Unpacking The Instagram Algorithm, Cliff Notes Style

by | Jun 11, 2021 | Digital Marketing, Entrepreneurship, Marketing, Social Media, Social Media Strategy

Sometimes Instagram can make you feel like a freshman learning how to date. How do I get their attention? Do they they like me back? WHY ARE THERE SO MANY RULES? I’m hoping to unpack Instagram’s latest blog (which is a dosey!) and give you the simple Cliff Notes version. You ready? Let’s gooooo! 

First up, there’s more than one algorithm.

Whaaaat? I know. 🤯 There are actually a bunch of them that consider the different ways people use different parts of the app. These algorithms all work together like super-smart cogs in a machine. So, if you’ve been worshipping at the altar of THE ALGORITHM, it’s time to stop – this is the era of the algorithmic pantheon, baby.

OK, now let’s take a look at the different parts of the app and how you can get on their respective algorithms’ good sides.

Here’s what to know about your Feed and Stories:

They surface stuff by people you heart most.

You’re more likely to see posts from people you’ve interacted with recently and frequently – especially if those posts are a) popular and b) feature stuff your activity has shown you’re interested in. Oh! Hi there, Big Brother 👋.

Interactions are weighted differently.

The most “important” interactions are how long you’re likely to spend on a post, and whether you’re likely to like, save or comment on a post, or check out the user’s page. If the algorithm thinks you’ll take action – poof! – the post jumps to the top of your feed. Instagram wants to keep you entertained and ON the app. Cue blackhole.

IG doesn’t want you to get sick of your besties’ faces.

The algorithms try to show you a variety of stuff so that you’re not seeing too many posts from the same account in a row. We all love a little variety in our lives, right? Having the right content mix can help! 

Fake news (like, actual fake news) gets penalized.

If your posts are full of misinformation, then it’s JAIL FOR YOUR MOTHER, JAIL FOR ONE THOUSAND YEARS. Your posts won’t get taken down, but they’ll be way harder to find. So, keep it real (and accurate).

Here’s what to know about Explore:

The Explore page is a dumping ground of content from accounts Instagram thinks you’ll enjoy but may not follow yet. On the app, it’s marked by a magnify glass.

It surfaces stuff based on your past activity.

Unlike Feed and Stories, it’ll show you accounts you don’t follow, but that are related the ones you’ve interacted with – both in your friends feed and in explore. If you’ve been watching a bunch of truck videos with your toddler, your Explore will be truck videos ahoy. Ugh, I know. Consume carefully!

It’s totally a popularity contest.

Posts rise to the top based on how much people are interacting with it – way more so than in feed and stories. It’s like Mean Girls in here.

Problematic stuff gets flagged.

Certain topics and content get flagged on Explore. You can also cue the algorithm to ignore certain topics or trends if you’re not liking what you’re seeing (take that, happy beach selfies I’m totally envious of!)

Here’s what to know about Reels.

Reels are all about entertainment.

IG highlights Reels it thinks you’ll find engaging or funny. That’s why most Reels have serious go big or go home energy.

The engagement signals are different.

You tell Instagram you love what you’re seeing when you watch a Reel all the way through or check out its audio. BUT IG is also prioritizing Reels in general, so Reels get more eyeballs than other stuff anyway. It’s Instagram’s favorite feature…of the moment.

Quality matters.

And we’re not just talking script here. Low-res or stolen Reels go to the bottom of the pile, and political stuff tends to get buried, too. But fun fact: IG actually favors Reels from smaller creators. GOOD NEWS ALERT!
OK, now you know what makes IG tick and why you’re seeing what you see when you load up your app. So how can you influence what other people see? And, more importantly, HOW CAN YOU MAKE SURE WHAT OTHER PEOPLE SEE IS YOU?

Short of already being super famous, the “trick” is this:

  • Be fun-formative! Create a variety of great, relevant and FUN content that’s tagged and hashtagged for epic surfaceability. Focus on value and building connections, not “gaming” the algorithm.
  • Engage a ton across the various bits of IG: like, follow, share and comment on the stuff that’s relevant to your account. But do it for real, not to get those followback vibes.
  • Measure what matters. Peep your insights to best understand what type of content is working for your audience – so that you can do more of it!
  • Go with the flow – algorithms change, new features get added, and nothing’s written in stone. You’ll figure it out.
  • Stick to it – slow and steady and goshdarn stick-to-it-ive-ness will eventually take you to virality. (Like I said over on the ol’ IG, it’s called Instagram, not Instaresults.)

Want to take an even deeper dive into the waves of the Instagram algorithm(s)? Of course ya do. The amazing team @workrowan has gathered a panel of social media and marketing experts to provide a few tips and also answer your burning questions. Desperate for a ticket to this rockstar panel that includes me and access to whip-smart social media pros all in one place? Email or DM me @ohsnapsocialkarlyn! I got you!