Commercialization won’t ruin Instagram video—yet

Instagram ads are coming. We don’t know what they’ll look like or when they’ll arrive. But Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has promised that Instagram won’t be ad-free forever. The world’s largest brands are already using the photo-sharing app and its new video tool to pimp their products.

Facebook is betting big on mobile ads, which went from being a blip on the social network’s radar to accounting for 41 percent of the company’s ad revenue in just one year. The network reportedly plans to run 15-second, TV-style ads in users’ News Feeds, which could cost advertisers $2.5 million a pop. If that 15-second limitation—as yet unconfirmed by Facebook—sounds familiar, it’s because 15 seconds is also the cap that Instagram put on its new video tool.

Companies are familiarizing themselves with Instagram video as they prepare for the inevitable launch of video ads and seek to avoid angering Instagram devotees in the process.

Sales without selling

Instagram video is not like television. It’s not even like YouTube. It’s a less obvious medium that requires more thought. Companies can’t just pick a 15-second clip from their latest ad campaign and slap a filter on it.

People turn to Instagram to see photos from their friends, but they’re also interested in behind-the-scenes looks into the lives of their favorite celebrities or of companies they love. Billy Boulia, partner and senior director of social for international media agency MEC, says people expect to see videos that help them get to know the company better.

“[Instagram] is about not being as polished and showing that more human, personal side. It’s better to execute these things more on the ground so you look more humanizing,” Boulia says.

In other words, no obviously professional video shoots allowed.

Boulia helps major brands like Marriott Hotels and IKEA craft their social video strategy. The companies can’t pretend that they’re not trying to sell you on a fancy hotel room or a new piece of furniture, since Instagram users would see right through that. But successful videos (the ones with lots of likes) are less about selling a specific product and more about selling the idea behind the brand.

A recent stop-motion Instagram video by Michael Kors racked up more than 28,000 likes. Some users tagged their friends in comments to make sure they'd see it too.

“It’s about connecting with people—it’s not as heavily sales-focused,” Boulia says. “The second the brand becomes too sales-focused, posting a picture of a sale sign, that’s the second people turn off and run away.”

Brands that have successfully used Instagram video to connect with users rather than sell to them include fitness company Lululemon, designer Michael Kors, and yogurt makers Chobani. Videos that don’t feel like ads are key: Lululemon shows yogis in creative poses (wearing the brand, of course), while Chobani has recipe tutorials that incorporate the yogurt.

Yoga apparel company Lululemon has drawn more than a quarter-million followers on Instagram.

What would ads look like?

More and more people are spending time on their smartphones watching videos, which has led companies to settle on mobile video ads as the Next Big Thing. It makes sense: According to ComScore, people watched 38.7 billion videos online in 2012—and 23 percent of those videos included ads. That number will rise this year. (That report doesn’t include Instagram video or Vine, which rolled out only this year.)

Facebook and Instagram stand to benefit from that surge. Combined, the two networks’ apps sucked up 25 percent of smartphone users’ time as of last December. (On mobile, Facebook beats YouTube in user engagement by a significant amount.)

But YouTube’s video ads are a natural fit. Slip a preroll advertisement in at the beginning of a video, and all users have to do is sit through it. It’s unclear what Facebook’s video ads would look like—prerolls, News Feed posts, display ads—and the same uncertainty applies to Instagram. Could Chobani use recipe videos as ads in the Instagram feed? Possibly.

Would Instagram ads show up in your feed the way Facebook's do?

“There’s going to be some amount of user backlash,” Gartner research director Brian Blau says. “I’m worried it could be quite a bit. In terms of what’s happened over the long term at Facebook, these user backlashes—no matter what their veracity at the time—always die down, and Facebook does exactly what they want to do."

“People flocked to Instagram because it was independent; it wasn’t polluted by any of these companies,” Blau adds. “Can they maintain that and still have advertising? I think they can.”

Obviously, Facebook, Instagram, and the companies who decide to advertise with them must walk a fine line to avoid unwanted controversy. But if a highly targeted video ad from a company I liked on Facebook or followed on Instagram appeared in my feed, I probably wouldn’t be that mad about it. We might hate ads, but we love videos—especially “anything related to puppies or cute things,” Boulia says. “People are loving that.”

We’re so predictable.

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