Instagram is open for business! In addition to celebrating its 400 million user milestone in September, the popular app has opened up its ad platform for all, recognizing that people are eager to learn more about the products they discover on Instagram. From a user standpoint, this explains why you’ve probably begun to see an influx of images marked “Sponsored.” Some blend right in, and others … well, don’t.

For marketers, however, Instagram ads represent a massive opportunity to drive a large and highly engaged audience to relevant product and content pages outside of the Instagram environment.

With that said, proceed with caution. It’s critical that brands avoid sponsoring content that infringes upon the once ad-free feed.

So, how can you make sure that you’re not that ad (you know, the one users wish they could mark as spam)? If you have the resources, tailored creative for Instagram is best to take advantage of its unique qualities and to fit in with the platform’s aesthetic. Here, we grade six Instagram ads to help better guide yours.

1. American Express: A-

Americanexpressv2Without a product to showcase, one of the challenges that non-retail brands face is creating authentic Instagram messaging. American Express achieves this by tapping into the aspirational nature of the channel as well as a targeted audience segment. In the example shown here, the strategy is clear: Share an image of an aspirational experience that speaks to the travel enthusiast – that adventurous millennial who’s looking for their next big trip.

Additionally, while text overlay isn’t always ideal on Instagram, the subdued aesthetic nevertheless integrates well into the Instagram experience.

Pro Tip:

Target your creative. Consider who your audience is, what their aspirations are, and why they should care when they see your content in their feed. And be careful when adding textual elements to your images.

2. Levi’s: A+

levisv2The visual nature of Instagram makes it ideal for fashion. But creating an image that’s both beautiful and one-of-a-kind requires finesse. In the same way that everyday Instagram users put thought into the exact angle and filters they want to use before sharing a photo with friends, retail brands who wish to capture the hearts and wallets of this audience must also be mindful of style.

In this ad, Levi’s uses an inspiring lifestyle photo to show off their denim jacket. One of this ad’s strengths is authenticity; Instagram users might expect a similar photo from a friend. This is the benefit of creating relevant lifestyle imagery. All in all, if your content fits the look and feel of Instagram, then you’ll be able to speak to Instagram’s inspiration-seeking consumer.

Pro Tip:

Keep it real! Choose (or create) images that are inspirational and authentic while maintaining quality.

3. Hulu: B

Instagram ads offer an excellent way to drive TV viewership beyond traditional marketing channels. Take Hulu, for instance. Their latest ad promotes one of their newer additions to the Hulu Family: The Mindy Project.

However, Hulu’s Instagram ad could be further strengthened with a more realistic image. In this case, flying around a city with balloons may be on-brand for the show and network, but behind-the-scenes footage from the set would likely have resonated more with Instagram fans.

Pro Tip:

On Instagram, less is often more. Don’t feel like you have to develop new, quirky creative – unless you have historical Instagram engagement data that says otherwise. Consider the content that you already have, or leverage those of your fans.

4. Fabletics: B-

fableticsv2Although this popular activewear brand has been celebrated for their ad strategy on Facebook, Instagram is a different beast.

The problem? The ad featured here feels way too much like a pitch. While text overlays can offer an effective way to announce a sale, it’s important to factor in Instagram-friendly designs.

In this case, Fabletics might have been more successful had they focused on a single lifestyle shot of founder Kate Hudson and incorporated a simpler overlay to communicate the deal. Or, they could have removed the deal description from the image and added it to the caption instead. (Personally, I love this image from ClassPass, if you’re looking for a solid example).

Pro Tip:

Instagram ads require a delicate balance of inspiration and information. Inspiration is what sparks desire and causes an Instagram user to stop while scrolling through their feed. Information, on the other hand, drives action. On Instagram, when done right, it’s a powerful combo.

5. Fox Studios: A

mazerunnerv2Media marketers also see Instagram as a powerful channel. Some, like Fox, are even using the app to sell movie tickets.

“The Maze Runner” is one example of a movie that Fox is currently promoting. Their creative includes two strong CTAs in a push to reach their campaign goals. First, Fox encourages users to tag their friends, tapping into squad marketing to increase their reach even further. Additionally, users can take immediate action on the ad with the help of a “Book Now” button.

Pro Tip:

Get creative with your CTAs!

Instagram is a community, and its users are willing to actively start conversations with their friends. By integrating creative calls-to-action such as “tag your friends,” brands can cultivate engagement beyond a click or a “like” to generate a lasting impression.

6. Taco Bell: A+

unnamedTaco Bell is practically social royalty. Their latest string of sponsored posts supports this.

The best part about their Instagram ad is that it looks like anyone could have taken it. In fact, you have to look very closely to see that the fast-food chain has embedded items from their breakfast menu in the shot at all. This was certainly intentional. The ad positions Taco Bell’s breakfast menu not only as delicious but as a fun, social experience.

Pro Tip:

Be authentic, and emphasize experiences over your products. As with any marketing strategy (and especially one targeted toward millennials), it’s important to clearly understand your audience. In the case of Instagram, you must meet the Instagram standard.

Final Thoughts

Instagram’s clickable ad unit will no doubt provide a clear way for brands to deliver traffic and revenue. Quality interactions, however, start with quality ideas. When creating Instagram ads, there’s no need to guess how your images will perform. Tools that help brands generate ongoing traffic from Instagram to products, such as the Curalate Like2Buy solution, can enable you to test your creative before putting media dollars behind it. By understanding which images are resonating with your Instagram followers, you can refine your ad strategy and deliver true value to both the broader Instagram community and your brand.