What Instagram’s Algorithm Change Means for Marketers

Past advice can be dangerous in digital marketing. What was effective even a day ago can suddenly become ineffective or counterproductive overnight.

Why do things turn on a dime in digital marketing? Unlike human-based mental algorithms, machine algorithms change in a nanosecond and the change is absolute. Humans take a while to accept a new truth, such as the Earth being round or the planets revolving around the sun.

When a machine changes its algorithm, we lack the luxury of time. We must adapt to the new reality immediately. When Facebook changes its News Feed, when Google changes its search algorithm, we must change as quickly and completely as the machines do – and never go back to our old ways. Twitter just did this with its Timeline.

Instagram announced a new algorithm, taking effect in the weeks to come, in which timelines will be rearranged to show content most likely to be relevant to the user, instead of the chronological timelines that appear now.

Why? Why would Instagram change the rules so dramatically? The answer is unpleasant but simple: engagement has dropped significantly in the last year as marketers and influencers have cluttered the service with junk.

Using SHIFT Communications’ advanced research facilities, I looked at the top 700+ “influencers” in fashion, food, travel, beauty, and more, as determined by both reach and engagement:


How is engagement faring among the superstars of Instagram?

Instagram Engagement.png

You don’t have to be a statistician to figure out which way engagement is headed. This is why Instagram is making a change. There’s so much clutter and junk on the service that audiences are engaging less. Combine that with competitive pressure among the 12-24 crowd by Snapchat, and Instagram has to do something to win back hearts and minds.

What does this mean for past advice about our Instagram strategy, tactics, and execution?

When social networks use algorithms to decide what content we should see first, they base the set of metrics they use in their algorithms on engagement. Facebook tracks how many people click on a link in our posts, how many people like, comment, and share.

Instagram values two actions most: comments and likes. The service offers no official re-sharing mechanism.

The strategy and tactic of flooding Instagram with low quality images worked fine in a chronological timeline world. When the new stuff shows up first, the more new stuff we publish, the better we do.

If you want to make the most of Instagram’s new ‘friends first’ algorithm, focus on engagement in every photo.

Take more interesting photos.

The photos of your office that no one likes? Get rid of them. Take more interesting photos.

Take better photos.

Use a tripod to reduce blur. Use filters and cleanup software to make your photos more visually appealing.

Stop hashtag spamming.

Hashtag spamming worked in the old world where adding as many hashtags as possible to your photos ensured people would see them in search, tap through, and look at your pictures.

You forgot to not do that
You forgot to not do that.

In a landscape where algorithms favor engagement, irrelevant hashtags will increase your view counts but decrease your likes and comments. That will kill your engagement scores.

Instagram’s new algorithm favors engagement. Disregard old advice about putting up photos of just anything and hashtag spamming if you want the new algorithm to work for you, not against you.

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2015 Year in Review: Blog Posts You Liked


Nothing says the New Year’s season like looking back at the year that was. This week, I’ll be taking you on a tour of the year that was, 2015. Sit back, relax, and let’s see what you liked.

Top 10 Blog Posts of 2015

I chose the top 10 blog posts of 2015 based on the number of total pageviews in Google Analytics. There are many posts which got attention that I wrote in previous years, but I figured for the purposes of a 2015 retrospective, we should look at just the stuff that I wrote in 2015.

#10: What a Single Email Address Unlocks for Marketers. I wrote this post to help you understand the true value of an email address.

#9: Combine Bitly, Google Analytics, and Google Sheets for Winning Metrics Analysis: This post will teach you how to set up the beginnings of a true social media funnel.

#8: Why You Should Join My Marketing Technology Team at SHIFT: a post I wrote when I was hiring for a marketing analyst on my team. By the way, SHIFT is always hiring for exceptional people.

#7: How to Build a DIY Stop Motion Camera Rig: I love creating things with PVC piping. This post walks you through the instructions for a stop motion rig that uses your smart phone. Why pay hundreds of dollars when you can build your own for under 20 bucks?

