marketers who reported a noticeable uptick in ad load on Instagram, with ads accounting for as much as 22% out of 45 posts and 23% of Stories. Now Instagram is confirming it is experimenting with increasing ad volume in Stories.

“We’re always testing new ad experiences on Instagram and want to learn how people and advertisers respond to this small test,” said a spokesperson from Facebook, Instagram’s parent company.

The test involves running ads from two different advertisers back-to-back within a Story, according to a report from AdWeek. The experiment is only being performed on a small group of users, and all advertisers are eligible to be part of the test.

Why we should care

While this is still only a small test, marketers who haven’t started running Story ads should take note. If Instagram makes way for more ads in Stories, advertisers who are already familiar with the ad format and have experience running success campaigns will be in prime position to to take full advantage of the increased ad inventory.

There is also the potential for ad fatigue by users if back-to-back Story ads become a more regular experience on the platform — making it even more important for brands to focus on the creative aspect of their campaigns to differentiate themselves from competitors.

Aimclear’s VP of Marketing Strategy Susan Wenograd talked about the need for marketers to pay more attention to ad creative earlier this year when we talked to her about how the social ad landscape was changing. “It feels like we’re edging into a different era,” said Wenograd, “I believe there are totally separate effects we are feeling from these platforms maturing, competition becoming much steeper, and the demand consumers have for creative that they can connect with.”

More on the news

  • Instagram told AdWeek the goal of the test is to determine the “right frequency” of Story ads in terms of user experience.
  • When we asked Instagram about reports of increased ad load in July, a spokesperson from the company said Instagram is always improving on the ad experience and that, “Ad load fluctuates based on how people use Instagram. We closely monitor people’s sentiment both for ads and overall commerciality.”
  • Earlier this month, Kenshoo reported Instagram Story ads accounted for nearly 20% of ad spend on the platform.

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four times the rate of ad spend growth than Facebook. This trend appears to be leveling out, according to Kenshoo’s quarterly trends report for the second quarter of 2019. The ad management platform reports Instagram ad growth is “now roughly at parity” with Facebook ad growth.

What’s remarkable from Kenshoo’s findings is that advertisers’ share of spend on Instagram Story ads doubled year-over-year from 9% to 18% in the second quarter of 2019.

“The hypervisual format [Story Ads] grew 186% in spending compared to the same quarter last year, while Instagram Feed ad spending slowed to just 21%, slower than Facebook News Feed,” writes Kenshoo in its report.

Are default placement selections driving Story ad adoption? For marketers wanting to fine-tune their Instagram social ad spend, it’s worth noting when a specific ad format experiences exponential growth. But, the question is whether or not Instagram Story ad growth is a result of the ad unit’s performance or Facebook’s own prodding to get more advertisers to run Story ad campaigns.

“I think that a big part of this lift in spend is people placing ads in Instagram Stories without knowing it, i.e. running automatic placements,” said Jessica Budde, a digital marketer at digital marketing agency Cypress North, “In chatting with several Facebook reps about how to improve campaigns in recent months, I’ve been told on several occasions that letting campaigns run with automatic placements is the best way for Facebook to learn about your audience and get you the best results.”

Budde said she has never done that for any of her clients, but believes a lot of advertisers may be following that advice from Facebook, thus driving up the number of Instagram Story ad placements. Budde’s agency has also noticed Facebook pushing Story ads when an advertiser deselects it as a placement option.

“After creating a video ad, an auto-created story pops up already cropped to vertical dimensions along with a message that notes how to go back and turn Instagram or Facebook Stories on as a placement to use that creative,” said Budde.

More visibility into Stories may be impacting Story ad growth. Akvile DeFazio, president of social media agency AKvertise, said Instagram announced earlier this summer it was planning to show more ads on the platform, in Stories, in particular.

“As a user and an advertiser, I can certainly attest to that, as I’ve seen more and have noticed impression share increasing in most of our client accounts,” said DeFazio, “With increased visibility, we’ve had more clients create Stories-specific content, which has helped increase CTRs and overall conversions for some e-commerce clients.”

She reports her agency has seen success when intentionally placing ads in Instagram stories (versus running automatic placement campaigns).

“While using automatic placements is common among advertisers and is efficient, I can only speak for certain about our strategies as we are intentionally planning Stories campaigns with our clients to give them the best chance for success,” said DeFazio. “If we’re in a pinch and need to run promotions, then we allow automatic placements to do their job.”

Why we should care. Instagram Story ads have been around for more than two years now, but this current trend shows their popularity is quickly growing. If you’re not testing Story ads yet, they may be worth another look depending on your campaign objectives and resources to create ads tailored to the format.

