When Instagram’s move from a chronological feed to an algorithm-based feed was announced in March, it caused an eruption of discontent within the community. Users and marketers alike felt that the algorithm would mean the end of organic reach on Instagram and content wouldn't be seen.
For retailers, Instagram was a great (and mostly free) way to introduce their brands to consumers. With the algorithm update, it's clear that retailers must overhaul their existing Instagram strategies and focus on what can help them thrive on the new feed: relevancy through engaging content.
Let’s first understand how Instagram (or parent company, Facebook) built the algorithm to work. To clarify, all content will still be shown on the platform (unlike Facebook, where there's full suppression of content), however, the order of the content is determined by the likelihood of the user interacting with the post, or “relevancy score.” To determine a post’s relevancy score, the algorithm takes into account hundreds of features/variables of past behavior to predict how a user will engage with it — i.e., whether they’ll click, like, comment, share, hide, mark as spam.
In an article for Slate, Will Oremus meets with Tom Alison, director of engineering for the news feed at Facebook, and described the following:
"[The algorithm] will predict each of these outcomes, and others, with a certain degree of confidence, then combine them all to produce a single relevancy score that’s specific to both you and that post. Once every possible post in your feed has received its relevancy score, the sorting algorithm can put them in the order that you’ll see them on the screen. The post you see at the top of your feed, then, has been chosen over thousands of others as the one most likely to make you laugh, cry, smile, click, like, share or comment."
Given that algorithm is based on past behavior, retailers that currently have low engagement on their content will have the most trouble, as low engagement in the past likely means less likelihood of their post showing up higher in followers’ feeds.
Therefore, in order for retailers to maximize visibility, they must grow engagement on their content by taking the following steps:
1. Create engaging content. This is the single most important thing retailers can do to drive visibility and engagement within the algorithm feed on Instagram. Retailers should perform qualitative and quantitative analysis to better understand what kind of content they need to produce in order to drive engagement.
2. Understand your audience and align content to their preferences. Use audience analysis tools to understand who is following your brand. For example, if data shows that your audience is comprised mainly of females between the ages of 18 to 24, research behavior trends of females between those ages — e.g., how do they behave online, what content are they consuming, how can your brand produce content that resonates with them based on their behaviors and interests?
3. Audit past content to understand, qualitatively, what worked and what didn’t (given that your followers are aligned with your brand’s target demographic). Audit content in terms of creative and copy. Some trends that I’ve seen with some of my retail clients were assets with models didn't perform as well, and lighting/color palette can affect performance depending on what season it is (e.g., dark colors didn't perform well during spring/summer months). Understand trends from past content to inform creative in the future.
4. Leverage influencers. Influencers have developed trust and strong affinity with their followers, making them very powerful. The perceived authenticity of influencers is key to their value. Retailers should work with influencers to develop content to grow affinity for the brand. Again, select influencers based on brand positioning as well as audience alignment. Do not select influencers that your audience isn't aware of or don't engage with.
5. Use more hashtags. Don't overuse hashtags, but only using branded hashtags won't help retailers get additional visibility. Develop a list of relevant, high-volume hashtags and incorporate them in captions to allow for organic visibility outside of your followers.
6. Test awareness ads. Consider using Instagram ads to drive brand awareness and affinity. However, keep in mind that content still matters for ads, and ad creative should also be well-designed and executed.
Instagram's new algorithm isn't going to be the end-all for brand reach or engagement, however, the importance and impact of content is now clearer than ever. To be on top, you must build relevancy through engaging content. Go out and understand your followers!
Kitty Tsang is the digital marketing manager at Ready Set Rocket, a New York City-based digital marketing agency.