How the Instagram Algorithm Works (And Where Your Strategy Needs to Shift)

instagram algorithm

From SEO to social media, algorithms are often what determine who actually sees the content you publish and who doesn't.

As these algorithms change, yesterday's marketing tactics might become less effective tomorrow. That's why your strategy on each platform needs to constantly evolve too.

On Instagram, in particular, simply posting on a regular basis with the right hashtags won't necessarily guarantee that your content will always reach its intended audience.

Instead, you'll need to consider how you can work with the algorithm to shake up your approach to Instagram marketing.

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How does the Instagram algorithm work?

The Instagram algorithm dictates the order of the posts that users see when they’re scrolling through their feed.

Based on specific signals, it prioritizes posts, pushing the most relevant ones towards the top and giving them the most visibility, while other content ends up being placed further down in one's feed.

In June of 2018, Instagram released information sharing some of the different factors that the algorithm takes into account when prioritizing content in a user's feed.

While it’s important to note that the algorithm is subject to change, these three main ranking factors that were singled out can still help inform your Instagram strategy:

  • Relationship with the user. If a certain user has interacted with a lot of your past content, they’ll be more likely to see your future content. This makes continual, repeat engagement on your posts important for building a loyal audience.
  • Interest the user has conveyed. This signal is based on whether the user interacts with other, similar posts and accounts. Users who also engage with similar content are more likely to see your own posts.
  • Recency of the post. While the simple chronological Instagram feed is a thing of the past, timeliness is still relevant. More recent posts will be favored and pushed to the top of the feed, while older posts will show up a little further down.

There were also other, more general considerations that Instagram shared, which you should make note of:

  • If users follow a lot of accounts, you’ve got more competition for the top spot in their feed.
  • If users either don’t spend a long time on Instagram or don’t open the app that often, you decrease the odds of having your content seen if you aren’t in one of the very top slots.
  • Business profiles on Instagram are not immediately at a disadvantage in terms of organic reach compared to personal accounts.

Now, you might be wondering what all this means for your own Instagram marketing strategy. So let’s take a look at some of the different ways you can adapt your approach to reach more of your customers.

Focus on relationships, not just reach

Audience loyalty and continual engagement from your followers is now more important than ever, especially since it can earn you one of the top spots in their feeds.

Some ways to create these relationships with your content include:

  • Prompts that encourage users to share their thoughts and give you an opportunity to start a conversation with them.
  • User-generated content about your brand that your followers have posted. This not only inspires more UGC, but users may tag you in their posts and further expand your digital footprint on Instagram.
  • Engagement-building posts, like tag-a-friend posts or Instagram contests that encourage users to comment.

But it's important to think outside of your own posts if you hope to find your customers on Instagram. This is a social network, after all.

Comment on posts from relevant users and brands 

You can also engage with users on their posts to build relationships outside of your own content by leaving interesting and involved comments on content from potential customers, relevant influencers, and related businesses.

Posting first on larger accounts that have plenty of followers can help get your comment (and thus your profile) more visibility too. Think about accounts that your target audience is likely to follow, follow them, and join the conversation.

When doing this, be genuine and add value. Don’t try to just look for opportunities to get in a public sales pitch or leave generic responses. Show your brand’s personality and engage in a meaningful way.

Fashion Nova, for example, can be regularly found in the comments on posts by rapper Cardi B, among other influencers, where they get a fair bit of exposure and the chance to build relationships with their target audience. 

instagram comments

You can even opt to get notified of new posts for specific accounts so that you can comment early on, increasing the likelihood that it will be seen thanks to the Instagram feed's focus on the recency of posts.

To do this, you need to be following the account first. Once you do this, click on the three dots located in the top right hand corner of the app and tap “Turn on post notifications” to start receiving push notifications as soon whenever they publish a new post.

instagram comments how to get notified

Post when your followers are most active

Since recency is still a factor in where your content ends up in your followers’ feeds, use it to your advantage. Getting a surge of engagement when the post first goes live doesn’t hurt either, and will show Instagram that it’s a post that more of your followers would like to see.

To maximize the potential of every post, try to have your content go up during your peak posting times.

Finding your peak posting times may take a little bit of trial and error, but a good place to start is in your Instagram Analytics report, available to all Business profiles in the mobile app.

If you click on the Audience tab in your Insights and scroll all the way down, you’ll see a small section showing you when your followers are online. You can view this information by days of the week or by the hour on specific days.

instagram analytics for when to post

You’ll want to test out specific posting times to see what actually works best for you. Maybe posting right before a big surge of activity will work best for your account, or maybe you’ll find that it’s better to post right after a surge starts.

Respond to comments while they’re fresh

Have you noticed a lot of other business profiles responding to as many comments as possible on Instagram?

This creates social proof for your content, increasing your comment count while also encouraging further replies. But it also boosts your chances of earning more engagement while your post's potential reach is at its peak.

Responding to a comment can also encourage follow-up comments from the original poster, even if it’s just a “thank you” for answering a question. In some cases, though, this can jumpstart a conversation, giving you significant engagement that will help the reach of this post and future posts, too.

