Social Strategy: Network-Curated Ads?

Ads hand-picked by Instagram co-founder get almost three times as much action as ads people choose themselves to run on Facebook, pilot program shows.

David Wagner, Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

August 6, 2014

4 Min Read

If you have anything to do with your company's social media strategy, it is time to stop ignoring Instagram. Often dismissed as the new place where teens post selfies and foodies post pictures of their lunch, Instagram is quietly becoming a marketing powerhouse. And the success of its piloted marketing program is pointing to something many CMOs and CIOs charged with enterprise social media strategy don't want to admit: the networks who create the communities know more about customers than advertisers do.

The success of Instagram's marketing efforts are pretty startling. Every marketing post on Instragram was liked, shared, or commented on an average of 6,932 times per ad. Compare that to the much larger Facebook where posts received an average of 2,396 Likes, shares, and comments. These numbers are obvious evidence of the success of in-feed advertising as opposed to more traditional advertising.

But if you think the numbers are startling, wait until you hear this: Every ad placed on Instagram must be approved by Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom. Here he is being quoted in Mashable: " 'I'm looking at every ad,' Systrom told the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference at the Aspen Institute on Tuesday. 'We implemented that early on.' He added that he had the power to reject or suggest changes to the content."

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Essentially, what Instagram is practicing is a form of curated content. Instead of being managed by a network of peers, it is being curated by the people who know the community best -- the makers of Instagram. And it is more successful than ads where the advertisers are left to their own devices, as they are on Facebook. This shouldn't come as much of a surprise to you, and yet the vast majority of marketing doesn't work that way. Companies might hire ad agencies or use in-house marketing to help craft marketing, but it is still rather new to consult with the company placing the ad over the value of the ad itself. For instance, on the whole, the network airing the Super Bowl is not consulted as to what the best Super Bowl Ad looks like.

Now, before we get too excited there are a few things to point out. For one, Kevin Systrom might just be a marketing genius. After all, he founded Instagram so he knows a thing or two about reaching out to certain types of folks (that's the point of curated ads after all). But Kevin Systrom cannot do this forever nor does he intend to. He doesn't even necessarily intend to train dozens like himself. This is just part of an experiment. So it might not be curation but Systrom himself succeeding.

Even if he did train a bunch of people like himself, it is hard to imagine this scaling easily to something the size of Facebook. That's a lot of people to rubber stamp ads.

And frankly, we don't know if it is the social network or the curation that is giving us the specific benefits. Maybe Instagram is just valuable with its mostly young audience.

So it is early days to jump to huge conclusions. That said, the takeaway from this from the point of view of the CMO-CIO combo running your social media is that in some shape or form, this type of curated ad is likely to continue to exist and grow, probably as an add-on service. Even though Instagram is only doing this as an experiment and there is no timetable as to how long it will do it, companies have long existed to create and serve content to communities on behalf of companies. This is not new. But it is new in social media. Expect it to grow and evolve. Rather than using your in-house tools for social media to try to craft the perfect ad and hope for success, it might be time to trust the people who built the community to do it.

Measuring social media success is hard. Finding social media success is even harder. But tripling response to an ad is success. Those likes, shares, and comments are the type of amplification social media marketers dream of. Who is better suited to get them than the people who invented them?

What do you think? Would you trust your social media ad creation to a social network? Is this just Instagram being more valuable than Facebook, or are these signs of real results? Comment below.

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About the Author(s)

David Wagner

Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, leadership, and innovation. He has also been a freelance writer for many top consulting firms and academics in the business and technology sectors. Born in Silver Spring, Md., he grew up doodling on the back of used punch cards from the data center his father ran for over 25 years. In his spare time, he loses golf balls (and occasionally puts one in a hole), posts too often on Facebook, and teaches his two kids to take the zombie apocalypse just a little too seriously. 

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