Over the last few months, a lot has changed on the beloved social network known as Instagram. Unfortunately for its 400 million users, most changes have been made without the actual experience of said user in mind, or at least that’s how it feels. Instagram likes to say things that sound nice and fancy – things like they’re enhancing the Instagram app, or making things more relevant for people, or a bunch of other things I typically block out. But what’s really happening is very apparent, and it doesn’t bode well for the future of Instagram.
Well, hold up real quick. Let me rephrase that – for the near term it will absolutely bode well for Instagram, or should I say Facebook, from a business perspective. But it will bode very poorly for actual users. By opening up the ad platform to everyone, Instagram is becoming a hot mess. For the better part of a year ads existed, but only with a few very select partners – so the content didn’t feel too intrusive or annoying. We kind of knew it was that new beta thing they’re testing and it was more of a “I saw an Instagram ad today!” versus “oh God get that shit off my feed.” That sentiment has changed since August, since it’s become a true shit show.
Originally when these all went live they had very strict guidelines for Instagram ads, like no text on the images, nothing outright salesy, etc. Similar to what Facebook cover images used to have to abide by and what many ads still do have to follow on the book. They were at least keeping true to what’s made Instagram great, and the visually pleasing and creative aspects of the platform that have gotten it to where it is today. Fast forward a few months and I’m getting awful Instagram ads in my feed for a local gym with bubble text all over it and a shirtless dude doing curls on a bright yellow background. This is what Instagram has become?
The relevance of sponsored content is also quite poor right now. I’m fully aware social networks need to work out kinks and issues to get it right so time will tell if this will improve in 2016, but for now I’m seeing an ad every two scrolls, and find myself closing them out because of complete and utter irrelevance time after time. The quality of the sponsored posts is so inconsistent, messy, and annoying. If you’re going to allow ads on this network, at least make those guidelines as strict as they originally were – keep the content quality high.
From recently and simply talking to people I either work with, friends, family – all with very different levels of knowledge about social media, how these things work, and interest in all this, (but all Instagram users) I was able to get some interesting small focus group data. Basically everyone is starting to hate Instagram and have found themselves using it much less, or using it for shorter periods because the experience has been so watered down with the mess of ads. Also, a few folks I talked to were suspicious they aren’t even seeing everyone’s content any longer. This brings me to my next thought…
We’ve seen this before, with Facebook a few years ago. It was getting so big, with so much content, so many ads, so much competition for space in the news feed, that an algorithm, known as EdgeRank, was developed. The goal was to filter content based on relevance and interest – to hopefully show you the stuff you want to see in your feed (or stuff that brands paid to show you above other content) because there was no longer any way to show you everything. Logically it made sense, but a lot of people looked at it as Facebook keeping content they want away from them, and replacing it with a lot of crap they didn’t care about. The ad business is huge. They had to do something. Shareholders are kind of important.
So here we are, about to hit 2016 – is Instagram working on an algorithm behind the scenes or testing it secretly with certain users or brands? How could they not be? Ads are now available to everyone. It’s exactly what happened with Facebook a couple years back. It’s inevitable. It’s not surprising in the least bit, just disappointing (from the perspective of a user that really used to love Instagram, not from the brand perspective).
And on that algorithm note – I have personally been tracking brands that I manage as well as others and competitors for months and have seen overall Instagram engagement trend down without fail since August. Less people are engaging with content. Are less people seeing the content? Less reach? Hence, algorithm? We don’t know yet. Are people just using Instagram less because it’s starting to ruin itself? Is this causing behavior to change? Less people double tapping things? All we know is this – since ads went wide, organic Instagram engagement has gone down on average from the brands that I track. And I find that interesting.
Facebook has very smart people. You would assume they won’t just let it collapse on itself because of a messy ad platform. They need to work out and optimize how to make money form Instagram. I am hoping they’ll keep making changes, updates, and working to keep the user experience top notch. But in the meantime, it’s getting bad right before our eyes. Those eyes that used to love all the beautiful pictures from accounts you enjoy – are now being forced content you’d rather never see.