Instagram Starts Letting Ads Be Clickable

Instagram never allowed URLs to open until now. It wanted people browsing photos, not the web. But Instagram says its advertisers demanded more vivid ways to influence people who “lead to meaningful results for their businesses.”

Brands want measurable impact, not to be breezed by. Meanwhile, Instagram new ads court e-commerce companies that need people to click-through and buy, and big-ticket advertisers like car companies that require more than a single image to show off their product.

So for the first time, Instagram will start showing clickable links, but only in its new multi-photo carousel ads that can tell a story by letting you swipe through four branded images in sequence. The new “Learn More” button that houses these links will open a URL in an internal browser within Instagram that allows you to quickly jump back to the feed with a tap of the top bar.

“It’s a great new creative canvas,” Instagram monetization lead James Quarles tells me. You can see how the clickable carousel ads look and work in this video.

Some people might be groaning about ads getting more powerful on Instagram, but it’s the revenue they generate that make the app free.

Instagram first began showing ads in October 2013. It endured a temporary backlash from users, but the complaints eventually died down. About four months ago Instagram introduced video ads, to the delight of companies like Disney.

However, until now, Instagram’s ads have been primarily for institutional advertisers looking for influence, but not necessarily immediate sales. Think Coca-Cola or fashion brands like Michael Kors. Clickable carousels will make Instagram’s ads work for a much wider range of companies, which could quickly ramp up its revenue.

Above you’ll see a carousel for Pencils Of Promise, a non-profit that builds schools. A single photo might have been easy to scroll by. But if someone is interested, they can swipe through to see more photos of the students the organization helps, and at the end, click through the Learn More button to donate.

Alternatively, a fashion brand could show a model wearing a complete look, or outfit, on their first slide. Swiping though, you could see close-ups of the dress, handbag, and sunglasses, with a link out to buy these items at the end. Or a car company could show the exterior in its first image, the interior features in the second, and then an action shot of the car driving with a link to find out more about pricing and local dealerships.

Quarles insists “This initial launch will have a brand emphasis”, explaining the ads are meant to let people learn more about a company, not necessarily purchases its products or sign-up for something immediately. But as Pinterest has shown with early interest in its ads, retailers are dying for ways to turn visual social networks into catalogues people can buy from too.

Instagram Carousel

Users can swipe through a carousel to see multiple photos in sequence that can tell a story

For now, these ads will just include photos, but Instagram is considering whether to allow videos in carousels too. It will also watch user reactions to the multi-shot format to determine whether users should get the option to share carousels as well.

Sequenced Stories have been a hit on Snapchat, and Instagram might want to open a similar creative medium to everyone. That could help it fix “The Unfiltered Feed Problem” where over-sharers you follow drown out people you care most about. Instead, shutter-happy users could pile multiple photos into a single carousel rather than flooding the feed.

Instagram spent its first four years focused on growth, and it worked. The photo sharing community now has over 300 million users. Refusing to render URLs as links gave Instagram a smooth feeling compared to apps like Facebook and Twitter, where you’re constantly discovering and opening links to content elsewhere. It also helped thwart spammers and self-promoters.

There’s sure to be some people who gripe that you can only show links or multiple photos if you pay. Plenty of users would love to drive traffic to their websites, content on other networks, or their latest mixtape.

But too many links and carousels could dilute the Instagram scrolling flow. It’s the same reason Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom give final approval on all ads allowed on the platform. It hopes to keep things tidy. If Instagram really wanted to be respectful of the culture it built, it would decide to only allow links on subsequent slides of carousels so they’re only visible if people engage with an ad.

CEO Kevin Systrom still gives final approval of all ads on Instagram

CEO Kevin Systrom still gives final approval of all ads on Instagram

The $715 million Facebook paid to acquire it seems like chump change now. Still, it’s time to start paying it back, even if that makes the user experience a bit more disjointed. Instagram’s ads were designed to be classy, glossy images like those you see “when you flip through your favorite magazine.”

The problem with magazine ads is they’re hard to track, and Internet advertisers want a proven return on investment. Facebook’s been laser-focused on sales measurement with its own ad product.

Now Instagram’s advertisers will know not only if someone saw, liked, or commented on their ad, but also if people swiped through multiple photos and clicked through to their site. With this kind of measurement comes confidence, and with confidence comes ad spend. Instagram stands to get a lot richer.