Instagram has been the fastest growing Social Media app currently, with over a billion active monthly users on their platform. Needless to say, this highlights massive opportunities for brands, influencers and other profiles to reach more relevant people and thus more customers. But that also means that you have more competition to make your voice heard. Understanding how the Instagram algorithm works is the key to growth on Instagram and standing out from the other billion profiles fighting for the users’ attention.
How does the Instagram algorithm work?
Let me start by explaining what an Algorithm is, with respect to Social Media. You can think of it like a formula, that the platform uses to decide who sees the content that you are re-uploading. For Instagram, it decides which other people on the platform get to see whatever you publish, in terms of photos or videos. These formulae are secret, and not known to the public, but after lots of research, observation and experimentation, people have a better idea about what is more favourable for the algorithm, and what is not.
In simpler words, the Instagram algorithm is trying to provide you with the content you are most likely to enjoy so that you spend more time on their app. The type of profile a user follows tells Instagram the kind of content you are interested in. However, that does not mean you get to see every piece uploaded by the people you follow, in the order they publish it. The algorithm over time understands your consumption patterns to figure out what topics are the most relevant to you and tries to show you what is the best match for it.
Instagram creates your persona of interests based on –
- What pages you follow.
- What photos you like, comment, engage.
- How much time do you see a post for before scrolling forward.
- Which ads you click on.
- Which hashtags you follow.
- Your location.
- People you Direct Message.
- Posts you comment on etc.
This might seem obtrusive, but that’s just scratching the surface of how the algorithm works. And algorithms are a lot more useful than one would think, and massively affects how much time you spend on their app. For example, after the initial boom, Twitter had a slump in usage time of their app. This was because Twitter was one of the last mainstream platforms to adopt an algorithm. So over time, people started seeing stuff that they were not particularly interested in, and thus found the feed to be ‘too noisy’ and started spending less time on Twitter.
So, okay, the Instagram algorithm is important and is the guiding factor. What can you do, to be on the favourable side?
Here are a few actionable tips to crack the Instagram algorithm, and gain those followers:
1. Grid OCD
Don’t you just love it when you check someone’s profile and you get a very clear idea what that profile is about? Everything is in a cohesive pattern and colour, and appealing to look at. This goes a long way in ensuring a high rate of followers from those who get to your profile. It’s great when followers know what to expect from your profile. To have a favourable Instagram algorithm for brands, having a crystal clear message is key to get the correct followers. One way is to have a consistent aesthetic going on with your Instagram feed. You can also play with the type of content to specify your niche (eg.: food, travel, tech) or use custom designed templates for video content with the topic of the video.
2. Follow correct/relevant people
You must have noticed that when you click on the follow button on someone’s profile, you are quickly shown some recommended pages to follow. This is why you should mainly follow people in the same domain/genre, and also engage with them, to be a part of their ‘recommended circle’.
Using the best-suited hashtags can be the differentiating factor and bring in tons of impressions. Instagram allows up to 30 of them in the caption. (Adding them in the comments no longer counts). Do your research before posting and find the most prominent ones before you post. Ideally, they should have between 100k and 500k posts. Higher than that, and you will have a lot of competition to get featured on the Explore tab. Lower than that, and there’s going to be very few people even looking for it. Remember that adding hashtags just for the sake of adding them won’t be fruitful. Adding hashtags that are not relevant to your post won’t gain the traction you desire.
4. Engaging with the hashtag
Once that you have figured out the relevant tags to your content, you should also go and visit the top posts, engage with them, have conversations in the comments and show your knowledge regarding the topic. Over time this adds up a lot of substance to your persona, and also get extra relevant followers.
5. Engaging with other profiles
Talking about engaging, do not forget about the social part of social media. It is equally important to engage with others, especially those who are in the same niche as you. Go and interact in their comments, get to know their fans, share content worth sharing from other creators, and don’t shy away from sending them appreciation.
6. Posting time
Different people check Instagram at different times. Knowing the best time for your audience is ideal so that they do not miss it, nor have to scroll a lot to reach it. If you have a Business account, check the Insights to get a better idea about this.
7. Initial engagement
One major factor of cracking the Instagram algorithm (also applicable for YouTube, Facebook, Google SEO) is the amount of engagement you get in the time right after you publish it. Try to get the most conversations and shares in the first hour to quickly rise up the ranks. Now you know why so many pages insist you to turn on post notifications.
Gary Vaynerchuk takes this to the next level on his Instagram, by a task called the #60secclub, where the people who comment within the first 60 seconds, as soon as he posts something, gets a gift from him.
8. Warm up talk
Before you are about to post something, about 15 minutes before that you should start a few steps to boost your engagement. Get into conversations, reply to people, spread some appreciation. This is useful when they happen to check out your profile while responding to you.
9. Engagement and Replying
This is an easy one. Reply to all comments on your posts. The only thing Instagram likes more than 100 comments on a post, is 200 comments. And it also shows humility towards those who took the time to leave a comment. Don’t make them feel lonely. Try to have a question or something thought-provoking in your captions, to get more comments.
In line with following the closely-related profiles; try to have your ‘squad’ of people, with whom you regularly post, collaborate, like, comment, share and engage. It will be very useful when you always have a few people ready to comment on your content and get the conversations started.
