How to Optimize Your Instagram Ads Creative in 2021

Optimize Your Instagram Ads Creative

Do you run the same ad creative on Facebook and Instagram? Wondering why your ads aren’t performing as well on Instagram?

In this article, you’ll learn how to optimize your Instagram ads for better results.

Why Instagram ads and Facebook ads Perform Differently

Instagram passed the 1 billion user mark in 2020. This huge milestone is a good reminder that despite being owned by Facebook, it’s a social network in its own right. The Instagram user experience has some similarities to Facebook but there are key differences to keep in mind to ensure your ads perform at a high level.

It’s easy for advertisers to forget to treat Instagram as a separate user experience. After all, Facebook’s ad platform lists Instagram as just a checkbox during ad setup. But thinking of Instagram as its own entity for ads is worth your time and effort. Instagram’s ad units don’t mirror Facebook’s exactly so making the right changes can help your bottom line immensely.

The users on Instagram tend to skew younger, with roughly a third falling into the 18-34 age bracket so they may respond very differently to what you see on Facebook feed performance.

Instagram is also a visually focused platform, which creates two additional considerations. The aesthetic that works on Facebook ads may not work as well on Instagram, and Instagram doesn’t emphasize text the way Facebook ads do.

Now let’s look at the important differences between Facebook and Instagram ad placements and what steps to take to integrate Instagram ads into your ad strategy.

#1: Understand Instagram Ad Placements

Instagram has three places your ads can show: Feed, Stories, and Explore.

The feed is much like Facebook, in that it’s a user-controlled scroll experience.

How to Optimize Your Instagram Ads Creative

Instagram Stories is a separate experience, activated by tapping on the circle avatars along the top of the screen. When you tap on a story, it opens into a full-screen experience.

How to Optimize Your Instagram Ads Creative

Finally, the Explore screen is what you see when you tap the magnifying glass icon at the bottom of the screen. It’s a tiled view of curated photos and videos that Instagram thinks you may be interested in based on what you view and interact with on the platform.

A frequent question I’m asked is whether to bother running on the Explore placement. My answer is always, “Yes!”

You don’t get a lot of inventory in the Explore area, which is understandable because if it was all ads, it would be a pretty lame user experience. However, the Explore tab can be a nice little addition to your bottom line for cheaper placement and decent return. It’s also a great way to reach users who are looking for content outside of their usual feed experience.

Inventory levels drive where ads show on Instagram. The feed still has the most ad inventory and is likely to give you the most impressions. Next is Stories and then Explore. Stories is where most of Instagram’s growth has been, which also means its ad inventory has also grown there. This is likely where Instagram will continue to show more ads.

#2: Segment Ad Performance Metrics by Instagram and Facebook

If you’re already running ads, get a sense of how each platform is performing individually.

While both platforms have ads in the feed and Stories, there are subtle differences including the ad format itself and the adoption rate among users.

Checking your data in Ads Manager can help you see where Instagram may need special attention. First, make sure your date range is set long enough to give a good data sample. Then on the right, click the Breakdown drop-down menu and choose By Delivery > Placement.

How to Optimize Your Instagram Ads Creative

You’ll see a breakdown of where your ads have run and the statistics for each of those placements. Look closely at the Facebook feed vs. the Instagram feed and Instagram Stories performance.

Are they about equal or do you find instances where the Instagram ad doesn’t do as well? If it’s the latter, it could be an indicator you need different visuals or copy for each platform.

#3: Optimize Facebook Ad Creative for Instagram Feed Ads

There are two parts to a feed ad: the visual (an image or video) and the text. While both Facebook and Instagram have these elements, they render very differently to the user.

The first main difference is that Facebook feed ads have a headline while Instagram feed ads don’t. This is an important distinction if your headline tends to play a key role in your Facebook ads.

For example, if you’re running an offer or sale and it’s called out in your headline, guess what? It’s not being seen on Instagram.

Here’s what an ad looks like in a Facebook feed, with the areas labeled that do and don’t show up on Instagram.

How to Optimize Your Instagram Ads Creative

And here’s what that ad looks like in the Instagram feed:

How to Optimize Your Instagram Ads Creative

As you can see, losing the headline on Instagram might make a difference so find out if you need to account for this when writing your copy.

If the copy isn’t likely an issue, poorer performance on Instagram might mean the image just doesn’t work there, even if it does well on Facebook.

