Hello all! My name is Sam and you may be thinking, what this is about? Well, currently I'm an ASU student and one of my minors specializes in Technical Communications. With this, I've been focusing my studies on digital marketing. This particular article will go in-depth on what I was able to recover through scholarly journals, research analytics, trial and error, and statistics on how Instagram's algorithm functions and ways you can "work-around" it.
Right off the bat, let me say that as a full-time college student and someone with three jobs, I honestly have a hard time sticking to this myself. So as most of this has been applicable to me and I have seen success from it, do as I say not as I do. That way, you can get the most out of this research and hopefully you take away something that can help you and your business needs!!
Social Media Marketing: Instagram
Social media marketing can be an especially tricky subject for those trying to start a new business and get a proper footing in the world. There are many media markets that are effective as tools to help business owners, but none other are as effective as Instagram. Instagram has one of the largest user bases and is incredibly effective because it primarily relies on the use of using pictures to convey a message. In this context, a picture can literally be worth a thousand words, and if you can’t catch the attention of your audiences with a good depiction of your business, you can sink fast.
However, that’s not to say it’s completely the businesses fault. As of late, it has become increasingly noticeable that what’s partial to blame is Instagram itself. Its algorithm is hectic and inconsistent, making social media marketing a nightmare. Instagram’s algorithm presents an obstacle to small business owners who utilize it as a primary social media platform. There has been speculation of a way to work-around it, however, the best way to figure that out would be to completely delve in and understand how it functions and the lasting impacts it currently has on business accounts.
Instagram’s algorithm works like an artificially intelligent system. In fact, that's what it is. AI based. When Instagram released news of changing their algorithm, not too many people were happy and there was a lot of pushback. An article for the Dow Jones Institutional news boasted it's concern back in 2016 stating, “The change is a risk for Instagram, which has won over users with its simplicity. Instagram's U.S. user base is expected to grow 15% in 2016 to just over 89 million people who use the service at least once a month, compared with just 3.1% for social networks overall, according to eMarketer. But as the site has grown, it has become harder for users to keep up with the volume of images. Users miss about 70% of the images in their feed, Instagram said in a blog post Tuesday.” Fear of change is common; however, the algorithm was cleverly designed in hopes to bridge those disconnected gaps. It relies on machine learning based of interaction and the user’s behavior to cater the platform to personal preferences. Through research, I had found that the main three components the algorithm bases its tailor-made feed for you is through interest, recency, and relationship. (As shown below, a screenshot from a presentation from Instagram’s product lead when going over the algorithm during a briefing.)
Let's talk about that.
is predicted based off of how much the algorithm will think you care about a post, which is determined by your past behavior on similar content. This is also something tracked via your DM's and story-viewing. (We'll expand more on the DM portion in relationships) This is why it’s important to “like/comment” on content you prefer so that it shows as more relevant in your feed. This is also calculated by any post you interact with, even if it's something that pops up on your search and you tap on it. Instagram is reading this as something that caught your attention, so much so that you wanted a better look. Essentially, the more time you spend on ______, Instagram will try to replicate that so that you spend more time on the platform knowing that you have an invested interest in _______.
refers to how relevant and recent the post was shared. This is also known as how “viral” something is. If a new timely post is achieving high interaction, the algorithm will see this post as “viral” and boost it’s reach so that others can see what the buzz is about. Studies have shown that the first hour your post is up is the most critcal. This is the opportunity where you need to dedicate time to interact with comments on your posts, share your post in your stories, and drive as much interaction as possible to get your post noticed and favored by the algorithm.
" The fewer likes and comments a post receives early on, the less likely it is that particular post will gain any traction later. This is where using the analytical tools or “Insights” offered for business accounts can become very handy.” - University Wire, How to beat Instagram's algorithm
eerily relates to how close you are with the individual who posted. This is usually figured out by the algorithm from same tagged posts, comment frequency, DM's, and saved numbers linked to Instagram profiles. People you interact with more on a consistent basis will have more priority in your feed as these are individuals that often pertain to you. A great example I've personally experienced is my history with pods. A comment pod is a means to connect with other artists, and in that group of individuals, everyone puts in some effort to like/comment/ share each other's work to broaden their audiences and help eachother maximize engagement. I can go into more detail about pods in another blog, but for now, that is the basics. While in pods, I've noticed that since I'm active in partipating in those artist's posts, they completely dominate my natural feed. Your relationship with other IG users will highly impact what IG thinks you will want more of in your feed. Other factors that go into consideration to apply to the algorithm are frequency of posts, how many people you follow, and your usage of the app.
