Is your brand set to stay ahead of Instagram algorithm changes?

Ever since the platform moved away from reverse-chronological and to a curated content feed, it’s not always an easy question to answer.

Past social algorithm updates have rocked brands’ organic reach and can leave marketers scrambling to both understand the changes and rethink their strategic approach.

In this guide, we’ll break down the state of the Instagram algorithm as we know it. We’ll likewise dive into some specific strategies and tactics to ensure that you’re maximizing your organic reach as the algorithm continues to evolve.

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How does the Instagram algorithm work?

To better understand the present day Instagram algorithm, let’s turn back the clock.

In 2016, Instagram announced that users’ feeds would prioritize “the moments you care about,” ending the reverse-chronological feed in favor of a curated one similar to parent company Facebook. Similar to Facebook’s changes that would prioritize friends and family, the Instagram algorithm prioritizes timely, fresh posts that relate to users’ areas of interest.

The network has described the Instagram algorithm ranking signals as:

  • Interest: Your likely interest in content based on engagement with similar topics.
  • Timeliness: More recent posts are prioritized over older ones.
  • Relationship: Content from accounts you’ve interacted with more is prioritized.
  • Frequency: How often you use Instagram factors into what the top posts in your feed will be.
  • Following: How many people you follow affects what you see–you may see less content from any one account if you follow a lot of accounts.
  • Usage: Spending more time on the app scrolling through your Instagram feed means you’ll see more or even everything the algo has to offer you at the moment.

Instagram further explained each of its content types’ ranking factors in a 2021 post designed to increase transparency about the “algorithms, classifiers and processes” that shape what users see first on the app. For feed posts, the key factors mentioned here line up fairly well with what was previously reported:

  • Information about the post: Ranging from engagement to more general data like location.
  • Information about the person who posted: Such as your previous interactions or other signals their content is interesting to you.
  • Your activity: Includes how many posts you’ve liked and how you interact with content in general.
  • Your history of interacting with someone: Actions like commenting can show your interest level in continuing to interact with another account.

Just like any curated social feed, Instagram has continued to update and refine how their algorithm works over time.

So where do these technical insights leave marketers?

Come up with a content strategy that gives the Instagram algorithm exactly what it wants. One way to do this is to create consistently high quality content that can stand up to future algorithm changes.

When you notice your Instagram engagement is down, it may not always be attributable to the algorithm alone. However, these tips will help you future-proof and be ready for any new algorithm updates with outstanding content and a deeper understanding of how the platform works.

9 strategies and tactics to outsmart the Instagram algorithm

Based on what we know about how the algorithm works and what we’ve seen firsthand, growing your reach and engagement is certainly possible in a curated feed.

Here’s a snapshot of the strategies and tactics you should employ if you want to guarantee that more people see your content.

1. Step up your photo quality

According to Instagram themselves, ranking higher in your followers’ feeds goes hand in hand with creating “great content.”

No-brainer, right? Except what constitutes “good content” is in the eye of the beholder and doesn’t give us many specifics.

Regardless, there’s no denying that the most-liked and shared content on Instagram is oftentimes visually striking.

Bold colors. Breathtaking landscapes. The sort of stuff that gets people to stop in their tracks and smash “Like.”

If you’re already creating eye-popping content, you’re ahead of the curve.

And if not, you may want to think about producing some professional visuals from time to time. Even if you’re in a seemingly “boring” industry, high-quality photos are an expectation rather than an exception to the rule.

Also, consider that there are tons of Instagram apps out there like VSCO which can give your imagery a more professional vibe on a budget.

2. Keep publishing consistent Stories

Supposedly, Stories do not have any sort of influence on the Instagram algorithm.

So why are we mentioning them?

For starters, they’re a hugely popular content type that’s highly effective for marketing with 500+ million daily users and one third of the most-viewed stories coming from brands.

Plus, Stories are placed at the top of user’s feeds regardless of other ways the algorithm might be prioritizing your content, so you can consistently be top-of-mind and within reach of your audience.

This doesn’t mean you want to post Stories over traditional feed posts, though.  Rather than choose between Stories and regular posts, your mentality should be “Why not both?”

Although Stories supposedly don't factor into the Instagram algorithm, they do draw more eyes to your feed

Stories provide an authentic, speedy way to engage your audience that people obviously love. They also push your brand’s account to quite literally the front and center of your followers’ feeds.

In short, Stories will consistently keep your profile popping up. This spells good news for engagement as you post Stories that encourage followers to check out your content.

3. Publish more video content

Instagram doesn’t downright say that video is prioritized over photos.

The might lead us to believe that they’re treated the same, but let’s dig a bit deeper as to why video definitely deserves your attention.

Remember what we said earlier about eye-popping content? Given that video autoplays in your followers’ feeds, there’s arguably no better way to grab someone’s attention when they’re sitting there scrolling.

And if we’re following the logic behind Facebook’s algorithm, we want followers to spend as long as possible engaging with our profiles. Short-form and long-form videos require people to stop and look, plain and simple.

