Since it launched, Instagram has been a way of telling a story with a single, square-shaped image. The Facebook-owned company may have expanded to video and time lapses, but its heart remains in those singular, postcard-style pictures. That changes today with the introduction of (gulp) "carousel ads" — photo sets of up to four pictures that you swipe through, Tinder-style, while thumbing down your feed. Instagram says the move comes in response to advertiser requests for ways to tell sequenced stories. Have you ever seen McDonald's post a hamburger and wondered what happens to it?* You are going to love carousel ads.
When you see a sponsored post on Instagram these days, you'll see a series of dots below it indicating it is a carousel. Swipe left to see the additional ads. (Or don't!) The carousels also let advertisers insert a "learn more" button that takes you to their website, creating more opportunities for direct-response ads that will likely be quite lucrative. The format is still in flux; Instagram says it will try a variety of styles in coming weeks before settling on one.
Photo sets would be a hit with real users
It's a shame this feature is rolling out first to brands, because photo sets like these would likely be a hit with average users. They're hugely popular on Tumblr, generated automatically by Facebook's News Feed, and have more recently been adopted by Twitter. And users are already hacking photo sets onto Instagram using third-party apps that group multiple photos into a single image.
They could also help address my least favorite use of Instagram: that friend who posts seven or eight pictures in a row, whether it be of their beach vacation, their baby, or their ski trip. Photo sets would help organize these flurries of excitement into neat little containers, and let people tell real stories (not brand stories!) without feeling like they were spamming their friends.
An Instagram spokesman told me brands were getting the first crack at photo sets because it is essentially an experiment. "Once we iterate and see how people engage with the content, [we] may explore the possibility of bringing it to other types of users on Instagram," the spokesman said. Here's hoping.
*It gives the person who ate it congestive heart failure.