Use community-driven hashtags to reach active users

Hashtags on Instagram can help you increase your reach by helping you show up in relevant searches.

For this tactic to be effective, however, you need to choose the hashtags that your target audience actually searches through to discover content and other users.

Community hashtags are especially active—these niche hashtags may not have as many posts as the more popular hashtags, but are already being circulated and searched through by groups on Instagram looking to connect with others who are interested in that topic, movement, or community.

This is where you’ll actually get views that can lead to clicks through to your profile, engagement, and potentially new followers.

instagram hashtags to navigate the algorithm

While these valuable hashtags will differ by industry, you can generally spot them because they adequately describe your ideal customer and are continually populated with new posts under the same theme:

  • A merchant selling custom luggage could use the community hashtag #welltraveled
  • Online stores selling beard oil could opt for #beardlife
  • Store owners that sell health food items might choose #livingfit

Don't just add these hashtags to your own posts, however. Click through to them and engage with the posts you see that are using them. A simple Like on someone's post, at the very least, might translate into a profile view or even a follow.

Again, even if your posts aren't reaching these users, you yourself can.

Repost old content to give it a second life

If you’re struggling to generate enough Instagram content to get traction on the platform, or you want to make sure that specific content gets seen as much as possible, repurposing past posts is a good way to go, especially as your following grows.

This brings your best content back to the top, showing it to more people who may have missed it the first time around.

While some will simply delete a post and upload it the same way they’ve shared in the past, repurposing your content is the ideal approach here.

#throwbackthursday example

A few simple ways to repurpose old posts include:

  • Assembling the previous post images into a multi-image carousel post or a slideshow video
  • Adding a new caption to the post
  • Incorporating new design elements onto the image, which is particularly easy to do if you take a previous post’s image and then edit it in the Stories feature
  • Use hashtag opportunities like #throwbackthursday to reshare old content

Repurposing content can be a huge time-saver, but remember to do it sparingly, switch things up, and prune your own feed to remove repeat content. Users can still scroll through your gallery, and you don’t want them to see the same photo come up over and over again.

Use Stories to draw attention

Instagram Stories get a lot of attention because they aren’t subjected to the same algorithm as posts in your feed. They're also a great way to speak to your followers and build loyalty, resulting in more engagement on your static Instagram posts, and thus more reach.

There are several ways you can use them:

  • Add hashtag stickers with your branded hashtag. When users tap through on your branded hashtag sticker, they’ll be taken to a feed of static posts using that hashtag, whether they're your own, customer submissions or both.
  • Share Stories from other users. Instagram allows you to not only be notified when someone shares a Story that mentions you, but also to then share their Story directly to your own. You can even encourage or incentivize your own followers to share one of your posts to their Story.
  • Inspire engagement with interactive stickers. This includes poll stickers, the emoji slider, and question stickers. The latter allows you to ask users questions and then post their replies to additional Stories later on. This gives you even more content that your followers might interact with.

instagram stories to overcome the algorithm

But did you know you can also share your own Instagram posts to your Stories?

Simply tap the direct message button on one of your own posts and you'll see the option to "Add Post to Story", where you can resize it and apply text and other edits.

This is a great way to ensure your most important posts (like a new product announcement) has a better chance of reaching your followers.

    Embrace direct messages

    Instagram’s private messaging platform has been gaining popularity as the app’s usage and number of chat features increase. More and more users are sending businesses private messages to ask questions and get in touch.

    Direct messages often involve longer conversations, and it gives you a chance to nurture an individual relationship one-on-one.

    instagram direct messages

    This also works when you use direct messaging for outreach, too. You can get in touch with qualified customers, potential partners, and influencers that you’d like to work with, either by messaging them through their profile or their Story.

    Note that this is a strategy that doesn’t scale well, so you need to be selective about who you’re reaching out to. Look for brand advocates, customers who seem to need help based on their comments on your posts, and partners or influencers you’d like to work with. Focus on each conversation separately, and avoid generic responses in favor of authentic ones.

    Pay for reach with Instagram ads and influencers

    The fastest way to solve for limited organic reach on any platform is to pay for it instead. Done correctly, this can give you a burst of momentum that can help you drive better organic results later on. You have two main options here: Instagram advertising and influencer marketing.

    Instagram ads do cost money and the ad spend can add up quickly if you're not careful, but it’s a good investment if you’re having trouble gaining traction on the platform.

    Be sure to set a lifetime budget, especially if you're new to Instagram so you remain in control of your budget.

    Monitor how your efforts translate into results

    You can track your progress with these strategies by checking your Instagram Insights for telling metrics. While most people focus on follower count, profile views, reach, and website visits will tell you more about what your Instagram marketing is doing for your business, especially from the engagement strategies we covered above.

    instagram analytics

    Don't just broadcast, build relationships

    If you want to get the most out of Instagram, it’s not enough to fixate only on publishing content regularly. Instead, it’s essential that you also focus on overall relationship building while engaging with users outside of your posts and on them.

    Social media algorithms will always be prone to change. But if you're willing to change with them, you'll find surprising new ways to reach your intended audience.