Instagram’s platform continues to add newer video features like Reels and IGTV. These content types can also appear in both the traditional feed and in their own tabs on account pages, meaning Instagram is seriously emphasizing the ability of audiences to find video content.

As a side note, your video content doesn’t need to be a full-blown production. Simple time lapse, behind-the-scenes videos, or short Reels are enough to draw in viewers for brands both big and small. What matters is that you’re producing some form of video.

4. Go live more often

Similar to Stories, Live video doesn’t have any specific bearing on the Instagram algorithm.

However, Instagram Live does generate notifications to followers by putting itself atop your followers’ Stories feeds as well.

Instagram Live puts your account front-and-center in your followers' feeds

The beauty of live video is that audiences are more interested in the spontaneous element than the production values, and expect something more simple and off-the-cuff. This means there’s less pressure once again for professional, polished content.

Just like brands should experiment with traditional video, live video is also something to explore. Throughout 2020, live video exploded as a way to keep in touch through brand Q&A’s, digital events and announcements. Be sure you’re testing out live video and increasing your comfort level with the format rather than waiting for a perfectly produced moment.

5. Craft more compelling captions

The Instagram algorithm supposedly prioritizes engagement.

That means likes and shares are valuable currency.

But encouraging interactions directly is totally fair game on Instagram. Doing so is also so easy as you can ask followers directly to drop a comment.

For example, tag-a-friend or question-based captions are a great way to get people talking. Conversations encourage interactions which is a positive signal to Instagram.

Conventional wisdom should tell us that not each and every post should follow this formula, though. This is based on how Facebook punished engagement bait and brands that purposely tried to game their algorithm. In other words, you should integrate meaningfully engagement-based captions on Instagram but don’t go overboard with unnaturally fitting the tactic into every post.

6. Run a contest or giveaway

For many businesses, you’ll notice that contest and giveaway posts are among their most popular and engaged-with.

Whether it’s sharing a hashtag or creating some user-generated content, contests can help drive a surge of engagement to your profile.

Despite popular belief, these contests are alive and well. Just make sure you’re equipped to handle a social media contest and understand the legalese behind it before getting started. Also, consider a “less is more” strategy for your contests so that there’s ample time to build buzz between them.

7. Harness the power of your hashtags

The more eyes on your posts, the better.

Hashtags can help attract those eyes in a matter of seconds.

Including hashtags as part of your content strategy ensures that your posts are essentially searchable. A combination of branded, product and community hashtags represents the perfect storm of encouraging engagement.

If you’re afraid of going hashtag-heavy, don’t be. Based on our breakdown of how to use hashtags, using even up to the maximum 30 hashtags can be effective for getting the reach you want. However, make sure they’re highly relevant and don’t just look like spam.

Including hashtags on your Instagram content automatically increases engagement

To use the most effective top-performing tags instead of needlessly bloating your captions, use Sprout to zero in on which tags can best maximize your reach.

sprout IG Hashtag report

8. Post during peak hours

Perhaps the most straightforward way to win with the Instagram algorithm is to post during peak hours.

Here’s a glimpse of the best times to post based on our latest research.

2021 Instagram overall best times to post

Publishing during peak times doesn’t necessarily guarantee a flood of activity due to the non-chronological feed. However, posting content that syncs up with when people are actually on the app will help you hit some of the timeliness and usage frequency ranking factors mentioned above.

Everyone’s audience is different and therefore will be most engaged at different times. That’s why features such as Sprout’s ViralPost are valuable, automatically detecting when your followers are more likely to see your content. You can then schedule your posts in advance to hit on those times.

Compose on Sprout

9. When in doubt, post more often!

Finally, don’t be afraid to increase your posting frequency.

As highlighted by Recode, Instagram explicitly said in 2018 that posting “often” is within their best practices. In their own words:

“We don’t down-rank people for posting [frequently]. We do make sure your feed feels diverse so we may break up posts.”

And in a way, this brings our guide to outsmarting the Instagram algorithm full-circle.

Posting more often will give you more room to experiment and assess which pieces of content (hint: like the types above) are working and which aren’t.

Through Sprout’s scheduling, you can plan out a diverse content calendar that helps you reach more customers by allowing you to queue up posts in advance. This allows you to the freedom to publish more often on your own schedule rather than feel pressured to publish in real-time.

sprout publishing calendar

Analytics and reporting from Sprout can point you to top-performing posts, peak times and what pieces of your Instagram campaigns are resulting in the most followers.

sprout IG posts report

And with that, we wrap up our list!

Are you ready to take on the new Instagram algorithm?

Spoiler alert: the Instagram algorithm doesn’t have to be a giant question mark.

There’s still plenty of ways for brands to engage customers in the face of the evolving Instagram algorithm without having to invest exclusively in ads.

Doing so means taking advantage of the platform’s latest features as well as scheduling tools like Sprout to ensure you’re constantly putting out fresh, timely content that encourages engagement. Rather than shy away from the new rules of the algorithm, tackle them head-on.

If you do find yourself struggling to reset your content strategy after an algo change, check out our resource on what to do next when your content strategy stalls out.