Now that Instagram has reached 700 million monthly active users, there’s way more great content on the network than anyone could possibly hope to keep up with. In fact, according to Instagram’s own numbers, users miss on average 70 percent of the content in their feeds.
With that in mind, the network introduced the Instagram algorithm, which uses a variety of signals to determine which posts appear at the top of a user’s feed. The idea is to make sure each user sees the posts that they’re most likely to care about, increasing overall engagement with the network as a whole.
What we know about the Instagram algorithm
For the first six years of its life, Instagram was a simple reverse-chronological feed of posts from the accounts each user followed. Put simply, when you logged in to Instagram, you’d see the most recent posts first, whether they were from your mom or your favourite brand—and regardless of the quality of the post.
Then, in March 2016, Instagram announced it would move from a completely reverse-chronological feed to incorporate the use of an algorithm, and people were not happy. A Change.org petition called “Keep Instagram chronological” gained 70,000 signatures in 24 hours. Nonetheless, the Instagram algorithm implementation moved ahead over the next few months.
While some people are still complaining about the Instagram algorithm today, Instagram says that since the algorithm was implemented, people have been liking and commenting on more photos, and “generally engaging with the community in a more active way.”
Whether users love the Instagram algorithm or hate it, it certainly hasn’t slowed down the network’s growth. Instagram increased its user base by nearly 50 percent in the 10 months after the algorithm was introduced, growing from 500 million users in June 2016 to 700 million in April 2017, with the last 100 million users joining faster than had ever happened before.
Like most social networks, Instagram plays its algorithm cards close to its chest, but the network has revealed a few elements that make up the algorithm.
How does the Instagram algorithm work?
According to an Instagram blog post, the Instagram algorithm change allows users to “see the moments you care about first.” Essentially, it’s all about figuring out what content will interest you and driving it to the top of your feed.
So how does Instagram figure out what you are most likely to care about? The only specific factors Instagram mentions are “the likeliness you’ll be interested in the content,” “your relationship with the person posting” and “the timeliness of the post.”
Speaking to Business Insider, an Instagram spokesperson got a little more specific, noting that the following signals are among those the algorithm considers.
Instagram may no longer be fully reverse-chronological, but the Instagram algorithm takes into account that people want to see fresh and timely posts each time they log in.
What this means for brands: While people won’t necessarily see your post at the exact moment you share it, it’s still important to post at the right time to maximize early engagement. Which brings us to…
Since engagement indicates a post is, well, engaging, the Instagram algorithm boosts posts that gain more likes and comments. And since comments take more effort on behalf of the user, these are weighted more heavily than simple likes.
Early engagement is particularly important, because a flurry of initial activity indicates to the Instagram algorithm that a post is worth bumping to the top of other users’ feed, which leads to even more engagement.
What this means for brands: Figure out the best time to post on Instagram for your brand. This will require some testing and digging into Instagram insights (we dive into this in more detail below). Then, post consistently engaging visuals paired with compelling captions that encourage followers to interact with your posts. Put the most important words up front to draw followers in and encourage them to keep reading.
Going beyond whether you follow someone, this factor analyzes the depth of your relationship with the person or brand based on how often you tend to engage with their posts over time. If you often like and comment on someone’s photos and videos, you’ll see more of those in your feed.
This helps ensure that you see content from people you have close relationships with even if those people do not have enough followers of their own to get a substantial amount of likes and comments. For example, your mom’s posts will never get as many likes as Kendall Jenner’s (thank goodness). But since you probably like and comment on your mom’s posts often, the Instagram algorithm understands that you want to see what she is posting, even if no one else is engaging with her content.
What this means for brands: It’s important to develop ongoing relationships with your followers. Consistent engagement is more valuable than sporadic engagement, so know what your followers want to see—and engage with—and give them more of that content. Use Instagram Insights to track which posts perform best and then model that content to craft a profile that inspires a loyal and active following.
Profile searches and direct shares
Searching for someone’s account sends a pretty clear signal that you’re interested in seeing more of their content. And sharing someone’s posts with your network through direct messages indicates that you found that content compelling, even if you didn’t publically like or comment on the post. These actions both provide clues to Instagram about “the likeliness you’ll be interested” in posts from a particular account.
What this means for brands: Direct messages are a form of dark social, meaning you can’t track this engagement. But while you can’t see those shares, Instagram is monitoring them in the background. It’s another reason to create compelling content that users will want to share with contacts. To maximize the impact of profile searches, make sure your profile is easy to find, with a fully-completed and optimized Instagram bio.
Benefits of the Instagram algorithm for brands and marketers
The most important benefit of the algorithm for all Instagram users is that it increases engagement, according to Instagram’s recap of its initial algorithm roll-out. But there are a couple of additional benefits for brands that are using Instagram right.
Quality posts rise to the top
As Kevin Systrom, Instagram’s co-founder and CEO, told the New York Times, “What this is about is making sure that the 30 percent you see is the best 30 percent possible.” If you consistently deliver quality content that aligns with your followers’ expectations from your brand, you’ll have an advantage over those who are just churning out a large quantity of lower quality posts.
