The Instagram Guide No. 4: Let's Play With Algorithms

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

The social media game is ever-changing and making sure you stay on top of the trends will ensure your survival (and perhaps prosperity) in it. To be able to play the game well, you need to make sure to have the right idea of what Instagram's algorithms prioritize and what they don't. I'm demystifying some of the criteria that the algorithms look at and providing you insight on how to take advantage.

1.Captions - Longer captions are better. Keep it between 280-600 characters.

2.Post frequency - Post twice a day.

3.All the tags - Ensure you're tagging your location, pages similar to yours and use up the 30 hashtag limit.

4.Followings - Follow only the accounts similar to yours. Only follow your friends on your personal account.

5.Community engagement - Leverage the traffic coming to your page by posting right after you've interacted with several accounts.

The long version

Ever wonder how your Instagram posts fluctuate on likes and comments? Even more, with business accounts, you see that your post yesterday reached 130 unique users while a week ago, it reached just 260 unique accounts. You posted at the same time, your photo looks exactly like your previous ones, and yet yesterday's post just didn't do well enough. What's up with that?

Let's talk about algorithms.

According to Wikipedia (I know, very academic), an algorithm is "an unambiguous specification of how to solve a class of problems." Basically, it can calculate, solve and automate tasks to create efficiency and streamline data processes. Instagram's goal is to feature great users and great content to its broader user base. Their algorithms automate that process to provide instant recommended content to as many users as possible. As an Instagram business, you can make this algorithm your friend. By playing the algorithm game, you have the chance to create a solid foundation of engaged and avid followers.

Here Are 5 Criteria to Master in This Game:

1.Captions

"When she said yes, she said yes to a promise of being cherished by another. She said yes to the beautiful times, the hard times, the never-ending times and the love of a lifetime. She said yes to laughter, tears, and everything in between. When he asked, she said yes to everything."

We've been over this before, but we're updating this criteria with a nuanced perspective. Captions are second only to the photo (or video) when it comes to what your audience will interact with when they first see your content. It is your chance to open up, relate and connect, so what you say and how you say it is vital to the success of your posts. I've found that one-line captions do not typically do well since they can be vague, cliche or boring. While there are exceptions, shorter captions (20-100 characters) leave no room for immersion, context or inspiration. On the other hand, longer captions capture the imagination, allow for descriptive language and create context around which the audience can find a sense of inclusion.

Your absolute shortest caption should be the length of a tweet (now 280 characters) and the limit should be somewhere twice that. Unless your page is known for incredibly lengthy descriptions, sticking by that rule will enhance your audience retention.

Algorithm-wise — This shows Instagram that your posts are genuine and personal. The more variety you add to your descriptions, the more priority it will receive when the algorithm chooses what to show on followers' feeds and the universal explore page. Not only does this validate that your account isn't a bot, it also shows that you are sincerely contributing to the community. 

2.Post Frequency — Another review, but this is no longer just an advice, but more of me imploring that you follow this one. Here it is: POST TWICE A DAY.

Algorithm-wise — Active pages provide audiences reason and motivation to return to Instagram frequently. The higher the frequency of returns a user logs, the higher the opportunity Instagram has to advertise to them. Simple as that. If your page provides a service, entertainment or some kind of inspiration, users will keep coming back to your posts. The more frequent you provide one of those three things, the higher the priority Instagram's algorithms will give to your page. What does this look like? Your content will be shown on the Explore Page for other users to see who like the same content as yours. Or it will be placed directly on their feed as part of their personal recommendations. 

3.User Tags/Hashtags/Location Tags 

 

In the same way that you want to be associated with the people whom you aspire to be in real life, you should prioritize your page to aspire to similar pages. Being "lumped" together with users who have a large amount of followers and engagement will create better opportunities for your page to grow.

Every time you post, tag all the related pages and businesses to your photo. If your business has a physical address for your customers to visit, always tag your location with your content. This way, you include your posts into a location tag that locals visit frequently.

