July 15, 2021

How Instagram’s new transparent approach affects our strategy

The head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, has been opening up about the notoriously secretive Instagram algorithm. In both a blog and a series of videos on his social media, he explains how the algorithms (yes, there are more than one) work and how to personalise your Instagram experience. Although he focuses more on user experience than brand strategy, there are a number of key insights which help our agency develop more intuitive approaches to clients’ Instagram accounts. 

The algorithms

When people talk about the Instagram algorithm, they usually lump all the different rules into one strategy. As it turns out, there are separate algorithms for Feed & Stories, Explore, and Reels.

Despite this, there are some overarching themes across the different algorithms, centring around showing users content they will be most interested in. Remember the uproar when feeds were no longer shown chronologically? Mosseri writes that this change was because Instagram wants you to “make the most of your time”, so they personalise the experience to each user using previous activity. This means that as a brand, you’ll often find the same accounts interacting with your posts, as Instagram prioritises engaged audiences. In a positive light, this means that audiences are more likely to be engaged, yet it can make it more difficult to reach a new audience.

Feed & Stories

Describing these channels as the place people go to see their close friends and family, Instagram only features posts from accounts that a user follows, with the exception of ads. The most important factors when determining feed ranking are as follows:

  1. Information about the post. This encompasses the popularity and performance of a post, for example how many likes or saves it has, as well as the time of the post and the type of content.
  2. Information about the person who posted. Instagram assesses how interesting an account is based on the account’s engagement rates in previous weeks.
  3. User activity. By gathering data on the habits and previous activity of an individual, Instagram is able to assess which posts they are likely to want to see and engage with.
  4. User history of interacting with someone. This considers the relationship between two individual accounts, and assesses factors like mutual liking and commenting.

Using this information, Instagram predicts how likely and how long a user will engage with a post for. This determines final feed ranking.

An interesting negative factor that can affect feed ranking is post frequency. Over-posting or posting multiple updates at once will reduce reach, as Instagram tries to show a variety of content to a user. This means that while you might want to post 3 updates in a row to separate or improve feed aesthetic, you can expect these to perform worse than usual content.

While Instagram has admitted that they are changing their Feed & Story algorithm regularly in order to react to the moment, the above factors remain consistent for now. 

Explore

This page is self-explanatory, it allows users to see high quality content from accounts that they don’t follow. Recommended posts are determined using activity from accounts that Instagram has deemed as similar to your account; they are then ranked in a similar way to Feed & Stories. 

  1. Information about the post.
  2. User history of interacting with someone.
  3. User activity.
  4. Information about the person who posted.

As with Feed & Stories, engagement is the most important factor when aiming to appear on the Explore page, which means it’s important to target the correct audience. The most important actions include likes, saves and shares. 

An interesting factor with Explore is that it also tries to determine posts which a user will not be interested in, or will find offensive. For example, as a general rule they aim to not show content of people smoking or misinformation. If appearing in Explore is a target, the Recommendations Guidelines details the type of content to steer away from.

Reels

Content shown in Reels is predominantly from smaller accounts that a user doesn’t follow, but that doesn’t mean your followers will never see your Reels. Developed as an alternative to TikTok, the most important aim for Reels is to entertain. The current ranking of importance is:

  1. User activity.
  2. User history of interacting with someone.
  3. Information about the Reel. 
  4. Information about the person who posted. 

As a fairly new feature, Instagram is still developing this algorithm and is conducting surveys to determine whether specific videos are entertaining or funny. Currently, one of the most defining factors in ranking is whether users are likely to watch the content in its entirety and give it a like.

An important insight is that Instagram is unlikely to recommend content with watermarks and political content.

What we’re doing

Instagram’s new transparency has allowed us to reevaluate our priorities when pitching and creating posts. 

Within our social media offering, we are actively researching and updating our hashtag strategies for every account. Hashtags allow Instagram to categorise a post, which has been detailed as the most important factor in improving the ranking of posts for relevant audiences. We assess the best performing hashtags and use a diverse range of relevant words to show content to a wider, yet still interested audience.

The software we use informs us of the best times to post for each account, so we are able to post at a time when the audience will respond best and are more likely to see it. Furthermore, while we actively manage our clients interactions and develop or maintain their tone of voice, making messages more personal is a key factor in improving the user history of interacting with an account. 

We’re also combining insights on our clients target audiences with the communities who frequently interact to influence posts that we create. This encourages engagement, which in turn makes the post appear more interesting to the algorithms. 

We are delighted that Instagram has decided to remove the mystery around its algorithms, as it means we are able to provide better services for our clients. To discover more about the full range of services that we offer at Punch, visit our Services page.