Instagram seems to be getting more complicated every year!
First, early in 2016, came the switch from a time-based feed to one that uses an algorithmic display. This left many users confused, and saw marketers losing their previous engagement rates.
Next, came the arrival of TikTok. Instagram was forced to make some big changes to the way its feed worked to stay on top of the game in 2020.
With all of these changes, it may feel like the Instagram algorithm is impossible to predict. But don’t worry. It isn’t there to discourage you from using the platform.
And it’s not a mysterious force beyond human understanding either. With a bit of knowledge and some practice, you’ll be able to outsmart the Instagram algorithm just fine.
And it’s worth learning how to do this. Instagram remains one of the best tools for gaining traffic online. So, in this article, we’ll teach you how the Instagram algorithm works, dismiss a few myths about it, and then share 7 smart tips for outsmarting the Instagram algorithm.
How the Instagram Algorithm Works in 2021
The key point to understand about the Instagram algorithm is that it provides each user with their own personal feed, based on how they interact with the platform.
Think of it as a living organism. Organisms change their behavior based on “external” inputs. If the sun is shining, the flower opens its petals.
Well, the Instagram algorithm works the same way. It also changes its behavior based on “external” inputs. It’s just these inputs aren’t rays of sunshine, they’re masses of data.
What types of data does the Instagram algorithm respond to?
Unfortunately, a comprehensive answer to this question isn’t possible. That’s because Instagram’s algorithm is proprietary. In other words, shhh, it’s a secret. Only the company’s own employees know how it operates in detail.
That being said, it is possible to paint a fairly clear picture of what data the Instagram algorithm responds to. We can do this using:
- Official statements by Instagram,
- The experience of Instagram’s users,
- And a bit of common sense.
Official statements from Instagram about the algorithm
In January 2019, responding to growing concern over the algorithm, Instagram finally broke the silence and posted a series of tweets. These gave its users a rough idea as to how the Instagram algorithm operates.
Here’s what they said:
“What shows up first in your feed is determined by what posts and accounts you engage with the most, as well as other contributing factors such as the timeliness of posts, how often you use Instagram, how many people you follow, etc.”Source: Twitter.com
Did you notice the “etc.” at the end there? That basically refers to all the other factors the Instagram algorithm considers. Here’s a quick summary of the four main categories of data that we know are relevant to the Instagram algorithm.
1. Keeping tabs on what you like.
Whenever you “like” or share a certain type of post, you’re sending a message to the Instagram algorithm, thereby changing its behavior. More specifically, the more “likes” you bestow upon a given type of post, the more of it you’ll see in the future. The Instagram algorithm also tracks comments, engagement via Instagram Stickers (more on that later), and other actions.
2. Keeping tabs on engagement with followers.
The frequency of your engagements with other users, such as by leaving comments, replying to DMs, or even being tagged in their posts, will determine how often they’ll see your content in their feeds.
3. Keeping tabs on time.
Instagram’s algorithm keeps track of when people use the platform and how much time they spend on it, and so should you – posting when your followers are online is your best bet to maximize reach. For this purpose, you might want to create a business account, as this will give you access to fairly comprehensive analytics.
4. Keeping tabs on frequency.
Since the Instagram algorithm wants you to see the latest and greatest, the more time you spend on the platform, the more new stuff it’s going to show you. The same goes for your followers! If you stay away from the app longer than usual, you’re likely to see only the most popular content; otherwise, your feed appears in more chronological order, making it slightly easier to follow.
Myths about the Instagram algorithm debunked
Back in mid-2018, a group of Instagram’s engineers sat down with the team at TechCrunch and dismissed some of the biggest myths about the Instagram algorithm. Here’s a breakdown of the key points they mentioned:
- Instagram doesn’t hide any posts in the feed. As long as users keep scrolling, all posts made by their followed accounts will eventually show up.
- The Instagram algorithm does not favor videos over images, or vice versa. The amount of videos or images a user sees depends on how often they engage with the respective formats.
- Stories, Live, IGTV video, and other special features of the Instagram app are also neither favored nor penalized. Just like videos and images, their placement in the feed is determined by the level of engagement, which is tracked in real-time.
