How the Instagram Algorithm can be Friend not Foe

The highly controversial Instagram updates of January 2018 have led to disgruntled superusers and baffled brands. It’s not that Instagram is just sassy and doesn’t want to be boxed in or has a fear of being predictable.

The main goal for these updates is increased, varied, and extended engagement by users in the app. Instagram is tailoring content to be closer to what the user wants. They are looking for localized, quality, authentically relevant content with a history of relationship between accounts. A couple of changes are that when you first post to Instagram, it’s going to show in the feeds of 10% of your following. If it does well, it’ll be shown to the other 90% and will be considered for the explore page. The better your post does in the first hour, the better it will do overall.

In our work with by Niche, a marketing (etc.!) agency, with a heavy focus on social media strategy, we’ve seen firsthand since January 2017 major fluctuations in the algorithm. Through research, trial and error, and first-hand experience across work with over 50 brands, we have uncovered some tried and true ways to navigate the algorithm.

The first step is to think of the algorithm not as the enemy, but as a tool to be harnessed to bring in increasingly honed traffic to our brands. Our goal in work with brands is not just to bring inflated numbers, but a targeted group of consumers most likely to naturally fall in love with the brand. To give them an initial magical brand discovery moment, a #nichetomeetyou encounter, where brand and consumer collide who feel like they were always meant to be. And then, as touchpoints increase, to earn their loyalty to the brand. Enough to visit, or make that one purchase. And then to come again, purchase again. And then tell their friends and eventually become lifelong brand supporters. All this considered, I actually see Instagram’s focus on relevant, local, and authentic pairing of user to content as actually to our brands’ benefit. But if we don’t incorporate the necessary publication & promotional protocol changes, even our best content can get lost or fall on uninterested ears.

The second step is to understand the algorithm.

Here’s a quick vocab lesson before we dive in so this chat doesn’t sound like glorified hieroglyphics:
+ Stories: A photo/video or series of photos/videos that show up at the top of user’s apps with your profile photo as the lead image in a circle. Unless prompted otherwise, these go away within the first 24 hours. Unlike snap stories, you can highlight these and save them to your profile page to stick around a little longer. Story-leaning users are what I like to call, more horizontally-inclined Instagrammers.
+ Feed: This is the “home page” of the app, where users scroll to get new content added. Content that has made it through the algorithm and deemed most likely to be interesting to the user. Feed-leaning users are what I like to call, more vertically-inclined Instagrammers.
+ Grid: The images collected in your profile page.
+ Algorithm: The ever-changing formula Instagram uses to determine which content is displayed to which users and when. Many factors, metrics, are taken into account in determining which content will be shown.
+ Engagement: Users’ interaction with content. Likes, comments, follows, saves, etc.
+ Shadow-banning: When Instagram hides content because it is perceived as spammy.
+ Explore page: The feature in which suggested content is auto-populated into the search page geared towards the user’s perceived preferences.

Without further adieu, we dive in with 11 tips on how to understand and then “Beat the Algorithm”, and turn it from foe to friend, creatively harnessing it for your brand’s benefit:

1. Be better. Be awesome. Build out an Instagram presence that is reliably intriguing, relevant, and cohesive. Put out content that is likable. You have <2 seconds and 1.5 scrolls to grab your target market’s attention enough for them to find you worth clicking that big blue “follow” button for.

2. Regular, (did I say relevant already?), & genuine (have I said that before too?) engagement. Engagement, engagement, engagement. Get out there and like, comment, follow, several times a day. But mostly comment. Comment genuinely, relevantly, & uniquely. “Cute!” is no bueno. “I love how that hat complements your eye color!” is much more bueno.

3. Use more videos/boomerangs. Instagram video posts are now on autoplay. Movement draws focus. Focus means more attention on your brand. Plus, video “views” are now a metric taken into consideration by the algorithm.

4. Story often and magnetically – The algorithm grabs data from engagement in instastories. Polls are a highly engaging feature in this feature of the app. But like images for the grid, don’t just do it to do it. Get in your target market’s shoes. What do they want to see right now? What questions do they have about your brand? How can you anticipate their needs and desires before they’re even aware of them.

5. Go Live– When you go live, your instastory bumps up to be the first in line. All of your followers that are active in the app at that time are alerted that you’ve begun a live video, with a quick, easy click-over option to hop in and view.

6. Generate comments. Karma is very real in the digital stratosphere. Leaving meaningful comments on other accounts will generate meaningful comments on your own account. This is where you can begin to tailor who comes to visit your page. Stick to engaging with on-brand accounts or your target market. Don’t just throw comments out there with no thought to the relevance to your own brand. You can also build a call-to-action into your captions that compels users to comment, like a question or something unexpected and clever.

7. Reply to comments quickly. Within the first hour is the goal. The algorithm wants to know you have a relationship with your following, that includes honoring them with a response. 5 words plus as a general rule for comments! Say it out loud. Does it sound genuine and like something your brand would actually say?

8. Be save-able. Screenshottable. Put out beautiful images or useful information or inspirational messaging. Be a source of exciting discovery. Something your users want to be able to pull up and reference quickly in a conversation with friends at a party.

9. Be aware of what’s trending and engage. Holidays, national days, awards shows, Kiley Jenner’s new baby, popular conversation topics of the moment. Pop culture trends and memes. Though never to the dilution of your brand.

10. Yes, Use Instagram pods. Direct Message groups that pool a relevantly interested community and rally support for your content. Just be sure to keep the pods intimate and brand-relevant. The first hour is key for the posts status in the complex mind of the algorithm. If it gets an immediate boost by those in your closest network, your niche, it is perceived as likable content, more apt to be pulled up in Exposure tab & in the feeds of your following.

11. Hashtag like a human. They go in the caption or first comment. Right now, less and more specific is better. But more important is to keep them varied. It’s in your best interest to hashtag insightfully with strong overlap between hashtag and image/caption content. People can now follow hashtags and can quickly note “Don’t show for this hashtag” if your photo isn’t relevant to what they think should be populating their feed for it. Change up hashtags. Keep them in the 10k-500k posts. Use hashtags that you feel your ideal consumer may be using. Encourage your readers to follow your owned hashtags. Number can very. Switch up the hashtags used and the number you use.

Remember, the algorithm is friend not foe. Just follow these tips, stay informed, and also hire by Niche to take care of your social media for you. 😉 But seriously. Who has time to keep on top of all of this? We do! And will incorporate it seamlessly into your marketing strategy.

Follow us on Instagram @byniche & Twitter @byniche

by Lindsey Higgins, Founder of by Niche Marketing Agency

14 Ways to Outsmart the Instagram Algorithm, Sprout Social, by Jenn Chen
How to Beat the 2018 Instagram Algorithm Like a Boss, Fashion Lush, by Erica Stolman
Three Quick Tips to Surviving the Instagram Algorithm Changes, Honeybook, Isaac Lekach
New Rules for Instagram Hashtags: How to Find the Right Hashtag for your Business in 2018, Later, Stephanie Gilbert


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