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How to succeed with social ads: A guide for brands on Instagram | Steel Advertising
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How to succeed with social ads: A guide for brands on Instagram

How to succeed with social ads: A guide for brands on Instagram

By: Kate Rominger and Emily Marshall

In the first post of this series, we covered Facebook. Now let’s talk about its hip(ster), visual-heavy sister platform – Instagram.

First things first, a demographic birds-eye view of Instagram:


Family Focused fact: Younger parents (under 40) are more likely to use Instagram than older parents, 33% vs. 18%. Additionally, mothers are more likely to use Instagram than fathers, 30% vs. 19% (Pew Research). #instamom

The Algorithm.

Everyone’s talked about it, users, influencers, and advertisers alike have battled it, and we’re going to break it down. Instagram’s algorithm is powered by machine learning. This means that Instagram is constantly learning and optimizing so that each user’s feed is customized. The heart of Instagram’s machine learning is engagement. The more a user engages with content from a specific category, the higher that type of content is on their newsfeed. Recently, Instagram has broken that personalization down in terms of relationship, interest, and recency.

Examples of how you can maximize these categories in your campaign’s social reality:

  • Encourage and promote User-Generated Content (UGC) so that your audience plays a vital role in your brand’s social story.
  • Like and respond to comments on your posts in a timely and brand-tone-appropriate manner.
  • Keep the conversation flowing in the DMs, Instagram is a platform where your brand can be more personable with your consumer.
  • Encourage users to request to be notified when you create a post and/or Instagram story. This especially increases recency, as users can view your content instantly.
  • Also in terms of recency, use testing to find the optimal post times for your brand.


How does Instagram’s algorithm compare to Facebooks? Well, Facebook is more of a matchmaker, whereas Instagram loves engagement. You have to strive to optimize the feed factors in order to break through the clutter.

With the algorithm at the heart of Instagram’s ad serving, your creative should be customized to the habits of your target market. Once you can identify their ideal Instagram newsfeed experience, you should cater your creative to your core target audience.


At its core, Instagram is a photo sharing app. Taking that into account, it becomes clear that visuals will make or break your brand on this platform. Especially on Instagram, visual quality is greater than quantity. Ideally, you have both.

Instagram’s machine learning capabilities also come into play when it comes to creative. Users who engage more with a still photo will see, predominantly, still photos on their feed. And if users never stop to watch or engage with videos, they might start to see fewer of them in their feed. Keep this in mind when you’re creating content; think about the type of content that your target audience predominately engages with and customize your content to their preferences.

Glossier is a great example of a brand with high visibility and high engagement. Their Instagram’s varied content feels real and natural, resulting in high engagement. Vans is another great example. The brand communicates well with their followers on Instagram and they incorporate their consumers’ passion points with their products in their content.

IGTV and Stories 

Instagram TV is projected to become the new mobile-only YouTube platform for creators, brands, and anyone in between. The vertical video format of IGTV and IG Stories come with consumers’ desire for convenient consumption: the vertical format drives visuals on mobile devices.

However, convenience isn’t always characterized by speed. IGTV also comes with a deviation from branded “snackable content”. We are currently living in a “cognitively exhaustive info-verse.” Information is hurled at consumers from all sides, all day, every day, and the brain cannot devote itself to each object vying for our attention. On IGTV, long-form content, challenges the brain in a cognitively beneficial way, especially in terms of branding.

Sometimes short-form content is more effective than long-form content, and vice versa. So, while short-form, quick, attention-grabbing video ads are important for a friendly user experience, recently, consumers have actually been drawn towards long-form video. IGTV provides a space for HD vertical video mobile viewing wherein which consumers opt to spend more time with brands that provide value (educational, entertaining, etc.) in this medium. The key word in that sentence is “opt”. Consumers are making a conscious choice to spend more time with your brand in IGTV, so the content that you, as a brand, post there should be organic and not purely promotional. We, as marketers, used to believe that, because the population’s attention span was increasingly decreasing, consumers would respond better to non-interruptive “bite-sized content”, but with Instagram, this is not the case.

Shoppable Posts

Any Instagram post can quickly become a shoppable post when a brand links products so that a user can purchase the items in the post within the app. This feature is optimal for campaigns with the goal of conversion, especially since 72% of Instagram users report making purchase decisions based on something that they saw on the site (source).

Consider partnering with influencers to make their posts with your product shoppable.


Instagram Live can seem daunting but can be a very beneficial tool for brands. The best ways for a business to use Instagram live is for an interview, product demonstration, performance, or event. Inform your followers before you begin the live stream so that they know when to tune in. Be sure to save your live stream after it’s over so that the content can be cut or redistributed for your Instagram profile and other social formats.

A note on User Generated Content (UGC)

User-generated content is content that a follower or brand fan creates that a brand will often share or request to share. User-generated content increases the likelihood of content engagement, because consumers are generally more attracted to the authenticity of content created by a fellow consumer. A simple way to utilize UGC is through the Regram application.

It should be noted that UGC should not be viewed as a “last-ditch” effort when brands run out of original post ideas, but should be seamlessly integrated into the organic and promoted post schedule.


Working with an influencer can fall under UGC or Branded Content. Under the UGC umbrella, brands give relevant influencers creative freedom over the content. This is the ideal space for your brand to be active in, because, if you’ve vetted a brand-relevant influencer, their content will be authentic to their voice. It is important to vet influencers and provide guidelines for them if you want more control over the messaging, but keep in mind that they have their own personal brand tone and aesthetic.

Instagram Specific KPIs

Make sure to keep on eye on these Instagram specific KPIs while managing your campaigns:

  • Followers: How many quality followers do you have?
  • The Follow-back Rate: quantified brand exclusivity
    • =(# following / # followers) *100
    • Ex: Topo designs vs. higher end brands like Burberry (luxury brands usually have 0% follow back)
  • Likes: How many people liked your post? How many average likes do you get per post?
  • Comments: How many and what kind of comments do your posts receive? What is the average number of comments you receive per post?
  • Views: How many people viewed your story, live stream, or video post?
  • Tags: How many users are tagging your brand in posts or stories? Qualitatively, are they positive or negative?
  • Shares: Have users reposted your post or shared it to their story? If so, how many?
  • Story Engagement: If you posted a poll or opportunity for questions, are users engaging and how many?
  • Branded GIFs: How many people used your branded GIF?
  • Post/Story notifications: How many people do you have subscribed to be notified when your brand posts a post or story?
  • Website Traffic: If your brand link is in your bio, use Google Analytics to see how many of your site visits come from Instagram. Do those leads turn into conversions?
  • Conversions: From your promotions or shoppable content, how many conversions are you getting?

What could be next?

In order to keep its favorable position with users over other social platforms, Instagram must evolve and stay competitive. We see possibilities for Instagram to increase its use of AR, shoppable content, and visual search.

Instagram already provides Augmented Reality filters on stories, but it may be possible that we see this transfer over to user posts as well. For example, users might be able to see a post in AR if it is an option as a format. In terms of shoppable content, Instagram could include this feature in their story program. A user could scan and shop, much like Pinterest Lens or Snapchat+Amazon’s visual search feature.


Steel brings together data, technology, creative and influence to deliver spectacular growth for brands that are marketing to the American family. Working side-by-side with client marketing teams and in-house agencies, Steel extends your leverage by contributing strategy, creativity, bandwidth and best practices. For healthcare, education, government and CPG clients especially, Steel’s full service, integrated agency capabilities and knowledge of marketing automation makes ideas possible and execution practical. Call Steel with your marketing challenges, and if we are not the right fit, we will point you in the right direction.
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