We’ve passed the point of saying, “You know, Instagram is pretty popular.” As of June 2018, the image-sharing app officially declared a billion active monthly users, a growth rate far surpassing Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. Brands wanting to connect with anyone under the age of 30 are essentially required to get Insta-savvy, with videos and carousels trumping simple photo ads and engagement levels reaching higher percentages than competitor platforms.

Instagram is ideal for connecting with your target audience, because ads, frankly, seem to blend in better on that platform. The endless scroll typically happens faster on Instagram than text-heavy Twitter or video-focused Facebook, allowing users to absorb more content at a quicker rate, while clever brands are creating content that users genuinely love.

But not all Instagram ads get the same love. Here are a few tips to create the ultimate Insta-ad, and ensure you get the best results.

Before You Get Started

1. Research your competitors.

The first step to any ad campaign is to investigate your competition. If you run an artisanal hot dog restaurant in Portland, you’ll want to scope out what major hot dog brands are doing nationally on Instagram, what other fancy hot dog restaurants are doing in Portland, and even what similar business are doing in similar cities, such as New York, Seattle or San Francisco.

2. Establish your goals.

Whether it’s traffic to your website, video views, Instagram engagement or new followers, you should establish your goalposts before starting and have key performance indicators in place. Sure, it’s nice to hit all of the above targets, but you still want to focus on a particular one so you can measure your success more accurately.

3. Get familiar with the advertising backend.

The backend easily runs through your brand page on Facebook, and it’s easy to set up one ad for both platforms. Don’t do that. Instead, set up a specific audience for Instagram ads, and run those apart from your Facebook ads. For one, the ad dimensions will be totally different (most utilize Instagram’s 1080×1080 dimensions); for another, hashtags and language will differ on each platform. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach.

Tips for the Ultimate Instagram Ad

4. Use text sparingly — and well.

Statistics confirm that most Instagram users only look at the image, and not the caption underneath. So if you’re going to implement text, add it to the image itself. But that can be a catch-22 because Instagram and Facebook restrict the amount of text your ad can use; it should only take up something like a fifth of the overall image. Spend some time on copywriting to nail the message.

instagram ad

The above ad, by Asana, has a great tagline: “Make work feel less like work.” It’s a beautifully minimalist font, complemented by a simple and intriguing illustration. The app is designed to streamline and simplify team workflows, and this ad is a great extension of that, teed off by a snappy, memorable tagline. Because it reads like a standard ad, Asana likely isn’t too worried by likes or comments, but instead by click-throughs to sign up — a straightforward metric that they can gauge from Instagram’s own analytics and their website backend.

5. If you’re going to use photos, make sure they’re attention-grabbing.

This is not the time to skimp on ad budgets. Invest in professional photography, from studio lighting to editing. And if your product is image-heavy, don’t feel the need to stop at just one image — use Instagram’s carousel feature to stick a few product shots in, or turn them into a slideshow video that plays automatically.

The folks behind the above ad, Article, likely track both carousel swipes and click-throughs to measure their results. Specifically, they can tell which photo garners the most clicks, which lets them tweak their ad over time, swapping out underperforming photos for more robust options.

6. Intrigue your audience.

For some companies, the biggest selling point is a bit of mystery. Intrigue has long been a staple of advertising — it’s all about finding beauty hidden in the mundane. But you don’t need to play Don Draper and search for some vague, elitist meaning, either. You can do what mobile game developer Voodoo does, and outright challenge your audience, like this:

This ad works on a lot of levels: the game itself is kind of hypnotic, the ad shows the product being used, and the blunt 60-second challenge is intriguing. (The text is so garish and nearly grammatically wrong that it’s entrancing in its audacity.) The link leads straight to the iTunes or Google Play store, where users can download the game in seconds and accept the challenge.

They likely have two measurements for success: video views and game downloads. The video views would tell them how grabby the game itself is, visually speaking, while the downloads (from people who came from Instagram, as determined through a third-party tracker) would be a simple indicator of conversions.

7. Don’t look like an ad.

The above all seem like advertisements, but not all great Instagram ads do. Some are simply beautiful photos with a fun backstory — after all, that’s what Instagram was made for.

TD Bank, in promoting a travel-focused credit card, is showcasing a beautiful shot of New Brunswick here. Surely few of the 2,822 people who double-tapped the photo in approval actually read the full backstory beneath — they would have simply seen the line “Exploring the Sea Caves of New Brunswick,” before the line break.

And you know what? TD is fine with that. We’d wager their goal isn’t necessarily click-throughs, but rather engagement, brand awareness and maybe new followers. There’s no logo or tagline anywhere in the image or above-the-break text, just a beautiful shot that doesn’t even really look like an ad. The more likes and comments, the better. This is all about authenticity.

8. Keep it simple.

At the end of the day, people are probably going to scroll past your ad within three seconds. You’ve got that much time to grab them. So if you’re using an illustration, don’t overcomplicate it. Instead, take a cue from Uber and simplify things.

With a simple caption, compact rectangular ad and minimalistic illustration, Uber wastes no time in getting their message across. They offer a quick and intriguing tagline while funneling users to learn more about their sign-up process.

Uber is likely measuring click-throughs with this ad since there isn’t much to like or comment on. Their success would be determined by how many people clicked through to “learn more,” using a combination of Instagram analytics and website data to corroborate how many click-throughs actually resulted in new drivers.  

There’s no single recipe for the ultimate Instagram ad, but like most successful products and art, you’ll know it when you see it. Dig around, look for other great ads and find your own inspiration.