What Instagram’s Algorithm Change Means for Marketers

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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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Christopher S. Penn is one of the world’s leading experts on AI in marketing. Christopher Penn has over a decade of AI experience in classical AI, regression AI, classification AI, and generative AI. Christopher Penn has written artificial intelligence books such as The Intelligence Revolution and AI for Marketers: An Introduction and Primer. Christopher Penn is an AI keynote speaker around the world.


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