If you’re in marketing, you’ve likely heard the word “algorithm” uttered countless times. And while it sounds complicated, an algorithm is simply a set of rules. Often, algorithms come up when discussing how search engines rank web pages or how social media platforms decide which content to display. In either case, the conversation usually leads to how often these algorithms change.
Instagram is no stranger to an evolving algorithm, and with more than 800 million active users, many creators scramble to get their content in front of the right people on the app. But how? Let’s take a look at how Instagram’s algorithm works and the tactics to use for algorithmic success.
How does the Instagram algorithm work?
Instagram launched in October 2010 and initially would show users a chronological feed of photos published by people they were following. In 2016, Instagram announced it would display content that was favored by its algorithm (Facebook announced its algorithm in 2007).
According to Instagram, the app uses several algorithms to qualify content, but collectively, Instagram prefers new, timely posts that relate to a user’s interests. Other considerations the Instagram algorithm looks at include accounts a user has interacted with, how often a user logs onto the app, how many accounts a user follows, and how long a user spends scrolling through content.
“How do you feed the algorithm nowadays?” asked Ash Melwani, the CMO of Ovbi, at ManyChat’s Instagram Summit in July 2021.
“When you post now, Instagram will show your posts to a subset of your followers. If they interact with that [post], if they engage with it, Instagram is scoring that. And if you’re getting a good grade [or engagement] on that, [Instagram] will start showing it to more people; and then more people and more people have snowballed into that, increasing your reach and visibility.”
Instagram updates its algorithm regularly, which changes the way creators, influencers, and brands publish content. These algorithm updates can be frustrating to those who want to succeed on the app. So, how can you win at Instagram?
Of course, each update has specific criteria you may have to adjust for, but here are some timeless ideas that will help you showcase your Instagram content, get more followers, and see more engagement.
Boost the quality of your photos
Instagram says posting content that’s “popular” is the way to win on the social media platform. But “popular content” is subjective. Instagram is a visual platform, so you can’t go wrong with publishing content that looks fantastic and resonates with your audience.
“There’s a misconception that Instagram can’t sell and look good at the same time,” Melwani said. “Content needs to be super engaging, super visually attractive. Otherwise, there’s no point, and nobody’s going to stop the scroll. And your reach is going to end up dwindling. And that tells the algorithm that you’re not putting out good content.”
Stick within your brand’s guidelines, but don’t be afraid to get creative with bold colors that catch the eye, exciting landscapes, and unique subjects. Be honest with yourself about resources here: Are you good at taking photos, or should you hire a professional? Will your smartphone camera do the job, or should you invest in a digital camera?
Consistently publish engaging Instagram Stories
Publishing Instagram Stories is a great way to get engagement on your profile. Stories are in a prime location when an Instagram user logs in to the app, and they often see new Stories before they see content from your Instagram feed.
When you publish Instagram Stories consistently, your brand will always literally be at the top of someone’s screen in the app. Use Stories to highlight content that encourages viewers to take action, such as visiting your blog or a specific product page.
“One way we drive traffic to our website is our Stories,” said Ron Shah, CEO of Obvi, during the Instagram Summit. “Overall, our Stories get better reach when our account gets better reach. And when we repost our customers who are posting their packages, or when we’re posting swipe ups, those increase conversion from the story to link clicks.”
With Instagram DM Automation by ManyChat, you can instantly reply to everyone who mentions your Instagram account in a Story. Send a quick thank you message, spark an automated conversation, trigger business automation, and more.
Add more video
Published videos in the Instagram app automatically play when a user comes across them in their feed — a smart way to grab someone’s attention. Remember, your goal is to get someone to “stop the scroll” and engage with your content. And yes, watching a video counts as engagement.
Video, in any form, can be intimidating to create, but with new features such as IGTV and Reels, it’s obvious the platform is prioritizing this type of content. However, videos don’t need to be highly produced to be successful. Consider creating a time-lapse or a string of behind-the-scenes clips.
Don’t be afraid to go live
Similar to Instagram Stories, Instagram Live is another way to light up your profile at the top of someone’s Instagram feed. Going live also creates a sense of urgency for followers, and it’s often exclusive or behind-the-scenes content.
Instagram Live doesn’t require anything rehearsed, polished, or produced. Sure, you can plan what you’ll discuss, or maybe even create a set, but you can also go live and be off-the-cuff, depending on how comfortable you are with that approach.
Write interesting captions
When users like, comment, and share your Instagram content, it counts as engagement and is essential to the algorithm. Interestingly, Instagram doesn’t mind if you directly ask followers to engage. Ask your Instagram followers a question in your caption, prompting them to answer in the comments, or encourage them to tag a friend.
Don’t use this method on every post, however, as it will come across as inauthentic to followers and to the Instagram algorithm. Mix up your captions, and don’t be afraid to get creative.
Host contests and giveaways
Hosting a contest or a giveaway can generate engagement for your Instagram account. ManyChat’s Instagram DM Automation is also suitable for running messaging-powered campaigns, like giveaways, promotions, and contests.
Before you host a giveaway via your profile, make sure you read Instagram’s rules. Also, plan out your contests and properly space them out so followers are on the lookout for your next giveaway.
Publish at the right time
As long as you have an Instagram business account, you’ll have access to Instagram analytics (called Insights on the app). The app’s data will show you when most of your followers are active on the app, which is the best time to publish content. Even if you don’t get a flood of attention on your Instagram post, the algorithm will still note your efforts to post at the right time.
“There is a misconception that Instagram’s algorithm makes it a pointless platform to perform on,” Melwani said. “This is where marketers can set themselves apart from the rest of the herd. Yes, it is going to be harder to get your reach up and your visibility, but that means that everyone else is going through that as well.
“The game here is to focus on your content. It needs to be visually appealing. It needs to tell a story. It needs to flow. If all those things match up, you’re good to go because Instagram is going to kind of push you in front of more people, in front of more eyes.”