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Instagram’s Launch of Sponsored Posts Points to a Need for Testing in Native Advertising


When Instagram launched its sponsored post feature on November 1, it was met with intense criticism from members of the community. The initial ad, a photo from the Michael Kors brand, received over 1,700 comments in the first 18 hours—a full 20 percent of those comments exhibited a negative valence.

instagramOf course, any change in a popular social site will generate pushback from the community—especially when it impacts advertising or pay structures. Fast Company reported, for example, that many of the comments on the Kors post had nothing to do with the photo itself. Instead, users were criticizing the idea of sponsored posts in general.

For advertisers, such a negative reaction is no doubt alarming. However, the engagement metrics may ease some of those concerns. Nitrogram, an analytics platform dedicated to measuring engagement on Instagram, reported that the Kors post received more than 218,000 likes within the first 18 hours—representing a 370% increase in per-post engagement for the brand. In addition, the post generated 33,000 new followers, an increase of 16 times the average for Kors posts that have made it to “popular” page on Instagram.

For brands that have come to an uncomfortable acceptance of banner blindness, such numbers are undeniably compelling. The slow erosion of the effectiveness of display advertising—perhaps best illustrated by the statistic that users are more likely to survive a plane crash than click a banner ad—has fueled the rapidly accelerating trend of native advertising. These ads—which include everything from sponsored posts on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram to original editorial content published on sites like The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, and the New Yorker—place sponsored content directly within the focus of an audience, within the context of consumption.

But beyond the obvious ethical concerns native advertising raises, there are some serious hurdles that must be overcome before this tactic is reliable, scalable, and sustainable. Indeed, for native advertising to become the “new norm,” advertisers and publishers must integrate testing into their process.

Here are four suggestions:

Targeted segments

When dealing with an established editorial brand—like The Atlantic, or Outside—advertisers know that they will be delivered a specific audience, formally defined by years of demographic, psychographic and other research. When tapping into a massive, undifferentiated network like Facebook or Instagram, however, optimizing ads per segment is essential. A testing tool working on these platforms could easily target these segments with tailored content and, more importantly, would also allow advertisers to measure the effectiveness of a treatment among different audiences.

Optimized messaging

The messaging and voice of such contextual ads, too, must be tested and optimized. This is especially important when advertisers are maintaining campaigns across channels—on both Twitter and Facebook, for example—or when targeting multiple segments. A long period of trial and error might eventually lead to an optimized voice in each major channel, but testing can dramatically increase the efficiency of this process.

Tailored creative

The creative, too, must be tailored and optimized for each channel and each segment. A recent Instagram campaign by Ford illustrates the effectiveness appropriately tailored images and creative can have on campaign success. The best way to determine this, of course, is by testing multiple treatments.

Paid vs. Owned

Finally, testing could help both advertisers and publishers answer one of the troubling unknowns about native advertising: Is it worth buying native ads on a network that offers standard brand accounts for free? Testing content in both paid and owned channels would illustrate the value of sponsorship and help to identify what content performs best in each context.

Both advertisers and publishers are excited about the promise of native advertising—and understandably so. But testing will be essential to unlock the true potential of these campaigns—and testing now will help ensure this trend stays hot long into the future.