Tuesday night, John Bell had to convince his wife not to quit Instagram. At the beginning of the week, she'd been a die-hard user but, like many others, recent changes in the Terms of Service had convinced her it was time to give it up. The awkward part: he’s the global marketing manager of social@ogilvy, the new-media wing of legendary ad firm Ogilvy & Mather. In short, he's one of the guys who's bringing ads to Instagram.
"I told her, 'You're overreacting!'" Bell relayed to The Verge. "But then, we're all overreacting."
"It just goes against everything we know about the web."
As the ad industry responds to new concerns over how Instagram might leverage users' photographs, it's a common scene. "I actually found out about this through Facebook," said Joe McCaffrey, marketing strategist at HUGE. "People outraged, up in arms. That's how I was introduced to the new Terms of Service." Using Facebook to complain about Facebook (or Facebook properties like Instagram) is an old irony, but this latest outcry is particularly startling because it seems to have come out of nowhere. "They're sort of alarmed because other people are alarmed," said Hashem Bajwa, CEO of marketing and product development startup DE-DE. "I hope that will calm down."
If users are worried about their photos being used in ads... that's happening already. 360i's David Berkowitz pointed us to this Ben & Jerry's campaign as an industry model. In November, the ice cream company asked its 120,000 Instagram followers to use a special "Capture Euphoria" hashtag, and then repurposed those pictures for local ad campaigns. "It's all in the parameters of their campaign," Berkowitz said, "so it's very clear that's what they're doing." Instagram shows dozens of other examples on their own help page, repurposing user photos with a certain hashtag for an interactive map or for a real-time slideshow at a concert. The hashtag is key because brands want the social crediblity that comes with it, They don't want the actual photos; they just like the act of giving them up.
It's one of the few tried-and-true marketing plays Instagram has, and in the latest furor, it's being tarred as outright theft. "They got hit very visibly," Bajwa said of Instagram, "and I don't think they were prepared for it."
The sudden backlash comes with high stakes because marketers stand to gain so much from Instagram’s success. "There's a broadening base of people who are using their smartphones but are not engaged in other ways," Bell told us. "And Instagram is one of the few social, digital platforms that's distinctly mobile in nature." The fact that it deals in photos, an ad medium that's widely considered the most shared content on the web, is icing on the cake. Facebook and Twitter are both making plays for the space, but a mass exodus from Instagram would make reaching that audience much trickier. As a result, the industry is treading carefully.
A photo by itself isn't worth that much, especially when it's tied to an angry user
The next step, when Instagram's ready for it, is likely to be more about data than pictures. A photo by itself isn't worth that much, especially when it's tied to an angry user. The metadata that comes with the photo is much more valuable, since it can be used to fuel Google-style user-tracking algorithms. That would make ads work more efficiently for the network Facebook is reportedly building, both on its social network and the web at large. If you "like" a bunch of pictures of your cat on Instagram, and you’ll start seeing more ads for pet toys with a feline friend of the same breed and complexion. As Berkowitz put it, "these are things that marketers really want. They always want better analytics. Any kind of data that they can get out of these services is a huge win for them."
Concerned users might not have the law straight, but they’ve also misunderstood what social marketers really want from them. The new style of ad could be a sponsored GE page, or a promoted photo of a Bud Light Platinum, or something no one’s even seen yet. But whatever it is, it’s likely to be more focused on getting users to engage than harvesting their photos. "It just goes against everything we know about the web," Bell said. "Users will rebel, they will object, and it will start to destroy or undermine their relationship with the brand."