12 Ways to Defeat the Instagram Algorithm
Updated: May 12, 2021
There’s no doubt that Instagram has become one of the most effective platforms for brands to reach out to their customers organically. In comparison, the engagement rates have considerably reduced on Twitter due to its more real-time nature and people’s frequency of posting whilst Facebook’s organic reach has significantly decreased as well over the years. Instagram, on the other hand, also gives a lot more flexibility in terms of type of content over other platforms with its multimedia approach; spanning the spectrum of visually rich photos, short video formats, interactive stories and long form video on IGTV. Brands can reach out to users not only through the feed but through the Stories, IGTV, Reels and the Discover section.
With brands jumping on the Instagram bandwagon, it’s vital to understand how to defeat the Instagram algorithm to reach out to as many customers as possible or else face the challenge of having your growth stunted drastically, just like on Facebook & Twitter.
In this post, I’ll attempt to break down the state of the Instagram algorithm as we know it and how you can maximise your organic reach as the algorithm continues to evolve.
To better understand the present-day Instagram algorithm, let’s turn back the clock. In 2016, Instagram announced that users’ feeds would favour content that mattered more to users, so in a nutshell, more personal content over marketing content.
There are a whole host of signals that affect the algorithm’s rank placement, but there are 4 that you all must know:
Followers: It goes without saying that your content will feature in more feeds if you have a larger following
Engagement: This denotes how many people have interacted with your post by saving, commenting, sharing and liking. The higher your engagement, the higher you’ll rank and the more chance you’ll have of appearing on the explore page. Shares matter the most as that helps your content reach out to another account’s follower base
Speed of engagement: What matters is not only the number of comments, likes, and saves, but also the speed at which this happens. From what I’ve observed, the algorithm favours content a lot more with more engagement within the first few hours of it being published
Recency: Newer posts tend to rank higher than old ones.
There are other factors that appeal to the Instagram algorithm as well such as ‘time users spend viewing your posts’, ‘how often users engage with your posts’ but the 4 above listed parameters are most integral to the system.
This infographic by Digerati Academy sums it up beautifully
When you notice your Instagram engagement is down, it may not always be attributable to the algorithm alone. However, these tips will help you prepare for any new algorithm updates with a deeper understanding of how the platform works.
Did you know you could be limiting your Instagram reach by posting at the wrong time, or just not regularly enough?
How many times should you post in a day or week? What time should you post? When are your users online? Does a certain type of content work better at a specific time?
The best thing to do in this scenario is to test multiple permutations and combinations over a few months to get a better understanding of the same.
I’ve had clients whose optimal timings have been 3pm, whilst some have seen better results at 9pm. Some brands see better results on weekdays whilst others see better results on weekends. There’s no set formula for this and it all depends on your TG.
Try to understand your TG first and foremost. Do you cater to millennials in the creative space? You can post late at night. Are you a wellness or fitness brand? Heck, it might not hurt to post at 6 am. It’s important to pay attention to the “psychology” angle here - understanding the lives your consumers lead might help you to schedule your posts accordingly!
Although, it may take time to get a long-term understanding of your followers’ activity, you can identify when the majority of your audience is online through Instagram Insights which is its analytics dashboard.
Publishing during peak times doesn’t necessarily encourage a flood of activity due to the non-chronological feed and due to all brands trying to vie for customer’s attention at the same time. In fact, I’ve had posts scheduled at odd times such as 11pm or 9am that have worked incredibly well too.
Brands need to be active in order to attract followers and boost engagement rates – but how active? According to studies, the sweet spot is a consistent 1-2
posts and 1-2 story series in a day. This way your content stays fresh and relevant, and you have more opportunities to attract eyeballs to your profile.
Having said that, make sure you do not spam your timeline with a lot of posts and stories as there is a direct correlation between too many posts/stories and the ‘unfollow’ button.
Posting loads of content every day is a commonly made mistake. Many brands assume that the more they post, the greater their Instagram reach will be, which may not be the case.
If you publish tons and tons of content, you will exhaust your audience, guaranteeing low engagement and tons of unfollows.
2. Engagement Activities or Contests:
When it comes to high impact activities, engagement activities are second to none. These activities consistently lead to higher reach, an increase in follower count and more interactions.
