Feb 5, 2019

The Ultimate Guide to Advertising on Instagram

Social media is a huge, ever-changing landscape that offers major opportunities for both general users and marketers. However, that very same dynamic quality also means there's a lot to keep track of for businesses.

Different demographics use different social media for different reasons, and while Baby Boomers and Generation X may still be on Facebook, if you want to go after the millennials and younger audiences, you want to look at Instagram. So how does advertising on Instagram work? And why should you put your advertising efforts here? Let’s find out.

The Instagram Difference When It Comes to Ads

All social media platforms work in different ways. Twitter, for example, works largely through limiting the amount of text people use to produce short, succinct comments. Facebook, on the other hand, works by connecting family and friends together to share photos and things of interest.

Instagram targets the mobile multi-media audience. Smartphones have put a quality camera into the hands of millions of people. In fact, 77% of Americans now own a smartphone, a huge leap from only 35% back in 2011. That’s many people who are ready to take photos or shoot videos at a moment’s notice.

Instagram saw this trend and created a social media platform specifically for sharing images and videos. Not only is Instagram designed and optimized from the ground up to work best with mobile, but it is also built to share smartphone media. If a user takes a photo or shoots a video, Instagram is one of the best ways to easily share that content. So if your target market is the smartphone-centric demographic, Instagram is a valuable channel.

The Instagram Demographic Is Growing

The Instagram Demographic Is Growing

If Instagram is for people that primarily share media on their mobile devices, just how big is this market? Is it one that’s even worth targeting compared to Baby Boomers and Generation X? That depends on the numbers and market you’re going for, but in terms of users, 500 million people use Instagram daily, from a total of over one billion users. That’s a user-base that is only surpassed by Facebook and YouTube. So yes, Instagram has a pretty huge chunk of the market.

While Baby Boomers and Generation X-ers are comfortable on Facebook, 61% of Instagram’s audience is in the coveted 18–34 age range. The total number of active users of Instagram in the United States alone in 2017 was 77.6 million, and that number is set to exceed 100 million this year. If you’re trying to reach young adults, ignoring Instagram would be a critical marketing error!

Then there are the lifestyle and ethnic considerations. If your market is urban or suburban and mixed amongst different ethnicities, Instagram is where you want to be. With 32% of its users in urban centres, another 28% in the suburbs, and only 18% in the rural area, this is definitely catering to “hip” young people and city dwellers. It’s also got a broad ethnic reach, with over 40% of the users being black, over 30% Hispanic, and over 20% white. So if you want to reach more than one racial demographics, this is another reason to start thinking of advertising on Instagram.

Getting Started with Ads on Instagram

So now you’ve got your numbers, you know your demographic, and you’re convinced; it’s time to start advertising on Instagram. First, you need to understand how advertising on Instagram actually works.

As with other social media platforms, Instagram primarily serves users, enabling them to connect with each other. Like Facebook or Twitter, Instagram curates or filters the content that users see based on different parameters, such as the preferred list of friends/family/connections that a user may have, as well as viral images and videos that “float to the top” by virtue of being so popular that people keep viewing and sharing them.

Businesses that advertise on Instagram circumvent the natural, algorithmic process by paying to have sponsored content occasionally be moved front and center on a user’s display, where it can be seen along with the naturally aggregated content. So whatever form of advertising you create, you’re essentially paying for a “priority override” that inserts your content in and among the content a user would naturally see.

Know Your Insta Audience

Since Facebook owns Instagram, there’s a pretty heavy emphasis on having data available that helps you refine your choice of whom to advertise to. These parameters are critical to your success because unlike a poster on a subway or a billboard on the street, where you have no idea who’s seeing your content, on Instagram, you have a higher level of control and data.

Instagram knows the age of its users, their locations, interests and hobbies, what content they are the most responsive to, and what they don’t like. You can use all this data to refine exactly who sees your advertising. If you only want 20-year-olds in Chicago with an interest in food to see your advertising, you can specifically target that demographic!

Do some research on your audience. Divide them into segments and compare that with what Instagram can target for you. Knowing who you want to reach goes a long way on Instagram.

Choosing the Right Content & Ad

Choosing the Right Content & Ad

Now you know that you want to advertise on Instagram, and you even know the audience you want to advertise to. It’s time to choose a method of delivery. Remember, Instagram is a visual, mobile social media platform. It is best viewed by people on phones or tablets, who have an interest in pictures and video. So, you should make sure that any advertising you come up with plays on the strengths of the platform – minimalistic yet high-impact text and visuals. If you want to write long, in-depth text-based articles, you should be looking somewhere else.

People thinking of advertising on Instagram have a few choices including:


People are visual creatures, so if you have a product that photographs well, such as food, clothing, or even hardware, the simplicity of a photograph can still work wonders.


People may be watching fewer commercials on television, but video is alive and well on Instagram. It is not only feasible but recommended to put out video content that people can watch on this platform. A new offshoot is Instagram TV, or IGTV, which allows for longer-form video content, more consistent corporate videos, or even television programming.

Carousel Ads

Like the slide-shows of old, carousel ads show a series of images that can be browsed through, but with an interactive twist. Now, if a product is something that the user can purchase, a call-to-action button can be placed anywhere in the ten images or videos that are allowed, to take customers directly to a website or online vendor.


Instagram has a feature known as Stories where people can link their images together and create a temporary narrative, or Story, with a limited lifespan of 24 hours. Instagram allows advertisers to insert their ads into these stories, for another option to reach out to the market.

What Works & What Doesn’t with Instagram Ads

What Works & What Doesn’t with Instagram Ads

There’s a variety of different ways that advertisers have used Instagram to their advantage.

Domino’ s Pizza, for example, has enjoyed much success with the college crowd by simply playing it simple and appealing to the lowest common denominator: hungry people. Their barrage of images of gooey pizza has been quite successful at enticing customers to their business.

Meanwhile, Brooklinen has gone the video route with short, effective videos that capture the spirit and whimsy of the brand and have helped drive up their sales.

In both of these instances, the advertisers have taken advantage of the strength of their product and combined it with the visual strengths of Instagram and produced very tangible results.

Imagery is crucial to Instagram, as noted by these two successful examples. A colourful, impactful image will always make an impression here. What doesn’t work and runs counter to the Instagram philosophy is detailed text. If your marketing relies on lengthy explanations, it may not be suitable for what Instagram can do. The same applies to images and videos. Keep videos short and don’t inundate an audience with too many posts; they'll just move on.

The Cost of Advertising on Instagram

One thing to keep in mind when it comes to advertising on Instagram is that it isn’t as straightforward as negotiating a fixed cost, writing a check, and then waiting for results. Instagram uses a different payment system, where advertisers bid on the placement of their ad, and the costs are determined by the type of response you want or the cost per click (CPC) total. So while it may not be as simple as just buying an advertising “package” with a television station, it also allows for far more reach, better results, and useful user data that can help you to better target your market.

Final Thoughts

Instagram has many advertising options for businesses that are looking to get on board. As always, you’ll enjoy the most success if you truly understand how to sell your product or service in a way that complements what your chosen advertising medium does best.

If you’re targeting a market that is younger and uses mobile devices a lot, you should think about marketing on Instagram. It casts a broad net that perfectly targets the young, mobile-savvy, tech-literate market.

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