Harnessing the POWER of Pause: How Instagram's Ad Breaks Redefine Engagement

In the world of social media, which is constantly shifting and evolving, new ways to keep users engaged – and efficiently monetise the content – are always being tested. Instagram has become one of the giants, with 700 million monthly active users and more than a year ago it launched a new experiment that could change the way users engage. The feature, called ‘ad breaks’, forces a user to stop scrolling and view an advert. Here’s how it works, and what the spokesperson Matthew Tye from Instagram, as well as the community reaction, have to say about it.

Understanding the Mechanics of Ad Breaks

The genius of ad breaks is in its simplicity yet equally in its effect. The user is scrolling, lost in a sea of pictures and stories, when suddenly an ad pops up and you are forced to stop scrolling and watch before you can continue. The ad may come with a ‘skip after 5 seconds’ button, but it can’t be skipped at all. The ‘ad break’ is marked with a plain icon and a timer, and it interrupts an otherwise infinite scroll, so the brand gets a moment of your unfiltered attention.

The Community Reaction: A Mixed Bag of Perceptions

Early reactions to the new ad breaks on X (formerly Twitter) and Reddit reveal a visible continuum of user sentiment. On the one hand, some users embrace this moment of digital ad evolution, welcoming a model in which users know ahead of time when an ad will appear. On the other, they fear that this lead-in violates the spirit of the user experience, a refrain that could lead to a substantial drop in organic content consumption.

The Strategic Impetus Behind Instagram's Move

Looking underneath that, though, what we see is a calculated intent to experiment with maximum revenue extraction without a substantial degradation of the user experience. In particular, the ‘we will closely monitor’ part of Tye’s statements are reassuring – they indicate that Instagram will not be rushing this feature out the door, but will be collecting feedback about how ad breaks are being experienced and refining the feature based on that feedback before any widespread rollout.

Ad Breaks: A Catalyst for Enhanced Content Discovery?

A potential benefit of ad breaks is that they might be the best way to allow for discovery, when the scroll grinds to a halt, occasionally, giving the user a chance to see an ad for a new product, service or experience. Advertisers get discoverability and this also opens up the possibility of discovery for the user, of things that might have been scrolled right by blindly.

Crafting a Balance: The Path Forward for Ad Breaks

For Instagram, the real difficulty is in making the calibration of ad breaks work with user expectations – a calibration of both frequency and length of ads, and their appropriateness to the experience. In a user-centred approach, Instagram might find a way for ad breaks to be not inserted but intermissions, in the digital storytelling process.

Exploring the Essence of FORCE in Ad Breaks

And as we track the effects of ad breaks on Instagram, we have to rely conceptually on what physical science refers to as a force. Here, it is a forced pause, a discursive breach in the shift of glances, that calls users to engage with content they did not choose – but did not have a choice to avoid either. As digital ecosystems evolve, and as the interests and positions of users, platforms and advertisers radically change, what is powered and rendered unstable in a ceaselessly open system such as Instagram might underscore how its own long-term survival relies on the boundaries and limits laid down as part of its founding vision.

In Conclusion: Embracing the Potential of Ad Breaks

So then, when we consider what this challenge – and the possibilities it raises for ad breaks – might mean more broadly for digital advertising, we must think in terms of paradigm shifts as much as new ad formats. Instagram’s interruption of the scroll is an experiment in how to reconfigure the possibilities for content engagement and monetisation.

By studying them, adapting them, and mercilessly and unremittingly bringing them closer to overlap, ad breaks may well settle into the definition of how to use power sparingly to drive good innovation. We don’t know yet whether this is going to be a feature, but we do know that the power of ad breaks is starting a conversation that’s going to determine how we pay on social media in the not-so-distant future.

Jun 06, 2024
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