16 September 2020

The dreaded Instagram algorithm: What is it really?

By Vix
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Ah, the Instagram algorithm. It has all of the notoriety of someone that’s the topic of a true-crime podcast, more rumours spread about it than Taylor Swift and marketing “gurus” everywhere are teaching people how to “beat it”.

It really has become the thing that we all point a finger at as soon as our time scrolling or posting on the app isn’t exactly how we want it to be.

Post absolutely flopped? Probably the bloody algorithm.

Not been growing? It’s that pesky algorithm again.

Missed out on your second cousin’s birthday pictures? Al-go-rithm.

Or at least, that’s what we like to tell ourselves. Truth is though, it’s actually not so sinister. It’s not a person sitting behind a desk, picking and choosing who to boost and who to ignore based on personal preference. Quite simply, the algorithm is a machine that follows a formula.

What is the Instagram algorithm?

Whilst we don’t know all of the intricacies behind that formula and how it works, Instagram have told us quite a lot about how the app decides what to show you. And you may be surprised to hear that it actually works to make the user’s experience BETTER, not more frustration-filled.

This is because it is based on three key things: Interest, relationships and timeliness. Each of these are balanced to try and make sure that you’re seeing the content you want to see.

Relationships: The algorithm shows you more of the people you care about

Nope, this doens’t mean that someone sits behind a desk analysing your family tree and who you went to school with to decide who gets a spot on your precious feed. Instead, it’s all about the relationships that you have within the app.

Essentially, the algorithm machine learns who you interact with most. Interaction includes everything from comments and likes to shares, saves and watches. And that includes interaction on anything from Stories and Reels to IGTV and feed posts.

If you give someone some internet love, Instagram basically says “okay, cool. We’ll show you more of that then!” It does you a favour by putting that person or brand further up your feed, so you don’t have to wade through a tonne of less impactful content before you find them.

Interest: The algorithm shows you more of the content you’re interested in

Instagram wants to show you content types and topics that you are most interested in. Why? Because it will make you enjoy your in-app experience more which, in turn, will probably make you stay on the app longer. It’s a win-win.

So, as well as showing you the PEOPLE you love, it shows you the content you love, too. That means that if you interact more with Reels than IGTVs, you’ll get more Reels on your feed. If you engage with fashion-based content, you’re more likely to get clothes on your feed than you are travel.

Timelines: The algorithm shows you recent content

Back in the day, your feed was chronological. Many people consider this period as the golden age of Instagram, when all was grand.

However, as we said, the algorithm isn’t there so you don’t see the content you want to. It’s actually the opposite, which is why you might not see a post, even if it was put live just 3 seconds before you logged into the app.

Time does feed into what you’re shown, though. The algorithm wants to show you recent content (nobody likes seeing a post from 8 days ago!), but it also considers who and what you’re interested in on the app. It’s all a bit of a balance act.

What the algorithm means for personal brands

The first thing you need to remember as a personal brand on Instagram is that the algorithm is not out to get you. So you don’t need to “beat” it or trick it into showing your content. That’s just not how it works.

But what you can do is use your new-found understanding of the algorithm, to inform what you post so that you’re shown more to the people that matter: Your ideal audience.

Keep in mind those three points the algorithm is based on.

Relationships: You need to create relationships with your followers, by encouraging them to interact with your posts as much as possible. First and foremost, that means creating great content with your ideal audience in mind. But it also means utilising things like calls to action or question/poll stickers on Stories as a more direct way of asking people to interact.

Interest: The key to ticking this box is in creating niche content so that the algorithm knows exactly who to show you to.

Think of it this way: The machine can see that user 1 interacts with content type A, so wants to serve them more of type A. However, if you create type A, as well as type C, D, E and F, the machine doesn’t find it as easy to clarify who you serve. So, it’s more likely to pick someone that clearly creates content type A.

Need help finding your Niche? Our Glow Into Your Niche course is a part of the Grow & Glow membership. Join today to gain access.

Timelines: Post at a time that makes sense for your ideal audience. When are they likely to be on the app based on their age or job, for example? You can also test out different posting times to assess when you get the most engagement and replicate this.

It’s not important to have a strict posting schedule but, as we explained, when you post does effect who sees your content.

As far as we’re concerned here at Grow & Glow, the days of using the Instagram algorithm as a scapegoat for content not performing well are gone. If we want to grow as personal brands (instead of just using social media for fun!) then we think it’s crucial to self-reflect. If engagement or reach is low, it’s more helpful to think about how you can build relationships, create interest or post at a more effective time, than to sigh and point a finger at the A word!

After all, it’s not a big bad super villain out to get you or your engagement.

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