If you’ve done any marketing using social media, chances are you’ve used Instagram at some point, as 75% of businesses in the U.S. have. Even if you haven’t, you’ve probably used it; eMarketer estimates that the platform has 114.3 million users as of 2020, trailing only YouTube and Facebook in audience size. You may also know that it has a favorable view amongst social media users. Clearly, the negative attitudes that some hold towards Facebook (the owners of Instagram) haven’t migrated down to that company quite yet.
But if you’re a marketer that doesn’t want to do, or can’t afford to do, paid social, how can you best take advantage of what Instagram has to offer to make sure you reach your audience in meaningful ways? Well, that’s where knowing the algorithm comes in handy. Like we’ve done with LinkedIn, Facebook and YouTube, we’ll take a dive into how the algorithm works, as well as try to dispel some myths people may have. Finally, we’ll finish up with some tips and best practices to put you in a great position to succeed, organically.
Before we jump in, it’s important to note that, like Facebook, Instagram places high value on transparency. As such, there is actually an account you can follow, @creators, that will keep you updated on changes made to the algorithm. We’ll reference that account a few times as we go on, starting with what moves the needle for the algorithm:
How The Algorithm Works
At one point, the algorithm would just show you everything in reverse chronological order from when you last opened the app. Put differently, you would see the newest material first. That was before the algorithm was updated to incorporate the different signals users send it through their interactions with content. We’ll get to those shortly, but know that there are three main things the algorithm factors in:
Ever notice that you seem to see more posts from the people you frequently interact with? That’s not by chance: the algorithm factors in people you’ve engaged with in the past (and who have engaged with you) when it decides what to show you. Things that can move the needle here include direct messages, shares, views and likes.
One of the noteworthy things about Facebook’s algorithm is it tries to show you posts that you will find interesting so you keep coming back to the app. Instagram is no different: using the signals the algorithm gets about different posts you interact with, it will try to surface more of those types of posts for you when you use the app.
While the algorithm was changed to not just display posts in reverse chronological order, some element of recency still remains. When you open the app, more recent posts are pushed up to the top of the feed, staying consistent with the first two points. If a user does not check the app frequently, they will be shown first the most popular content since the last time they used it. Again, Instagram wants you to keep coming back for more so they can bump their user engagement and pitch to advertisers. They do that by showing you relevant content.
When it comes to relationships and interest, there are a few signals your activity sends the algorithm that helps it determine what posts to surface. According to The Creators, they are:
That comments, likes, reshares and views are significant should be nothing new given some of the other social platforms we’ve covered in this series. These are the signals you send the algorithm so it can feed you more for what you like.
One thing to keep in mind: fake interactions don’t factor in. The machine learning is really, really good at picking up when bots are employed to artificially boost the stats of a post. So if you are thinking about using them, you’ll see a quick boost, right before your content falls off a cliff.
The moral of the story is don’t try to game any system - Instagram, other social, Google search, anything - by taking shortcuts. It may work in the short term but in the long run you’ll pay a price for it, particularly on Google search where in some cases someone can manually put a penalty on your website or even de-index it entirely if you’re caught practicing bad, unethical habits.
When Should You Post?
As with other social media platforms, the real answer is “know when your audience is online” and post around that. This takes some testing and experimenting to hone in on the perfect time for your brand. That said, there is some research from HubSpot indicating that Thursdays between 3-4 PM EST is an optimal time to post.
Additionally, Sprout Social tested out various times and came up with a heatmap of when the optimal time to post on Instagram might be. Although this was done before the COVID-19 pandemic caused a spike in social media usage, it still gives a good indication of when a good time to post is. There are a few different maps based on industry you can look at via the link, but here is a general one:
Now that we have some background on how the algorithm works, let’s see if we can bust a few myths, starting with one you might be familiar with from a different platform:
Myth: The Algorithm Factors in Performance in the First 30 Minutes When Ranking
You may remember that on LinkedIn, the algorithm will evaluate performance over the first hour when deciding how many people it will show your post to. That makes getting engagement critical if your post is to achieve maximum reach.
Reality: Performance in the First 30 Minutes Does Not Move The Needle
This one was debunked by The Creators themselves. Even if your post does not get engagement quickly, it will still be shown to people the algorithm believes will find it interesting based on previous actions. Relevancy trumps recency.
Myth: Branded Content Ranks Higher
Sure, you’ll be served some ads when you spend time on the platform, but there’s a belief out there that just being a brand with a huge following will help that content attain a higher ranking. More followers equals more signals, which equals higher ranking goes the logic.
Reality: Just Being Branded Does Not Impact Ranking
Again, it’s about what is relevant to the user. The algorithm will surface things that matter to the user based on the signals they send, not just a big brand having a big following. If the user interacts more often with that brand, sure they will see posts higher in their feed from the brand. But just because they follow a large brand does not automatically mean the algorithm will surface things from that brand. There needs to be high engagement, which signals relevancy.
On another note, whether or not you are a business account isn’t factored into the algorithm ranking. Just being a brand, or business, doesn’t push you up. There needs to be a reason, based on signals, for your content to be shown to users.
Myth: People Should Focus More On Posts Than Stories
The thinking goes that people interact more with the posts than the stories, so therefore the focus should be there. Additionally, people get concerned with the fact that users need to manually scroll through stories, so if people drop out halfway through they may not get the full picture of what your story is about.
Reality: Stories Matter
In fact, according to Embed Social, 50% of businesses create at least one story during a typical month. HootSuite goes even further, finding that brands post an average of 2.5 stories per week, and that these stories have an 85% completion rate. Additionally, they found that 62% of people say they become more interested in a brand or product after seeing it in a story. In terms of reach, the average story reach rate stands at 5.82%. When you have a moderate audience, that matters - and is a way to build out your brand identity.
Finally, let’s wrap up with a few best practices to help position yourself for success on Instagram:
Post as consistently as you can. This is easier said than done, particularly if you are a one person shop or don’t have the bandwidth as a company. But the more you can post, the more you’ll get out in front of your audience. There’s no signal to the algorithm that a brand is posting too much (as there would be with say LinkedIn), so use that to your advantage as best you are able.
Don’t be afraid to repurpose content you made for other platforms. Look for interesting posts that got a lot of engagement on Facebook for example and re-use that in an Instagram post.
Use hashtags where appropriate, but don’t overuse or misuse them. Similar to search engine optimization, using a long tail hashtag can bring in customers more ready to purchase or engage with your brand, and there will likely be less competition for them as compared to more generic hashtags (or keywords in the SEO world). Be careful though: misusing hashtags can draw the ire of the algorithm and is generally viewed as spammy behavior, which can turn off your audience.
There’s a lot of competition out there for eyeballs on various social platforms. But knowing the ins and out of how posts find their way onto your feed gives you an advantage over other brands. After reading this blog, you now have some additional tools you can use to make sure your business launches a kick-ass strategy. Go forward and conquer!
Oak Moon is a consulting agency based out of Columbus, OH that helps companies market their brands, define value propositions and uncover customer insights, among other services. If you are interested in hearing more or have questions or comments about this blog, feel free to reach out to me at email@example.com.