So what is an engagement activity you ask? Any activity that requires followers and non-followers to come together and take some action (comment, follow, share) to consume or participate in an activity on Instagram, outside the realms of regular posts.
An engagement activity could include the following:-
A Giveaway Contest
A live event on an IG feed
An Ask me Anything on IG live with a renowned personality
A games night/quiz through stories
A UGC-driven activity requiring the community to share content for some reward
An influencer driven activity requiring influencers to post around a theme at the same time
Doolally, the popular craft beer brand hailing from Pune has done a remarkable job of hosting a recurring quiz on Twitter every Friday leading to a flurry of conversations. This has become almost synonymous with the brand. Dineout conducted a Games Night activity on Instagram during the first lockdown, announcing in advance that they would like their followers to join them for an evening of fun and games on that Friday. Over 1000 Followers participated and played games through their story feed leading to a spike in followers by 500 over a 3 day period. Impressions increased by 260% over the weekend and engagement increased by 310%.
Asking questions or calling for an action is one of the fun ways to encourage your followers to interact with your Instagram posts.
So if these activities perform so well, what is stopping us from conducting one every day, you ask? For starters, the logistics, time & effort required is typically more than a regular activity. Secondly, the novelty of such activities wear off if they are conducted too often. It just wouldn’t be the same to host a sports world cup every single year, would it?
An engagement activity requires planning, from partnering with another brand to increasing reach and identifying guidelines for execution, moderation, community management and reporting.
Before the activity is deployed, make sure you have a sturdy amplification plan in place comprising preview posts, pre-buzz, Instagram ads, stories, influencer shares, email blasts, cross promotions through other networks and more.
Despite this, they’re regularly overlooked by brands, with only 2% of accounts hosting such activities which means it’s a relatively untapped resource for marketers to capitalize on.
An especially popular engagement activity type on Instagram is the giveaway. This involves giving away a product or service, and users enter the contest by following your account, liking the post, and tagging their friends in your post. If the giveaway is executed well, this can be a powerful tactic to boost engagement and brand awareness.
3. Quality of content:
The single most important factor. No matter how much importance experts might place on other factors, everything falls flat if the content is not well crafted and designed.
As far as I’m concerned, 80% of weightage should be placed on great quality of content. As a marketer you might get everything else right but would still fail if the content is below par.
So what makes up good content exactly as the definition of good content is entirely subjective. This is why it makes sense to step back and understand your TG, their behaviour, their psyche and their needs.
Step up your image and video game. Hire a professional photographer/videographer and invest in monthly/quarterly product and campaign shoots.
I understand not everyone has access to an agency or full time designers, but since Instagram is a visual medium, do not compromise on quality of images. Even if you’re not a great photographer or graphic designer, there are tools out there for helping you give your content a little oomph.
For example, Canva is an easy way to create attractive creatives. You can also create videos and add filters through InVideo.
Typically good content consists of the following components:-
Fresh- Be unique. Don’t create content that other brands are creating
Visual storytelling - Create a visually striking narrative
Relevant - TG should be able to relate to the topic and theme
Voice - Compelling captions with a distinct brand voice
Entertain - Create content that engages and entertains
As established earlier, quality over quantity every single time. Really analyse your posts before you publish them. Do they fit your branding? Are they good enough for your audience? Will they generate engagement?
Don’t post for the sake of it and don’t publish anything that is sub-par only because you’re lacking content!
At the end of the day, let’s not forget that millions of users spend time on Instagram to be engaged & entertained and not to have a product being sold down their throats.
A lot of brands make the mistake of directly promoting their products through their accounts and while I do understand the pressures and rigours of managing a business, you’re more likely to sell products if you sell a vision, a lifestyle and an idea rather than a product. Seed in your product subtly through your content instead of making it the hero of your content.
Some of my favourite Instagram feeds include AirBNB for its crisp storytelling, Nowness for its imagery, Ishita Mangal for her mix of fashion and humour, and Americano for their informational yet delicious feed - and lastly, how can we forget the biggest It celebrity this year, Tika the Iggy!
4. Type of content
Once you have determined what you want to communicate, how will you communicate it?