A common myth is that Instagram will “hide” posts due to the algorithm, which isn’t entirely true. It will feel that way because it can prioritize other content over another’s, causing content to fall into the bottom of the feed. This is what hurts small businesses the most is when their content is considered “less-relevant” due to any of the above factors from the algorithm.
The Importance of Analytics
Keeping track of one’s insights and analytics is most important when figuring when your own individual followers are most active and engage most with your content. For example, most of my fanbase is in either California, or New York, therefore my posting times need to be a time that can accomadate both peak hours. Because I'm closer to the west coast, I tend to favor that particular time zone, but I try to switch it up to make it work for both. This is importan so that you can better display it so that likes and comments can grow early in the posts lifetime to gain attention. Researching the importance of hashtags and the use of Instagram’s story functions are important as well to gaining attention of current and potential followers in the social media platform.“Knowing what days and times followers are most active can mean the difference between getting 50 likes and 500. While the number of likes isn’t necessarily important, each like means a human being saw the post or product in one way or another. For a business or brand, that is what sustains them – people and exposure. Another factor that seems to play into the amount of exposure a post gets is not only the interaction from other people, but the interaction of the account owner with the engagement they receive. Someone responding to comments in a timely manner and with more than just a few words or emojis may have a positive effect on engagement.” Gholston, K. Social Media Marketing for Small businesses.
Taking all these factors into consideration can help in understanding personal statistics and facing the algorithm head-on when attempting to work with it. However, keep in mind results can vary from person to person since the algorithm relies solely on individual statistics. These are not full solutions to the problem the algorithm presents, simply suggestions on how to deal with what is currently presented for small business owners who struggle against the media platform.
Let's jump into detail to what was mentioned above.
is the measurement of when your followers are simply "most active". In any business accounts, you can see activity via your insights, found via your profile. The audience tab will supply the most information to help focus on your most common active engagement. These statistics change weekly (as it records your previous week), so it's important to keep track of what is working and what isn't. Personally, I have an excel sheet set aside to input my data so that I can compare week to week and see what times generate the most activity. There are apps you can download to help you keep track of your best time to post, but I think it geniunely helps to just use Instagram's Analytics as it's built into your specific consumer base. Generally speaking though, a good solid time-frame to post per week would be:
- Sundays: 10am - 2pm
- Mondays: 11am - 3pm
- Tuesdays: 5am, 9am - 6pm
- Wednesdays: 5am, 9am - 3pm
- Thursdays: 5am, 11pm, 3pm, 4pm
- Fridays: 5am, 9am - 4pm
- Saturdays: 11am
are useful for anyone. What a hashtag does is link up a searched word to you. This can make hunting down content much easier and why it's important to add these to posts to drive traffic towards you. Hashtags need to be relevant to your content, and make sure you mix sizes! When I say mix sizes, it's in regards to how broad your search term is. A hashtag like #kawaii will be much broader than #kawaiiaccessories. It's excellent to have a mix of both because you want to be searchable, but most hashtags that result in monetary value are from smaller sizes. People searching for specific tags usually have a goal in mind. You can google popular hashtags, study hashtags from other makers, or use an app called HashTags to see what's trending. It's also important to mix these up as frequently as possible. If you are using the same set of hashtags for every post, Instagram may think it's a bot/ spam and may place it in lesser priority as it's not "valuable" content. I like to have a notepad list of several different groups of hashtags that I use on posts, so that I have a selection of something new to chose from when posting.
are the function Instagram provides that is like a mini-post. They are an excellent way to drive traffic to your posts or provide a Call-To-Action to send traffic directly to any link you'd like. Did you know you can even use hashtags in your stories? Widen your reach by creating a hashtag and shrinking it down, hiding it behind a picture or graphic in your story to widen your reach. Stories can also help your followers feel more personal with you, interacting with you and any sort of polls, questions, or stickers you may add. In short- UTILIZE YOUR STORIES. These are what I see most often overlooked.
Formula for Beating Instagram's Algorithm
Be consistent and on time. Choose an aesthetic and optimize your profile for SEO. Ask questions and interact with your followers and people who comment on your work. Connect with your customers, rather than getting publicity from influencers. Connect with your community. Make your work shareable. Keep track of what works and REPLICATE IT.