11. Caption length
Since Instagram also checks how long you are seeing a post for, and got a better UX(User experience), think about your captions in advance. It should be long enough to convey the message and tell the story, but having it too long might just shoo away the viewers. Take care about the formatting of the text also, to make it easier to read. Do not forget about the hashtags!
12. Bring Value
Some pages unknowingly get this wrong, where most of their content has seems to have the objective of increasing sales. The only apparent motto is to sell the product and talk about themselves, which irritates a lot of viewers. Well, sales are useful, but one can use Instagram for a lot more than that! This should act as a medium to hang out with your potential customers, and build up their liking for you. A simple way to go about with this is to have a division for content. For example, ¼ should be talking about your product, ¼ should be about teaching something to the audience, ¼ can be talking about what’s been happening at the company and other updates, and the last bit can be talking about the industry in general. Plan your calendar out beforehand.
This is a problem faced by a lot of smaller creators, but consistency is the key to a much higher reach on Instagram (also Youtube and Facebook). Having 1 post a month and wondering why it is not getting viral is not a good step. It is also great for your followers to get to see what you create regularly, rather than them having to wait and probably forget that they even follow you.
Adding a location to your post/story increases your engagement rate. Also, your content is likely to show up when a person searches for that place on Explore.
15. Instagram stories
This feature, borrowed from Snapchat, has created a lot of new avenues for creators. These 24-hour disappearing stories give you a chance to talk to your community in an easier manner, show them the BTS, share other content, announce the new posts being uploaded, gain feedback, link to external pages etc. The possibilities are limited only by your creativity. One of the best examples of this is Canadian filmmaker Jesse Driftwood, who vlogs his day on Instagram stories.
Instagram has also brought in support for polls, sliders and Question boxes, to drive in massive engagement. Polls can be one of the best ways to increase engagement while keeping it simple for your viewers. You can expect a lot more features to come here over time. You might also have noticed that stories are not shown in a chronological order, but rather in what you would like to see. Double down on this to ensure that people see your stories first before they get tired of tapping and swiping and stop watching them.
Some creators make specifically designed and edited stories for Instagram to stand out from the rest. It might seem like too much effort towards something that will disappear tomorrow, but you will definitely earn the appreciation of your viewers.
Use this wisely as a tool to get closer to your community, not just to sell yourself.
16. Proofread your captions
This one is slightly silly, but whenever you are ready to publish a post, just do a second check for spelling and grammar, because, in the current version of the Instagram algorithm, the engagement levels get reset if you go back and edit a post’s caption.
While there is no explicit way of doing this directly, collaborating with others in the way of you getting featured on their page and vice-versa generates useful quality ‘backlinks’, introduces you to a new set of follower base and a spike in impressions. Getting featured in each other’s stories, or sharing stories where you are featured are all great ways for cross promotion.
18. Live Streams
A fairly new feature on the platform, you can now go Live on Instagram from anywhere in the world, irrespective of your number of followers. You can also add collaborators to a live stream for real-time split-screen videos. Some followers also get notified when you go live, bringing in more viewers. You can now also save the live stream, for republishing later.
The latest advancement coming from the app is actually outside of the app. IGTV was launched a few months back, as a platform to post long-form vertical videos of up to 1 hour long. People can like, share and comment on these. It was stated to become the next big thing, but results have been underwhelming. However, it still has a massive user base and with a few good steps, could become a proper video platform. The algorithm is still pretty raw for this, starting up there now can give you a great early mover advantage, with very little competition.
While the Instagram algorithm changes often, these tips should help you grow in a general sense. Every platform cares about the number of eyeballs they can get, and if your content is such that keeps users wanting more, then the algorithm is going to bless you. Show some love to the platform, and you can expect that in return. Keep observing users, understand analytics, understand your followers, experiment and you should be able to figure out a bullet-proof way to get your message across.
Content is King.
And every growth hack aside, always focus on creating top quality content. No matter how much of your reach is controlled by Instagram, your creativity will always be with you. The algorithm for the Instagram feed is not a human, but each of your followers is. Make something that moves them, tells a story and creates some value for them. Have content so powerful that you become invincible to any algorithm changes, and your followers still keep looking forward to you, even if you happen to break the rules.
The importance of a great Instagram presence in today’s Marketing World needs no introduction. Follow these tips to get through the Instagram algorithm:
- Keep your feed as clean and easy to understand as you can. Try to have a unique and uniform aesthetic.
Follow the most important people from your field.
- Use the best-suited hashtags to propagate your content.
- Engage with other posts using similar hashtags.
- Engage with other profiles, creators, brands and top fans.
- Find ideal times to publish your work.
- Try to get as much engagement and traction as you can, in the first hour.
- Start interacting with other content about 15 minutes before you are about to post.
- Try to reply to as many comments on your post as possible.
- Get a ‘squad’ of other similar creators with whom who interact with on a regular basis.
- Make the most of your captions. Try to keep them short, but in case you need to keep them longer, make sure it adds value and is worth a person’s time.
- Bring value for every viewer.
- Be consistent and regular with your uploads.
- Geotag your posts and stories to maximize your reach.
- Experiment and make the most of all the features that Instagram stories have to offer.
- Check your captions for any grammar or spelling mistakes, before you hit publish.
- Have virtual/real collaborations to get access to a whole new set of audience.
- Go Live to share interesting bits with your fans as they happen.
- Explore IGTV as an option for long-form vertical content.