If you use Instagram as part of your business’s marketing strategy, you likely want to reach as many of these users as possible. Reaching them is often easier said than done, though, thanks to the Instagram algorithm.
Like it or not, the Instagram algorithm is a constantly evolving entity. Furthermore, your success depends on how well you can navigate it.
This guide explains everything you need to know about the Instagram algorithm, how it works, and how you can master it.
Algo-What? Basics of the Instagram Algorithm
There’s a good chance you’ve heard of “the algorithm” if you’ve spent any amount of time learning about social media marketing. However, if you’re like a lot of people, there’s also a good chance you don’t know precisely what the algorithm is.
An algorithm is a set of rules or instructions used to solve a problem or complete a task.
In the context of Instagram, an algorithm is a set of rules for how the app ranks content. It determines what content shows up in your feed, the order in which it’s presented, what you see on your Explore Page, Reels feed, etc.
In June 2021, Instagram published a blog post providing more insight into its algorithm and what goes on behind the scenes.
In the blog, Instagram head Adam Mosseri explained that the app does not have just one algorithm. Instead, each aspect of the app — users’ Feeds, Stories, the Explore page, and Reels — has its own algorithm.
Each algorithm is tailored to how people use specific features. For example, people typically use their Feeds and Stories to check in with friends or people they admire. However, they use their Explore page to find new content.
How the Instagram Algorithm Works
Instagram’s algorithms analyse every piece of content — a Reel, a Story, an image, etc.
The algorithms evaluate metadata like captions and alt text, hashtags, engagement metrics, and more. Then, the app distributes content to the users who are most likely to be interested in it.
When ranking content and deciding how visible to make a particular post, Instagram considers the following:
Relationships are one of the most critical factors Instagram’s algorithms consider. Specifically, Instagram cares about the relationship between the content creator and the content viewer.
If the creator and viewer follow each other and frequently engage with each other’s content, there’s a greater chance the creator’s content will show up in the viewer’s feed.
Conversely, if a creator does not engage with their followers — and their followers do not engage with them — their content will likely be less visible.
Next, Instagram’s algorithms consider user interest. If a user tends to interact with a particular type of content, Instagram takes that as a sign that they will enjoy more content like that in the future.
Suppose an Instagram user regularly looks at pictures of Pomeranian puppies when using the app. Instagram uses this data to expose them to more Pomeranian puppy content, content featuring other puppy breeds, other baby animals, etc.
Instagram’s algorithms also determine the relevance of each piece of content posted on the app.
The algorithms assess where certain content fits with regard to trending topics. If a piece of content features trending hashtags or relevant keywords, it’ll get more views.
The algorithms consider timeliness when determining content relevance as well. Recent posts are deemed more relevant and are more likely to appear in users’ feeds than older posts.
Use frequency also factors into the algorithms’ ranking strategy.
If an Instagram user doesn’t open the app often, they’ll only see content that’s most relevant to them when they login to the app. Usually, this means posts from family and friends show up near the top, and infrequent users have to scroll to see content from businesses they follow.
Instagram considers the number of accounts a user follows, too.
In general, the more accounts someone follows, the more competition exists for space in their Feed. As a result, brands must work harder to gain visibility among users who follow lots of people.
Last but not least, Instagram’s ranking depends on how much time users spend on the app. If someone only spends a few minutes per day on Instagram, they’ll only see posts that are most relevant to them, such as posts from friends and family.
Similar to the point made above about use frequency, limited session time can also make it harder for businesses to connect with potential customers. Content from companies may get crowded out by content from friends and family.
How to Master the Algorithm in 2022
Now that you’re caught up with the basics of the Instagram algorithm and how it works, your next job is to conquer it.
Here are some tried and true strategies to improve your Instagram performance, generate more engagement, and achieve your social media marketing goals:
Write Better Captions
The first step to winning over Instagram’s algorithms is writing better captions.
It’s not enough to have high-quality photos or videos on your feed. You also need top-notch content displayed beneath them.
How to Improve Your Captions
You don’t have to be an award-winning novelist to write great captions. These tips can help you beat the algorithm and connect with your audience:
- Focus on the first sentence: Instagram only shows the first two lines of your caption. To get people to click the “more” option, you need to hook them with an impressive opener.
- Encourage engagement at the end: End your caption with a question or specific call-to-action. Encourage followers to leave a comment, share the post, etc., to boost engagement.
- Include value: Tell your audience something interesting or useful. Make it worth their time to read and engage with your content.
Remember to write like a human, too. Be yourself and use your own unique writing voice to connect deeply with your followers.
Use Relevant Hashtags
Hashtags allow Instagram users to search for content. For example, if you use the hashtag #trailrunning in the caption of a post, it’ll show up when people interested in trail running a search for it.
