How to use Instagram ads to grow your startup

Vinay’s Note: Before the launch of Instagram’s ads, marketers and advertisers were challenged with finding new ways to make Instagram conversion worthy for potential customers. You couldn’t add clickable links to a post and finding low friction paths for conversion was hard. Instagram ads are designed to solve this problem for advertisers. You now have a way to directly send customers from their Instagram feed to a landing page. In this post Michelle Nickolaisen takes us through how you can use these ads to grow your startup.

As a new startup, one of your biggest challenges is getting out in front of people. Brand awareness and audience engagement can make or break your business — after all, people can’t use your product if they don’t even know who you are. This is where advertising on Instagram comes in, combining a user base of 400 million with Facebook’s powerful audience-targeting technology (that 78% of social marketers are somewhat or very satisfied with, according to Forrester).

After all, if Mercedes-Benz can create a 54% increase in website visits with a clever campaign, why can’t you? But before you jump in, there’s a few things to consider — like if Instagram is even the right place for your business.

Is Instagram the right place for you?

Before you start creating your ad, make sure that Instagram is the right place for you to be advertising. Instagram is especially suited to B2C lifestyle brands, because of the visual nature of the platform and the type of content users are accustomed to seeing on it. That said, B2B companies can still see great results from Instagram. This is especially true if they take advantage of the unique nature of the platform, and modify their posts accordingly, instead of just using the same ads they use on Facebook or Twitter.

As far as user demographics of Instagram go, current data shows that the 18-29 age group is especially strong there (younger than 18 is very present as well and most users are at or under age 34). The user base is also slightly skewed towards women and people who live in urban/suburban environments. If your target market falls into those categories, Instagram is likely to be a good advertising platform for you.

B2B brands can be successful on Instagram, too. Oracle is a great example of this, with over 37,000 followers on Instagram. Their posts are a mix of inspiration, their team (and charitable activities), and facts that are relevant to their user base. It’s worth noting that even with a brand so strongly business-focused, there’s a decent amount of “lifestyle” content — which makes sense for Instagram. Other businesses can take their cues from this, posting photos that show what it’s like to work at their company (if they’re using Instagram for recruitment), show what it’s like to use their product or even showcase current customers/users and parts of their daily life.

What goes into an Instagram ad?

Here’s what a basic Instagram ad looks like in the feed:


If the ad is for an app, there’s an “Install Now” button instead of a “Shop Now” button. When the user taps it, they’re taken directly to the online store (or the app store). Another option is the “Learn More” button, which takes the user to a site of your choosing (or, for example, a Youtube video).

In addition to the static image ads, like the example above, there are carousel ads, where users can swipe through several different images, and video ads, which are up to 30 seconds long.

Instagram ad basics: Things to know before you set up your first campaign

Facebook has a detailed video (and FAQ) on creating Instagram ads here. In general, here’s a few pointers:

  • Similar to Facebook ads, Instagram ads can’t have text over more than 20% of the image.
  • Ads have to fall within the Instagram community guidelines, which include no adult content (nothing sexually explicit or overly suggestive), no promotion of illegal services or activities, no promotion of illegal/recreational/prescription drugs, and nothing sensationalized or violent.
  • Ads can’t contain content that assumes things about the viewer — for example, you can’t say “meet other skateboarders like you,” but you can say “meet skateboarders and learn to skate better.”
  • Again, similar to Facebook ads, Instagram ads have to be reviewed before they go live. Usually, this takes around 24 hours.
  • The different types of ads are video ads, image ads and carousel ads, as discussed earlier.
  • Call to action buttons are available for all types of ads. The different call to action buttons are “Learn More,” “Shop Now,” and “Install Now.”

How to get the most traction with your Instagram ad:

Partnering with and featuring Instagram influencers is 1 tactic, as John Lewis did in their Instagram ad campaign by featuring fashion influencers wearing their items. Mercedes-Benz took a similar approach with their #GLAPacked campaign, asking photographers and brand ambassadors to showcase what they would pack in their GLA.

GLAPacked Instagram Ad Campaign

Example images from the #GLAPacked campaign

In both of these instances, the influencers featured in the images can be tagged in the description or the comments, and popular hashtags can be used to increase the reach of the ad. Both campaigns were successful, with the John Lewis campaign creating a 14 point lift in purchasing intent and the Mercedes-Benz campaign creating a 54% increase in website visits.

Making the ads well-designed (and not just a massive logo) is another factor, especially since Instagram is so lifestyle driven. Turkish Airlines did this with their #EpicFood campaign, which featured something every Instagram user loves — great photos of food — with the logo being in the background. Their goal was to create brand awareness in the UK and it worked, leading to a 28 point lift in ad recall and 13 point lift in brand awareness.

Targeting for age and location can help with effectiveness, as well. Both the Ben & Jerry’s Scotchy Scotch Scotch campaign and the Levi’s awareness campaign were successful, with a 33 point and 24 point lift in ad recall, respectively. Both used age and location targeting to narrow the audience for the ads.

While these examples are interesting, it’s good to have information and experiences from brands that aren’t quite on the scale of Mercedes-Benz, too. With that in mind, let’s look at an example from a B2B SaaS startup.

Using Instagram for Your B2B Startup: Postano case study

Alan Cassinelli, marketing specialist at Postano (a social media aggregation, visualization and analytics platform), recently experimented with Instagram ads and shared a few details of what worked and what didn’t:

“We recently launched a new software product, Hashtag Analytics, and for the first time were doing an extensive advertising campaign. We were experimenting with different ad networks to see which performed best and decided to give Instagram a try.”


Instagram was also a natural fit, because Postano tracks hashtags on Instagram. Initially, the idea was to do a screenshot of the software, but Alan suggested using a realistic situation/environment instead.

This goes back to the earlier points about Instagram being a lifestyle platform. On Instagram, people don’t necessarily want to see screenshots, they want to see photos of things being used or of people doing things. The ad was actually a video that rotated the screenshot between four different dashboards of the software — they uploaded the four photos and Facebook’s ad software turned it into a seven second video. Their call to action was “Learn More,” and it sent people to their product landing page.

Their results:

Over 8 days, they spent $400, which lead to:

  • 3,306 likes and 13 comments on the post
  • 109 clicks to the website
  • 4 leads (someone signing up for a free trial of Postano — their plans start at $79/month, with the most popular plan being $499/month)

Alan’s takeaways for B2B marketers:

Make sure the creative fits the look and feel of Instagram and content that people are already posting. Disrupting their experience is not going to play well and you’ll see lots of comments saying, ‘Get these ads out of timeline!’ We didn’t see any of those types of comments, but I have seen them on other Instagram ads that put no effort into adopting their ad to the Instagram community.

Alan used this Fan Duel Instagram ad as an example of what not to do:


Also, pay attention to your timing. Postano’s ad campaign launched the week of Thanksgiving/Black Friday, which probably drove up their ad costs because of the increase in advertising that week. The holidays aren’t necessarily a great time to advertise B2B solutions in general, since everyone is so focused on finding gifts for their loved ones (and getting great deals for themselves!).

Your next steps:

  • Do research to make sure your target market actually uses Instagram — search for industry influencers and see what kind of engagement they’re getting.
  • Decide whether you’ll be partnering with any of those influencers to get extra reach for your ad campaign.
  • Design your campaign with Instagram’s users in mind — remember, focus on photos of things being used or people doing things, over screenshots.


Michelle is a freelance writer and business owner living in Austin, TX. She writes about business all over the web, and about productivity for freelancers and entrepreneurs at Bombchelle. Follow her on Twitter at @_chelleshock.

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