Instagram Ads gets major attention from businesses, and it’s no surprise. With over 25 million companies using Instagram for Business and at least 200 million users visiting at least one business profile daily, the competition and opportunities are bountiful.
When you search for anything about Instagram Ads, you’ll find hundreds of articles encouraging readers to hurry up and set audience targeting, pay out, and start a campaign. Those articles also usually promise that their five tips will guarantee advertising success on the platform.
But the conversation around Instagram Ads for businesses should be much more complex.
Before you start investing your hard-earned time and money on Instagram ads, you need to consider a much more important question – Are you ready to start advertising on Instagram?
Just like every other decision you make when running your own business, you should carefully consider the cost and benefits of adding Instagram Ads to your marketing mix.
Below, we’ve outlined the basics of what Instagram advertisements are and what resources you should have in place before starting your Instagram Ads journey.
Instagram Ads: An Overview
First things first, it’s good to know how the ads themselves work. Instagram’s advertising features reflect how users typically interact with the platform, and affect how businesses use them in marketing strategy.
Instagram currently offers six different ad formats, each with its pros and cons.
- Stories Ads run in your Instagram Stories. Stories Ads use the full mobile screen, giving designers more space to share their message. The normal Stories features, like polls, Q&A, and more are also available.
- Photo Ads look almost identical to regular Instagram posts, with the addition of a “Sponsored” label in the top-right corner, and a call to action button between the image and like counts/comments.
- Video Ads also look similar to an organic video post, again with the “sponsored” label above and a call to action button below the video. Like photo ads, they run in the Instagram Feeds of your target audience.
- Carousel Ads can run in either feed posts or stories. They allow you to add multiple photos or videos in a single ad. Businesses can add up to 3 cards in post carousels, and as many as 10 cards in Carousel Ads for Stories.
- Collection Ads make it easy for users to browse through products, and are also shown on users’ feeds. Collection Ads feature a primary video or image alongside four smaller images. Customers can tap through a Collection Ad to another post-click experience within the Instagram platform.
- Ads in Explore are the only Instagram that don’t run in your Stories or in your audience’s Feeds. Ads in Explore allow businesses to share ads in user’s unique explore pages, where people typically search for new and different content. Users who tap the “small media” version of your ad will be taken to your full ad, which appears as it would in an Instagram Feed.
One more thing to note: Instagram only runs ads in their mobile app, not in desktop website. We’ll talk more about what exactly this means for businesses later.
Remember those 25M+ businesses advertising on Instagram? With competition that intense, you should think carefully before investing a ton of resources into Instagram Ads. Keep reading for our checklist of the 8 resources you should have before advertising on Instagram.
Are You Ready to Advertise on Instagram?
Some online writers will have you believe that creating effective Instagram Ads is an easy 5-to-8 step process, but they’re neglecting to mention the foundational work that enables success.
Just like everything else in business, it pays to be prepared. Read below for our 8 resources you’ll need to create and run successful Instagram Ads.
1) Strong Organic Instagram Presence
Before you start sending your advertising dollars to Instagram, you should have a successful organic Instagram presence.
We’ve written extensively about how to improve your organic Instagram presence. In short, you should be sure that you are:
- sustaining a specific aesthetic in your Feed Posts
- maintaining two-way communication with your followers and other users engaging with your content
- encouraging users to tag you in posts, share images and videos of your products, and mention you in their Stories
- posting frequent, interesting Stories
- managing your Stories Highlights in order to make your profile a valuable resource for your audience
All of these strategies help to establish trust, build brand image, and connect your business to your audience’s personal lives. These functions are essential because Instagram users have no tolerance for overtly promotional content—even in advertisements.
Users engage with businesses to find inspiration, learn more about topics that interest them, and interact with communities. If your business hasn’t leveraged its organic (free) presence to do these things, your ads are more than likely to fall flat, for a few reasons.
First, Instagram Ads alone cannot create the sense of trust and brand identity that a well-managed Instagram account can. In order to establish credibility, business accounts need to show a history of frequent, high-quality posts and engagement with other users.
Think about it this way—if you clicked through an online ad to a poorly-made website that clearly hasn’t been updated in months or years, are you likely to think highly of that company? Of course not.
Similarly, if someone follows an ad to your profile and finds low-quality content, a lack of return engagement, and nothing of value, they’re likely to lose much (if not all) interest.