Say you want to promote a new product of yours, how would you do it?
What format should it be in? Should it be a video? A single post? A story? A reel? A carousel post? Or a mix and match?
What category of content should it be? Should it be a question? UGC? Meme? Quote? Testimonial?
This is just the tip of the iceberg but once again, experimentation is the name of the game. Try out different formats and categories.
Testing out new forms of content might feel daunting on Instagram but trial, error, and content experiments are key to being ahead of the curve and having a stronger strategy.
Not sure where to start? Here’s a couple of ideas you can try out:
#1: Test new category types. Memes, trivia, quotes, user-generated content (more on that later), trends, questions, inspirations.
#2: Experiment with formats such as carousels, GIFS, IG Live, Instagram Stories, Instagram Reels & IGTV. Some brands work well with long-form content on IGTV, while others still favour the short and snappy reels. Video is definitely a must for brands. (more on that later)
As always, before you jump in, first determine whether there is a fit with your brand. As a traditional luxury brand would I want to put out memes? Probably not. Would I want to curate a feed of my design inspirations? Yes, probably. But then again, there are no rights or wrongs so test, test, test!
5. Video Content
It’s been well documented that Instagram has been pushing its video formats aggressively over the last few years. After all, they want to go up against YouTube, Netflix and all other entertainment apps out there. Netflix might not be direct competition and their model might be completely different but they’re all vying for user’s time and attention. An hour spent on Hotstar is an hour not spent on Instagram.
Video is the quickest growing content format and its popularity continues to soar year after year.
There have been several studies into the engagement rate of photos vs videos on Instagram. And whilst many of them claim that photos generate more engagement, they’re not all strictly correct.
Photos might receive more likes, as they allow Insta users to fly through their newsfeed, tapping the heart button on anything that appeals to them but videos are thought to get more than 2x the number of comments and shares
After having analysed content for all our clients, video seemed to register a far higher reach and even engagement rate compared to other formats.
Given that video autoplays in your followers’ feeds, there’s arguably no better way to grab someone’s attention when they’re sitting there scrolling. Also let’s not forget that the algorithm rewards more time spent on a post and hence videos help with retention.
Instagram Reels was the newest entry to the Insta family in 2020, as an alternative to TikTok. With Reels, users can create and edit short multi-clip videos with audio and effects.
Historically, any new feature to social media tools typically gets a boost in the algorithm, so would strongly suggest experimenting with new formats as soon as they’re announced since they also have less clutter.
Additionally, by creating videos, you also stand the chance of getting discovered more easily as compared to photos. If you head over to the explore page, you’ll see a large square on the right. That’s just for video! The centre icon in the navigation is now dedicated entirely to Reels
Videos can be used all over Instagram now, in your feed, in your Instagram Stories, on IGTV and now also with Instagram Reels.
Get to know your TG better.
The algorithm favours content that you have engaged with in the past. If you enjoy certain type of posts, chances are the algorithm will push more content from such accounts.
My feed for example is full of kitten posts, restaurant suggestions and food recipes.
The algorithm wants to show users what they want and like.
It’s imperative to identify interests beforehand of your TG and weave content around those interests to have content pushed to more relevant users. If your brand has a website, you can visit the demographics section in Google Analytics to understand their interests. Conduct surveys to identify your customer’s hobbies and interests.
If you’re AirBNB, then your audience is interested in travel posts. Nike’s followers are interested in fitness, exercise and sport.
But what happens if you are a brand that is more functional and do not have products related to someone’s hobbies or interests. This is where you aim to create a personality around your brand that has wants, needs, hobbies and interests in order to relate with people.
After all, nobody wants to go to a party and interact with someone who has no personality or interests.
If you are a fine jewellery brand, your hobbies could be jazz, art or design.
If you produce organic vegetables, your hobbies could be wellness, yoga and food.
This then trickles down into the content you create for your audience.
Airbnb is an example of great storytelling. They don’t just sell their properties, they sell an experience. Their content is emotionally driven as they share stunning visuals of towns with a mountain backdrop and a caption saying something along the lines of ‘Dreaming to do X or going to Y’, creating that aspiration and wanderlust.
