Embracing the Best, Worst and Most Frustrating Social Media Ads on Black Friday

Social Ads Black Friday Feature

1 to 4.

That’s the ratio of ad-to-social content sprinkled across my Instagram feed on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Not easy odds for advertisers trying to stand out, not easy for folks scrolling gratitude posts from old friends.

With ads flooding the platform on days like this, what are the lessons for brands?

Last week, I took an experimental approach to the busiest shopping weekend of the season. I wanted to see and click all the sponsored adverts—to positively gorge myself on their lofty promises— for no other reason than seeing what works, what strikes a chord, and what falls flat. Essentially, I embarked on a journey to analyze the connection between content and commerce on America’s favorite image-sharing platform.


How my informal study worked

On Black Friday and Cyber Monday, three times a day, for a full five minutes (or until content ran aground) I scrolled through my Instagram feed. My goal: to count, click, and in cases where I felt completely compelled, place items in the shopping cart.

To make sure I got the most relevant ads possible, I primed the Instagram pump ahead of Black Friday by way of researching shoes and surf gear (wetsuits, boards, accessories) on my phone. This ensured I would see a steady stream of content that interests me and would thus create a scenario where this experiment did not make me want to drown my phone in cranberry sauce.


The results

Black Friday

Time: Ads  Repeated ads Add to cart
9:04 am 13 2 2
1:07 pm 8 1 3
6:55pm 5 1 0

Cyber Monday

Time Ads Repeated ads Add to cart 
9:22 am 11 3 1
11:27 am 5 0 2
7:10pm 8 1 4


The takeaway

Were the deals great? Sure, some of them were.

Were they unmissable? Not really.

Phase one of this exercise was to see which ads would win my attention. Having my feed cluttered by sponsored content was, generally speaking, not enjoyable. It felt like hanging out in a crowded mall where all the store clerks were leaning out of their doors, cat-calling you with a sneaker in one hand and a cup of instant apple cider in the other.

Ads that resonated with me were almost purely discount-related (in large part because I already knew exactly what I was looking to buy). Shipping, taxes, and tacked-on fees generally drove the price of a product to the point where it wasn’t much of a discount at all.

Phase two, the shopping experience, was far more challenging from a consumer standpoint. The spell of a great ad is broken by lousy shopping experiences. Shopping carts that don’t work, bad links, broken coupon codes, out of stocks — I experienced all of the above over the weekend. That’s an unfortunate way to spend your marketing budget.

The biggest wildcard over these two days was my own set of expectations. Instagram has become a great place to do product research and discovery, but how that translates into sales is still developing. The brands capitalizing on this have 3 main things going for them:

  1. Command of messaging, customer, and price: this includes strong ad design, great product photography, and the ability to articulate what makes a deal worth someone’s time. 
  2. A commerce strategy: there were countless times that I couldn’t add something to a shopping cart or that a link died midway through the journey. Brands need to meet customers where they are, whether that be a smooth-running DTC site or a popular marketplace like Amazon or Walmart. 
  3. A unified digital strategy. I was served a large number of retargeting ads following a site visit. While irritating, it totally worked on me — this has kept at least two brands on my mind since Monday. 

While I work with e-commerce and brands every day, I am also a consumer. Instagram offers brands the potential to reach segments of their audience in fresh, visually engaging ways. But they’ve got to do more than attract attention.

By leveraging a clear strategy that aligns with the greater retail equation — and that’s the key — brands can foster a deeper relationship with their customers and acquire new ones along the way. I mean, hey, it worked on me.