Posts have a longer lifespan
Before the Instagram algorithm, the half-life of an Instagram post was 72 minutes, meaning it would get half its total engagement within that time. Now, you may notice people liking and commenting on your posts hours or even days later.
That’s especially good news for a brand with a global audience. Keep in mind that 80 percent of Instagram users live outside the United States. Even with great research and testing about the best time to post for your audience, it’s impossible to catch everyone worldwide at the same moment.
Now, if you’re posting great and engaging content, users across the globe are more likely to see posts they may have missed while they were offline.
How to make the Instagram algorithm work in your favor
Not all brands will benefit equally from the Instagram algorithm, so let’s look at some ways to help your content send the right signals to get it noticed.
Focus on quality
Have you caught on yet that the Instagram algorithm makes quality content more important than ever? The algorithm will surface quality posts while burying the duds.
Know your followers
Engagement is the key to success in an algorithm-based world, but it’s important to remember that not every audience will find the same things engaging. That means you have to know your specific audience and understand what is most appealing to them, and what kinds of photos and captions are most likely to inspire them to interact with your posts.
You can gain some great follower intelligence from Instagram Insights, including gender, age, and location information. You can use those details to help create audience personas that will go a long way towards helping you make meaningful connections that increase engagement over time.
The location information will also help you determine the best time to share your content on Instagram to maximize early engagement and send positive signals to the algorithm.
Use appropriate hashtags
Hashtags can help you connect with existing communities on Instagram and find new followers to engage with your content (and, in turn, send value signals to the Instagram algorithm).
Instagram offers the following guidance for using hashtags:
- Be specific: For example, choose #vwvan over #van
- Be relevant: Relevant hashtags help you connect with people who are actually interested in your content, rather than people who are fishing for like-backs
- Be observant: Keep an eye on the hashtags your followers and competitors are using and look for one you haven’t yet incorporated
Avoid the shadowban
We’ve just told you that using appropriate hashtags can be a good way to extend the reach of your posts. But abusing hashtags could lead to the dreaded shadowban. The shadowban, which Instagram has yet to acknowledge actually exists, is said to be when your account is partially blocked without any notifications—generally, your posts stop appearing in hashtag searches or on the Instagram Explore page.
The best way to avoid the shadowban is to be authentic. Only use hashtags that are relevant to your content, don’t use too many hashtags on one post, and don’t buy followers or use bots to post comments. (Posting repetitive comments or content actually goes against Instagram’s community guidelines.)
Share live video
The amount of time people spend watching video on Instagram increased by 80 percent from June 2016 to June 2017—so posting video can be a good way to catch followers’ attention and get them to spend a little more time interacting with your feed.
But live video takes things up another notch. Unless they have turned off notifications, your followers will see an alert when you start broadcasting a live video on Instagram. That notification appears at the very top of the screen, above the posts sorted by the Instagram algorithm. The notification doesn’t last for long, but it does capture the old-school Instagram feeling of content being shared in real time.
When you finish broadcasting your live video, you can save it to your Instagram Story so that it lives on for 24 hours after you wrap things up.
Try an Instagram pod
Since early engagement on a post is so important to its Instagram algorithm ranking, clever groups of Instagrammers are teaming up to provide likes and comments on each other’s posts.
A pod is simply a small group of Instagrammers who have agreed to support each other in this way. Each time a pod member posts on Instagram, they send out an Instagram DM to the entire private group. Each group member then looks at the post, likes it, and posts a real comment (no bots allowed).
Instagram has so far not indicated its thoughts on the pod strategy, but since it’s real people posting real comments and offering real likes, the strategy seems to fall on the right side of Instragram’s community guidelines.
Partner with influencers
Working with influencers is a way to expose your posts to people who are not already following your account, which can help increase engagement, sending important value signals to the Instagram algorithm.
There are three ways you can use an influencer relationship to beat the Instagram algorithm:
- The influencer creates original content related to your brand and posts it on their own account. While this won’t directly boost any of your specific posts in the Instagram algorithm, it’s a way to draw attention—and new followers—to your account, creating more algorithm-boosting engagement over time.
- You share posts from the influencer on your account, making sure to tag them and use any hashtags the influencer is known for. This will help draw attention and new eyeballs to your post, creating engagement and boosting the post in the Instagram algorithm.
- You host an Instagram takeover, in which the influencer literally takes over your account for a day, a week, or whatever time period makes sense for both parties. The influencer should let their followers know they’ll be posting on your account, again sending their followers your way.
Invest in Instagram ads
Okay, it’s not an organic strategy, but one foolproof way to beat the Instagram algorithm is to pay to boost your posts. This can be anything from promoting an existing post, which only takes a couple of taps, to developing custom ad campaigns and placing your ads through the Ads Manager or Power Editor.
By Christina Newberry