Secondly, the best Instagram ads blend into organic content for a seamless branded experience. If you aren’t managing a regular posting schedule and style, your ad is likely to stick out like a sore thumb, which Instagram users hate.
This is especially important to protect the positive experience of your followers. If your followers only ever see advertisements from you, they’re likely to unfollow.
Also, without consistent, strategic organic posts, you’re left to guess what kind of content your audience will respond to. That leads us to the second resource to put in place before starting your Instagram advertising journey…
2) Audience Data
Rich data is the key to all fruitful advertising. You can’t leverage Instagram’s audience targeting tools without knowing how to best define your audience. With little or no information on what has and hasn’t worked in the past, you’re just stabbing in the dark.
This is another good reason to focus on your organic Instagram presence first, because it’s only through regularly posting and engaging with your audience that you’ll learn when they’re on the platform, what kind of content they respond to, the hashtags they search to find businesses/products like yours, and more.
And while Instagram analytics are the most relevant to Instagram Ads, audience data from other sources can be a helpful supplement.
Remember, every advertising stream you add to your marketing mix will take up a great deal of time and money. For that reason (and many more), there is no room for guesswork when it comes to ad targeting.
Before you start running Instagram ads, collect and analyze your Instagram metrics and other customer data to make sure you fully understand your ideal customer. You want your ideal customer persona to consist of statements backed by data, not guesswork and assumptions. You should be able to confidently answer questions like:
- Personal background: How old are they? What is their family size? Where do they live and work? What is their educational background? What was their career path like? Hobbies?
- Industry/business: What industry do they work in? What is their job title and responsibilities? What are common challenges in their industry? Who do they report to at work? Who reports to them? What knowledge and tools do they use in their work?
- Goals: What goals are they trying to achieve? Why are those goals important to them? What are they doing right now to achieve those goals? What obstacles are they currently facing?
- Decision making: Who else is involved in the buying process for products/services like ours? Who do they get advice from about our products/services? How much research do they do before making a purchasing decision?
- Information sources: What publications, blogs, or social media networks do they follow? Do they belong in any networking groups? What information formats do they prefer (video, articles, etc.)? How do they conduct research?
- Shopping preferences: How do they prefer to interact with vendors? How do they usually make purchases? What are some examples of recent purposes?
All this information is the beginning of any successful advertising campaign. Be sure that you focus on the segments of your audience that are on Instagram, and you’ll have an even clearer idea of who you’re targeting.
If your ideal customer persona still has gaps, it’s best not to start Instagram Ads. Focus on gathering that valuable data first, and you’ll save yourself a great deal of time and frustration in all of your advertising efforts.
3) Clear Goals and Strategy
We recommend you don’t start advertising of any kind without a very clear and defined marketing strategy.
If you’ve looked at Instagram’s ad tools before, you know that the program will guide you through the ad making process based on your objective. For example, Instagram offers ads based on brand awareness objectives, engagement objectives, store traffic objectives, and more.
Businesses often make the mistake of expecting these tools to do the heavy lifting for them, but that’s simply not how it works.
These tools can be extremely powerful if used by businesses with a clear understanding of how those different advertising objectives fit into their bigger marketing plan and business goals. Without aligning your ads to your goals, even the best advertisements in the world are useless.
Think about the bigger picture. Rather than trying to think backwards from advertising objective, to marketing strategy, to business goals, it’s best to let your marketing plan guide your advertising choices. If you’re already advertising in other areas, then it’s especially important to visualize how Instagram advertising will fit into your overall advertising plan.
Without clear business goals and a comprehensive marketing plan, you’re unlikely to know exactly what you want to achieve with Instagram Ads, let alone achieve it.
Before you start running Instagram ads, take the time to flush out your marketing plan. For help getting started, check out our free downloadable marketing plan worksheet.
4) Split Testing Capabilities
Dating back to the days before the internet, split testing (also known as A/B testing) is still an extremely important advertising tool. Split testing is a kind of real-world advertising research that tests different versions of ads to find what works best.
Split testing requires you to “split” your audience into two random groups and then show two different versions of an ad to each group. It’s an experiment to learn which version (A or B) is more successful.
Classic split testing follows the scientific principle of isolating variables, meaning advertisers make only one change between to two versions. For example, running the same image with two different captions is an example of classic split testing.