They know that their audience would be interested in all things travel and hence create guides on where to travel, places to eat, tourist attractions, et al. It might have nothing to do with their business directly, but the content is in sync with what a follower wants to see.
The lesson? Don’t just post product pictures and sales pitches—provide content that aligns with what your audience cares about or help them with their problems.
7. Compelling Captions
Images might speak a thousand words but they aren’t always the best way of communicating intent, conveying your message and setting context.
Check out FabIndia's post above and imagine it without the caption, you would only see the lady smiling and holding the tube of cream in her right hand. It wouldn't even for once occur to followers that the intent of the image is to draw attention to their skin-care range (which I personally did not know existed). However, the caption clearly directs our attention to the product.
Good Instagram captions are also important as they directly impact what trends on Instagram and whether you’ve used the right keywords to be a part of the trend. Customers can discover your content through the discover section based on using the right keywords and #tags.
The art of writing a good caption is once again……………… you got that right, to put yourself in the TG’s shoes. What would you like to read if you were a follower/customer?
Some tips to write good captions include:-
Always lead in with your most important information or your most intriguing points so visitors are encouraged to read the rest of the post
Add a call to action to entice users to like, comment, share or visit website
Add line breaks or paragraphs so the text is well spread out and to increase time spent on post
Include eye catching emojis
Be clear, concise and informative
Be consistent with your brand voice, tone & language
Mention relevant personalities and profiles to tap into their follower base
Ask questions to encourage comments
Don’t forget to add captions in stories as well as around 40% of users go through stories with their sound off.
The jury is still out on whether short captions or long captions work better.
One of the factors that impact the performance of your post in the algorithm is “time spent on post’ so it would appear that longer captions would end up working better as a thumb rule, but that might not necessarily be the case.
While celebrities like Anushka Sharma can get away with a single heart emoji as a caption while soaking in the sun on a beach in Maldives, brands might need to use lengthy captions that champion story-telling and authenticity to drive great results. Brands that have stunning visuals or videos need not necessarily use long captions but brands that have to work a lot harder to grow a community due to the functional nature of their business would be well advised to have longer captions.
In a nutshell, if your image can get the job done, then there’s no need for a long caption.
8. User generated content
User generated content refers to posts that are created by other people (usually your followers), and are published on your profile, or under your branded hashtags.
Think of a brand starting an OOH campaign and asking its followers to spot the hoardings, capture images and upload it on Instagram using a #tag
Think of a creative community brand asking it’s followers to share art that inspires them through stories
Think of a famous cocktail bar sourcing new cocktail ideas through its community and rewarding the winning idea with a cash prize
If brands share UGC on their personal handles through stories, it further adds validation to followers which in turn will make them re-share the shout-out, further multiplying the reach of the brand which creates a snowball effect.
Everyone wants a community that participates. A community that participates is healthy as it shows that they’re more invested in your brand and are more likely to be advocates for your brand and amplify messages to their community, hence improving your overall visibility. Such content creates strong bonds with followers, giving off the impression that the brand really cares about its audience.
UGC campaigns are personally my favourite kind of campaigns, especially for brands that are attempting to build a community of like minded individuals. The results generally speak for themselves as well
It’s important to note however that such campaigns are more likely to perform if you already have a decently sized community. Brands with a following of less than 2000-3000 that attempt such content often end up failing to create much of an impact, in which case they can plan to seed the campaign with the help of influencers and friends & family.
What’s more? UGC organically helps brands create content for their followers through their followers.
It’s an approach that has paid rich dividends for brands. For instance, Starbucks’ #RedCupContest is a perfect example of transforming followers into brand advocates. Launched every December, the campaign required followers to submit creative photos of the famous red Starbucks Christmas cup. The hashtag has over 50000 entries to date, so it’s safe to say it’s been a massive success.
One of the most popular UGC properties created over the years has been Apple's #ShotOniPhoneChallenge which invites iPhone users to share the best photos taken through an iPhone in order to exhibit the superior quality of iPhone cameras. 10 winning photos are selected each year and featured extensively through media.
