What is the Instagram algorithm?
With a broad reach of over 1 billion users worldwide, Instagram is one of the most powerful social media platforms in the space, and brands are fighting for their place in the sun. For many, the fact that Instagram changes algorithms is burdensome because brands need to stay up to date to not lose the reach.
However, the algorithm is a good thing for both users and marketers. Instagram uses machine learning to study user behavior and customize feeds to show the most relevant content. If you are not taking advantage of Instagram algorithm updates in your marketing strategy, you might be missing opportunities for brand growth. So, instead of trying to game the system, learn how to exploit it for your benefit.
More recently, the platform has abandoned its chronological feed in favor of ranked feed, which has improved post visibility by 50%, according to Instagram creators. The platform now prioritizes posts based on how interesting they can be for the audience and not their relevance. So, as long as you publish relevant and engaging content, the algorithm will be advantageous to you.
How does the Instagram algorithm work?
Essentially, the Instagram engagement algorithms use six factors to rank content in users’ feed, namely:
Instagram ranks content in the feed based on how much the user will be interested in it. Thus, the platform evaluates the user’s past interactions, such as the accounts and types of content the user engages most often with. So what people see in the feed is a combination of their Instagram behaviors. The more Instagram thinks the user will like a particular post, the higher it will be shown in the feed.
Although the chronological feed is no longer used, the platform still considers post recency as a ranking factor. Instagram only sorts the posts published since the user’s last visit. Brands can take advantage of that by posting content when their audience is online to show up at the top of the feed.
Relationship is the next important thing determining what content users see in the feed, so posts from their friends and family will rank higher. To identify relationships, the algorithm analyses the user’s past activity to see which accounts they engage most often with, like people whom the user searches for, DMs, knows in real life, or whose content usually likes.
Depending on how often the user opens the app, the algorithm shows the best posts since the last visit. So the content the user sees will depend on whether they check the app daily, hourly, and so on. Posts that have been relevant for the last hour might not be that high in the feed if the user opens Instagram only the next day.
Users who follow numerous accounts will see less content from each person to get a whole picture, while those who follow only a few people will see more posts from every account.
How long the user browses Instagram also influences the amount of content they’ll see. For instance, if one prefers longer sessions, they’ll see more content in contrast to users who only briefly check the feed.
In addition to that, it could be helpful to know how Instagram ranks other types of content. For Stories, the algorithm considers engagement and recency. Thus, Instagram prioritizes the accounts whose content the user likes, comments and reacts to often as well as the most recent content. On that note, consistently sharing Stories will help you reach more people. The same goes for IGTV videos and Reels, and you can also boost their visibility with hashtags and include a one-minute preview to increase initial exposure.
As for the Explore page, the algorithm displays content from new accounts based on the user’s prior interactions. To get your brand on the Explore page, focus on your niche topics, write strong captions and categorize posts with hashtags, as the strongest performing posts show up for the relevant hashtag.
How to use the Instagram algorithm for your advantage
Knowing how Instagram ranks content can help you take advantage of the algorithm and improve your performance. And by fostering relations with your existing followers, you’ll expand to new audiences more efficiently. Below, we’ve gathered eight techniques that will help you get there.
1. Follow the latest features
While Instagram doesn’t prioritize any specific type of content, it puts a lot of effort into developing and releasing new features. To help drive adoption, the platform gives them a prime location, for example, by placing Stories at the top of the screen. Thus, if you jump on the latest features in your strategy, it might bring out the desired results much faster.
One of the recent updates is Instagram Reels, which was created particularly to beat TikTok. And to improve their engagement, the platform appointed a dedicated team to find great Reels and feature them. Thus, marketers who tapped into the potential of Reels at their roll-out stage saw a considerable uptick in traffic when chosen to be featured by Instagram.
2. Diversify your content
Another key to successful Instagram marketing is using a variety of content on your account. You can get the most turnaround for your marketing by accompanying your single-image posts with Stories, IGTV videos, Lives, and carousel posts. Here’s why: The Instagram algorithm analyzes each user’s past interactions before preparing their feed, so it will favor the type of content the user engages with most often.
Analyzing your account performance will help you understand your audience and make insightful decisions. Thus, Hootsuite reports that carousel posts receive three times the level of engagement and almost half as much reach as regular posts.
