Instagram faces a delicate balancing act following the decision to launch its ad platform in the UK, Canada and Australia later this year.
The ads will need to be beautifully crafted, in keeping with the values of the image-sharing platform. But many users worry that ads could become increasingly intrusive and detract from the social interactions that take place.
Facebook bought Instagram in 2012 for $1 billion and, since then, worldwide user numbers have rocketed to more than 200 million. Some look at the sort of ads Facebook has been serving up on its desktop site – a diet of weight-loss, body-building and dating promotions – and worry that they could find their way on to Instagram.
The platform insists it will police all ads to ensure they fit with its high creative values. The company promises: "As Instagram builds its business, we’ve put community first every step of the way."
Brands are already active on the platform and have the opportunity to showcase the best of their creativity for free. Nike is the number-one brand with 4.7 million followers, while Starbucks has 2.6 million and Burberry 1.5 million. Paid ads will enable brands to promote their images to non-followers.
Ads have already been trialled in the US by a handful of brands including Levi’s and Ben & Jerry’s, with positive uplifts in recall reported. For the wider roll-out, ads will bear the word "sponsored". Users will be able to "hide" them and give feedback, allowing the platform to filter out poorly received ads.
Some see great opportunities for targeting as Instagram users can link up with their Facebook accounts, enabling Facebook to use its targeting tools to find the most appropriate audiences.
However, Markos Zachariadis, the assistant professor of information systems at Warwick Business School, warns that poor targeting risks driving people away from the app: "Questions remain – how innovative can Instagram be with their native-style ads and should they involve users in the process?"
While Instagram will be aware that any missteps will be amplified through social media by its active followers, it is under increasing commercial pressure to run ads.