If you’re wondering whether the Instagram algorithm changed again, you’ve come to the right place.
Of course, if you’re a major publisher, a tech journalist, or Britney Spears’ social media team, your friendly contacts at Instagram HQ probably reach out regularly to give you the heads-up on any new algorithm changes. This article is not for those who are.
This article is for everyone who doesn’t have a direct line to Menlo Park. (It’s also for everyone who doesn’t want to fish through unverifiable rumours spread by influencers looking to increase their own engagement. We’re looking at you, “save is the new like” people.)
Instead, all of the tips you’ll find in this article are based on hard data, or what Instagram itself has said about the algorithm and how it works.
How Instagram works in 2021
Instagram algorithms decide which content is seen. The algorithm scans all content available and decides which content gets seen every time someone opens the app.
- Which posts are at the top of the newsfeed and in which order?
- What posts are featured under the Explore tab?
- In which order Stories, Reels, Live videos and IGTV videos appear in the feed?
Basically, the Instagram algorithm is the set of rules that controls your content’s organic reach. And it gets a lot of flak for this (queue a wailing choir of people screaming “bring back reverse-chronological”). However, Instagram says that before the algorithm was implemented in 2016, people used to miss 70% of the posts, and 50% of their friends’ posts.
But how does the algorithm decide which piece of content is worth showing a person?
Basically, it looks at the user’s past behaviour, sweeps all the available posts or pieces of content, and then evaluates each one to predict how interesting it is to that user. The most interesting content is at the top.
This is done by analyzing thousands of data points, also known as ranking signals. In 2018, Instagram invited a bunch of tech journalists to its offices (remember offices?) to explain.
Ranking signals for Instagram algorithm
The Instagram algorithm’s ranking signals fall under three major categories:
The algorithm assumes that people who’ve interacted with your account in the past will be interested in your new content. When it decides whether to show the post to one your followers, it evaluates how close you are to them.
- Do you follow one another?
- Did they search for your name?
- Do you send messages to each other or leave comments?
- Do you tag your friends in your posts?
- Do they save your posts
If you’re running a brand account, you’re probably not Actually best friends with your thousands of followers. The algorithm will recognize a loyal and consistent audience that engages with your content.
In other words, rest assured that engaging with your followers does genuinely help increase your organic reach (on top of making your monthly analytics reports look nice).
Instagram assumes that most recent posts are the most important. While Instagram insists that all posts do, at some point, show up in a user’s feed, newer posts are often ranked higher in the newsfeed than older ones.
This means that for brands, one of the best ways to increase your Instagram reach is via this method Post when your audience online. (We have more information on that below.
The algorithm’s job is to give the people what they want (or, you know, a healthy mix of what they want and also perhaps some diverse and preference-broadening content). By tracking user affinity and being very good at understanding what is in a given photo or video, Instagram knows how to get basketball highlight videos to basketball fans, astrology memes to millennials, and really-scary-but-weirdly-cute shark videos to me.
For brands, a system that caters to people’s preferences means your organic content has to Your target audience will find you appealing in order for the algorithm to show it to them. There’s just no shortcut to defining your niche, developing a consistent voice, and telling a story that matters to people.
Other ranking signals
Instagram has also mentioned three other factors that will affect your organic reach, but they have more to do with your audience’s behavior than yours:
- Frequency of use If you have followers who open their feeds 12 times a day, they’re more likely to see your post than people who check Instagram twice a day. People who don’t open the app frequently end up with a backlog of content built up, and therefore rely more heavily on the algorithm to select what they see.
- Following: This logic is similar to the one described above: people who follow 1000 accounts miss fewer posts than those who are following 100 accounts.
- Session time If your followers spend a lot of quality time with their feed, they’re also more likely to see every post available.
What does this mean? It's not much. except that the ideal Instagram follower devotedly reads their entire feed several times a day, and doesn’t follow very many accounts. We have more useful tips for you than telling your followers to unfollow everyone else.