- Instagram doesn’t have any rules for downranking active users who post multiple times per day. At worst, if you rapid-fire lots of content on the same day, the Instagram algorithm might swap in other content between your individual posts.
- Business accounts don’t get any extra feed presence over regular accounts.
The key message is that, according to Instagram’s engineers, so-called “shadow-banning” does not exist. In other words, Instagram doesn’t penalize anyone for using too many hashtags, posting too often, or anything else that might be seen as “excessive”.
Instead, Instagram’s algorithm is geared towards showing the posts that are most relevant and get the highest engagement first.
What does this mean in practice?
Debunking these Instagram myths is important. We know that “shadow-banning” isn’t a thing. So there must be other reasons why the Instagram algorithm is not placing your content higher.
Before we get into specific tips on how to beat the Instagram algorithm, let’s briefly discuss what this realization means for you in practice.
First up, it means that showing up frequently and posting quality content is essential to growing your base of followers and your business.
On the other hand, it doesn’t mean that you should focus exclusively on how often you post. Focus just as much on quality. As we’ve just learned, if your content doesn’t generate much engagement, it’ll likely be pushed pretty far down on your user’s feeds. Whatever else might be true about Instagram’s algorithm, creating high-quality content takes time and effort.
In the end, it’s probably best not to think too much about how to beat the Instagram algorithm. Because, in the end, the algorithm is just responding to your followers’ activity.
The key to success is understanding what your followers will engage with, then producing the best quality content you can based on this.
Tips for Outsmarting the Instagram Algorithm in 2021
The following tips aren’t based on short-term trends (like the follow-unfollow “method” or engagement groups). And these are not “growth hacks” either. What we’re offering is some tried and tested advice that will help you work with the Instagram algorithm in the long-term. Let’s get into them.
Instagram algorithm tip #1. Engagement is king
If you want to reach the top of your followers’ Instagram feeds – and stay there – you’ll need to consistently generate content. What’s more, this content should be engaging. We’re talking lots of views, likes, comments, and shares.
How do you do this?
The best place to start is with your most engaging posts so far. You can see which of your posts gain the most traction using Instagram Insights. This is an analytics tool that’s available for free to all business and creator accounts.
Here’s a simple 3 step process you can try.
- Go through all of your posts and sort them by how much engagement they’ve received so far.
- Make an excel file to compare all of the top-performing posts. Note down the main purpose (promotion, new product, social message, etc.), image type (product, people, user-generated, infographic, etc.), and copy style (long-form, short-form, quotations, etc.).
- Try to find characteristics that most or all of your top-performing post share, then produce more like this.
Instagram algorithm tip #2. Establish a consistent posting schedule
Posting consistently is important not only for building but also for maintaining your audience. Consistency gives your followers something to look forward to.
To find the best times for posting, go to Instagram Insights and click on the “Audience” tab. This will provide you with a wealth of information, including the times when your followers tend to go online.
In most cases, posting frequently is the preferred way to go. But it’s also important to pick a schedule that you can actually stick to consistently.
While trying to grow your audience, you might want to post several times per day. Then once you are happy with your audience size, you can slowly taper down your frequency until you find the optimal “maintenance dose.”
Whatever your current situation, make sure that your posting schedule takes into account all of your other activities and commitments.
Instagram algorithm tip #3. Post Instagram Reels
Introduced in mid-2020, Instagram Reels allows you to record and edit 15-second video clips with sound. There are tools available to make these videos slicker or more creative, depending on your brand. Reels can be posted in your Stories or straight to the feed.
If you want to reach as many people as possible, you can also share your Reels on the Instagram Explore page. This is Instagram’s main hub for real-time curation of user-generated content. The Explore page coincides with the Instagram page that has the search function and displays posts to every user from accounts they don’t yet follow.
Whenever someone engages with your post through Explore, it’s more likely to pop up on the Explore page or feed of their followers. This effectively creates a chain-reaction of cross-engagement. Don’t forget, Instagram now has roughly a billion monthly active users. So securing a spot on Instagram’s Explore page could give you a massive boost!
Furthermore, given its fierce competition with TikTok, the company will likely be working very hard on Instagram Reels throughout 2021. So it’s possible your discoverability might be boosted if you prioritize the use of this new feature.
