As I aimlessly scroll through my Instagram feed, past the endlessly narcissistic #wanderlust and #foodporn snaps I begin to notice some pretty aggressive advertising crammed into my phone’s tiny screen. What triggered my curiosity was how unique this advertising is, nothing like other platforms like Twitter or Facebook, advertisements almost blended in with my feed of food snaps and annoying travel pictures. When Insta first became popular in Europe, I was skeptical about how successful it would perform as a marketing platform. My skepticism was evidently unfounded. 


If I don’t Instagram it, did I even have hot chocolate? 

In recent years, Instagram has seen phenomenal growth, with over 600 million users and over 8 million businesses using the site, (Lister, 2017).  Instagram is evidently an effective marketing tool, with 60% of users saying they have discovered a product through the site and over 120 million users have reported making direct contact with a company based on an advert they saw on Insta.

The increasing number of businesses jumping aboard the heavily filtered gravy train shows no signs of slowing. Research conducted by Nanigans has found that the number of companies advertising on Instagram is rising steadily, (Waber, 2016), pointing to significant marketing success. 

The Power of Envy:

So why is marketing on Insta so successful? My theory and the theory of many others is that is can all be traced back to one single human emotion: envy. As I scroll through Insta I am guaranteed to come across someone’s recent indulgences or gifts. The flood of a certain brand of watches on Christmas day with the tags #boydidgood and #spoiled are my personal favorites. The comments sections are of course usually filled with comments akin to “OMG, so jealous”.


How much envy do we feel while scrolling through Instagram?

The feeling of envy has three parts: we must be confronted with a person who has a greater quality than us, we must desire this quality and finally, we experience some negative feeling as a result, (Burton, 2014). Do we all want to be surprised by a shiny new watch at Christmas? Maybe not originally, but when its put in your face, a tinge of envy is a likely side effect. 

The pain of envy is not caused by a desire for the advantages of another but rather by the frustration caused by our sense of lack, (Buron, 2014). “Why don’t I have a huge spread on the 25th that I can slap a filter onto?” This is far from a nice feeling and can drive consumers towards purchasing the product to make these feelings go away and to rebuild a sense of pride (and of course upload a slightly better composed photo than Sarah did). 

So how can a brand sell envy?


By now readers may note that I find the whole Insta craze a little amusing and I met the idea of “influencers” with some major reservations. Despite my amusement, influencers have a major impact on sales. Influencers are essentially individuals with a large group of followers who promote products based on the deals they get, (Soldsie, 2015).


 Could #Wanderlust be a major marketing tool for travel companies? 

After some reading I quickly discovered that Instagram has its own ecosystem. Although celebrity advertising is commonplace on Instagram, what we might consider typical celebrities don’t have quite as much advertising power as expected on the social media site. Research by Djafarovaa & Rushworth (2017) found that although celebrities on Instagram do influence the purchasing behaviour of young women, “Instafamous” social media posters have a greater effect. This is because the interviewed users found Instafamous users more relatable and credible than traditional celebrities. Being envious of a celebrity may be considered normal and may not really impact users too much, but being envious of an influencer who seems more in reach and similar to ourselves could, hypothetically push consumers harder to buy a product. 

This may be because it is evident right away that a celebrity is being given a hefty cheque to sell skin cream whereas an influencer may be slightly better at hiding this fact. Either way, influencers appear to be a excellent method of driving sales.

Building a Brand Army:

Who hasn’t been mentioned in a comment under an Insta post at some point or another? Many Insta users either knowingly or unknowingly advocate for their favorite brands.


Build your #brandarmy

Previous research has found that consumers on social media are much more active compared to those exposed to traditional media, (Chu 2011; Kozinets et al. 2010 as cited in Kwon et al., 2017). At the touch of a button consumers can like, share, comment and invite connections to engage with a brand. My theory is that this has the advantage of adding familiarity to a brand. If a friend is invested in a brand, it removes any potential anxiety of the unknown. There is a real sense of trust evident. 

What makes a consumer provide a brand with free advertising? Kwon et al., (2017) found that social media advocacy behaviours were influenced by three perceived benefits: self-enhancement, community belonging and delivering benefits to others. So if a brand has enhanced my life, made me feel like I belong to something and I can share this to help others, then I am likely to pass the brand name on. Of course these perceived benefits are mediated by where the brand stands in society and individual factors.

On the other hand it was found that advocacy behaviours are less likely to occur when consumers fear social judgment from others and disapproval of behaviours undertaken as an advocate. Even though I love this brand of cologne, if I think people are going to tell me to get lost, then I won’t exactly jump at the chance to promote a brand.

My tip is that marketers should focus on creating some conversation around their brand that already loyal customers would be willing to pass on to their friends. Promotional offers that benefit not only the loyal customer, but also their friend could be an excellent way to achieve this (for example: 50% off each for referral). 

The Actual Photo:

Envy may be a major motivator on Instagram, but nobody is going to be envious of an obnoxious neon green post that screams “we hate to interrupt your scrolling, but buy this”What makes an photo stand out from the crowd just subtly enough so that it doesn’t cause consumers to think “ugh, another ad” and disengage? Waber (2016) suggests ensuring advertisements fit in with a standard Instagram feed by making them look organic, using minimal branding and sticking to the 20% rule regarding text.


Simplicity is the order of the day

Putting this into practice can take some research. Look at what your target audience is posting and come up with a text minimal, high quality image that stands out just a little bit. This may be through the higher quality or text, but ensuring it doesn’t scream marketing is key.


Instagram marketing has skyrocketed as a marketing platform, with 70.7% of US companies using the site to advertise, out taking Twitter for the first time, (Lister, 2017). It is forecasted that mobile ad revenues from Instagram will reach $2.81 Billion this year, accounting for 10% of Insta’s parent company Facebook’s global ad revenues, (Lister, 2017). It is uncertain how long this upward trend will last, but for now, Instagram is #marketinggoals.


Burton, N. (2014). The Psychology and Philosophy of EnvyPsychology Today. Retrieved 20 August 2017, from

Djafarova, E., & Rushworth, C. (2017). Exploring the credibility of online celebrities’ Instagram profiles in influencing the purchase decisions of young female users. Computers In Human Behavior68, 1-7.

Kwon, E., Ratneshwar, S., & Thorson, E. (2017). Consumers’ Social Media Advocacy Behaviors Regarding Luxury Brands: An Explanatory Framework. Journal Of Interactive Advertising17(1), 13-27.

Lister, M. (2017). 33 Mind-Boggling Instagram Stats & Facts for Retrieved 20 August 2017, from

Soldsie. (2015). Instagram Psychology: How Consumer Envy Can Drive SalesSoldsie. Retrieved 21 August 2017, from

Waber, A. (2017). Instagram Advertising: What’s Working?Marketing Land. Retrieved 20 August 2017, from


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