We will explore this topic by attempting to appeal to what Instagram considers favorable to followers through its algorithm and create an applicable series of steps that could be applied to any account to perhaps see immediate change.
Let's make a plan!
Consistency is key! This is vital so that followers know when to expect a post from you, and not only that but maintaining a regular routine will ensure all business analytics come back the most effective. Posting at the same times every day, seven days a week will factor in this consistency. Above in the analytics section, I briefly talk about general great posting times. If you're starting out, you can try those out and see what works for you and what doesnt. As for how often should you post, that's up to you! As long as you aren't posting more than three times throughout the day, you should be fine. Any more than that, or multiple posts consecutively has been deemed by IG as "spamming" and may have lower priority. Whatever you do choose to do, make sure it's evenly spread out. For me, I find that posting twice a day works best at my peak times. (ex. 9am, and then at 2pm) I figure this, using my personal analytics to track when I get the most engagement. For frquency, if you want to drive constant engagement, try to post at least 5-7 times per week. Using your business analytics, be sure to choose optimal interaction time-frames to post so that it can gain the most natural exposure. Angie expresses her urgency on the topic by writing in detail about this topic in her blog, “Instagram’s goal is to monetize! Now you might think this is obvious or wonder how changing the algorithm does this, so let me explain. Instagram is a business and must make money, so how do they make money? By remaining one of the most important forms of social media. And how do they do so? By keeping users on their app as long as possible. How do they keep their users on Instagram? They don’t! We do! Because of this, Instagram favors accounts who can keep their followers as active and engaged as possible!”
Expanding on the importance of consistency, you could start today by batching photos and planning out your posts for the week. Sitting down and taking the time to prepare a weeks-worth of content will not only help in making your content look consistent but will help make it easier for you to just focus on ensuring the same time frames are used for your posts to keep your audience expecting content. I recommend using the apps Planoly and A Color Story to help you manager your feed and keep a schedule of your posts. Another key tip, is as soon as you post, you should send that post to your stories to drive as much traffic as you can to your recent post. Keep traffic and engagement on your post will boost it's chances at being favorable to the Instagram algorithm.
Color DOES matter. It’s crucial to pick a palette to work with as your shop’s theme colors and to make sure to utilize just this palette whenever possible. Differing backgrounds for photos are acceptable but make certain all of the photos posted are tied together or are similar in editing. This will give an account a seamless approach so that it may be coherent. Think of your favorite brands and the colors and presentation they choose. What colors come to mind when you think of McDonalds? How do you feel when you think of Charmin? What kind of lifestyle do you imagine when you hear the word Gucci? Creating a color, face, and brand is one of the most important things, and being consistent with your colors and branding will help your audience have the ability to pick you out of a crowd of other creators. Becoming recognizable and “you” is something many struggle with, but once you figure this out it will exponentially aid the ability to maintain a presence on social media. For Slybonsai, I want it to feel warm, elegant, and comforting. My backgrounds are all white to beige colored, or feature floral aesthetics. I like this concept, because it helps let my work be the focal point of my profile. Think about how you want your feed to look and feel. The app A Color Story can help you get an idea with how your feed can look with it's Grid feature. I recommend trying this out to get an idea of how to build up your profile.
Useful tip! Up your SEO by building up your "name" in your profile! SEO = Search Engine Optimization. Put your name here, but also include what your business is or what it does. That way, if someone is looking up "Enamel Pins", They'll be able to see you pop up while searching, even though "Enamel Pins" isn't in your username.
There was something I had read a long while ago, stating “Don’t post and ghost.” Your first hour posted will be the most important as this will determine how your post will sit in regard to engagement and reach on the Instagram platform. By commenting back and engaging with your fans, you are increasing the amount of activity on your post and thus, increasing the amount of attention your post may receive. Connor Bond had an interesting input stating, “The platform uses image recognition technology to assess the content of a given post. If you frequently engage with posts that feature, say, dogs, the algorithm gives preference to dog-related images and videos when organizing your feed. The work-in-progress technology functions similarly to hashtags, and this carries serious weight for advertisers: rather than filling captions with buzzwords to reach as many people as possible, you can rely on the content itself to target consumers.” (Bond, C. 2018) This works for you, and it works for your fanbase. Keeping them engaged in your content will boost priority of your content and related content in their feed. You may have personally experienced this. To generate valuable engagement, post thoughtful or easy-to-respond to questions in your posts. And when someone replies, reply back! Instagram recognizes content four words or more as "valuable". Create meaningful relationships with those you respect and those who you interact with daily. Use your stories to engage your followers using the multitude of interactive functions Instagram provides. Another means of creating meaningful engagement is to connect with people via DM. If someone comments on one of your posts something geniune, reply back and then take the extra step to DM them and thank them for sharing. This will not only help you build great relationships, but starting that conversation will boost yourself in their feed because of the prolonged interactions. You want people to Know, Like, and Trust you to organically grow in a social media market.
