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The holiday season meant a big push for advertisers to engage and convert, and with Instagram as the platform that’s getting the most attention it meant a huge focus on Instagram ads.

Our clients were no different, and our personal feeds certainly saw their fair share of ads interrupting the flow, so I’d like to talk about just what we’ve found that Instagram ads are good for, and what the best ones have in common.

First, let me get this out there

Instagram (for now) may not be a good place to be generating direct traffic and revenue.

GoPro, Warby Parker and other now-cliché examples built their massive businesses not by investing solely on the content that would generate sales today, but the stuff that would generate emotion and interest over time.

The Instagram app was built to be immersive.

There are no links in organic posts, and just the one bio link, so as users we’ve been trained to scroll, double tap, comment and move on.

Breaking that habit by having people click out to a different part of the internet is tough to do, and Facebook will almost always be a more efficient place to get people to click & convert.

So why run Instagram ads at all?

Advertising has so many more potential benefits than last-click conversions. We can tell stories, reach new people, and change opinions by getting great content in front of the right people. That’s the basis of great branding. Conversions are just one final, visible by-product of great brand storytelling.

That’s the next major key that should be the basis of any good social advertising plan: The content must be something that the audience is glad that they saw. This is not a popup, flashing across users’ screens to drive clicks. It’s a piece of social content that appears alongside posts from people’s friends and family. When we forget that, we risk more damage than benefit to our brands.

When we start by creating something awesome, something that will elevate the way that people look at our brands, then it just makes sense that we’d want to get it in front of a targeted group of people, whether it will convert into sales today or not.

What makes a great Instagram ad?

I’m sure that we’ve all seen examples of what makes terrible Insta-ads, so I won’t dwell on that. What I will offer is what we’ve learned from the ads that we’ve run and the results that we’ve seen:

1. It has an objective that’s right for the medium

That means that we need to look at why we’re creating the content in the first place. If it’s a direct conversion, then there are better uses of our budgets elsewhere.

If it’s connecting with new people, or building the perception of our brand over a period of time, then you’ve come to the right place.

2. It’s filled with content that you’d be proud to post organically

For the user, there is no difference in the ways that they experience paid and organic content. If it’s not good enough to go in your grid, then it’s not good enough for an ad.

3. It’s built for its target

The beauty of Instagram ads is that they don’t have to appear in your grid, which opens up huge creative possibilities. Have a segment of your audience who lives in Vancouver and loves your style? Create a beautiful ad that features our city and how you fit into it. Have an email list of past customers? Create a post that deepens your relationship by telling a story of one of your users.

4. It’s one part of a bigger story

That like, comment, share, or follow is a positive outcome, but it’s like a great opening line at the bar – it just starts the conversation. What happens when the best possible outcome happens: they dig deeper to find out more? Does our grid tell the same story and intrigue them to go deeper? Or, (in the odd case that they do click to our websites) does our site take that first impression and run with it?

The bigger story

This is why social media can’t happen in a bubble. We’re not just the internet-crew out here making pretty posts to get likes. What we’re all doing is setting the context for relationships that can be nurtured and built.

As ad units have come and gone, and social networks evolve, that has never changed. The only thing that does is the usefulness of the different places that we can show up.

I am hopeful for Instagram as an ad platform – we’re seeing some really awesome results for the right ads, but that comes as the result of paying close attention to what’s working and what’s falling on its face.

Here’s hoping that you can take a bit of inspiration from the opportunities available and create something that your audience is pumped to see show up in their feeds.