In reality, the Instagram algorithm is what decides which posts people see every time they open their feed. Below, we’d like to set the record straight on how it works, so you can make sure your content stands the best chance possible of getting seen during the 27 minutes per day people spend on Instagram. (In 2019, anyway. In 2020 there’s no official data yet about the impact of coronavirus on Instagram use, but we’d put our money on that number going up, rather than down.)
But in times of uncertainty, attentions are frayed and brands have to work just as hard. There’s plenty of competition out there—75% of U.S. businesses are marketing on Instagram in 2020, and 90% of accounts follow a business—to keep you on your toes.
On top of that, Instagram’s algorithm is based on machine learning, so the way it ranks your posts is constantly evolving.
We’ve got the latest information on how to work with the Instagram algorithm to further your Instagram marketing strategy, and keep building relationships with your audience. Because, at the end of the day, that’s all the algorithm really wants.
Table of contents
How the Instagram algorithm works
8 tips for how to work with the Instagram algorithm
Bonus: Download a free checklist that reveals the exact steps a lifestyle photographer used to grow from 0 to 600,000 followers on Instagram with no budget and no expensive gear.
How the Instagram algorithm works
Ever since Instagram ended the reverse-chronological feed back in 2016, every individual person’s feed on the platform has been organized according to the algorithm’s rules.
According to Instagram’s official @creators account, this has resulted in a better experience for everyone. (Subtext: please stop asking to get rid of it.)
So, which factors does the algorithm care about? What moves can brands make that have an outsized effect on what people see at the top of their feed? (And, relatedly: which posts get prime real estate on the Explore page?)
The Instagram algorithm relies on three primary ranking signals.
Increasingly, Instagram wants people to spend time on the app because we enjoy it in a meaningful way, not just because we can’t stop scrolling. Accordingly, the algorithm bumps up posts from accounts that a user already interacts with. For brands and creators, this means that focusing on community engagement is key.
Exchanging DMs, tagging each other in posts, and frequently leaving comments are all actions that indicate a close relationship between accounts. As well as likes, reshares and views.
If users have enjoyed certain types of posts in the past, the algorithm is more likely to show that type of post to them in the future.
For example: if a user interacts with verified or business accounts more, they might be more likely to see posts from that type of account. If they watch a lot of video, same deal.
In other words, people who engage with posts like yours are more likely to see your posts. The algorithm wants to give the people what they want.
Posts that are more recent are more likely to be pushed to the top of people’s feeds. This means that posting when your audience is online is crucial. (More on that below.)
Other factors that will affect an individual Instagram user’s feed include:
- Frequency of use: The algorithm shows the best and most popular posts since the last time a user opened the app—so users who don’t check Instagram frequently will only see your brand’s post if it’s earning top engagement. (Note that 42% of Instagram users check the platform multiple times a day.)
- Session time: Likewise, users that spend 45 minutes scrolling their feed will see more posts, including underperforming ones, than someone who only spends 5 minutes looking at the greatest hits.
- Following count: A person who follows thousands of accounts might not see every post from their mom or Chet Hanks. But if they only follow a few hundred, they’re likelier to stay fully caught up on everyone they do follow.
Meanwhile, you can rest assured that your Instagram business account isn’t suffering a secret downgrade. (Nor can you get an automatic boost just by switching to a creator account.)
8 tips for working with the Instagram algorithm
Now let’s go over some best practices for applying these insights to your own Instagram strategy.
1. Post consistently
In order to get traction with the Instagram algorithm, you need to first build relationships with your audience. And since quantity is easier to measure and achieve than quality (see point #6), the first order of business is to build out a social media content calendar to keep you on schedule.
What does consistent mean, on Instagram? It’s unique to your brand. If you’re just starting out, begin as you intend to proceed. Consider what is sustainable for your team to produce.
If you attract audiences with a blitz—say six Stories, three posts and, why not, one IGTV video a day—you’ve created a certain level of expectation. Can you live up to it? For a month? For a year? Forever?
(If the answer is yes, we salute you. We’d also like to point you to this primer on how to schedule your Instagram posts, because you’re really going to need it.)
Overall, any brand’s posting frequency and format choices will depend on the resources at hand. What’s most important, though, is to focus on posting content you feel good about on a predictable schedule.
2. Keep a close eye on your analytics
Looking at your Instagram analytics is, not surprisingly, one of the best ways to get insight into not just how your audience feels, but how the algorithm sees your brand.
Which posts are wowing your audience? Do they like video or photos better? How much of your traffic is coming from hashtags? Can you give them more of the same, or variations on a theme? Analytics will tell you what you’ve done right, but it’s up to you to figure out how to run with that success.
If you have a business account, take a look at Instagram’s native analytics. This is also how you find out when your audience is online, as well as general demographics and geographic locations.
Here’s a quick tutorial on how to use Instagram Insights:
3. Remix, reuse and repost your top-performing content
Once you have a polished content calendar in place, and a lot of analytical evidence detailing exactly what your audience wants, it’s still not always a simple task to source or create enough content to feed the machine.
