Hardly a day goes by without someone complaining about the Instagram algorithm.
And sometimes it’s difficult to tell if we’re discussing a simple set of instructions (what the algorithm is) or an evil character from a James Bond movie (what the algorithm is not).
Why are we all so convinced that the algorithm is out to get us?
Seriously, how often have you thought to yourself: the Instagram algorithm hates me.
How many times have you read an article or listened to someone advise you on how to “outsmart”, “beat” or “hack” the algorithm?
If you’re nodding your head, you’re not alone.
We’re all convinced that the Instagram algorithm is some code we need to crack, and the reality is – it’s not! The algorithm has no personal vendetta and it doesn’t hold grudges.
However, social media algorithms do fluctuate and so the best we can do as brands, businesses and marketers, is be willing to roll with the changes.
So let’s dive into how the Instagram algorithm works, why there’s an Instagram algorithm in place at all, and four tips to help you succeed.
How does Instagram algorithm work?
Here’s what you need to know
Back in 2016, Instagram changed the structure of the app so that posts were no longer shown in chronological order. Instead, they began to be shown in the order that Instagram deemed “best”.
So, what does that order look like?
In June 2018, Instagram released information about the different factors that the algorithm takes into account when prioritizing content in users’ feeds. These are the three you need to know about:
Instagram algorithm ranking factor #1: Interest
This ranking factor is Instagram’s way of predicting how much you’ll like a post. The more they think you’ll “like” a post, the higher it will appear in your feed. This is based on your past behavior, and whether you’ve interacted with other similar posts and accounts before.
If you open up your Instagram Explore page, you should see content that reflects your interests. If you frequently like pictures of cute animals, far-flung destinations and inspirational quotes, it’s likely you will see these kinds of posts show up.
Instagram algorithm ranking factor #2: Timeliness
While the chronological feed is gone for good, recency still matters on Instagram. This means that more recent posts will be pushed towards the top of the feed, while older posts will feature further down.
Instagram algorithm ranking factor #3: Relationship
Perhaps the most important ranking factor, and one you should focus on to help ride the wave of future algorithm changes, is the relationship you have with your audience.
If a certain user interacts with a lot of your content, they are more likely to see your future content. This means consistent engagement on your posts (and Instagram Stories) is important to help you rank better and strengthen your relationship with your audience.
And that means two-way engagement – because engagement breeds engagement. The more you interact, the more likely your audience will return the gesture.
Another interesting trend we’re seeing (though not one that has anything to do with the algorithm, according to Instagram) is user preference changing from liking hyper-curated accounts to liking realer, more personal content.
In a recent article by actress and writer Tavi Gevinson, Instagram’s director of fashion partnerships Eva Chen revealed that while aspirational photos performed better a few years ago, now users “want to see you letting your hair down.”
In other words, casual selfies are (generally speaking) performing better on Instagram than posed red carpet photos and shots of unrealistic, contrived scenarios.
So if the algorithm doesn’t explicitly favor faces, why should we care about this trend?
Because more relatable content from accounts that look and sound like their audience is resonating better. If you want more “interest” and engagement from your followers, consider stepping away from staged images and instead share more honest, unfiltered content.
And now onto the all important question…
Why is there even an Instagram algorithm in place at all?
We’ve all been there. Wondering what life would be like without any algorithm at all. Things would be so much better, right?
Urm… not quite.
In fact, without the algorithm in place, Instagram would be very un-user-friendly.
Because more than 95 million photos and videos are uploaded to Instagram every single day.
That means there has to be a way of sorting through this content to ensure people see the stuff that matters to them.
Thanks to the Instagram algorithm, users are more likely to see high-quality content that is relevant to them – and this is having a positive effect. Users are now spending several more minutes on the app per visit compared to the days of the chronological feed.
So if the algorithm is actually a good thing, how can we work with it to build stronger relationships with our audience and achieve our biggest goals?
Keep reading to find out.
4 tips to make the Instagram algorithm
work for you
1. Create great quality content
It might sound obvious, but with Instagram usage doubling between June 2016 and 2018, the standards for great quality Instagram content are now higher than ever before.
If you want to stand out from your competition and give users a reason to follow you, your imagery must be well-lit, not blurred, and not overly filtered.
The great thing about Instagram is that you don’t need a fancy camera to grow an engaged community – today, a smartphone works just as well.
As long as you remember some basic photography principles, and the content subject matter is relevant to your target audiences’ wants and needs, then you’re good to go.
Speaking of relevancy, this brings us nicely onto tip #2.
2. Make sure your content is relevant
If you want the Instagram algorithm to work in your favor, you need to create content that your audience wants to see. This is because if you’re posting content similar to the kind your target audience regularly engages with, the algorithm will prioritize your account in their feeds.
That means you need to be super clear on who your target audience is. One of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to grow on Instagram is posting content without having a clear idea of who they’re talking to.
You need to know your target audience inside and out, and that means going deeper than demographic data (e.g. age, salary and job role). You want to understand their hopes and dreams, and how you can facilitate those – or, conversely, how you can help to solve their problems.
The better you know your audience, the simpler it will be to create highly tailored content that they want to engage with.
3. Stay consistent
When you post consistently good content to Instagram, this improves your engagement and builds relationships with your audience. This in turn sends signals to the algorithm that you’re a quality account worth prioritizing in people’s feeds.
