You don’t have to post daily to reach your target audience on Instagram. You can increase your organic reach by understanding how Instagram’s algorithm works to get your content on your followers’ feeds. However, the algorithm is so unpredictable that even the most seasoned marketers find working with Instagram very challenging.
Understanding how the Instagram algorithm works will help you build your content marketing strategy and increase your exposure on the platform. In this article, we will learn how the Instagram algorithm works and how you can harness it to your advantage.
How Does the Instagram Algorithm Work?
The Instagram algorithm controls the orders of the posts that people see when they scroll through their feeds. It prioritizes posts using a variety of parameters. Though the Instagram algorithm continues to evolve, there are three key factors that influence the posts that appear on users’ feeds:
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1. Users’ interest and relationship
Who we follow plays a big role in what we see when we open Instagram. Our activity on Instagram, for example, the content we have liked and engaged with, also impacts what we see.
If the algorithm thinks you tend to “like” a specific kind of post, such posts will appear more often in your feed. Therefore, your feed contains a combination of posts that are similar to the content you’ve engaged with.
The Instagram algorithm also prioritizes posts from your close friends and family. Instagram analyzes your interactions with their accounts to discover the people who are closest to you. These interactions include:
- Content (including posts, stories, and live videos) that you like or react to
- Direct messages
- Your search behavior
Instagram tries to evaluate your relationship and interest areas/level the moment you follow someone. It serves you by displaying content posted by people whom you follow and monitor your engagement.
2. Level of content engagement & timeliness
The content that appears on your Instagram feed is also influenced by content engagement and timeliness. The vital metrics for feed ranking are likes, comments, and shares, alongside when the content was published.
Engagement rates vary according to industry. Some niches, like sports and higher education, have high engagement rates, while others, such as fashion or retail, have surprisingly low rates. Your targets should reflect your industry.
3. Number of accounts that follow you
The total number of Instagram accounts you follow is one of the major algorithm ranking factors. The number of accounts you follow is inversely proportional to the probability of a specific account’s content appearing on your feed. Conversely, if you have more followers, your content is more likely to appear on their timelines.
Why is the follower count a factor? For Instagram, more followers mean more content views and more engagement. Of course, Instagram tries its best to account for bots and other means of gaming the system.
So, that covers the basics of how the Instagram algorithm works. Now, let’s see how you can make it work for you!
How Can You Use the Instagram Algorithm to Your Advantage?
A working knowledge of the Instagram algorithm and how it influences the probability of your audience seeing your content will help you create a marketing strategy that works. Here are the things you need to do to maximize your exposure through the Instagram algorithm:
1. Focus on building relationships
Engagement goes beyond mere “likes” and comments, especially on a platform as personal as Instagram. The top brands recognize the value of building strong relationships with their followers. These relationships manifest themselves as high engagement numbers.
Here are some ways to build and strengthen your brand’s relationship with your followers:
- Encourage followers to share their views and opinions through comments or DMs This gives you the opportunity to initiate or continue conversations with your followers.
- Promote user-generated content (UGC) from your followers. While most of your individual followers don’t have the reach of well-known influencers, getting them to tag your brand in their content can give you exposure to their own sets of followers, thus expanding your audience.
- Post content that accelerates engagement, such as contests that invite people to comment or tag your brand in their posts, or “tag-a-friend” posts that encourage your followers to give your brand exposure to their contacts.
The tips above are similar to best practices used in different social networks. The next few ones, though, are more specific to Instagram.
2. Write compelling captions
Visual content rules Instagram. However, images and videos couldn’t and shouldn’t exist in a vacuum. They might be useful for generating likes and shares, but they don’t always drive interactions.
How do you encourage your followers to interact with your posts? Writing compelling captions isn’t rocket science. Asking users to tag a friend or asking them a question are often more effective than captions that are a hundred words or longer.
When you start and sustain a conversation, it sends a signal to the Instagram algorithm that your content is interesting. Instagram promotes interesting content on users’ feeds.
If you’re not very confident about the quality of your writing, you can use a grammar check tool. More than grammar, though, you should also check if your captions make sense and whether the flow of thought is well-established.
It’s fine to use emojis as long as they’re related to the rest of the caption. Using too many emojis could diminish their impact.
3. Tap into the potential of hashtags
It’s so easy to find content on Instagram using hashtags. Clicking on a hashtag will bring you to other posts that have the same hashtag. Because hashtags can help Instagram users find your content easily, they should be part of your brand marketing strategy.
While you can use up to 60 hashtags per post, studies have shown that overloading your content with hashtags won’t necessarily improve your engagement. In fact, social media consultancy Klear suggests using just two hashtags per post to maximize your likes.
