Instagram's cool ad party may be over now that Walmart's here

Instagram ads have lost some of that gloss and glamour. It was bound to happen, considering almost anyone can buy an ad there now, but in some cases the change has been dramatic.

A recent Walmart campaign featured a photo of nacho dip that might have been more fitting as a coupon in a newspaper, not Instagram’s stylish feed. There also have been plenty of app-install ads that look like every other one found throughout the mobile Web — promotions for games, dating apps and virtual gambling.

“This is kind of what everyone thought might happen when they took out the approval process they used to have,” said Chris Tuff, director of business development and partnerships at 22squared. “Before, they would never let that go through.”

It used to be, Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom had to approve every ad before it ran. Even brands like Taco Bell had to strive for a creative ideal that was more than a picture of a burrito.

Instagram had positioned the platform as a magazine-quality advertising experience, both as a way to keep users satisfied and to raise the bar in digital marketing. Instagram has more than 300 million monthly users, and it has maintained strong growth even throughout its ad development.

This summer, Instagram finally opened its ad technology to third parties, which can plug into the platform and buy ads in an automated way. Also, instead of just high-level brand campaigns, Instagram started allowing sales and links in the ads — direct marketing, which has a reputation for being less reliant on creative messaging and is more dependent on targeting the right audience.

By most measures, in stats released by the company and by the third parties, the ads are generating high engagement numbers. Brands are by all accounts happy with the platform and continue pouring money into it. It is expected to hit more than $2.8 billion revenue within two years.

Still, the quality of the ads has noticeably diminished, according marketing experts.

“It’s the burden of scale,” said Azher Ahmed, director of digital operations at DDB. “Now, anybody can create anything and get in Instagram. So you have to rein in that emphasis on quality.”

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What it loses in quality, however, Instagram does make up by attracting the Walmarts of the world to spend there. The Walmart campaign was actually the first attempt by the retailer to buy ads on Instagram, according to the company. “We’re really at the infancy — testing the platform and seeing what we can learn about effectiveness,” a rep for Walmart said.

The first attempt got pretty low marks from commenters, many of whom were negative. “I only clicked your stupid post so I could find a way to block you. Hate,” one commenter said, and that was not the worst of them.

Comments are not the true measure of an ad’s performance, according to Instagram, a point the company is always quick to point out. Instagram relies on engagement metrics and measures brand impact to determine the quality of the campaigns.

Users are able to click on an ad to say whether they like it or not, and that feedback factors into the type of ads they see in the future, an Instagram rep said.

“We are closely monitoring engagement and ad hide rates as key signals for feedback just like on Facebook, and that would impact an advertiser’s ad delivery,” the rep said.