Now, that doesn’t mean you need to post multiple times a day. Even if you only decide to post once every three days, a smooth pattern of consistently good content will be rewarded.
The best posting frequency for Instagram is a posting frequency that you can maintain for the foreseeable future.
What no longer works on Instagram is a flurry of activity and then crickets. You have to be consistent with both your posting schedule and your engagement. If you are a new account, choose specific days and times to post each week and then monitor how your content performs. Sticking to a content calendar and experimenting with your best times to post is one of the must-do’s nowadays.
Ideally, you want to post when your audience is most active. A flurry of engagement when you hit publish on a post is a great thing, and so to maximize the chances of this happening, keep an eye on the Audience tab inside Iconosquare or your native Instagram Insights:
These stats can fluctuate, so it will take some trial and error to really understand your audience’s behavior.
When repurposing, don’t do it so frequently that the same content is popping up repeatedly on your feed. And be sure to mix up an element of the “refreshed” post, either by updating the caption, resharing it as part of a carousel, or editing the image slightly differently.
4. Engage, engage, engage!
Audience loyalty and continual engagement from your followers is now more important than ever. So much of being seen and found on Instagram today is based on how engaged your followers are and how engaging you are as an account.
Every comment, direct message, and Instagram Story interaction is a signal to Instagram that your content is valuable. So as you are actively building relationships with your followers, Instagram is rewarding you for it. It’s a win-win situation.
That’s why it’s so important that you spend time engaging. You can’t post pretty pictures on Instagram and then sit back and expect to grow followers.
You must proactively engage. That means responding to comments on your main-feed, and reaching out and finding new people via your competitors and other social media accounts you know your audience loves.
Here are some other practical ways you can work with the Instagram algorithm to generate engagement and show up more consistently in the feeds of your target audience:
4.1. Respond to fresh comments
The first hour after you post new content to Instagram is really important.
The more likes and comments you can get in the first hour, the more likely the Instagram algorithm will rank you well, push you up the newsfeed and feature you on the Explore page.
That’s why you should always post in real-time and stick around afterwards to reply to fresh comments.
Comments are an active form of engagement (versus “likes”, which are passive) and so these are what you should encourage from your audience. They are social proof that your content has struck a chord with your audience, so much so that they’re willing to comment on it.
So as soon as you start to receive comments on a new post, reply. These replies can trigger further conversations and encourage others to leave comments, too.
While this helps to push the reach of that post even further, it will also help future posts perform well in the Instagram algorithm.
While you should plan and schedule your content in advance, I always recommend posting in real-time. By hitting “publish” yourself, you can capitalize on the opportunity to maximize your reach and show your audience you value their engagement.
Plus, if Instagram really does start hiding likes for all accounts (and not just the six regions it’s currently testing), comments will become more important than ever. They will be the only social proof (on a post) that strangers will see when deciding whether you’re a worthwhile account to follow or not.
4.2. Use hashtags to your advantage
If you’re wondering whether Instagram hashtags are still a good way of growing an account, the short answer is: yes, they absolutely are.
However, a good hashtag strategy is, yes – you guessed it – a proactive one.
Pretty pictures and a set of 30 very popular hashtags aren’t enough to grow your community. Instead you need to use hashtags wisely, as signposts for your audience to find you and as a way for you to connect with them.
One way of doing this is by searching hashtags you know they use. For example, your target audience might use hashtags that refer to themselves (#femaleentrepreneur), their passions (#fitnessislife) or their location (#newyorkcity). And there’s a good chance they’ll use community hashtags, too. For example, #dearphotographer.
Understanding the types of hashtag your target audience uses takes some research. But once you’ve made a list, click through to them and engage with the posts using them.
Don’t just “like” the posts or leave comments such as “Love this”. You want to leave valuable comments that give people a reason to check out your Instagram account and, with any luck, hit follow.
And a valuable comment doesn’t have to be particularly long or time-consuming. Just reading people’s captions and genuinely engaging with what they have to say will make you stand out from 99% of other accounts that won’t bother.
4.3. Show up on Instagram Stories and encourage people into your direct messages
With more than 500m daily users on Instagram Stories (and growing), you have a huge opportunity to interrupt your audience’s daily swiping habit with your content.
And guess what? Instagram Stories are the easiest and fastest way to build familiarity with your audience. They are used to seeing their friends and family show up in their Stories, and so by seeing you show up regularly alongside them, it won’t be long before they feel as if they really know you.
When using Stories, make sure to include engagement triggers (e.g. question and poll stickers, and the emoji slider). When people interact with these, it signals to the Instagram algorithm that your content is valued by your ideal follower.
This increases the chances of your Story being pushed up the feed and featured on the Explore page because Instagram deems it engaging and relevant. The same thing goes if people end up direct messaging you as a result of your Story. That action, sending a DM, is another positive signal to Instagram’s algorithm about the value of your content.
And direct messages often involve longer conversations, which gives you a chance to nurture an individual relationships one-on-one.
Now that we’ve broken down how Instagram algorithm works, why the algorithm is in place, and four tips to work WITH the algorithm, and not against it, how do you feel?
Do you feel empowered to start making engagement the focus of your attention, rather than worrying about the algorithm?
The great news is, once you do shift your mindset from worrying about the algorithm to building relationships, you’ll be surprised how quickly you start to see an impact…
…and how little you’ll be thinking about the algorithm 😉.