How the Instagram algorithm works

By Chloé Gee on January 9, 2019

By Chloé Gee on January 9, 2019

Want to be Instagram famous? Well, we’re not going to cover that in this article, but you can use this information to effectively promote your organization!

A big part of using Instagram effectively is understanding how the Instagram algorithm works. Knowing who is seeing your updates and how to get more people to see them is a huge factor in making Instagram work for your organization.

Why you may want to be on Instagram (or not)

Before we get into the details of the Instagram algorithm, let’s talk about whether or not your organization should even be on Instagram.

When considering any digital marketing platform, the T&S team encourages people to look at four different elements.

Element 1 – Audience

How well does the audience on Instagram match your target audience?

When looking at Instagram statistics, 61% of the audience is 18 to 34 years old while another 26% is 35 to 54 years old. They have more than 77.6 million active users in the United States alone. The gender of users tends to be pretty evenly split, with roughly half male and half female.

Element 2 – Capabilities

How well do the capabilities of Instagram match your organization’s needs?

Instagram is all about images. It’s all about sharing original content and photos of what’s happening in the moment, at least most of the time. Linking to pages on your website through Instagram can be problematic unless you’re using stories or a third-party service to manage links. While Instagram was originally designed for individuals sharing photos, businesses and nonprofits can have a presence on the platform through Business Accounts.

Element 3 – Culture Fit

How closely does Instagram’s culture match your organization’s company culture?

Overall, Instagram is pretty relaxed. However, its culture can change greatly depending on the type of following you build. The platform’s full of passionate people, so if you’re passionate about your organization and its mission, you’re more likely to connect with others.

Element 4 – Comfort Level

How comfortable are you with Instagram?

I can’t answer this one for you! I will tell you that you’ll mostly be accessing it through your smartphone, as the website doesn’t even have a way to upload photos. So if you’re uncomfortable on a smartphone, this isn’t going to be a great fit for you.

Looking at all four of these elements can help you determine your point of optimization, which Tim talks about in his book Online Marketing Mindshift. To put it way more succinctly than he did, look at all four of them to decide if you should invest time, money, and other resources in Instagram.

What the Instagram algorithm is

So that’s all great. But what is the Instagram algorithm?

Whether you’re talking about Facebook, Pinterest, Google, or something else, when you hear the word “algorithm,” it’s usually referring to the back-end programming that determines who sees what.

In other words, it determines who and how many people are likely to see the posts you share on Instagram!

You may be asking yourself, “Why can’t my followers just see everything I post?”

Gather round, children. Time for a quick history lesson!

Years ago social media was relatively new and comprised mostly of Facebook, a dying MySpace, and a brand new Twitter. When you visited the home page of any of those sites, you saw what was referred to as your feed.

In other words, you saw content from people you had specifically connected with. But it was everything! Every single thing all the people you were connected with were posting.

As those sites grew, that became overwhelming! So Facebook (and other sites) created an algorithm (programming code) to determine what they thought you should see.

Have you liked the last three things that one guy has posted? Now you’re more likely to see his updates.

Haven’t interacted with that one gal since you became friends on Facebook even though she posts all the time? Now there’s almost no way you’ll ever see something from her.

And that’s the magic of the algorithm. It determines what content you see. And, more importantly for those of us in marketing, it determines who will see YOUR content.

How the Instagram algorithm is different

Okay, now that you understand the basics of an algorithm, let’s talk about how the Instagram algorithm is a little different than the others.

Let’s look at Facebook as an example, since Facebook actually owns Instagram.

So let’s say I’m friends with our own Tim Priebe on Facebook. I actually am, but we’re also saying I am.

Then let’s say that Tim likes a crazy amount of Superman stuff on Facebook. He’s constantly liking it. He wastes tons of time on Facebook watching Superman videos and reading Superman articles, and he likes and comments on them all.

As a result, Facebook is actually going to show ME more Superman stuff. Doesn’t matter if I ever liked anything Superman related or not.

And heaven forbid I have a second friend who likes Superman also, because I’d be in real trouble then.

Instagram is different. Aside from paid, promoted ads, the only thing you ever see on your Instagram feed is the content by people you follow or of hashtags you follow.

It doesn’t matter how much Tim likes or comments on Superman-related posts on Instagram, it won’t affect whether I see one or not.

The algorithm on Instagram is only affected by your activity, not the activity of others.

So use #hashtags

As a result, you MUST be using hashtags on Instagram!

The number one way to gain a new audience and expose your posts to people that aren’t already familiar with your organization is to use hashtags they are following.

You probably already knew you could follow people on Instagram. If not, I question whether you’ve actually ever opened the app.

But you can also follow hashtags! And plenty of people follow specific hashtags and will interact with posts using those hashtags even if they don’t follow the account that posted it. And they may end up following that account because they like what they see through following the hashtag!

Experts vary on how many hashtags they recommend you should use, and obviously it differs on a case-by-case basis. Even though studies show more hashtags may increase engagement, I recommend three to six hashtags per post in order to still look professional.

Instagram resources

Hungry for some more Instagram resources? Since one of the services we provide is Instagram management for our clients, we have some resources available for Instagram specifically and social media in general.

First, here are a few articles we’ve written:

You also may be wondering who you should connect with on Instagram. Should you connect with everyone or be selective? If you’re selective, what criteria should you use?

Tim put together an ebook a while back on how to create a strategic social network. It can help you make strategic decisions about who you connect with online.

In an episode of PixelTV we published a couple of years ago, Lauren Rogers talked about five tools you can use to create (or join in on) an awesome hashtag.

Finally, we do help a lot of our clients by actually managing their Instagram account for them. If you want to talk about us managing Instagram or other social media platforms for you, we would be happy to talk!

Just reach out to us to have a conversation!

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