Instagram is a business, not a charity, and now the inevitable has come: more than a year after buying the photo-sharing service for $1 billion, Facebook plans on selling ads against its subsidiary’s content.
The Wall Street Journal quoted Instagram executive Emily White as saying the service will begin selling ads within the next year: “We want to make money in the long term, but we don’t have any short-term pressure.”
Instagram boasts some 150 million users, which would make it a sizable contender among social networks even if it weren’t a Facebook subsidiary. The Journal article details how, soon after last year’s acquisition, Facebook (in the form of White, who left an executive role at Facebook to join Instagram) pushed Instagram to define its operating mission and bulk out its analytics and customer-service operations, which are both key ingredients for an eventual advertising platform.
But even if Instagram signs some lucrative advertising deals—discussions are apparently underway with Coca-Cola, Ford, and others—it still faces the uphill battle of introducing advertising in a way that won’t irritate its users. And if Instagram users like to do anything, it’s make noise about changes to the service, particularly those involving privacy.
So Instagram’s executives are exploring how to best integrate ads without irritating the hardcore users, drawing on advice from Facebook executives. Over the past several years, Facebook has managed to weave ads into its service without sparking the sort of mass user exodus that killed some of its former rivals, including MySpace. The key is a certain degree of subtlety: unlike MySpace, which did its utter best to plaster every single available surface with garish advertising (and paid the resulting price), Facebook has refused to deluge its audience with paid videos, interstitials, and other ad units; CEO Mark Zuckerberg is reportedly resistant to such measures, although Wall Street pressure to keep the company’s revenues growing may eventually force his hand on introducing those sorts of things.
Other social networks, including Twitter and Google Plus, have likewise refused to splash their core Websites and mobile apps with ads, knowing that it’s a sure way to drive off users. It’s likely that Instagram will follow suit and do something on the quieter side of the gradient, lest it risk the past year’s substantial growth. The key question is whether the hunger for generous revenues and profits will eventually translate into Instagram (or any other social network, for that matter) displaying more ads than users can tolerate.