At the beginning of 2018, Instagram made some changes to their algorithm that have had an impact on big and small accounts alike. Many folks have seen a dip in their engagement (likes, comments, follows, reposts) since the change. If you are hustling to grow your Insta following, your old way of doing things might not be effective anymore. So, let's talk about the new changes and what you can do to make the algorithm work for you. I am a small Instagram account. At the time I'm writing this, I have only 1,700 followers. I have been active on Instagram for about a year without using any strategy for growing my following, and growth has been VERY slow. Like, maybe 2-3 new followers a week. For the last four weeks, I have been following the tips I'm about to outline and I have averaged around 120 new followers per week. I want to share these tips with you so that you can have the same outcome!
Importantly: Instagram is obviously not going to share all of the inner workings of the algorithm. This means that we have to speculate about how the algorithm works. There is some disagreement about what changes have actually been made to the algorithm. I have tried my best to list only the ones that are generally agreed upon by most IG users.
Change #1: Restricted Roll-Out
Instagram no longer pushes your post out to everyone who follows you. Now, only 10% of your followers see your post when it is first published. The algorithm identifies the followers who are the most likely to engage with your posts and pushes your content to the top 10% of those followers first. If your content gets enough engagement, Instagram will gradually roll out your post to the remaining 90% of your followers. This is why sometimes you might discover lots of likes on your post several days after you publish it. Those people are only just seeing your post!
So, the key to mastering the restricted roll out is to get as much engagement as possible within the first 30 to 60 minutes after publishing a post. How do you do that?
- TAKE ENGAGING PHOTOS. Sorry, folks. The days of publishing poorly lit iPhone shots might be over for those of us who are trying to grow our IG following. Well composed, well lit, and well planned posts are going to get better engagement than quick, sloppy shots. This might mean planning out your daily posts ahead of time -- and even photographing those shots ahead of time -- so that you have captivating and interesting photos to post every day.
- ASK A QUESTION. People love to be asked their opinion or to share a personal story. Asking a question motivates followers to engage with your content when they might otherwise have kept scrolling.
- REPLY TO COMMENTS WITHIN THE FIRST 60 MINUTES. It might sound weird, but the algorithm favors accounts who reply quickly to comments. Quick responses not only increase the total number of comments on your post, but they also encourage your followers to come back and continue engaging with you. This will cause the Instagram algorithm to up-rank your post, thus getting it rolled out to more of your followers.
Change #2: Instagram Favors Accounts Who Use Stories
If you aren't using Stories, you need to start now. The Instagram algorithm is interested in just one thing: whether or not your account causes people to spend more time on the platform. Posting Stories causes your followers to keep coming back to your account, which of course leads to them spend more time on Instagram. Here's how to slay at Stories:
- POST QUICK, USEFUL TIPS OR HOW TOs. People are always looking for tips on how to do things. Take things you are doing in your day and show people how to do them. For example, how to core a pineapple, how to wash a ring sling, or how to make a mint mojito. You can spread your tips out across several Stories, giving one tip at a time so that users keep coming back to see the rest of the tips. This tactic also helps reduce the amount of information given in each Story, which makes the information easier for your followers to absorb.
- USE #HASHTAHS AND @MENTIONS. These help your stories get exposed even to people who aren't already following you.
- USE THE POLL FEATURE. This is a great way to boost engagement!
- BE ENTERTAINING. Use stickers, animated GIFs, bright colors, and text to make the post funny and engaging. Making people laugh is one of the best ways to get them to engage with you and keep checking back.
- GO LIVE. Unlike the video feature in Stories -- which limits your videos to 15 seconds -- Live videos can last up to an hour. Going Live on your Stories is actually really fun. You can engage with your audience in a really intimate way. They can type questions to you and you can respond directly to them. I LOVE live sessions for that reason! But the other upside is that your longer Live stories keep your audience engaged with the platform longer, which the algorithm likes.
- POST AT LEAST 3 STORIES A DAY. This may not be true, but I've heard that a good rule of thumb is to shoot for posting 3 Stories a day to make the algorithm begin favoring your account. But the most important thing is just to be consistent! So if one story a day is all you can do, then make sure you post one story EVERY DAY.
