The social media service Instagram was launched in 2011 and has seen many, many design facelifts since its inception, as well as evolutions in capabilities. Created as a photo-sharing social networking service, the folks at Facebook saw a lot of potential (and probably competition) from the sleek and stylish app that they purchased it the very next year for $1 billion, and it has continued to rapidly grow since.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, social media use increased, as a whole, and older generations began making their way to Instagram as well. Less than a decade after selling for the $1 billion, Instagram reached 1 billion users, all capable of being marketed to. There are several different ways of doing that, but most of the allure of social media marketing comes from the ease of implementation, regardless of the strategy used.
What Does Instagram Do?
It still is, at the core, an application for sharing photos and videos, but as the company grew (and the users), the amounts of people seeing these photos and videos did as well. There are ways for individuals to just scroll through any and all content, but users can also “follow” accounts so they receive notifications when the person (or business, non-profit, etc.) posts new content. Users can also add “hashtags” to their posts to pool them with similar content, and users can search these hashtags (e.g., a post of a fish might have a hashtag “#fishing” and that clicking that tag would allow users to scroll through all #fishing pictures).
Marketing teams took note of the amount of people seeing these posts, and the folks at Facebook/Instagram surely did, too, and created ways of monetizing posts through sponsored content.
Primarily a data-driven function, sponsored posts utilize informatics such as popular hashtags and “trending” accounts to add posts that may have not otherwise been included in a given user’s scrolling content had they not been paid for. Teams who create the sponsored posts enter a bunch of information about their target audiences, ultimately hoping their content reaches the right people, instead of just the proverbial “masses.” Big picture, it is a similar process to choosing where you may run television ads, only Instagram actually helps you make your niche even narrower, allowing for more bang for your marketing buck.
In addition to regular posts that can be scrolled through just like any other webpage, Instagram also added a “stories” feature which was intended primarily to make posting more frequent. The “story” posts disappear after 24 hours, so users don’t generally take as much effort in polishing the content, but it’s still content that can, in some cases, be seen by literal millions of people. Sponsored “story” posts are also now part of Instagram’s ecommerce strategy, and the gist is the same as the regular posts. Algorithms dictate where your sponsored story will have the most engagement, generally based on which mutual accounts are followed by people who like your content/product.
Modern Day Product Placement
Similar to television ads, sponsored posts are generally product-centric photos and videos meant to inform and entice users to try out a product or service. Another place that marketers focus on in television is product placement, which is getting your business to be in an actual production, rather than in the commercials. A prime example would be a TV show with frequent gatherings at a bar in which the cast members always drink the same beer. More often than not, there is money being exchanged behind the scenes when a character mentions a certain brand of beer as part of the script.
With streaming services, this product placement has more reach because it can be accessed at any time. In the past, product placement was a one-and-done event (until re-runs, of course). Social media offers the same accessibility to content as streaming television, making it a great medium for product placement as well. Referred to in social media as “brand influencing,” product placement can go as far as an individual making an entire post about how much they love your product or service, and with some accounts in the hundreds of millions of followers, this can mean an enormous reach with not much more than a push of a button.
The holy grail of web content is that which goes “viral” meaning it’s reach extends far beyond the expected audience, and gets consumed by millions and millions of viewers. Sponsored content very rarely gets the viral treatment, but business accounts have plenty of success.
Creating sponsored content and reaching out to individuals about the “modern day product placement” of brand influencing should be parts of every marketing team’s strategy, but as those teams begin to see what kind of content is the most engaging, slowly but surely building your own pages can result in your company becoming the social influencers, meaning free marketing any time, and that is ultimately why Instagram has become such a focus for advertising teams.