Include hashtags at the end of your Instagram captions. You can also add a comment with hashtags if you don’t have room in the caption.
How to Choose Hashtags
Hashtags should be relevant to your brand, your target audience, and the products or services you offer.
You can create hashtags that include your business name or slogan. You can also add trending hashtags — just ensure they’re pertinent to your brand and audience.
Still not sure which hashtags to use? Check out some of your competitors’ posts for extra inspiration.
Personalise Your Content
Instagram is one of the world's most popular social media apps because it allows users to feel connected to their friends, family, favourite celebrities, and beloved brands.
If you want people to follow your content, you need to find a way to connect with them.
Connecting is hard when your content seems stiff, stale, or robotic, so infuse some personality and humanity into your posts!
Not sure how to do this? Try these tips:
- Share behind-the-scenes photos and videos to provide your audience with a new perspective
- Host Q&As to share more with your audience and give more insight into what you offer or what your brand stands for
- Go live regularly to connect in real-time and introduce your audience to the people behind the brand
Reply to Every DM
Direct messages (or DMs) are often daunting, especially when you’ve got a business to run or a brand to manage. As intimidating as they can be, do your best to reply to them.
If someone has taken time out of their day to write you a message, they deserve a response. The decision to respond or not respond could be the difference between someone becoming a customer or choosing to unfollow your account altogether.
It’s okay if you don’t get to every DM right away, but you should try to give everyone a reply.
Set aside some time each day to read and respond to DMs. Give yourself an hour or so to check in and connect with your audience.
Respond to Every Comment
In addition to responding to DMs, respond to comments on your posts, Reels, and stories. Again, if someone has taken the time to comment, they deserve a response.
The more you engage with your audience, the easier it is to retain your existing followers.
Consistent engagement also helps you curry favour with the Instagram algorithms, which boosts your ranking and helps you get your content in front of more people.
When you’re reading and responding to DMs, spend time reading and responding to comments as well.
Remember, not every response needs to be a novel. However, giving some kind of acknowledgment shows your audience that you care and want to build a relationship.
Engage with the Accounts You Follow
Instagram doesn’t only care about how your audience uses the app. It also considers the way you use it.
If you don’t regularly engage with accounts you follow — particularly those that also follow you — you might notice fewer eyes on your content. Instagram cares about relationships.
The algorithms consider how often you engage with the accounts you follow and the accounts that follow you. If you never “like” or comment on people’s posts, now is a great time to start.
Here’s an easy way to start engaging more often.
Set a goal to engage with five accounts whenever you log in to Instagram.
Like and comment on their most recent posts. If they share something that resonates with you or is relevant to your audience, share it on your Story.
Collab with Other Creators
Go a step beyond engaging with other creators and collaborate (or collab) with them.
If you’ve started building a relationship with another creator (a relevant brand, an influencer, etc.), reach out and ask about collaborating. You could do a giveaway, give each other a shout-out, or host a “takeover” (you run their account for a day, and they run yours).
There are plenty of ways to collaborate with other Instagram creators. The key to a successful collaboration, though, is to make it mutually beneficial. Both parties should get something out of the collab — more followers, increased sales, a boost in website traffic, etc.
Give Your Feed a “Look”
Have you ever seen a business or influencer with a perfectly curated Instagram Feed? Their posts have similar colour schemes, fonts, etc. and feel like a cohesive unit.
At first, this approach might seem like overkill. It really works, though!
You seem more credible when your feed has a “look” that aligns with your other online branding efforts. Furthermore, when people find your content aesthetically pleasing, they’re more likely to engage with it.
How to Create a Cohesive Instagram Feed
If you need help creating a look for your feed, try these tips:
- Pick a colour palette (3-4 colours that work for your brand)
- Pick a style (dark photos, bright photos, black and white photos, etc.)
- Pick content types (infographics, Twitter screenshots, photos, etc.)
- Pick a content pattern (alternating between images and Twitter screenshots, alternating between images and infographics, etc.)
Consider using software to plan your content in advance and find a pattern or style that works best for you.
Dive into Your Instagram Insights
It doesn’t matter if you’re an aspiring influencer or a business building up its social media marketing strategy. Data is your friend.
Pay attention to your Instagram insights. Find out what kinds of posts get the most attention and encourage the most engagement. The more you know, the easier it is to create content that resonates with your audience, helps you build stronger relationships, and beats the algorithm.
How to View Instagram Insights
If you’ve never looked at your Instagram insights before, here’s how to start:
- Go to your profile
- Tap on the Insights button
- Tap on metrics under the Overview section or under a specific piece of content
Keep in mind that you’ll need a Business or Creator account to access this data. Set up this kind of account if you haven’t already.