Change #3: Less Is More With The Hashtags
You can technically still use up to 30 hashtags in your posts. However, the Instagram algorithm may think your account is a fake or spam account if you are constantly using that many tags. I have not confirmed this, but I've seen many people say that 5 hashtags is preferred by the algorithm. I have also heard people say that 11 hashtags is the sweet spot. So, I try my best to keep my hashtags between 5 and 11 total. If you're going to use less hashtags, you need to make sure that the ones you choose are really, really good ones. To do that, you should:
- USE NICHE SPECIFIC HASHTAGS. Search for currently trending hashtags within your niche and use some of those. Don't bother with high-trending but vague hashtags like "#instagood" or "#blessed." Those hashtags will not target your optimal audience, so accounts will be less likely to engage with you. Niche-specific hashtags target people who will actually be searching for content like yours. Those people will be more likely to like and comment on your posts, which will boost you in the algorithm
- STAY AWAY FROM OVER-SATURATED HASHTAGS. Only use hashtags that have less than 1 million current posts. It's easy to think that more people will see your post if you use a hashtag that is being used by millions of people. However, it is much more likely that your post will simply get buried and never seen by anyone following that hashtag. Using hashtags that have less than 300,000 posts is a much better way to get your post seen and engaged with
- AVOID USING THE SAME HASHTAGS IN EVERY POST. Using the same hashtags over and over can get you flagged as a spam account. Make sure to change up your hashtags and only use ones that are highly relevant to the topic of your post.
- PUT HASHTAGS IN THE BODY OF YOUR CAPTION, NOT THE COMMENTS. This has been disputed, but some people believe that putting your hashtags in the BODY of your caption is now more favorable than putting them in the comments section. Experiment with this and see if your engagement goes up.
Change #4: You Can Now Follow Hashtags
A really cool new feature this year is that you can follow hashtags the same way you follow people. So, when you follow tags like #babywearing, #jujube, etc., you will see posts in your feed from accounts who used those hashtags. What is useful about this? Following hashtags that are relevant to your niche helps you see other accounts that you should be engaging with. The more you engage with other users' photos, the more they will engage with yours. Since engagement is what the Instagram algorithm focuses on the most, getting new accounts to begin engaging with you is a great way to get your posts up-ranked by the algorithm and seen by more people. Identify relevant hashtags in your niche and make sure you are following them. Then, engage with as many posts who use that hashtag as possible. But PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, be genuine and authentic. Don't just post a heart emoji or an insincere "love it!" Don't comment with a follow for follow request. Say something sincerely kind, and be real. That is how you will earn more engagement on your own posts.
Change #5: Editing Your Caption Might Hurt You
Okay, this one has been highly disputed but I have seen it mentioned by enough creators that I think it's worth talking about. There are many people who believe that the new algorithm down-ranks your post if you edit it within the first 24 hours. They actually suggest that if you post your photo and see something about your caption that bothers you, you are better off deleting the photo and starting over than editing the original caption. I am skeptical about this one, so I'll leave it up to you to decide. As for me, I'm going to avoid editing my captions and see what happens.
Change #6: Comment Pods Are A No-No
Instagram is looking for real engagement on their platform. In order to keep sponsorship money coming in, they need to assure sponsors that their paid ads are being served to real people and thriving accounts. Although lots of Instagrammers use comment pods to help them get more engagement on their posts, Instagram does not like this tactic.
If you are unfamiliar with comment pods, they work like this. Lots of people join either a group on Facebook or an app like Telegram. At certain times of the day, all members of the group post their pictures to Instagram, and then post the link to their post in their comment pod. Then, everyone has 60 minutes to go Like and Comment on everyone else's post. The idea is that you can essentially "trick" the algorithm into thinking that your account is really thriving when it in fact is not.
Detecting people who use comment pods is actually really easy for the algorithm to do. I don't know the exact details of how Instagram does it, but in theory it would go something like this:
- Instagram would look for accounts who seem to be posting at the same time as each other every day
- Next, they would look to see how many of those accounts you are Liking and Commenting on
- Then, they would see if those same accounts are Liking and Commenting on your post
- Finally, they would see if you are all Liking and Commenting on each other's posts at the same time (as in, within a 60 minute window)
See how easy it is for the algorithm to figure out what these people are up to? The suspicion of many Instagram users is that the new algorithm is designed to detect accounts who are using comment pods and down-rank posts from those accounts. In light of that, I truly believe that your time and energy are better served engaging authentically with accounts in your own niche instead of joining comment pods.
The 2018 Instagram changes are a mystery to many of us. These tips serve to be a helpful outline of good practices that might help your posts have greater reach with your intended audience. As I said at the beginning, the best way to grow your Instagram is to focus on making great, useful content. If you are doing that, you are 90% of the way there. The little tips in this blog are meant to be pointers for helping you refine your strategy. Good luck, and happy snapping!