What makes a good set of hashtags? Most experts agree that a good hashtag should be brief, unique, and able to evoke emotion, whether it’s humor, outrage, or hope. They should also be consistent with your branding.
Nike’s first #playinside campaign, first released in March 2020, has over 700 thousand likes and the #playinside hashtag appears on more than 64 thousand posts as of 2021, ranging from children’s toys to NFL players.
4. Post at the right time
When you open Instagram on your phone, Instagram shows you the best posts created since the last time you used the app. Posting at the right time helps expose your content to users who are currently online.
Generally, the best time to post is between 9 AM to 4 PM. However, the peak hours for engagement depend on the day of the week. Sprout Social has put together a useful graph that reveals engagement alongside posting times:
The peak hours for engagement vary across industries.
The same Sprout Social study also reveals that the best days for recreation-related accounts are Wednesday and Thursday. The best day for consumer goods is Wednesday. On the other hand, Friday is the best day for media accounts.
To build an engaged audience on Instagram, you need to know your audience and when they tend to use the app. By posting content during the times your audience is most active, your content has a better chance of getting into their feeds.
5. Respond to comments promptly
When you post something interesting on Instagram, people tend to comment. While this is already a form of engagement, responding to comments can lead to even more engagement by starting or continuing a conversation.
Instagram detects this engagement and interprets it as a sign that your content is interesting and relevant. The more relevant your content, the higher the chance of it appearing on user timelines.
Liking and replying to comments will also show that you care about your followers and that you are interested in hearing what they have to say. It’s also a chance to reinforce your brand voice through fun yet professional replies.
6. Use high-quality images
A common complaint among Instagram users is that the image quality on their posts is significantly lower than the images they uploaded. Instagram uses a proprietary algorithm to compress images and reduce the amount of storage they use.
Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of quality.
There are a few workarounds you can use to maintain image quality and keep Instagram from distorting your images. First, you need to ensure that your images are saved as JPEG files.
Instagram can use images in other formats such as PNG, but it converts these images to JPEG during the upload process, which leads to a loss of quality. You might as well save your images as JPEG files to prevent Instagram from reducing their quality.
Second, you can use Photoshop to edit your images and export them using the “Save for Web” option. This option will allow you to change the overall quality of the image yourself, starting from Low to Maximum.
Changing the quality from Maximum to Very High results in a huge file size reduction, even if the sharpness, contrast, and color saturation stay almost the same. You can also upload the image directly from your mobile device for the best results.
High-definition content will also attract more views, plays, and likes. All three factors will give your posts exposure to larger audiences.
7. Post more videos and Stories
Photos have their own charms, but video content generates more engagement. One study performed by Hubspot and Mention found that video posts receive the highest number of likes among all types of content on Instagram. Video posts also receive an average of 150 comments, compared to the platform-wide average of 100 comments.
Instagram doesn’t really say that its algorithm prioritizes videos.
However, Instagram is competing for market share with TikTok, so it makes sense they are prioritizing videos at the moment. People also tend to spend more time watching Instagram videos compared to the time they spend looking at photos.
While the statistics above are impressive in themselves, the big revelation of the past few years has been Instagram Stories. More than half a billion people use Stories daily, and around one-third of the stories with the highest number of views are branded marketing videos.
Stories are less restricted by the Instagram algorithm because the platform is promoting this feature. Posting stories regularly will help your brand gain the exposure it needs. It will also lead to more click-throughs to your profile and content.
8. Go live more often
Live is a feature that Instagram is promoting. Live videos trigger notifications to followers. These views can potentially result in more profile visits, content views, and engagement, which are all things that influence the algorithm.
Most Live videos have a homemade feel about them. People go live to make announcements or just share a slice of life. This gives brands on Instagram a measure of freedom to experiment – and your brand should, too!
For instance, doing a live chat will allow you to reach out to your followers instantly. It’s also a good opportunity to show new products and get feedback from customers in real-time.
Instagram is fast gaining traction as a marketing medium. Just like many other social networks, Instagram uses an intricate algorithm to determine the content that users see in their feeds. The algorithm is in a constant state of flux, but at its bedrock are some basic principles: user interest and relationships, content engagement, and follower count.
The techniques we’ve discussed above use one or more of the basic principles by encouraging users to interact with your brand and content. For example, writing great captions and responding to comments will encourage your followers to start conversations, while publishing posts at the right time will improve the chances of your content being seen.
The Instagram algorithm doesn’t have to be a puzzle you have to solve. Once you’re familiar with the factors that influence it, you can start creating content that gets into Instagram users’ feeds and encourages engagement and interaction.