One of my side projects (my band, Just Jupiter) released a song last year called Happy across streaming platforms. The song was ironically about social media and how people use the platform to portray themselves as happy while masking their true inner feelings. Our entire pre launch campaign idea was an ironic take on the cliched things that people share on social media just to put on a happy face. The content was centred around our community of followers sharing images/videos of things they did on social media (exercise, food recipes, travel, etc) using the #HappyAndYouKnowIt . It was one of the most successful song releases of ours till date as it made our follower base feel connected to the project, every time we shared one of their clips.
9. Get Interactive
As I’ve touched upon in the previous point, followers like being a part of a community and the best way to engage a community is by facilitating two way conversations.
Interactive content is any type of content that requires and encourages users to actively engage with it rather than passively consume it.
Instagram’s interactive features have been a massive success story as they encourage participation.
Say you went on a first date, would your date be more receptive if you decided to just speak about yourself for the entirety or if you asked more questions and took an active interest in him/her?
Interactive content is not only more engaging but also more shareable with reports stating that it increases the chances of being shared by 28%.
The beauty about interactive content is it also helps gather data and helps you understand your audience better. Will your customers prefer a beige version of your bag or a maroon version? Run a poll. Say you have a food delivery brand that launched a new seasonal summer mango menu. If you want to know how well it was received, ask a question or introduce a scale where followers can rate on a scale of low to high.
Some more examples include:-
Quiz - Run Trivia-style multiple-choice questions with your followers and track the results. Trivia nights will never be the same again!
Questions - Nothing sparks more conversations than a good old AMA (Ask Me Anything). If you have a renowned celebrity or influencer as a face of the brand, ask your followers to send them questions.
Countdown - Create buzz around the launch of a new product. This sticker counts down to a date and time that you set. Your followers can then subscribe to your countdown event, which will send them a reminder when the time is up and your countdown is complete!
Live - When you go live on Instagram, you will appear right at the front of the stories feed and it makes your profile photo a lot more prominent. Demonstrate your product by going live, rope in a celebrity to engage live with fans and answer questions on the fly. During lockdown a lot of brands took advantage of this feature by roping in comedians/musicians to entertain followers. In my previous article titled ’ Top digital trends of 2021’ I also mentioned how Live streaming will be the next big thing, if it isn’t already. After all according to Social Media Examiner, more than 80% of audiences. would apparently rather watch a livestream than read a blog post.
10. Use The Right #tags
If you want to increase your Instagram reach, understanding which hashtags can potentially drive most people to your content is essential. How else will people discover your content?
This is why it is important to latch onto Instagram trends and craft content around trends, but only if it fits your brand profile. More on that later.
Selecting the right hashtags for your content could be the difference between appearing as a top post or not appearing on a user’s feed at all.
It’s critical to pick #tags that are not too generic but not too rare as well.
Make your hashtags too generic – think #Diwali or #Fashion – and your content will face immense competition from potentially millions of others. Instead, use a mix of trending and industry-specific hashtags to find the best hashtag to connect with your targeted followers.
The number of hashtags you deploy is also important. While Instagram allows for up to 30, a mass of tags underneath your caption comes across as opportunistic and unprofessional. According to Simply Measured, 91% of posts by top brands use seven or fewer hashtags to get noticed. Don’t underestimate the power of #tags as even one hashtag can increase engagement on your post by up to 12.6%.
Some of the best performing content for my brands end up getting discovered by 30-40% of people who are not following my brands, hence helping me place my content in front of potential new customers.
Don’t forget to look at how your competitors utilise #tags.
Based on the above mentioned parameters, experiment with different hashtags until you find your sweet spot.
An increasing number of brands also use branded hashtags these days in order to create a certain perception around the brand, better recall and to make content more discoverable. This especially helps if brands are running campaigns.
Dream11 is currently running a campaign called Team Hai Toh Mazaa Hai and has used the #TeamHaiTohMazaaHai across all platforms and content for easy discoverability on social media. Nicobar uses #AtHomeWithNicobar to establish how their home decor products influence people’s lives positively with picturesque imagery.
When I worked with eBay we created #SiblingDhishoom to celebrate Raksha Bandhan. While every other brand spoke about the generic brother sister love, eBay decided to be playful and different by sparking conversations around fights with siblings while growing up which created far more engagement than any other campaign.