You can make it easier by repurposing your content. Likely, your latest followers haven’t seen some of your older posts, so why not give it another shot? For example, turn a video into a carousel post, or reshare posts in your Stories.
3. Post at the best times
Timeliness is still one of the most important ranking factors of the Instagram algorithm, so be sure to analyze your audience behavior as well as industry trends and identify your best times to post. Consider when most of your followers are online and active on Instagram and when your content is relevant for them. If you have a business account on Instagram, go to your profile and open Insights, then click the Audience tab and scroll down to see your followers’ most active hours and days.
4. Make use of hashtags
When searching for content, users often use and follow hashtags. Adding them to your posts can help improve your chances of reaching target audiences and boost engagement rates. Branded hashtags also have a huge upside for boosting brand awareness and keeping your business top of mind.
There are different views about where to place hashtags—in captions or comments—so you may try both options to figure out the best way. As for their number, some marketers recommend using the full 30 hashtags to maximize the reach.
And you can also follow hashtags relevant to your brand. Then, you’ll see what posts perform better and can rework your strategy accordingly. For example, if you run a travel blog and share advice on how to take trips as a couple, follow the corresponding hashtag #travelcouple to see what content users like the most.
5. Drive engagement
The Instagram algorithm prioritizes content that receives the most engagement from the audience, such as comments, likes, shares, views, etc. There is a host of ways that will help you keep followers on the app longer, such as:
- Write engaging captions to your posts.
- Instagram has confirmed the importance of comments for feed ranking, so try to encourage users to share their thoughts, for example, by asking them a question.
- To increase interactions with your Stories, add various stickers and buttons, for example, polls or questions as well as hashtags to maximize your reach.
- Optimize your content for saves. Write extended captions that’ll be useful for users, share inspiring and high-quality visuals, and explore other ways to make followers want to save your post for later.
- Use the in-app camera with its filters, tag geolocation, and so on.
- Add user-generated content, as followers will likely appreciate being featured on your page. One way of doing it is by sharing replies to your Stories or questions followers have asked you.
- Reply to direct messages (DMs), as they are an important indicator for Instagram of engagement. The accounts that users often DM are shown among the first Stories. So you can take advantage of that by encouraging your audience to DM you. By the way, you can now reply to your DMs on the desktop with Facebook’s new Pages inbox unifying Messenger and Instagram Direct.
What numbers to strive for? In general, engagement within a range of 1 to 4% is considered good depending on the niche, company size, and other factors. In comparison, the average engagement rate for businesses was 0.85% as of January 2021.
6. Check analytics
To understand what can interest your audience, make sure to tap into your Instagram analytics. You’ll see which posts receive the most comments, likes and shares and then identify what exactly draws the attention of followers. These insights will allow you to rework your strategy further and include more content of such type, saving time and effort in the long run.
To access analytics, switch your Instagram account to professional, and then open the “Insights” tab. There, you’ll be able to see recent highlights such as accounts reached, content interactions, audience insights, and so on.
7. Be consistent
Whatever the purpose of your Instagram marketing strategy, being consistent is crucial in order to achieve success. A one-time effort won’t bring you the desired results in contrast to sustained action. For example, if you aim at improving engagement, make sure to share content and engage with the audience regularly, so they will have something to look forward to. A consistent presence is the best way to connect with your followers.
How often should you be posting on the platform to beat Instagram engagement algorithms? The ideal posting frequency depends on your niche, business objectives, and the amount of time you can dedicate to creating content. In general, brands share 1-2 posts and around 10 Stories per day to maintain contact with their audiences.
8. Use microblogging
A great way to build a connection with your audience is by writing long and engaging captions. According to Hubspot, captions with over 500 characters get the most feedback from the audience. This may increase the time users spend on your Instagram page and, as a result, improve your account performance. How can this be achieved?
- One way is by getting real with the audience and sharing personal opinions or experiences.
- You can also spark the conversation by leaving the first comment under your post, asking a question or encouraging followers to talk.
- Add a call to action (CTA). Ask users to like or comment your post, or check out your website.
How to outsmart the Instagram algorithm
While the Instagram algorithm may seem complicated to deal with, in reality, it is straightforward and aims at improving user experience. So, instead of trying to beat it, focus on building genuine connections with your followers. For that, it’s important to provide great content and do it consistently so that your audience has something to look forward to. As long as you focus on the value you offer and not solely on the numbers, the algorithm will be on your side.