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Recently, a colleague mentioned that she had noticed a significant surge in the number of Instagram ad placements. Conducting a quick test via her feed, she found ads accounted for 22% of 45 posts and 23% of 26 Stories.

She isn’t alone. Peter Stringer, a Facebook and Instagram ads consultant is among the marketers we’ve heard from that have noticed an uptick in Instagram’s ad volume. Stringer noticed the increase at the start of 2019.

Ad load can vary based on users’ engagement

“I currently see an ad after every three organic posts on my own Instagram feed,” said Stringer who believes this may be impacted by his work as an ads consultant, “I do click on a lot of ads to review landing pages, etc, which is likely a signal to Facebook that I’m an engaged clicker/shopper on the platform.”

My colleague also regularly clicks on ads.

When we asked Instagram about the increase in ad load, a spokesperson echoed Stringer’s assumptions on why he was seeing more ads.

“We are always improving upon the ad experience,” said a Facebook spokesperson, “Ad load fluctuates based on how people use Instagram. We closely monitor people’s sentiment both for ads and overall commerciality.”

Facebook’s own documentation also makes clear that ads are served based on a user’s engagement across its platforms — not just your engagement on Instagram alone:

Ads are shown to you based on your activity across Facebook companies and products, such as:

  • Pages you and your friends like.
  • Information from your Facebook and Instagram profile.
  • Places you check in using Facebook.

In other words, users who frequently engage with ads or brands on the platform are more likely to be served more ads. But, from what we’re hearing, it’s not just happening to people who are more prone to click on ads.

Agency data shows ad volume up across the board

Josh Thompson, Portent Digital’s social media strategist, said his agency has also noticed a slow trend of ad load increasing across Instagram placements for Feed, Stories and Messenger for clients.

“We correlate the increased ad volume to an increasing amount of advertisers on the Facebook platform of apps, including Instagram,” said Thompson.

The co-founder of Foxwell Digital, Andrew Foxwell, reported his agency is also seeing a lift in Instagram ads. He noticed the increase after the platform’s outage on March 13.

More advertisers drive the need for more ad inventory

Same as Thompson, Stringer accounts the increased ad load to the rise in ad spend on the platform and Instagram’s need to produce more inventory.

He said this is especially true when it comes to retargeting campaigns by e-commerce and DTC brands, which typically need to get in front of their audiences multiple times before a sale happens.

“Given all the talk of rising CPMs and CPCs across Facebook advertising, the only way for them to address this issue is to continue to find more inventory to sell,” said Stringer, “What I’m seeing lately is that retargeting campaigns generally carry a higher CPM than just a cold traffic or even conversion campaigns. But ultimately, it’s all about the cost to acquire a customer and make a sale, and what the eventual return on that ad spend looks like in the short term, and over the lifetime value of a customer.”

Thompson pointed out that the increased number of advertisers means more competition in the ad auction.

“In the past, we might have seen ten advertisers in the ad auction. Now 20 advertisers are likely vying to show their ad units to the one user,” said Thompson.

Thompson also noted Facebook’s own data reporting it now has seven million active advertisers — significantly more than the five million reported in April of 2017.

“The increased amount of advertisers will play a part in ad load increase even with new ad placements added to the platform,” said Thompson.

What does it mean for marketers?

Foxwell said he has not seen a measurable impact as far as users possibly hiding ads because they’re annoyed with so many in their feed, but he did say that performance has been mixed on Instagram’s News Feed, depending on the country and vertical.

“We do fear that in the long term, the Instagram News Feed experience will have to continue to evolve in order to have an optimal experience for users and advertisers,” said Foxwell, “The modification of campaign strategies has not been a direct result of this competition, but is in reaction to continued competition across the board. We have continued to test larger lookalikes, cost cap bidding, dynamic creative and campaign budget optimization to combat rising prices.”

Why we should care

Instagram’s increased ad load puts advertisers in a difficult position. In an already cluttered stream, how many ads will be too many before it effects user engagement or users choose to stop seeing branded content from advertisers that show up too often in their feeds? Advertisers are already seeing customer acquisition costs (CAC) rising and adjusting tactics to keep campaigns efficient.

“CACs increase, and in order to win, you have to ensure you’re using asset customization by placement as well to ensure efficiencies and learnings at the ad set level,” said Foxwell, “Another thing, this is why carousels and collection ads are popular on Instagram, because you can showcase more products in one ad unit.”