Upcycling and remixing your best tried-and-true content has two benefits: you already know the algorithm likes it, and it saves time.
Here are some devastatingly simple ideas for maximizing your visual assets:
- turn a video into gifs or stills
- turn a series of photos into a slideshow video or carousel
- use multiple images from the same photoshoot for different purposes (e.g., as in the case above, to create a week-long mood)
- a #throwbackthursday never hurt anyone
- redesign images and feature them as Stories
The key here is to be as creative as possible.
4. Reward your audience for spreading the word with UGC
The term is a little broad, but what we talk about when we talk about “user-generated content” is this: regular unpaid folks posting about your brand on Instagram out of sheer enthusiasm. Maybe with a little encouragement, but not necessarily.
This has demonstrable benefits when it comes to the algorithm. It’s no coincidence that the more your audience interacts with your account (tagging you, replying to you, DMing you, etc.), the closer a relationship the algorithm will note, and the more it will surface your posts.
The idea here is to build the kind of loyalty and enthusiasm that inspires people to champion and promote you themselves. If you have an amazing B2C product, the product might do the work for you. Otherwise, you might need to find ways to inspire people indirectly.
Of course, you could always just be extremely direct about recruiting ambassadors. See Soylent’s example below.
There are plenty of ways to reward enthusiastic fans: in many cases just reposting their content to your followers (a.k.a. regramming) will win hearts and minds. Not to mention plump up your content calendar.
You can also run a full-fledged Instagram contest with relevant prizes for spreading the word.
Pro tip: Avoid reposting everything your audience sends you. Curate the best and, where possible, incorporate content into your brand’s visual identity. And keep in mind that simply reposting other people’s Stories has been explicitly noted as something that won’t get your Stories featured on the Explore Page, so make sure to stay creative and on-brand.
5. Collaborate with like minds
We won’t go into the ins and outs of Instagram influencer marketing here, but finding a relevant collaborator with a complementary audience is one of the best ways to organically expand your reach to new eyes, while also catching your audience’s attention with relevant new angles.
The result—if the collaboration is as exciting your audience as it is to you—may well include an additional boost from the algorithm.
For instance, Squarespace frequently collaborates with their own clients. Celebrating your existing relationships—business or otherwise—is a genuine way to show what matters to your brand.
Of course, Squarespace is just as likely to go all-out and “collaborate with” (read: pay) a celebrity like Winona Ryder for a major campaign. Obviously this is the kind of ad spend that goes well beyond Instagram, but if a Superbowl ad is in your brand’s budget, hit up point #3 again and make sure all the b-roll and behind-the-scenes footage gets groomed for Instagram, too.
6. Build quality relationships the old-fashioned way
It’s true that there are no like counts on Instagram anymore (because someone watched that one episode of Black Mirror). If Instagram head Adam Mosseri’s concern with “problematic use and loneliness” on the platform is genuine, it’s probably safe to assume that the algorithm also wants to see genuine relationships.
For brands, it doesn’t hurt to behave as if anything that people care about—warm gestures, human connection—is something the algorithm also cares about. (Or will care about soon, seeing as it’s always evolving.)
What do we mean by old-fashioned? Mostly, don’t take shortcuts. Here are some best practices:
- Ask questions, but only if you actually care about the answers (your guiding principle for writing good captions should be “the opposite of engagement-bait.”)
- Embrace DMs (the algorithm counts these as it gauges your relationship with other accounts; though of course that doesn’t mean tolerating abusive messages.)
- Reply to comments quickly (while there’s no proof the algorithm cares about how fast you respond, you will impress not just one person, but potentially everyone who sees it)
- Like and comment on other people’s posts (don’t just broadcast your own content, especially if you’re trying to get more followers)
Pro tip: Don’t buy likes, don’t buy followers, and don’t try the old engagement pod trick. The algorithm sees you. And worse, so do all of your actual real followers.
That said, if you’re struggling to keep on top of the volume of your conversations, a tool like Hootsuite Inbox can help.
7. Use hashtags properly
On Instagram, hashtags are an integral tool for getting your content in front of the right eyes—that is, the eyes most likely to engage with it. They can help create a virtuous circle where, as your post gets more attention, the algorithm will make sure even more eyes see it.
That said, misusing or abusing your hashtags is one of the easiest ways to get on the wrong side of the Instagram algorithm.
The key here is to be honest. Use the hashtags that are relevant to your brand, industry and audience.
Otherwise, if you annoy people enough you might find yourself getting flagged for using misleading hashtags. Flagged to who? That’s right, the algorithm.
For a complete rundown, check out our complete guide to Instagram hashtags.
8. Post in a timely manner
We’ve saved the easiest tip for last. The Instagram algorithm favours recent posts, so post when your audience is online. Simple.
If you’re wondering when the best time to post to Instagram is, we’ve got you covered, industry by industry.
But the best bet is to take a look at your own audience’s particular habits, and use an Instagram scheduler to make sure your posts go live when they’re paying attention.
Save time managing your Instagram presence by using Hootsuite to schedule and publish posts, grow your audience, and track success with easy-to-use analytics. Try it free today.