Useful Tip! Another means of getting attention to your posts is to go back and like all of the comments from your last post once you post your "new" post. This is like a little notification that will go through to these people and could potentially drive them to glance at your page, seeing something new has been posted!
This is pretty straightforward, but be active in your community! Whatever it is you make, be an active member. Show off your collection, comment on other's work, become involved because networking is not only important but can help you gain notice of a wider audience. Collaborate with artist's if you can, this is also an excellent way to broaden your audience. Pin loops are a great resource, pin pods are excellent, whatever it is you do just be active. If you are kind and active in your community, the community will be kind and active with you!
Something to note, is shareable content will gain traction the easiest. If you can get people to share your posts, your post will go viral. This was calculated off of a basic observation. Go to any celebrity profile and look at the comments. More often than not, you'll see a name tagged. This is an individual attempt to show someone a post, right? Well what about behind the scenes? Below I have one of my most shared posts, which coincidentally is also one of my most liked/favorited posts. But this isn't a coincidence, because that is how going viral works. Creating content that can spread like wildfire will get you the most organic publicity. I challenge you to look at some of your most popular posts and look under your insights to see how much it was shared vs. a post that did suboptimal. I don't have any secret way or key to tell you how to make your posts gain shares. But I do know, that this is something you should keep in mind as it works VERY effectively. Consider your content you are presenting and think of a way to make it easy-to-share whether that is by how it looks, the message you are trying to send, a "wow"-factor, or ask your followers to share your post in exchange for something. (Like a giveaway, or a certain % off if a post is shared etc.) Sharing has the MOST value on the Instagram platform.
Following these core steps are what will immediately bring results and an increase in engagement. Some days may be slower than others, but on average this approach seems to leave a positive impact to users. I went ahead and utilized these methods on my own business account and saw my numbers pull into the positives and even reach people who weren’t initially following me. It may take time to see results though, as Instagram can be difficult to deal with.
In a blog post by Theidentitecollective , they detail this issue by conducting a 7-day study that reaped some interesting results. “The Instagram Algorithm was designed to show you the content you’re most interested in. However, human behavior threw a wrench in the plan. The ease of scrolling Instagram makes it easy to forget to engage in accounts you’ve selected to follow. By doing so, users naturally stopped liking and commenting on as many photos. Therefore, instantly altering your “relevant content”. Designed to be visual platform, users often spend less than two seconds viewing a post as they scroll to the next. This inherently alters the Instagram algorithm again by shortening the time spent viewing a post.”
By understanding how the algorithm functions, we can better understand our individual results and learn how to best apply ourselves to overcome the algorithm. While the above steps may seem too simple to be true, one could argue that the business tools offered from Instagram have been previously ineffective or that none of this may apply as Instagram only shows content to 7% of your followers. Both are false. Business tools on Instagram can fluctuate, however, this is based off your previous statistics. If you stick to consistency, your numbers should balance out too giving accurate readings on how you are progressing from week to week. It will take some work to manually keep track of where you are getting engagement spikes initially, but once you balance everything out and find a happy medium, you should be set up for success. Business tools are just that; tools! They are there to assist you, but it will take some work on your part to use them to their greatest potential. Also, the claim about Instagram limiting your post accessibility has been proven false in a statement directly tweeted out by Instagram. This is a misconception that can easily be countered with my step-by-step solution provided.
We all have busy lives, so am I perfect at following all of the above? Not at all (lol). But having the mindset and information to better understand my social market does help.
Having experience being a small business owner, I understand the struggles the Instagram platform can present. I want to be able to provide as much clarity from research as possible in hopes that maybe this could help at least one person. The first step to making this change will come from effort from you. Make sure time is taken to be consistent, utilize business tools to keep track of analytics, keep a consistent theme, and connect with your followers. Baby steps forward are better than none at all, and with consistency one can lead to definite progress in overcoming the struggle that can be Instagram’s algorithm.