Related reading: D2C brands are driving up customer acquisition costs – and it’s time to course-correct


A group of young women and girls stand watch over one late user’s account

Over the last few days, a teenager named Taylor has spent more than a dozen hours uploading north of 900 photos to Instagram. She listens to music or watches TV while she posts the same photos of millennial pink grids, flowers, and cotton candy clouds over and over. Each one is marked with the same user — escty, real name Bianca Devins — whose tagged photos have become a wall of beautiful images and hopeful messages.

In the early hours of Sunday, July 14th, Devins was brutally murdered. Photos of the 17-year-old’s body were posted to Instagram and then spread across Discord, 4chan, and Twitter. While some well-wishers flocked to her account to express their sadness and support for her family, Instagram became awash with ghoulish accounts dedicated to sharing the photos.

As Instagram engaged in a game of whack-a-mole to take down each new photo, Taylor was one of the dozen or so people who started up an account dedicated to cleaning Devins’ profile. These accounts, mainly run by girls and young women, are determined to fight against a horrific form of digital vandalism. “I wanted to do whatever I could to protect [Devins] and her family from having to go through any more pain and protect anyone from seeing the disgusting images,” says Taylor. It also means they’ve become volunteer moderators, regularly viewing disturbing photos, which some say is to the detriment of their own mental health.

Tag cleaners, as they call themselves, drown out gore, harassment, and more by flooding a user’s tagged photos with pleasant images. It’s benevolent spam. The most prolific accounts are usually reposting the same images ad nauseam in quick bursts. Randomfloweracc, run by a 17-year-old named Lori, uses cartoons like Rilakkuma or Hello Kitty. Naomi, owner of cute.cleanup, is also partial to Sanrio characters and rainbows.

User kanyewestnandos — who posts the same meme of the rapper in a Nando’s — says tag cleaning offers protection that goes beyond simply reporting a malicious account. “It is harder to witch hunt the people who are posting graphic material because they can change their username,” they say. “And if they eventually end up getting reported they can make a new account.” Some photos or disrespectful memes may not violate Instagram’s rules, meaning they stay up. Another tag cleaner, a 15-year-old named Valerie, says that it’s a fast way to push images to the bottom of an account. “If you just report, it is likely that it won’t get taken down immediately and people will have enough time to save the picture and spread it, which is what we’re trying to avoid,” she says.

Instagram appears to have removed all of the tagged photos of Devins’ death, but there’s little to stop abusers from creating new accounts and restarting the cycle again. In the days following her death, The Verge noticed waves of these photos, both originating from the same accounts constantly reposting, as well as multiple new accounts cropping up. Reports filed by The Verge usually resulted in photos being taken down in minutes; but in some cases, that’s all it takes for any user to see them to begin with.

Reached for comment, an Instagram spokesperson told The Verge that “in addition to technology we have in place to proactively find images of this tragic event, we urge the Instagram community to report violating accounts and content to us so we can take swift action.”

For some of the tag cleaners patrolling Devins’ account, that’s unacceptable. “Tag cleaning in combination with mass reporting is the way to combat the trolls,” says Naomi, one of the tag cleaners. “If we only relied on reporting, the tags would still be flooded with ‘those photos’ while IG removes them. Not to mention, IG doesn’t always remove them or they take their sweet time. They also won’t remove memes that don’t use the graphic photo obviously because it doesn’t break community guidelines.”

The account holders The Verge spoke to say that though they’ve never met Devins — many weren’t even aware of her before her death — they feel a connection to her. For some, it’s their close ages. Others see themselves, friends, or online influencers they follow in her. “I didn’t have to personally know Bianca to see that no one deserves this after they’re gone, especially not their family,” says Naomi. “It’s really unfortunate that this tragedy had to be inundated with insensitive memes and sick people who get a laugh out of posting ‘those photos.’”

Even with their best intentions and desire to help, however, many of the tag cleaners The Verge spoke say they feel exhausted. Valerie says that Devins’ death is devastating, even without the addition of the photos. “Honestly, the whole situation has me overwhelmed,” she says. Naomi describes the time posting and tagging and refreshing and reporting as draining. She doesn’t encourage anyone to get into it blindly, especially for those putting themselves in a position to repeatedly see graphic content. “It’s not for the squeamish, I particularly feel some level of desensitization from you know … the internet and shock culture so I felt like I could do this.”

Moderation is a difficult, sometimes even trauma-inducing job for anyone to take on, let alone as volunteers. For Instagram’s tag cleaners, the growing community has proven to be invaluable. Naomi says she shoulders the burden so that others won’t have to. “It’s good to know that there’s others doing just as much as you,” she says. It gives her a chance to rest and unplug “from the insanity that is the internet.” Then, when she feels like she can, she comes back and posts some more.