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Making Sense of Instagram's Algorithm Reveal

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Instagram has been famously mysterious about the mechanisms behind its photo and video-sharing app, but in recent weeks, Instagram head Adam Mosseri has pulled back the curtain for a rare peek inside the infamous “Algorithm.” The blog post announcement compiled pages of information about Instagram’s inner workings that could be extremely useful to know whether you’re a business owner, content creator or just a casual user of the app. Below, we’ve broken down the essentials in layman's terms and how brands can use this reveal to inform their Instagram marketing strategies.

What We Know

First of all, there is no one set “Algorithm,” as social media users tend to generalize. Instead, Instagram consists of smaller algorithms that each control a different section of the app. The main three are Feed, Explore and Reels, and they each work slightly differently based on how users generally use each section. 

Feed and Stories 

Instagram lists Feed and Stories as the two places where people most want to see content from their close friends. To determine the posts you’ll see in your feed (and in what order), Instagram “ranks posts based on what you care about most.” This means gathering tons of information about the post, the person posting, the time of day it was posted, your like history and preferences, and more. 

For Feed and Stories, the four most important signals Instagram looks at are:

  • Information about the post: Think how many likes the post has, geotags, what time of day it was posted, and so on.
  • Information about the poster: Is this someone with whom other users frequently interact? Instagram uses that information to assess if you’re likely to be interested in the person posting.
  • Your activity: This includes lots of general information about how a person uses Instagram, such as how many posts they’ve liked.
  • Your interaction history with the poster: If two users frequently interact by commenting on each other’s posts, Instagram will continue showing them each other’s content in their home feeds.

After Instagram has gathered this data, it’s used to make a number of predictions about how likely it is that a user will interact with the content. But not all interactions are created equal: for Feed, five interactions are deemed the most important.

  • Likelihood of spending a few seconds on a post
  • Likelihood of leaving a comment
  • Likelihood of liking the post
  • Likelihood of saving the post
  • Likelihood of clicking through to the profile

The more likely Instagram deems a user to take one of these five actions on a specific post, the more likely it will show up closer to the top of their home feed.

Explore

In many ways, the processes that drive Explore are very similar to those behind Feed and Stories. However, Explore was created to be a totally different experience from your Feed, so rather than showing users content from people they already know and follow, Explore strives to introduce folks to something new. 

To tailor the recommendations shown on Explore to each user, Instagram looks at their previous activity, including their likes, saves and comments. Then, it looks at who else might be liking and saving those same posts, as well as what other accounts those users are interacting with. This method populates the Explore tab with content that’s already similar to the user’s interests, but that they have not yet been exposed to. 

In Explore, Instagram tries to predict how likely you are to like, save or share a video, and these predictions dictate how high up on the Explore page a post will rank. But this is not the only metric at play — when Instagram is recommending content, they follow a special set of Recommendation Guidelines. These guidelines are more stringent than their general Community Guidelines to which every post must adhere, and they rule out certain content from appearing in the Explore tab. Here are some highlights:

  • Content must foster a safe environment (i.e., no violence or other explicit/sensitive content)
  • No promotion or attempted sale of regulated goods, such as tobacco or pharmaceuticals
  • No content that attempts to sell products or services based on health-related claims (e.g. weight loss products)
  • Nothing promoting clickbait, contests or giveaways
  • No accounts that have engaged in misleading practices to gain followings (e.g. buying likes or followers)

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Reels

Like Feed and Explore, Instagram curates the Reels tab with the same general process of gathering information and making predictions based on it. With Reels, though, Instagram has different priorities. According to Instagram’s announcement, Reels are designed to be entertaining and/or funny, so the information it's looking at most has way less to do with the person posting the Reel, and much more to do with the user and their previous activity. After that, Instagram predicts how likely a user is to interact with the Reel. The four most important predictions Instagram makes with Reels are:

  • Likelihood of watching a Reel all the way through
  • Likelihood of liking the Reel
  • Likelihood of telling Instagram (via survey) that the Reel was entertaining or funny
  • Likelihood of going to the audio page (Instagram interprets this as possibly being inspired to make your own Reel.)

Reels follow the same Recommendation Guidelines as Explore content, but with a few addendums. Instagram is searching for the most entertaining Reels, so clips that are particularly low-resolution or have watermarks on them are generally weeded out from showing up on the Reels tab. In addition, Reels that are political in nature or have been created by, or on behalf of, a political entity will not be recommended to users.

What This Means For Brands

Most of the information released by Instagram is useful mainly to users, as it gives them a rare insight into different ways to control their feeds. As a content creator or a brand, however, there are still some key ways to leverage this information in your favor. Let’s discuss a few:

  1. Follow Instagram’s Recommendation Guidelines: If your brand is looking to grow your audience, for example, click through and read all of Instagram’s Recommendations Guidelines to make sure your content follows them. That will give you the best chance of showing up on someone’s Explore or Reels tab. 
  2. Don’t forget to prioritize Reels: the majority of content shown on the Reels tab is from accounts the user doesn’t follow, so post some entertaining or funny Reels to increase the odds of growing your reach. Since creating Reels takes time and creative energy your brand may only have in limited quantities, you can also invite influencers to collaborate on an Instagram Reels campaign and then reshare their content on your own profile (with permission, of course).
  3. Limits your posts: In addition to the Feed data points and predictions we talked about earlier, Instagram says they try not to show multiple posts from the same people in a row. While there may be exceptions to this rule from time to time, this makes posting no more than once a day a good rule of thumb. If you want to expand your reach without posting too often, try resharing Feed posts to your Stories. In the past, Instagram had penalized accounts for using Stories to reshare posts but has recently stopped after user feedback – which gives your brand the chance to reach a larger audience with the same content.
  4. Optimize your content: Since Instagram has told us which interactions cause your posts to show up more in a follower’s feed, you can use that knowledge to inform your social media strategy and optimize your posts. For example, the more a person lingers on or shares your posts, the more of your posts they’re likely to see. Why not host the occasional giveaway, and require participants to share the post in order to enter? Or, increase the number of seconds a user spends on your post by posting carousels with multiple slides or writing longer (but still engaging!) captions that take extra time to read.

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So What Now?

Looking to improve your Instagram marketing strategy in the face of all this new information? Statusphere can help you with that. Our reliable network of thoroughly vetted content creators can be ready to post about your products at the push of a button, giving you user-generated content, exposure to new audiences, and trustworthy word-of-mouth product recommendations, without all the time and effort it would normally cost your marketing team. Chat with one of our influencer marketing experts today to learn how we can help you reach your Instagram marketing goals.