#6: Is Your Site Mobile Friendly? Now Your SEO Depends on It: when Google announced its mobile friendly testing service, they telegraphed their intentions to make mobile SEO a driving factor in 2015.

#5: How to Download Your Facebook Archive: I don’t like having my data exists solely in the cloud. I wrote this post to help you download valuable conversations and data you’ve posted to Mr. Zuckerberg’s service.

#4: The Sunset of Keyword Based SEO: Keywords were once the most important data you managed in SEO. 2015 was the year that all changed.

#3: How to Track Offsite Conversions with Google Analytics: As an author with books on Amazon and other services, I needed a way to track inferred conversions. I wrote this post based on my experiences.

#2: Unsolicited Review: the Wacaco Minipresso GR: I bought a portable espresso machine in 2015. This was the review I wrote after owning it for a short time. I still stand by what I wrote.

#1: How to Manage Workflow with Sticky Notes: I shot a video describing how I use the Eisenhower Matrix for prioritizing work and turned into this blog post.

The above list proves that no matter what your domain of expertise, you can’t reliably predict what people are going to like. I would never have guessed that a portable espresso machine review would be my number two blog post for the year. I would never have guessed that Google Analytics, a topic I am passionate about, would only manage to claw its way to #9 in my list.

Tomorrow, let’s look at my top social posts of 2015, and then to round out the work week, we’ll look at some Top 10 digital marketing content from a variety of people from 2015.

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Reverse your guest blogging strategy


Guest blogging as a marketing strategy has been relatively simple up until this point. You write for other blogs, send them your post (which invariably contains one or more links to your website), and if they publish it, you get credit from search engines for an additional link to your website.

The purpose of guest blogging is to generate links. Links create authority which signals Google that your site is worthwhile. Earning Google’s favor means better performance in unpaid search, which in turn means more traffic to your website.

Just about a year ago, Matt Cutts, the webspam emeritus at Google, made the following statement:

“Okay, I’m calling it: if you’re using guest blogging as a way to gain links in 2014, you should probably stop. Why? Because over time it’s become a more and more spammy practice, and if you’re doing a lot of guest blogging then you’re hanging out with really bad company.”

The real goal of guest blogging isn’t more links. It isn’t better search engine performance. The real goal of guest blogging is increased traffic to your website, achieved through multiple intermediate steps.

Here’s something to consider. What if, instead of pursuing lots of intermediary steps, you went straight for the final goal of increased traffic? How would your marketing strategy change?

Chances are the few blogs you chose to write for would be highly targeted. They’d be sites that have the audience you want, and the site would be willing to give you relatively free rein to submit content that generates clickthroughs to your site. You’d be behaving as though Google didn’t exist, which is aligned well with Google’s web quality guidelines.

Extend this concept even further. What if you reversed the process of guest blogging? What if, instead of you submitting content on other peoples’ sites, you aimed instead to invite them to your site? You’d reverse the process of placing content other places and instead opened your doors to others. At first glance, this might seem to be self-defeating. It’s not; in fact, it’s an incredible way to build links in a more reliable fashion. Why? If you choose your guest bloggers well, they will bring their own audiences and direct attention to the content they created on your site. Paradoxically, by giving up space and audience on your website to someone else, they can bring you even more audience, not to mention lots of new links.

For example, a few years ago, I invited 11 friends to blog here while I was on an extended leave of absence. Each of those 11 blog posts drove tons of new visitors at the time, and each has dozens of links to them from external sources that continue to feed my website’s SEO value to this day. Was that more impactful than me just getting one link from an external website? You bet.

Here’s the catch: to make this work, you must give more than you get. Promote your guest bloggers’ posts on your blog as rigorously, if not more so, as your own. Shine the spotlight on them. Give them clear, equity-passing links in their posts. Only when you give more than you get will you reap the long term rewards. You can’t approach reverse guest blogging from a scarcity mindset.

Rethink your guest blogging approach. Does it make more sense now to pursue the end goal directly – traffic – than through a series of indirect steps with the hopes of obtaining favor from an algorithm? I’d argue yes.

And if you missed the excellent series, here are the posts:

Other posts in the series:

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