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Instagram has long been the black sheep in the social marketing world. Though the platform first began showcasing ads in October 2013, marketing efforts on the social channel have been near impossible to track.

Why? The platform’s low-linking capabilities. Up until now, links on Instagram have not been clickable, save for the one on a user or brand’s profile page. This means that while brands could certainly advertise on the platform, the lack of a unique link on individual posts made the effectiveness of a campaign an unattainable data point.

“Instagram is a powerhouse social media platform that enables brands to share their best visual content and has rapidly gained popularity over even some of the biggest platforms,” says Leah Spector, social media marketer at Bigcommerce. “In fact, engagement on Instagram is about 15x that of Facebook. Until now, all that quality engagement and content was limited to benefitting brand awareness and community building, not sales or even site traffic.”

On other social networks, primarily Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Google+, marketers have been able to use links to track referral traffic from specific marketing campaigns, using that data to measure market permeation of the brand message or even conversions, depending on the ad in question. Instagram’s ads, on the other hand, as Spector points out, have been used primarily for brand awareness and influence, rather than immediate site traffic or sales.

This is no longer the case.

Instagram will now allow advertisers to post clickable carousels, meaning a fashion brand can showcase a #TBT look, with clickable links to each of the products, for example. This move will likely generate increased revenue for the platform as brands increase marketing spend for Instagram, now armed with data-driven proof that the social network is producing sales.

“Direct links out of the platform is a game changer,” says Spector. “If a brand posts an image of a product, shoppers no longer have to physically type in the URL of the store to track it down — only the most interested buyers would go to that trouble. With a direct link, brands with significant Instagram followers will see site traffic and conversion rates increase because they have given captivated fans a simple way to get to their product pages, making purchasing easy.”

For now, clickable carousels are only available to advertisers and are restricted to photo posts. Instagram is, however, considering whether or not to also allow videos within these clickable carousel streams. The platform first began allowing video advertisements about four months ago, with Disney leading the charge on the efforts.

Certainly while this is good news for brands looking to turn social followings into increased revenue, advertisers and marketers must tread carefully. Instagram built its popularity within four years, and the photo sharing app now has more than 300 million users. By refusing to render URLs as links, Instagram differentiated itself from Facebook and Pinterest, giving users a more cohesive in-app experience. This new announcement is a sharp pivot from the company’s startup strategy.

For brands looking to utilize the new advertising offerings, Spector has a few best practices to help maintain a loyal Instagram following without pushing products too heavily:

  • Use clickable carousels for marketing campaigns only: Not every post needs to be an ad. Follow a 70:30 ratio for lifestyle versus advertising content on the platform
  • Put your product in context: A beautiful, high res image of your product on a white background is nice, but if you put that product in context — say, sunglasses on a smiling woman on a beautiful beach with her friends, fans are more likely to relate with or aspire to that image.
  • Don’t overdo the branding: Let your fans connect the dots with how that product will fit into their lives and they’ll be more likely to want to buy.

Of course, this Instagram announcement also leaves a few questions unanswered. It’s left to be seen, for instance, how this will affect brands who opt out of advertising. In the case of Facebook advertising, brands who do not spend money on their posts have seen organic reach plummet. If the carousel ads become widely adopted on Instagram, brands who choose not to spend on this channel may be left behind.

“I’m curious as to when an Instagram native analytics platform will launch,” says Spector. “Likely Instagram will want to prove the value of its advertising platform, and it will need to provide an analytics solution to convince the masses that the marketing spend is worth their time, effort and dollars.”

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  • Great Announcement! You get a hell lot of traffic from Instagram if images are optimized, relevant, attractive and with eye catchy tag lines (Description).
    And the over branding point you’ve made is absolutely correct.
    Instagram is perfect for product based marketing. No matter how awesome product you have, if you post anything excessively. Your customers wouldn’t be waiting or feeling excited about anything new you are coming up with.

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