11. Create Topical Content
Carrying on from the previous pointer, brands can create content and #tags depending on what is currently trending.
Dalgona Coffee and Indoor games trended during Lockdown 2020 and hence we saw plenty of brands latch onto the same. A famous personality’s birthday might entice a brand to create content around the same in their own unique way.
One of the biggest mistakes that brands make is that they jump on the bandwagon and try to create content around every single trend out there. This is a big no-no as your brand ends up coming across as one that tries to be everything for everyone and doesn’t really stand for anything in particular.
Your brand then runs the risk of being that eager-to-please person at a party who feigns an active interest in all topics and tries to impart knowledge around the same, just to fit in, but failing miserably.
Based on your brand’s identity and persona, try to participate in trends that are relevant to brands.
How do you plan for trends in advance so that you don’t have to create last minute content in a hurry that might not really stand out?
Plan a content calendar
Look at your holiday calendar to see if there’s an opportunity to create content around upcoming festivals. #StPatricksDay might be a great day to only post images in green.
Look up upcoming birthdays of famous people. You’re a design brand and Steve Jobs’s birthday is coming up? Plan in advance
Check out event websites such as Insider and Book My Show as they generally list events well in advance for certain days. Example - Movie releases, Cricket matches etc
Look up calendars on websites such as daysoftheyear.com to find relevant trending days. Your premium home decor brand sells bar accessories? Wish your followers Happy Wine Day on 25th May
Trends also happen on the fly so be prepared to create content as and when news comes in. Would strongly suggest the newsroom approach of tracking certain keywords related to your brand, so that you get alerts on your feed whenever there is some breaking news.
Example - Fintech brands can have templates ready for if the stock market crashes, so they can post relevant content as soon as the topic breaks.
Remember that your content is more likely to go viral if you are one of the early adopters or conversation starters of the topic.
Instagram influencer marketing has become increasingly significant these days, allowing marketers to work with key thought leaders in their sector and push brand messaging out to a wider audience.
Because influencers are seen as ‘independent’, aligning your brand with their authoritative voice can add genuine authenticity to your messaging, unlike through ‘paid promotions.’
It’s important to pick the right influencers however based on parameters such as the type of content they create, their follower profile and whether they have genuine engagement through their profiles.
Micro-influencers are influencers with a following of anywhere between 1000 to 100000 followers. These influencers are typically more affordable, have a more personal connection to their audiences, and are perceived as more authentic. They also work very effectively for niche categories considering niche market followers tend to be more passionate and invested in the product.
According to studies micro-influencers consistently have higher engagement rates around 2-3%, compared to the average 1.7% of macro-influencers or celebrities. Also it helps tapping into fresh follower bases and getting the word out there to an entirely new audience.
There are plenty of influencers who would work on a barter basis depending on if they believed in your brand and what you would be willing to offer them.
At WowTables, a premium online dining experience curator & aggregator, the team worked with 100 influencers on a campaign called #GourmetDay arranging for 100 complimentary meals across some of the country’s most premium restaurants. Influencers jumped at the chance to be a part of the campaign and covered their experience across their social media handles leading to an increase in engagement of 125% on the day.
There are plenty of directories and tools out there such as Social mention and Upfluence, that can help identifying influencers in India across categories.
Remember to ensure your influencer is given the right information, resources and guidance they need to carry out their role effectively and work hand-in-hand on the campaign with you as true partners.
Remember there’s no such thing as a sub par campaign, there are only sub-par briefs.
While these pointers might help you with your overarching framework, there really is no set formula for what works on social media, so would urge all readers to test and optimise once again.
The final piece of this puzzle involves analysing data and taking action accordingly. Only if you know what you’re doing wrong or doing right can you tweak your approach to increase your reach and engagement.
So, what can you do?
You could use Instagram’s native tool to track your content performance as well as understand audience behaviour or use tools such as Social Bakers to measure your account’s performance compared to competitors.
All in all, don’t be daunted, just jump straight in so that we can collectively defeat the Instagram algorithm together. If you don’t try, you won’t know!
Got any suggestions? Feel free to reach out to me at @doshmeisterr on Twitter or leave your comments below.