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Instagram “Ad Breaks” – The Delicate Balance Between User Experience and Effective Marketing

By Melissa Palermo 

Following suit with other leading platforms such as Youtube and X, Instagram is testing out the trend of ad-free subscription plans. Users are already frustrated to say the least –According to PR Week,  More than half of Instagram users citing this as the reason they would delete the app. We’ve seen loyal audiences turn on platforms for similar actions, which begs the question: will the additional monetary value driven into Meta’s ad business outweigh the risk of losing that hard to gain brand value both for Meta and advertising brands alike?

The Ad Breaks ad unit has been self proclaimed as “a new way of seeing ads on Instagram” according to its feature description within the app, which has only been unveiled thus far to a small testing audience. The concept is familiar to ad-free subscription rollouts we’ve seen in the past: users will now need to view an ad before they can resume browsing.

Reviews being shared online by the testing audience indicate that the ads pop up while you’re scrolling and last a few seconds, requiring users to watch the ad’s content before continuing to use the app. Unlike the already forced native ads within the platform, there is no freedom to exit these new ads – disrupting the user flow in a very noticeable way. 

With the voices of Gen Z and Millenials at the forefront of internet discourse, we can look to them as an indicator of how these changes will be received. According to YPulse, 43% of this audience would be interested in using a streaming service with ads for a lower price to no cost. 29% already do this. This means over 60% of the Gen Z/Millennial demographic would not be willing to pay the higher tiers of this ad-free subscription model, but are willing to consume advertisements in order to save funds.

That said, according to Media in Canada, Gen Z is the most likely to want ad-free tiers (89%) followed by Millennials at (85%). This could be due to the fact that these generations are familiar with subscription platforms, growing up with the rise of platforms such as Netflix.

In short, it appears that with the right subscription tier price point, Instagram can make this shift into the ad-free format without too much risk of discontentment from a large portion of their audience. It’s important to note that this may hinge on the platform showing ads in a way that is less abrasive than Instagram’s current Ad Breaks format, allowing users to consume ads if they are not paying the ad-free tier, but not in a way that disrupts their user flow too much. Finding that balance will be vital to the future of social media advertising and how users interpret it. 


But are advertisers clicking buy on these unskippable ad units? 

For brands, this opportunity could mean a more certain return on investment. Knowing that they will be viewed in full and not simply skipped over, brands might be more willing to invest in the quality of their ads creatively. On the hopeful side, this could lead to a new era of more innovative advertising on Instagram as advertisers’ focus will shift to creating content that resonates with viewers rather than gaining their immediate attention.

On the receiving end though, users across all social media platforms have made it clear they do not appreciate being disrupted and forced to view promotions from any brand, even brands they identify with. In fact, these forced ads may actually damage a user’s relationship to brands they already champion – using words like “controlling” and “aggressive” to describe unskippable advertisements, and by proxy, carrying that connotation over to the brand showing the ad. 

A 2024 TikTok study found that forcing users to watch ads could actually decrease engagement, and 72% of respondents in a YouGov survey late last year said that “annoying ads have negatively impacted their perception of a brand”. This backlash is not just hypothetical either, in the wake of many platforms making this change, we have seen in real time users indicate passionately that they value control over their experience.

There is a very fine line between successful advertising and intrusive advertising – brands do not want to appear on the wrong side of that line in spite of positive ROI.  

When we discuss this balance between maintaining positive user experience and effective monetization as the advertising industry grows across social media, there are a few strategies worth considering. Of course, limiting the frequency of Ad Breaks to avoid fatigue would be a necessity, but this is still a change that some users will have difficulty accepting even with a light delivery. We’ve seen on certain platforms in the early age of unskippable ads that some would appear with the promise of a reward after viewing – in this case exclusive content could be a successful play.

The important thing is to not make users feel that they are being taken advantage of by the social media platforms they frequent or the brands they engage with on those platforms. 

As Instagram tests Ad Breaks, both advertisers and users will be watching closely to see what happens next. The outcome will not only shape the future of Instagram but could set a precedent for the broader social media landscape as a whole.

Will this be the end of Instagram as we know it? Where would users turn to instead? Has Meta gone too far or will these changes become necessary in response to growing and changing regulations surrounding privacy and advertising? 

As we stand at the turning point of the social media landscape, there is hope that we can strike a balance that satisfies all parties, and if there is no desire to do that on Meta’s side, they may find that those guaranteed impressions from unskippable ads may begin to decline alongside their audience. One thing is for certain, listening to the feedback from their tester audience and the public will be vital.