instagram is a more personal platform than Facebook is and therefore it makes sense that the new features of the app would keep the user in mind no matter what.

    Secondly, your key takeaways were fantastic in my opinion. I am particularly interested in the second, “Don’t overdo the branding.” I feel like we so often hear things such as “the brand is everything” and “stick to brand always.” While I do feel those ideas are so important and true, it is also vital to step back every once in a while and make sure you are not overdoing it to the point where it becomes unnatural. Instagram and the sponsors are clearly making a point to maintain a natural flow in the newsfeed and not necessarily make the brand just off the screen at you.

    This was one of my favorite posts of the semester, so thank you for such a great piece!

  7. I have to agree with Jenni in that this was definitely one of my favorite posts of the year as well! I really loved the personal experiences that were tied in, the takeaways at the end, the GIF that Pat mentioned, and of course, the puppy picture! It’s hard not to love a good puppy picture..

    Anyway, I find it so interesting that a company like McDonalds (who likely spends millions on advertising) could make such a big blunder. The fact that something like that can happen validates my decision to take a course like Social Media for Managers. The space is developing so quickly, and there are so many people who aren’t sure what the tools are, how to use them, and what the right etiquette is. There’s also clearly a lot of experimenting going on for companies big and small, which shows that everyone is trying to figure it out, develop best practices, and so on.

    Great post. This definitely provided some “food for thought” as it relates to my own Instagram feed!

  8. Awesome post! Like Jenni, I totally agree that it’s great that Instagram has integrated the feedback option because it does feel like on Facebook we get notifications about “policy changes”, etc. without giving us, the users, any options. I also think you and Jenni are so right about sponsored ads needing to “go with the natural flow”. I’ve had my fair share of times where I realized after I’ve already scrolled past the ad that I don’t, in fact, follow CoverGirl. Other times I get little more annoyed than necessary – but not without reason I don’t think; Instagram was the one sacred platform that you got to entirely curate yourself (also the most simple of the platforms), so when they first started to use Sponsored Ads I was a bit angry. It’s interesting that they use data from Facebook to target these ads, because I just scrolled past a sponsored post this morning for Bailey’s- and I just turned 21 two weeks ago so they must have used that information. I would be curious to know what sponsored ads look like for people who already follow the accounts, or if targeted ads are only present for those who don’t already follow the company. Do companies use sponsored ad posts as regular posts on their page for who their normal followers? I never thought about that until I was just writing this comment!

  9. Awesome post, Katie. Just like Snapchat, Instagram is pushing advertisers to think in creative new ways to broadcast their messages. I loved your example of Stella, which is an advertisement that is enjoyable to see in the feed; it isn’t a negative distraction at all. I also think Farrell made a good point about McDonalds. It’s always interesting that companies struggle with employing native ads in new mediums. I’m interested to see how ads get better in Instagram as a result of companies understanding the space better and as Facebook tightens down their targeting.

  10. Hi Katie great post!! An avid instagram user myself, I found this blog super interesting and informative about their sponsored ad. I also saw the Banana Republic ad and also did not realize it was sponsored at first glance. Definitely proves a job well done by Banana Republic and instagram if users did not even realize the post was sponsored! I also agree with Jenni that the feedback option is awesome and a great move by instagram. By providing users with the option to hide ads and give feedback makes users feel appreciated and fosters a good relationship between the brand and its users. Your takeaways were also spot on – it is so essential for instagram to place its users first in order to not create any hostility or annoyance by the use of sponsored ads. It is so easy for users to become annoyed with adds, and instagram seems to be doing a solid job of utilizing ads in a natural way. Thanks for sharing!

  11. Loved this post! I had a similar experience to you when I recently scrolled through my Instagram feed, liked a picture I saw, and then noticed afterward that it was an ad for a company I hadn’t been following. However, in my experience the branding may have been too subtle because now I can’t even remember what the post was promoting. I think that what might have been missing from the sponsored post in my experience was the engagement aspect you mention in your key takeaways. The use of things like contests or hashtags definitely makes for a more engaging social media presence, especially on a platform like Instagram.
    Also, the use of data for where to place these ads is so interesting to me– Stella Artois using the ages of users to target the appropriate audience is so smart! I, like others, also agree that it’s great that Instagram allows feedback on ads from users. (I actually didn’t know that this was possible until reading your post, but I’m going to check it out on the next ad I see.) Not only does this make users feel better when they can get rid of an ad they don’t like, it helps Instagram (& Facebook) understand users better and collect more accurate data.

    Now I’m actually looking forward to seeing ads on my Instagram just to see who is doing a good job or not.

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