This may have a lot to do with what the user is accustomed to seeing in their Instagram feed. If they see a lot of user-generated content that looks organic, an overly polished ad may just scream that it’s an ad and they’ll scroll on by.

Test different images to see what gives you better results. You can do this without having to change anything about your ad set. In Ads Manager, go to your Ads tab and click on the ad you want to work with.

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In the Ad Creative area, click the down arrow to see the placements where your ad can run. To edit what runs in one of those placements without changing all the others, hover over it and click the pencil icon.

How to Optimize Your Instagram Ads Creative

You’ll then see an ad editing window for that placement. Click on Change to swap out the image or video, and then save it.

How to Optimize Your Instagram Ads Creative

You now have a new visual running to the Instagram feed. You can tell if there’s a different creative running if you see dots on the thumbnail for that placement.

How to Optimize Your Instagram Ads Creative

Let that ad run. Then check on the performance using the Breakdown report discussed earlier. Make a note of the date that you changed it out so when you go back to look at the data, you’ll know what your comparison date ranges should be for when the old creative ran versus the new creative.

#4: Optimize Facebook Ad Creative for Instagram Story Ads

The other place that creative frequently runs on Instagram is Stories. It has less inventory than the feed so you’ll likely get fewer impressions; however, Stories can actually often convert users better than the feed.

Why is that? It’s immersive.

You don’t have the competition you do in the feed. Stories is like an automatic conveyer belt of video or imagery that takes up the whole screen. There are no visuals above or below a story, beckoning the user to scroll more. They aren’t reading the copy while the video is going so it’s a very captive audience.

These changes also mean you need to think differently about your creative.

Here’s what happens when an ad you’re running in the feed automatically shows up in Instagram Stories.

How to Optimize Your Instagram Ads Creative

Ew, right?

Putting in a little extra work for the Stories placement can reap some great rewards.

The two key things that will help you win with this ad unit are the dimensions and how you convey your message.

First, let’s address how stories look. Story ads are a 9:16 aspect ratio. This means the left and right of your “standard” Facebook ad size are chopped off and it’s a vertical unit.

Existing creative often won’t work by just cropping it to a 9:16 aspect ratio and trying to run it. Eliminating the real estate on the left and right can cause the image to lose some important context. It’s also frequently problematic when text or titles span the length of the photo because they get cut off.

Aside from how it looks, you’re also missing a crutch you have in feed ads: There’s no text copy for users to read. This means you can’t give viewers supplemental information on your offer or product. You have to convey that with a visual.

Yes, you’re allowed to have text in your visuals, but with a 15-second ad slot, users can’t quickly read and focus on an image at the same time. Text is a supplemental feature here—your visual must do the heavy lifting.

Another point to remember with this layout is you need to leave a buffer at the bottom. There’s an overlay at the bottom of every story with the Swipe Up call to action. Story ads aren’t click engagements; if a user wants to learn more and go to your URL, they swipe up.

This little piece of real estate will block out the bottom of your video, so make sure your important visuals are more toward the center of your final, cropped version.

When you produce creative to run as an ad, get in the habit of also making a 9:16 version. Take the time to crop it, arrange it differently, and consider reframing any recordings that have excess room on the left and right that can be deleted. This will let you make one creative but utilize it appropriately for these different ad unit dimensions.

Facebook does have some auto-cropping tools to help you do this, but again, if your image relies heavily on visuals in the left and right of your existing creative, the cropping won’t help. This is why it’s important to think in terms of your vertical being right when you’re making it.

Should You Run Ad Sets Only to Instagram?

Another frequent question is whether you should run separate ad sets for Facebook and Instagram. This varies greatly by account.

If you have a smaller budget, start by targeting both. Then check your Breakdown data. If Instagram is obviously performing better than Facebook, test Instagram-specific creative first if you’re on a limited budget.

If you find Instagram consistently outperforms Facebook and you want to focus there, you can test turning off the Facebook portion. Be aware that if you do this, performance will probably dip for a few days while Instagram adapts to having all of the budget to itself. Stay calm; it’s normal for this to happen.


Instagram can be a great platform on its own for your business but it’s important to think of it as not just a bolt-on to Facebook. It’s a different user base with different tastes. Instagram placements are also slightly different from Facebook in ways that can have a really big impact.

Be patient and test until you find that perfect combination. It will serve you well in the future as Instagram continues to grow.

What do you think? Will you try this approach to optimize your Instagram ads? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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