The Instagram Algorithm in 2019 (+How to Outsmart It)

How does the Instagram algorithm actually work? We've broken it down to help you stay ahead of the game.

If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance that you’re already marketing your business on Instagram. Whether you’re doing it in-house or engaging a social media agency, chances are, you want to be more successful in your Instagram marketing.

That’s where understanding of the Instagram algorithm comes in. 

Essentially, the Instagram algorithm is a set of rules that the platform uses to judge posts. Instagram will then show the most relevant posts first to users when they log on. 

While this can be a bit confusing to a marketer, it simply means that you have to continually reassess your strategy. Know the rules of the game, and you’ll be able to stay ahead.

So, how does the Instagram algorithm actually work?

Instagram periodically changes its algorithm to offer users the best quality content – doing so keeps users on the app, which is highly beneficial to Instagram as a business.

The latest incarnation of the algorithm focuses on the following:

  • Relationship with the user: Users that tend to interact with your content are likely to see more of your content in future. 
  • User’s conveyed interest: Users who interact with accounts or posts that are similar to yours are more likely to see your posts.
  • Post recency: Instagram may no longer be using a simple chronological feed, but timeliness is still relevant. Recent posts will show up at the top of a user’s feed, while older posts only appear further down.

As with any mature social media platform, the amount of exposure your content gets (for free) naturally declines. After all, there are a ton of businesses, influencers, and regular users whose content already fill up a user’s news feed. 

Greater competition simply means the survival of the fittest, so let’s delve into actionable tips that you can implement, to outsmart the algorithm.

Establish relationships

Marketers should spend their time attempting to genuinely connect with their audience, rather than solely focusing on reach. Here are some tips to do just that:

  • Define your target audience to tailor content to their interests
  • Post user-generated content (UGC) to show appreciation and encourage more users to tag you in their posts
  • Use open-ended captions that encourage users to share their thoughts
  • Incentivize engagement by running Instagram-only promotions or contests to reward your followers

Be a part of conversations

One of the ways in which you can build relationships on Instagram is to use the power of the comment. Take part in conversations to increase your brand visibility, and if time is a constraint, prioritize accounts with a larger following, such as:

  • Relevant influencers
  • Businesses from neighbouring industries

Of course, what you say is as important as where you decide to say it. Be genuine and not pushy. Use this opportunity to showcase your brand’s personality!

To stay on top of new posts from relevant accounts, you can even “Turn on Post Notifications”. This means you’ll get a push notification whenever the account publishes a new post – giving you the opportunity to leave a timely comment.

Naturally, when a user comments on your posts (or responds to you in any way), you should reply as soon as possible. Most users expect brands on social media to respond within 24 hours, and prompt responses are essential to building a connection on Instagram.

We’ve brought up the concept of time a couple of times – time is an important factor if you’re trying to play nice with the Instagram algorithm, and our next tip is also related to timeliness.

Post at the right timing

With post recency being one of the ranking signals, always aim to publish your content during peak activity times. Finding the best times may require a bit of trial and error, but the best way to start is with Instagram Insights.

With this, you’ll be able to collate a list of top days and timings. The next steps then, would be to:

  • Test which of the best days and timings work best for your business
  • Test whether it’s better to post before, right after, or during an activity surge
  • Compile your findings and decide on your posting schedule – but don’t forget to review your analytics on a monthly basis!

The Instagram Stories algorithm

Most people tend to associate the Instagram algorithm with how it affects content on the news feed – but there’s more to it. 

You also need to pay attention to Instagram Stories, which is a feature that allows users to post videos or photos that disappear after 24 hours. 

Stories are a huge part of Instagram, with much of the user engagement on Instagram going towards Stories instead of regular news feed posts.

Consistency is key. Users are spending more time on Stories rather than their feeds, and this feature will help you boost your brand’s visibility immensely. 

Plus, remember how relationship with the user is one of the ranking signals?

Stories from accounts that a user engages with most will appear at the front. This means that the more you use Stories (and have users engage with your Stories), the more likely people are to see them.

With the Instagram algorithm favoring content that garners engagements, it only makes sense to use the interactive features available on stories.

Here are examples of interactive features you can experiment with, to increase engagement on your Stories:

  • Emoji sliders
  • Poll stickers
  • Countdown stickers
  • Question stickers
  • Shopping stickers
  • Hashtag stickers
  • Location stickers
  • Mention stickers
  • GIF stickers

You can also give the algorithm a signal that users are engaging with your content, by asking users to tap and hold your Stories. 

Simply insert text over your videos or photos, to direct your followers to do this. This little trick means that people spend a longer time looking at your content, instead of simply swiping past it.

The Instagram Explore page algorithm

Instagram has also been making changes to the Explore page with the aim of serving up personalized content that’s tailored to each user’s interests. 

This is similar to what Instagram has been doing for the news feed and Stories. After all, more personalized content gives rise to a better user experience – which helps the app attract new users and retain its current user base.

The algorithm is constantly learning from each user’s behavior on the app, and with the launch of topic channels earlier this year, users now have an easier time discovering content that’s specific to their interests.

So, what does this mean for your business?

Just like how SEO is about optimizing your web pages to increase your website visibility and traffic, there is a way to increase the visibility of your content.

Focus on niche topics and use hashtags. Spend some time researching relevant hashtags – doing so will take you some time but it’ll be well worth it when you get it right.

You should also look for niche hashtags that are relevant to your brand. For example, if you’re managing a cosmetic business, spend time looking for hashtags that are beauty-centric. Taking the time to go into more detail could make all the difference. 

Finding community-driven hashtags is also a good idea. Figure out what hashtags influencers tend to use on a regular basis, and you can capitalize on them by using them your posts. 

Of course, there are a few factors that the algorithm takes into consideration when selecting posts to feature.

This includes number of engagements on your post, hashtag popularity, and how quickly your post garnered engagements once published.

But you’re looking to get your business on the Explore page, start first by deciding on your niche topics (we’ve written about defining your target audience and coming up with content pillars here), then insert relevant and popular hashtags to categorize your posts.

Tap on the expertise of a social media agency

As social media geeks, we’re always reading up on best practices – and we love to share advice that can help clients drive business performance. 

If you think it’s time to take your marketing activities to the next level with a professional social media agency, say hello and let’s talk 🙂

Lisa Tan

Lisa Tan

Lisa wears multiple hats at Appiloque - digital strategy, agency operations, and content marketing. To keep herself sane, her favourite form of entertainment is free and involves reframing reality, changing it up to something ridiculous and playing out imaginative scenarios. No, she's not mad. Yet.

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