Instagram algorithm tip #4. Comment on other users’ posts
This may seem like a no-brainer, but leaving considerate, to-the-point comments on posts from potential customers, influencers, and businesses can give you some extra visibility. Play your cards right and that visibility might turn into new followers and eventually, new customers.
When commenting on other users’ posts, try to be genuine and contribute to the conversation with something of value. The engagement has to be, above all, organic. Generic or overly corporate comments won’t do.
A good way to approach this is to think about the types of accounts that your target audience is likely to follow and find a suitable post to comment on. For instance, you could write a short, thoughtful review of a relevant product. Or you could give some helpful advice, express appreciation, or chime in with a joke to show your brand’s personality.
Once you’ve got a decent number of followed accounts, be sure to opt-in to notifications when those accounts post. This will allow you to be among the first commenters, increasing your ability to reach a wider audience.
Instagram algorithm tip #5. Master captions and microblogging
Comments are super important when it comes to ranking well in the Instagram feed. So organize your posts so that they encourage comments and discussion. The obvious way to do this is with captions.
So, here are some things to keep in mind when writing captions.
- Take some time to come up with a killer first line
Together with the image or video, this will be the first thing your followers are likely to see – your job here is to grab attention and get your audience reading more.
Don’t forget Instagram captions are truncated after 125 characters. So your first line has to fit within this limit. Otherwise, users will have to click “more” just to read that all-important first line. So keep it short and focused.
Try to spark your followers’ curiosity with an intriguing statement (try questions or challenge your audience) or a surprising stat. Or you could try to trigger an emotion, or share an exclusive offer.
- Use hashtags
As you probably already know, hashtags are used to organize information and make it easily searchable by specific keywords. The most popular hashtags are also the most obvious ones (#dog, #summer, #food – you name it).
But steer clear of these because they aren’t likely to drive very much traffic to your post.
A better idea is to look for hashtags that are (more or less) specific to your audience. The more precisely you can target your followers, the more engagement you’re likely to get. Try to shoot for hashtags that have less than a million publications associated with them.
Oh, and don’t use hashtags at the top of the post – this will increase the chances that people will click away from your post. Instead, add your hashtags at the very end so your post is still easy to find, but it’s also easy to read too.
- Use line-breaks
If your post is lengthy, you can make it more readable by adding line-breaks to space out the content. This can be done by writing up the post in a text editor app and then pasting it to Instagram (just make sure to have at least one character per break line, such as a period, an emoji, or space) or use an app for Instagram posts such as Later.
If your goal is simply to drive more engagement, all you have to do is ask for it! For example, ask your followers to share their ideas on a certain topic. Get them to double-tap or tag a friend if they agree with the opinions you’ve shared in the post. Whatever you want them to do, ask them!
If you’re planning an Instagram contest, it’s probably best to include “contest” or “giveaway” at the beginning of the caption.
On the other hand, if you want to drive traffic to your website, you can ask your followers to click the link in bio or even visit a URL.
To make the call-to-action stand out, try using a different font, a handful of eye-catching emojis, capital letters, or other symbols. If you want, you can even create a brand new custom font of your own for your call-to-action! An easy way to do it would be to generate a new font using custom tools like IGfonts.io and then simply paste it into your post.
Microblogging is basically a long caption that – not unlike an actual blog post – introduces your audience to a new topic. You could share insights, provide a step-by-step guide, tell people what’s trending - anything that will be relevant to your audience.
Microblogging is going to skyrocket to popularity on Instagram in 2021 according to forecasts by industry experts. In fact, the trend for micro-blogging is already pretty well established. Research by Fohr in 2019 found that the average caption length of an Instagram post has more than doubled since 2016. This suggests starting to favor connection and long-form storytelling over images and videos.
To make your microblogs engaging, try to follow these best practices when it comes to text-based content on social media:
- Provide something for your audience to react to. Make a statement or, better still, ask a question. Whether your followers agree or disagree with any particular opinion of yours, they’ll still want to engage in a conversation and have their say.
- Establish a distinctive voice and stick to your guns. Lukewarm comments and bland opinions can turn people off quite easily. Think carefully about what you want to say and be confident in your opinions and values.