9 tips for using the Instagram algorithm to your advantage in 2021
While the Instagram algorithm doesn’t explicitly prioritize carousels, posts that earn more engagement are rewarded with more reach. Carousel posts make up 17% of feed posts, and according to Hootsuite’s own research they pull 3x the engagement and 1.4x the reach of other post types.
They’re great for going into more detail on a product, or capturing multiple angles on the same theme. For instance, almost all of @socialteesnyc’s posts are carousels (because when it comes to placing rescue dogs in homes, the more glamour shots, the better.)
This is key whether you’re looking for help with reach, engagement or follower growth. (Because they are all related.)
On average, businesses post 1.56 posts to their feed per day. If this sounds too much for your mom and pop operation, it is not. Simply showing up every weekday will suffice to keep the ball rolling.
During Instagram’s Creator Week in June 2021, Instagram chief Adam Mosseri revealed that a posting cadence of 2 feed posts per week and 2 Stories per day is ideal for building a following on the app.
Try new features (especially Reels).
According to Bay-area frog artist Rachel Reichenbach, the algorithm is currently “boosting” Reels in the feed so that more people see and use this new feature. While Instagram’s hasn’t officially confirmed this, it makes sense—Instagram wants Reels to copycat TikTok’s success, like Stories did Snapchat and IGTV did YouTube.
Posting one Reel to Instagram (or, according to Reichenbach’s Instagram contact, 5-7 Reels a week) is definitely not a guaranteed method for improving your organic reach overall. Posting a great Reel to Instagram is sure to get your account noticed and generate more engagement. For instance, the average NFL team’s Reels are pulling in 67% more engagement than their regular videos, right now.
Hootsuite’s own social team tested this theory and found that posting Reels helped to modestly boost their engagement and follower growth rates.
According to Instagram’s @creators account, Reels currently has live humans sifting through them to feature the best ones. Official tips for posting Instagram Reels that will get noticed include:
- Recycle watermarked TikToks
- Shoot vertical
- Use the bells & whistles: filters and camera effects, music, etc.
Use hashtags to make your posts more memorable
Hashtags actually pre-date most feed algorithms: they’re from the old days (um, 2007) when humans had to sort information themselves. Now, machine learning sorts social content in much more complex ways, but using the right hashtags on your posts can help people discover you, even if they don’t follow you.
Precise, accurate, thoughtful hashtags signal to humans and the algorithm what’s in your post, and who might be interested in it.
Plus, unlike Instagram ads (the other way to expand reach past your existing audience) hashtags are free.
To use hashtags correctly, don’t just slap #loveandlight and #instagood on everything. Instead, research your niche and find hashtags that best describe the topic of your post.
Post when your audience is online
This tip’s the easiest one to implement on this list. People spend an average of 30 minutes per day on Instagram, and Instagram wants to serve recent, relevant content to them.
Finding out the best time to post to Instagram means looking at your own audience’s behaviour, looking around at industry benchmarks, and also keeping in mind when people are generally on Instagram.
Of course, the best time to post is not always the most convenient, so in the case that your audience is online at 4 am, we recommend Hootsuite’s Instagram scheduler.
Bond with your audience
This one is the last one, as winning hearts is how you win algorithm. Whatever your KPIs are for Instagram—awareness, conversions, emails, follower count—success only comes when you’re tapped into your audience’s hearts and minds.
Knix, the comfortable underwear brand, is an example of this. Their team is jaw-droppingly skilled at this. They’re so in touch with their audience that they can get away with posting questions that your therapist would think twice about. (And pull 500 comments while they’re at.)
Automate your analytics reports
A good Instagram analytics tool will go beyond vanity metrics and help you zero in on your audience and identify the kind of content that they’ll keep coming back for.
No matter how busy your schedule, automatic analytics reports can help you with almost all the tips above. Taking the time once a month, for instance, to look at the numbers and see what’s working in terms of content, posting time, and hashtags, will save you a lot of wasted effort.
Use an Instagram analytics tool to find out:
- If your audience is online, you can schedule posts during that window.
- What hashtags are most popular?
- What posts get real engagement