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How does the Instagram algorithm work? This is a question I get asked a lot, as if I’m the KFC colonel with the secret herbs-and-spices recipe.
It’s only April and already there have already been so many changes. Each time I can’t help but shout ‘Instaaargghhh!’ in the hopes that Insta HQ hears me and stops meddling with the recipe.
So how do you keep up when you’ve also got a business to run and people to delight? It can be tough, so I’ve distilled what every creative should know about the algorithm along with five simple actions to take your Insta presence to the next level this year.
1. Engagement matters
There’s no way around it: Instagram is still growing fast and it’s becoming more and more saturated. More than 95 million photos are posted every day, but 70 percent of them are never even seen, let alone engaged with. This can be incredibly frustrating for anyone trying to grow her business.
For a long time now, the algorithm has been based mainly on engagement. This includes numbers of likes, comments, video views, saves, shared posts, DMs and any other type of interactions with a post. In a nutshell, when a post gets a lot of engagement, Instagram deems it high quality and engaging, so shows it more. This hasn’t changed, but it now also includes all the interactions you receive on Instagram Stories as well, such as views, replies and shares. In short, the more a user interacts with your stories, the more likely it is that your individual posts will also show up in her feed.
I also have a theory (but can’t confirm it) that variation in engagement type matters, too, to combat the fact that you can now easily buy thousands of likes or views in the time it takes to order a cup of coffee.
ACTION #1: TELL STORIES
If you haven’t got on the Stories bandwagon yet, it’s time to jump on board. Instagram Stories now has more than 300 million daily active users, almost double the number on Snapchat! More importantly, it’s a great way to connect with your followers and share a behind-the-scenes, unfiltered view of your business.
Here are some simple ways to maximise engagement with Stories:
Share progress shots of work.
If you’re self-branded (i.e., photographers and designers), don’t be afraid to share more human moments to give insight into who you are.
If you sell products, use it as an opportunity to be transparent about your products and supply chain.
Take advantage of built-in engagement opportunities, like the polling feature.
Tell followers to ‘DM us for a 10% off code!’ (or similar). This is a great way to build relationships and drive people to your inbox, boosting engagement figures through more DMs.
Include the ‘Swipe up’ option if you have a business account with more than ten thousand followers.
Include links (again, only available if you have a business account with more than ten thousand followers).
2. Speed matters
Not only does the algorithm factor in the amount of love your post gets, it also cares how quickly you get it. If a post gets a lot of engagement shortly after it’s posted, this signals that it’s quality content, so the post will be shown to even more of your followers.
ACTION #2: POST DURING PEAK TIMES
Take two minutes right now to find out when your followers are most active, then schedule your posts during this time, when you’re most likely to get engagement.
To find this out, click on the Insights graph for your business account. Scroll down to Followers and click ‘See more’. At the bottom you can see when your followers are online each day, and at what times. Easy!
3. Lingering matters
Since Facebook bought Instagram in 2012, it’s been rolling out features that ‘work’ in Facebook-to-Instagram, and this is one of them. It’s not just about how many people view your post, it’s about how long they view it for. So how do you stop followers in their tracks?
ACTION #3: SLOW IT DOWN
There are two simple ways to do this: write longer captions, and use more videos and carousel images.
If your post has an in-depth caption, your followers are more likely to actually read it or click the ‘more’ button, which increases the time spent on your post. Try spending a few minutes to write your captions for the entire week when you’re feeling creative or in the zone, then schedule them using a tool like Later or Planoly.
One of the reasons why videos perform so well in the Instagram algorithm is because they take longer to view than an image. So post more videos. If videos aren’t part of your visual strategy, try carousels (multiple-image posts) every now and again.
4. Hashtags matter
Instagram recently rolled out the ability to follow hashtags, which means your posts could show up automatically in the feeds of potential new followers. The downside is that users also have the power to mark your hashtagged content as irrelevant, marking it ‘Don’t show for this hashtag’ and potentially raising a red flag on your account.
ACTION #4: STAY RELEVANT
As we learned from the Shadowban scare last year, posting the same block of hashtags over and over can have a negative impact. Instead, switch it up and use hashtags that are hands-down relevant to what you’re posting.
5. Your interaction matters
I’m (sadly) not the KFC colonel with the secret recipe so can’t confirm this for sure, but it’s believed that Instagram may also restrict exposure based on your engagement with your followers. I know, keeping track of Instagram comments can be hard if you have a lot of followers, but to get engagement, you’ve got to give.
ACTION #5: STAY ON TOP OF COMMENTS
Social media should be just that: social. Treat comments like a conversation and avoid comments like ‘Great pic!’ or ‘Nice feed!’ that can be seen as coming from a robot.
Instead, include a question or some sort of meaningful response. At the very least, show some love with an emoji. Try to respond to comments within the first hour if possible, as this is likely to lead to more comments and, in turn, increase your post’s visibility.
Keep your eye on the prize
When using Instagram for your business — whatever your industry — your end goal should be to get customers to buy your products or services, not to increase followers. Sure, your initial aim might be to grow brand recognition or do more collaborations, but the overall aim is to grow revenue.
At the end of the day, the harsh reality is that your follower count is a vanity metric. Focus instead on measuring engagement and making incremental improvements as you go, and you’ll be well on your way to a strong, highly engaged account.
Courtney Goes is a Melbourne-based digital marketing and brand consultant with experience across a range of industries in Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Since leaving the corporate world in 2016, she’s been on a mission to help women make smarter marketing decisions to elevate their businesses and personal brands through simple, effective strategies. Working mostly with creatives, freelancers, and female-owned startups and small businesses, she provides clarity, structure and accountability to get real, tangible results. She has also launched Marketing Emporium, a resource hub designed to provide simple and straightforward marketing advice. Contact her at courtneygoes.com