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The Instagram algorithm.
Those three little words rattle around the blogosphere constantly and confuse even the most seasoned user of the photo sharing platform.
Since Instagram launched in 2010, it has changed its newsfeed from a chronological format (where each post displays in time order) in favour of its infamous algorithm, which claims to organise users feeds based on what it thinks will be of interest.
The premise of the algorithm is actually a pretty good idea. A personalised newsfeed of all the photos you'll probably like most, based on what type of content you tend you engage with, which profiles you spend the longest looking at and commenting on and what's popular with other users.
But since the control of deciding what is 'newsworthy' is down to Instagram, it has also caused outrage as users have seen their post engagement drop quite substantially.
Say you have 10,000 followers and you usually post at 8am. In theory before the algorithm, if all of those 10,000 users logged onto the platform at 8am, they would see your post at the top of the feed and hopefully they'd engage with it.
But with the new algorithm changes, the post will be shown to a small selection of users within a thirty minute engagement window and if the post performs well, it will be 'boosted' out into the newsfeeds of other users. If not, it may only be shown to a small portion of your followers.
Instagram assures users that no posts are hidden and if your followers were to scroll all the way down, your post would still be on their newsfeeds. But of course, depending on how much time they spend scrolling - whether they ever reach it, is another question.
The new algorithm can be a great thing or a not so great thing, depending on how your posts perform in that initial 30 minute window. I've found that my posts tend to be slow growers (over a couple of days, rather than hours) and that the engagement garners over a longer period of time than it used to. However there are still some images that completely flop because they're just not shown for whatever reason (could be timeliness, day of the week, or even the content) - and typically, they're usually the ones I love the most!
So, if you're finding the algorithm very defeating, here are 7 very simple tips you can implement to boost your posts. Obviously I'm no expert and the algorithm can be a bit of a minefield, but I've tried and tested them all personally and found them to be pretty helpful. So here goes...
Use your 30 minute window wisely
As mentioned above, Instagram usually 'tests the waters' with your post in the first thirty minutes and you can usually tell if a post is going to perform well within this window. So use it wisely. Make sure you are replying to any comments during this time frame - as this creates a conversation and more interaction - which Instagram favours. Engage with the post as much as possible and stay active on the platform. In other words, don't just post and put your phone away.
Post at the right time
Despite Instagram binning the chronological feed, timeliness is still a key factor in the algorithm deciding whether your post is going to be boosted to the top of your followers feeds, so use the 'insights' tab to see when your audience is most active during the day.
This isn't always entirely accurate or a particular science, but I find that 8.30am on weekdays and 10.30am on weekends tends to work best for me. This could be totally different for you, depending on who you audience are - for example, if you have a teenage audience, you might find 7am (before school starts) is a better time. Or if your following is predominantly based in the US, then perhaps later in the evening (when it's morning for them) is a more appropriate time.
You can play around with this and see what works best, but once you do find a time that suits - try and stick to it. People will not only know when to expect to see your post pop up (and hopefully they will be excited to see it) but Instagram will also know - and it likes consistency!
Always upload portrait configured photos
Most people scroll through Instagram quite quickly, so your post is among hundreds of others.
So it's clear to boost your engagement, you need to stand out.
And other than creating a consistent editing theme (more on that below) and an engaging caption, you can also change something really simple about your pictures - and always make sure you upload portrait photos (as opposed to landscape or square).
The reason for this is that they fill up more of the screen on a smartphone than the other two configurations and are more impactful when people are scrolling through.
It's a really simple tip, but super important and can make quite a big difference.
Instagram used to be all about the squares, but now - it's all about the rectangles.
Create a community
Instagram apparently 'rewards' active users of the platform, so use your IG time wisely. It's not about spending mindless hours on the platform scrolling endlessly, but it's about ensuring you're not only producing and posting content, but consuming it too.
Being an active part of the community is key as it spreads your profile across the platform - since you'll be popping up in people's comments and likes and notifications. Plus conversation is two-way, so you'll need to create conversation in order to introduce new people to your feed and create a community of users who know you, are excited about your content and appreciate you engaging with their content too.
Again, there's no exact science to this but of course, any conversation should be genuine and not just for your own benefit. Instagram sometimes penalises users who just post one word comments or emojis all the time (it registers it as spam), so leave comments that are insightful, ask questions or that add value. Usually more than four words counts as a 'good' comment in Instagram's eyes.
Social media can be such a negative place sometimes, it's nice to be NICE. One of my favourite things about Instagram is being able to leave a lovely compliment on someone's post and hopefully brighten their day (even if in just a small way), so be mindful about how you engage and create a community that makes you and others feel good.
Discover new profiles using hashtags (I personally love #DiscoverUnder10K) and on the explore page. Again, just to reiterate - don't just use this 'creating a community' tip as a means to an end. Some of the most successful larger bloggers still take the time to engage with their audience in a meaningful way. It's a really important part of building a community.
Use the Instagram Live Function
Again, another way to create and sustain an engaged community on Instagram is to use all of the tools available to you on the platform to create a conversation. I always find after doing an Instagram Live, I have an influx of new followers or users engaging with my content and watching my stories. I'm sure it's not just a coincidence.
Use the 'Questions' tool on your stories to ask your audience what they'd like to know about you and answer them in the initial moments, as people are tuning in. Usually this starts the conversation and people will then ask you questions live too. I found it a little daunting initially, but I love doing them and love watching other people's lives too. We're all just voyeuristic by nature, we're nosey and we want to invest in the person BEHIND the Instagram, as well as the content they produce. Let people get to know you. You can still do this without relinquishing your privacy.
Don't edit your caption
Make sure you are 100% happy with your caption BEFORE you press 'post', because once it's entered that thirty minute window and started building up momentum, you won't want to interrupt this by editing the caption - and essentially, starting the whole process again.
For some bizarre reason, if you edit the caption after posting, it 'resets' the image within the algorithm and any likes or comments you had already got are dis-regarded by IG and it starts afresh. So it's a super simple one, but try to make sure you've got it right BEFORE posting.
As I post at 8.30am in the morning when I'm really sleepy and not quite functioning properly yet, I tend to draft my captions and posts the night before, so they are ready to click 'publish' straight away when the time comes. It also means I'm not rushing (and missing anything important) while I'm out and about, as the post is ready to go and hopefully won't need editing as it's already been proofed!
Draw people in
Instagram measures performance not only based on likes and comments, but how LONG people spend on your post. This is why carousel or multi-image posts tend to perform well - because your followers will hopefully be flicking through your posts rather than scrolling straight past.
It's also why captions can be a great way of drawing people in and adding value to your content so people spend longer looking at it. I now use my Instagram page as a way of 'daily blogging' and providing anecdotes, updates and context for each image. Give people a reason to stick around - and ensure they come back for more posts!
So I hope some of those tips have been marginally helpful and have given you a little bit of inspiration when it comes to conquering (or at least understanding) how Instagram works and how you can use the new algorithm in your favour to boost engagement and grow your following.
For more of my tips on boosting your posts, growing your following and creating an consistent look and feel for your Instagram content, so your posts are instantly recognisable as YOURS (even out of context), you can grab a copy of my Instagram editing guide (click below).