Influencers vs Ads

When it comes to Instagram: Where should you spend your time & money?

Bradley Eshbach

Instagram recently turned on its API. But what does that mean? Soon, brands of almost any size will be able to tap into the mobile photo sharing app’s community with a suite of new self-serve ad products. How will this change the dynamic between brands and the platform’s most lucrative way to reach an audience: influencers?

First, a little background …


In the nearly two years since Facebook first introduced ads to the mobile platform, only a select handful of Fortune 100 companies have had access to the feature. This left the vast majority of brands in a lurch: How do you leverage the popularity of a network when said network won’t yet take your money? Enter, influencers.


Today, influencers are the most effective and accessible way to spread your message and content to a wider audience on Instagram. There are countless match-making vendors that (claim to) help you find the perfect influencers for your campaign (niche,Snapfluence) and even talent agencies (Laundry Service, Tinker Street) who focus solely on representing this new strata of talent.

While the Instagram API is technically open to all, details are scarce. What is the minimum spend? How robust are the targeting options? What specific products will be available?

Another issue today is that ads on Instagram feel … awkward. The community is still getting used to the very idea of ads on a traditionally-pure platform. Plus, Instagram has decided that their ads are the best place to experiment with a wholly-new type of content (the carousel) that immediately smacks of monetization and feels forced.


So, what’s coming down the pike? As prices drop over the coming quarters and ads reach peak availability, the community will naturally become more attune to their existence. What feels out of place today will be commonplace in six months. Additionally, Facebook-driven retargeting will open the platform up to much more intelligent executions driven by quantitative data (in addition to qualitative guesses).

The question then becomes…

Ads versus Influencers: Where Should You Spend Your Time & Money?


Mass Awareness

Come early 2016, more brands can get their content in front of prospective consumers at scale. Before ads on Instagram, advertisers had to rely on the community to drive earned awareness of its activity beyond its followers through @mentions or favorites, but not without barriers. A user has to visit its notifications center and select “followers” to see what its friends are up to on the platform, limiting earned reach.

Driving Further Action

Currently, ads are the only way to directly link to an external destination on Instagram. If a brand’s goals are related to lower-funnel actions like clicks to a website for more information or to product pages for sales, ads may be your best bet. Sure, there is the option to place a link in a user bio and mention it in post copy, but this lacks attribution between individual posts and link clicks.

Reaching Prospective Consumers

Although currently limited to age, gender and country, ads allow brands to reach Instagram users beyond their existing followers. But by winter, Instagram ad targeting will expand to include Facebook user profile data, enabling brands to get content in front of users that matter to them most.

Retargeting Opportunities

Although no formal plans have been announced, we believe advertisers will eventually be able to reach Instagram consumers with a higher-funnel message and retarget those same users on Facebook to drive lower-funnel actions.

More Robust Measurement

Initial Instagram advertisers had access to measuring ad reach, recall and brand awareness through research studies conducted on the platform. While no plans have been stated to update measurement and analytics capabilities for the ads platform, we bet that will be forthcoming to remain competitive with other platforms.


Affinity and Relationship Building

In many ways, an influencer partnership is similar to a modern endorsement, and may help to drive strong brand affinity by associating a brand with an established, passionate presence on the platform.


Entrusting someone else to tell a brand’s story from their point of view can lead to diverse and compelling perspectives. Additionally, an influencer partnership provides the unique opportunity to leverage influencers’ voices to tell a more campaign-based story to a captive audience, or their followers, that likely doesn’t overlap with its own.

Consumer Acquisition

Think of influencer partnerships like a “rent-to-own” audience strategy. By leveraging an influencer to create content on behalf of a brand, the advertiser can draw attention to itself among the influencer’s audience and work to build an initial relationship. Continued cultivation of that relationship can help to convert that influencer’s fans into a brand’s own followers and consumers.

Drive Word of Mouth

Today’s consumers seek out opinions from friends, family or even online forums to make purchase or brand decisions. Instagram influencer partnerships, in many ways, can act similarly to an online word of mouth campaign. Consumers may be more receptive to a brand message from an influencer that they trust rather than from the brand itself.

So, what does it all mean?

As a marketer, you have more options than ever to amplify your Instagram content. The real winners will be the brands that can successfully use a combination of Influencers (for content creation, brand building and storytelling) and paid ads (for amplification) to stoke the fires of their Instagram community and inject their content into the most relevant and passionate cirlces.

Bradley Eshbach

Written by

Hello there. I’m Bradley, a strategist and creative problem solver based in Chicago. Creativity, content, telling stories, and posi vibes are my jams.

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