Instagram algorithm tip #6. Make the most of Instagram Stories engagement features
Instagram Stories are a great way to establish and maintain a relationship with your audience. They’re quick to make and easy to engage with.
Even though your Stories will only be visible to your followers, the more one of your users engages with your content, the more likely it will be to pop up in their Instagram feed in the future. All thanks to the Instagram algorithm.
What often gets forgotten about Instagram Stories is that there are tons of great engagement features to try.
For example, try Instagram stickers. If you’re not familiar with these already, Instagram Stickers are visual elements that you can add to your images or videos that look – you guessed it! – like stickers.
There are 12 different types of Stickers in total (including poll, quiz, selfie, music, and more). They’re really simple to use and they look great. Best of all, they provide an easy, fun, and quick way for your followers to interact with your post.
Instagram algorithm tip #7. Provide real value
A lot of digital “ink” has been spilled on the topic of providing your followers with real value. And yet many people still don’t quite understand what this means.
Essentially, the idea of providing real value means that you need to give people a solid reason to engage with your content – posting images of your dinner with a formulaic caption underneath won’t get you very far.
Instead, what about a post like this?
It provides useful information that people want to know. And it does so in an easy-to-understand way.
To find out whether your post is likely to provide real value, try to summarise its key takeaway or message in a sentence or two:
- Does it sound useful?
- Can people actually get something out of it?
- Will it prompt users to do something differently?
- Would you consider it valuable if someone else made a similar type of post?
PRO TIP: Try putting a limit on the number of times you use the words “I” or “we” in the post. And aim to replace a few of these with “you” instead. This will help you re-oriented your thinking towards others, rather than focusing exclusively on your own business or personal needs.
Outsmarting the Instagram algorithm: the takeaways
Hopefully, we’ve managed to convince you that Instagram’s algorithm is not a crazy robot that only wants to frustrate you. As we’ve mentioned, you’ll beat the Instagram algorithm by simply not thinking about it. Instead, think about your audience and what they want to engage with. Because this is what the Instagram algorithm is looking for.
In summary, you should:
- Get to know your audience,
- Produce a steady stream of quality content,
- and deploy (at least some of) the tips we’ve covered above.
This should make your posts visible and help build your audience.
So, now you know what you’re aiming to do, it’s time to start creating some posts. If you’re struggling for ideas, this article on things to post on Instagram will give you all the inspiration you need!
The Instagram algorithm: FAQs
How does the Instagram algorithm work in 2021?
The basics of the Instagram algorithm remain mostly unchanged. It keeps tabs on what users like by tracking what it calls “pertinent inputs” - these are things like comments and likes. It also tracks other actions (some of which remain unknown) like timeliness of posts, frequency of use, etc., so the Instagram feed is tailored to each user.
In 2016, Instagram switched from a chronological feed to an algorithmic one, which caused some confusion early on, but was eventually embraced by most users.
Are there any false myths about the Instagram algorithm I should be aware of?
Yes. Because Instagram was initially unwilling to give much detail about how its algorithm works, a few false myths arose.
Here’s a quick rundown of some key points related to popular myths out there:
- Instagram doesn’t hide anyone’s posts and “shadow banning” is not a thing;
- All content is treated equally regardless of format (text, images, video, etc.), except for new features, which are ranked slightly higher;
- Business accounts don’t get any extra feed presence over other types of accounts;
- Instagram doesn’t down-rank very active users, but it may interject other content between posts that are made in rapid succession.
What are the best growth hacks for Instagram?
There aren’t any. Growth “hacks” come and go. The only viable approach is to organically grow your audience by creating great posts that they want to engage with.
How can I gain more followers and grow my audience?
First, you need to learn as much as you can about your target audience. Then you should consistently provide your audience with high-quality content that adds real value to their lives. This doesn’t necessarily have to be every day, but post as often as you can.
Beyond that, explore all the features the platform has to offer (such as Reels, Stories, Stickers, IGTV video, etc.). Always put an emphasis on driving engagement - for example, you can ask questions, or write practical long-form content. Then boost the discoverability of your content by using carefully selected hashtags.