Never shy away from hashtags; while Instagram gives you a 30 hashtag limit, they are encouraging you to use them. Including a group of relevant hashtags on a separate comment, right under your caption, will ensure user discovery and engagement. People are always on hashtags looking to connect with content they're interested in seeing. Additionally, when you add the hashtags in a separate comment, Instagram will hide it, so it doesn't look messy and desperate. They're really encouraging you to do it. So do it!

Algorithm-wise — Think of it this way, if you're a florist with a booth at a high-end bridal expo, patrons will perceive your business to be high-end and that it provides great quality service. It doesn't matter if you've only catered to 5 customers and that your business has only been around for 6 months, just having a spot at the expo creates opportunities you would not have otherwise. In the same way, Instagram's algorithm will look at your posts and add your page to a relevant and similar set of pages. When someone follows an account, a drop-down of similar pages will appear encouraging the user to follow these other pages. That is where you want your account to be placed. 

4.Followings — This goes hand-in-hand with the previous section about being associated with a specific group of accounts. While we fantasize about having 200 million followers and follow less than 200 people, the reality is that it's rarely ever done and you're probably Instagram at that point. Reality dictates that you follow other people in order to be followed back. I mean, that's what being in a community is about, right?

Follow the accounts that are in your industry who have the same aesthetic and message as your own. @andsowego's Instagram follows several wedding photography accounts that look entirely alike. Check out @junebugweddings@utahvalleybride and @wedding.photo.inspiration (they have not endorsed this post), they not only share similarity in style and content, but also in followers (meaning the same users like their posts). 

junebug_weddings
utahvalley_bride
wedding_photo_inspiration

Simply put, people like what they like.

Algorithm-wise — Being in the same category as highly followed pages gives yours a better chance in being discovered. When users are avid about a genre or industry, they will seek content that caters to their interests. Instagram's algorithms cater to this by providing content on the explore page; it will give you a reason why you're seeing someone's posts. "Based on posts you saved," "Based on people you follow," and "Based on photos you liked" are the main criteria for other accounts to show up on someone's explore page. When your account builds that niche, Instagram will help out in spreading your content to people in that niche. 

5.Community Engagement — Yes, we covered that you're on Instagram for the community. Not some other reason surrounding trying to use social media as a foundation for your business (remember that no-no?). 

After posting, stay on Instagram for another 20 minutes. Monitoring comments, or replies to your thoughtful questions on the post. While you're at it, explore other people's pages and interact with their content. After liking and commenting on the posts from users I follow, I typically go to my favorite accounts, go through all the commenters who wrote thoughtful comments, and like and comment on their content. If their style and aesthetic corresponds to the criteria of who our page needs to be associated with, we follow them. 

In a matter of 20 minutes, we not only posted content, we also kept connection with the people we follow (and who potentially follow us back), and reached out to potentially new followers (who we might have just followed). Our reach became deeper and wider in that amount of time.

Algorithm-wise — Replying to comments immediately after they are posted (hopefully those comments were sent right after you posted the content), tells Instagram's algorithms that your post must be doing well to have such a strong initial influx of engagement. Engaging with other users while your post is newly created, will encourage them to give love back; your post will have a beginning burst of likes and comments, and Instagram will prioritize that post. The early stage of your post's life is crucial and creating traffic early to that post will increase prioritization of your content. 

There are definitely more criteria that Instagram's algorithms sift through when prioritizing posts. However, these five should give you a sense of control over traffic, reach and impressions on your page. Staying consistent with these five will give you an idea about what area your page excels in, and what area it needs to improve. The algorithms are ever-changing and is constantly updated, but knowing a little bit about how they work will allow you to keep track and adapt in the future.

Check out last week's article, 3 Ways to Stay Inspired As A Creative (with Links!)

Jave Bjorkman is the founder and director of And So We Go Productions, Inc. located in Macon, GA. He works with non-profits, agencies and businesses to tell great stories with videos and photos. This series also appears on his LinkedIn blog and reflects his 6 year experience on Instagram as an avid content creator. 

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