Most importantly, it lets Instagram advertisers move beyond the educated guesswork typically used in the beginning of an ad campaign. Split testing provides rich data that speaks directly to what works best for your Instagram audience.
Split testing, although time intensive, provides definitive answers to questions like the best posting times, best content format, caption length, and literally any other variable of your Instagram advertising strategy.
It simply doesn’t make sense to invest time and money on Instagram advertisements without also investing in split testing. Without continual testing, you have no opportunity to improve your advertising over time. Smart advertising relies on data, not intuition, to deliver results at the right price point.
If you’re unable to conduct split testing, we suggest waiting on starting Instagram Ads. Building split testing into your advertising strategy from the very beginning is the only way to ensure that you get the absolute most out of every dollar and minute spent on advertising.
5) Strong Visual & Design Capabilities
If you’ve been running your business’ organic Instagram presence, you know first-hand how important a compelling image is to earning engagement and followers. In fact, Instagram is defined by its visual focus.
The emphasis on visuals becomes even stronger when dealing with Instagram Ads. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: Instagram users respond best to ads that resemble interesting content, not ads that look like… well… ads.
Strange as that sentence may look, it’s a central truth of Instagram Ads.
Then how do businesses create ads that successfully meets advertising objectives without viewers feeling like they’re being sold to?
It’s not easy, and it can’t be achieved by just anyone.
When it comes to Instagram Ads, there’s a very specific sweet spot that lives between the promotional and interesting. Businesses on Instagram often miss one part of that equation. Some are so focused on creating beautiful visuals, that the central advertising message is forgotten. Other times, businesses put forward no effort into making something interesting.
Maybe you’ve done pretty well on Instagram so far, but you don’t have the skills, time, manpower, or tools to confidently create ads that strike that perfect balance. If that’s the case, put your Instagram advertising plans on hold for the moment.
Remember, bad ads can be worse than no ads at all. Visuals that look poorly made and/or overly promotional don’t exactly inspire trust and loyalty. In fact, low-quality, “spammy” ads make businesses look lazy and uninterested in providing their audience with anything valuable. When it comes to Instagram Ads, it’s better to do nothing than to do it half-way.
If you don’t currently have enough visual/design skills on your team (or maybe those employees have their plates full already), it’s not the right time for you to start advertising on Instagram.
To put it simply, if you don’t have time and/or patience to play the “long game” with your Instagram ads, it’s best not to start a campaign right now.
People spend a great deal of time talking about the amazing advertising power of Instagram, but the long-term nature of advertising on Instagram is often forgotten.
Most businesses on Instagram quickly learn that focusing too much on short-term goals gets in the way of long-term successes. Instagram can be a phenomenal place to build your brand and audience engagement over time. But if you’re fixated on selling, selling, selling, you’re likely to lose out on so much future potential.
Building your business on Instagram involves a forward-thinking mentality. Instagram Ads should be considered an investment in the enduring success of your brand, not a quick way to hit a sales goal. If you’re looking to drive sales quickly, Instagram Ads are not for you.
Add Instagram Ads to your marketing mix when you’re ready to focus on the marketing elements Instagram does best: building customer loyalty, increasing brand recognition, and customer engagement.
7) Mobile Optimization
Don’t forget—Instagram Ads only appear in the mobile app; your ads won’t show on the desktop site. Advertising without a fully mobile optimized website means you’re likely to lose people’s attention when they click through to your website, which is right when you want it the most!
Mobile optimization means that your website has a responsive design, your opt-ins are simplified, and any favorable actions should require as little input as possible from users. Basically, you should set up your website, blog, etc. to be as user-friendly as possible for mobile users. Depending on the skillset of your team, this may require outsourcing to a professional.
Before you consider advertising on Instagram, make sure that you’re delivering the best possible mobile experience in order to capture Instagram’s mobile users.
Like all forms of advertising, Instagram Ads should be considered an investment in the ongoing success of your business. But before you jump into Instagram Ads, go through our eight-point checklist above to determine whether or not you’re ready to make that investment.
It’s best to wait until you’re able to fully commit to every part of the Instagram Ads process, from blending sponsored content into your organic presence, to split testing, to mobile optimization. If you’re only invested half-way, your advertising results will reflect it.