Cracking Instagram’s Algorithm: Creating Content that Reaches your Audience

    June 21 2021

    On a scale from magic tricks to the Bermuda Triangle, the mystery of Instagram’s algorithm ranks somewhere in the middle. It’s elusive, confounding, and at the same time, completely engrossing. How does it work? Why does it seem to change all the time, yet hasn’t “officially” since 2018? Why do some of our posts get wild engagement and others seem like a waiting room with one sexy spam bot and two followers? And most importantly, how can we ensure the content we work really hard to create reaches the people that matter most? 

    While, sadly, there aren’t any definitive “hacks” for beating the algorithm per se, there are a few solid ways to ensure your content strategy is mindful of how the algorithm works and is properly equipped to reach the top of your audience’s feed. Let’s discuss. 

    How Instagram’s Algorithm “Works” 

    If you remember the days when Instagram sorted your feed chronologically, it’s probably time to start using an eye cream. Instagram’s algorithm underwent a major overhaul three years ago to ultimately improve user experience. Our minds tend to think in a linear sense, which is why it may seem discombobulating to view content in a seemingly random sequence. However, it actually works to your own benefit and heightens your overall experience in the app. 

    Think about all the accounts you follow on Instagram and the disparate gaps in content quality that likely exist between an account like @InfluencersintheWild and your college roommate's cousin’s infrequent joke account. You probably want to see more of the content that makes you laugh versus the random one-off posts from a distant stranger. The algorithm gathers this info based on the accounts you follow, the posts you like and engage with, and even the ads you click, to create a uniquely tailored feed of content just for you. Nice, right?

    Instagram is all about BTE – Big Thoughtful Energy. And it centers around one main goal – to keep people in the app. Remember this whenever you’re creating content. It’s easy to get overwhelmed thinking about all the different little things you should do to “trick” the algorithm. But, keep this one overarching checkpoint in mind and you’ll be golden: Is this content REAL (Relevant. Engaging. Authentic. Likeable) enough to keep a person (and not a bot!) on the app for just a little bit longer? If you answer yes, it’ll likely end up in the upper region of your audience’s feeds. 

    PLANOLY-Blog Post-Understanding Instagram Algorithm-Image 1 PLANOLY-Blog Post-Understanding Instagram Algorithm-Image 2


    Where the Algorithm Falls Short

    We tend to think of digital things like automated systems, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and even robots themselves, as non-sentient, objective systems lacking any crumb of humanity, but that conclusion isn’t entirely accurate. Humans create, design, and manage these systems, meaning they’re inherently entrenched with our own implicit biases. If you’re wondering what in the world this has to do with Instagram’s algorithm, hang tight, we’re almost there! One example is the way many automated systems and algorithms fail to recognize the nuances of cultural slang, and can categorize homonyms found in content like “dark” “black” or “sick” as inherently negative. It’s part-human error, part-systems error, but ultimately an issue that ladders up to bigger societal challenges – systemic bias and lack of diverse representation. 

    When Nyome Nicholas-Williams, a Black plus-size model, posted a tastefully nude portrait of herself last year on Instagram, the photo was immediately flagged and taken down for violating community guidelines. But, a quick scroll through any celebrity model’s profile would prove that violation wasn’t being universally enforced to all users. It raised major concerns about Instagram’s algorithmic bias and whether or not its system was disproportionately silencing content from users who didn’t fall within typical beauty standards. 

    Understanding Instagram’s algorithm is a feat in itself, but adding on the notion of systemic bias adds another layer of complexity for BIPOC, LGBTQ+, plus-sized creators, and those living with disabilities. On the bright side, Instagram has recently formed a new Equity Team with the “stated intention of addressing systemic bias within Instagram's internal and external processes,” Social Media Today reports. 

    Creating an Algorithm-Friendly Strategy

    Now, on to developing a strategy that takes all of these considerations into account. There are a few easy and simple things to keep in mind when generating content and managing your account. 

    1. Reels are your secret weapon - It’s no surprise Instagram is gunning for TikTok’s spot, and investing a lot of energy towards growing the new feature. Consistently posting frequent Reels is an easy way to increase discovery on the app.
    2. Quality over quantity always - Don’t post something mediocre just to simply check the box. Take that time to create something more valuable that your followers will flock to, and the algorithm will reward you. 
    3. Schedule your posts around your audience’s behavior - A major part of this is understanding your target audiences and when they’re most likely to be active on Instagram. PLANOLY has you covered on understanding optimal posting times with our Quick Scheduling feature. And remember, the first 30-minutes of engagement after you post is the most critical and informs the algorithm whether or not your content is worth boosting. 
    4. Resist the temptation to buy followers and engagement - If you’re a busy entrepreneur or a brand just starting out, we know how tempting it may be to buy an established user’s account or buy a ton of random followers, but it ultimately makes your work that much harder. Instagram can detect bot-generated comments and likes versus those left by real people, and unfortunately, fake people can’t buy your real products or absorb your content. 

    Instagram Algorithm Updates

    Most recently, Instagram and Head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, shared some new insights into Instagram’s Algorithm. Instagram came up with an algorithm that ranks posts based on what users care about most after realizing the chronological flow of content was too much for a user to navigate and they were missing 70% of posts from close connections. Here’s the rest of the algorithm explained. 

    • Instagram’s Algorithm uses “signals.” Key signals include: 
      • Information about the post - This is more about the content itself, like how many people like the post, video length, location, etc. 
      • Information about the person who posted it - This helps classify whether this account would be of interest to you. They look into historical data like how many posts of theirs you’ve liked. 
      • Your activity - Helps to understand what interests you and what posts you tend to like in general. 
      • Your history of interacting with someone - Identifies how interested you are in seeing posts from a particular person or account. An example would be your level of engagement, like if you comment on each other’s posts. 
    • Feed and Stories base itself on friends or the accounts you engage with most, while Explore and Reels are for finding relevant topics based on trends, interests, etc. 
    • The Explore Page shares content based on what types of content you like in general. It will showcase content from accounts with similar content to an account you already follow and engage with. 
    • Leaning into video is good, but Reels won’t boost your reach, but by utilizing all types of content, you increase your chances of discovery. 
    • Instagram verification is for accounts that are most likely to deal with impersonation and verification bases itself on press mentions. 

    If you’re looking to increase your reach, pay attention to who and what accounts you’re engaging with and utilize all app features to increase the chances of discovery on the app. Best practices from Mosseri include two Feed posts per week, 2 Stories per day, and hashtag use.

    That’s the skinny on Instagram’s algorithm, and we hope these strategies and best practices help you create content that soars.

    Originally published April 30, 2021 8:00:00 AM, updated June 21 2021

    Learn more about Asia Phua, on PLANOLY

    Asia Phua

    Asia Phua is a contributing writer at PLANOLY. Combining her love for the three C's: culture, communication, and creativity, she thrives in helping brands tell their stories through content.

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