Stop Deleting and Reposting
Some Instagram creators make the mistake of deleting poorly performing content and then reposting it. Doing this prevents you from beating the algorithm (or at least making it harder).
Think of it this way. You’re deleting an essential part of your social media story.
If a post is performing poorly and you delete it, you ensure its performance never improves. Even if you delete and repost, you’re still starting over from zero, which isn’t conducive to your overall social media success.
If the algorithm notices a pattern of deleting and reposting, your account’s overall “health” might take a hit. As a result, you might see an even more significant decrease in engagement.
Create Reels Frequently & Consistently
Reels are all the rage right now on Instagram. Similar to TikTok videos, these quick clips receive a lot of attention on the Gram. Prioritise them when creating content to maximise the engagement your posts and Instagram account receive.
How to Create Better Reels
If you’re new to the Reel world or want to brush up on your Reel-making skills, try these tips:
- Include on-screen text and caption for those who watch without sound
- Keep track of the latest trends by following Instagram’s official @creators account, which features a weekly trend round-up
- Include a call-to-action that encourages viewers to click on your website link, sign up for your email list, etc.
- Use hashtags
- Post consistently (at least a few times per week)
Keep Up with Trends
Following the official Instagram @creators account is an excellent first step in keeping up with the latest trends.
Here are some other tips that will help you stay informed about the content people love to engage with on Instagram:
- Follow influencers in your industry
- Follow competitor accounts
- Set Google alerts for “social media trends” or “Instagram trends”
- Check out the Explore page regularly
You can also join social media marketing-related groups on sites like LinkedIn or Reddit. Members of these groups regularly post about the latest social media trends and can help you keep track of what interests Instagram users.
Take Advantage of All Instagram Story Features
If you regularly post on your Instagram Stories, awesome! Don’t stop there, though.
Instagram Stories offers all kinds of features, from filters to polls. Take advantage of these features and incorporate them into your posts.
Using these features can increase engagement and get people interested in interacting with your Stories instead of tapping past them (or worse, muting them altogether).
Increased engagement helps you work with the algorithm instead of against it, which leads to more eyes on your content.
Experiment with different features to see which ones your audience seems to enjoy the most. Maybe they like answering polls or asking questions, for example. Once you know what they want, you can post more content like that in the future.
Post Stories Daily
Speaking of Stories, strive to post daily. Stories are an excellent way to engage with your audience, personalise your brand, and provide more insight into your mission and values.
Even if you only post a couple of Stories, you’re still boosting your ranking and giving the Instagram algorithms more data to work with.
Not sure what Stories to post? Here are some ideas:
- Post 'behind-the-scenes' photos and videos
- Host a Q&A
- Let your audience vote on upcoming brand decisions
- Let your audience vote on the types of content they like most
- Share links to your website
- Share relevant content from influencers, other brands, etc.
- Share user-generated content from people who have tagged you in their posts or stories
Use Hashtags Wisely
We’ve already discussed how important hashtags are and why you need to use them. However, you must keep in mind that you can abuse hashtags just as easily as you can use them.
Make sure your hashtags are relevant to your brand.
Don’t throw in a bunch of hashtags that have nothing to do with you, your business, or your audience. Doing this might help you gain temporary traction, but it’ll also annoy people who stumbled upon your account when looking for something specific.
Don’t overdo it with your hashtags, either.
Instagram allows you to have up to 30 hashtags. You don’t need all 30, though, especially if you can’t think of 30 relevant ones. This post from the Instagram @creators account suggests that 3-5 hashtags are sufficient.
Make Your Content Shareable
Shareable content checks at least one of these three boxes:
- It’s entertaining
- It’s educational
- It’s socially validating (i.e., it backs up a particular view or belief)
When creating content, ensure it falls under one or more of these umbrellas. Include high-quality photos and interesting graphics, too.
The more eye-catching your content is, the more likely people are to A) engage with it and B) share it.
Post Carousels Instead of One Photo
It’s easy to scroll past a post that features one measly photo. You likely do it all the time.
If you post a carousel of photos, you increase the amount of time people spend engaging with your content. The Instagram algorithms will notice this increased time and reward you for it by exposing more people to your posts.
You might want to encourage people to swipe through all the photos when writing the call-to-action for your caption. Entice them by promising a funny or unique picture when they get to the end of the carousel.
Level Up Your Instagram Marketing Today
At first, figuring out the Instagram algorithm can feel as impossible as conquering the many-head Hydra.
However, with an in-depth understanding of how the algorithm works and careful planning, you’ll have the insights and tools you need to connect with your audience and see great results!