There has been recent discussion among influencers about noticeable drops in Instagram reach and engagement. But is this a temporary blip, or something altogether more sinister?
I’m a blogger and full-time social media manager responsible for driving best practice for 200-plus accounts, including how to maximise reach and engagement across both organic and advertising content.
Some have speculated that Instagram has made major changes to its algorithm to ‘kill’ organic reach and engagement. That’s quite emotive language, to imply that Instagram is deliberately ‘punishing’ influencers. Which, if you think about it, makes no sense at all. Why would Instagram actively set out to annoy some of its biggest power-users?
However, that’s not to say that the constant algorithm tweaks aren’t having an impact. They are. But it’s not as simple as ‘Instagram hates influencers’. There are more factors involved – some a direct result of Instagram’s strategy, others more indirect.
A glimpse into the future
If you want to understand what is happening, a little social media history lesson is helpful here. History, as it so often does, is simply repeating itself.
This graph how reach from Facebook pages has changed over time. The vertical axis shows the average percentage of a page’s followers that see posts.
In 2012 an average post on a Facebook page reached 16% of its followers. By mid-2016, that had fallen to 2%.
Now don’t take the percentage figures above as absolutes. They’re typical for big brand pages – the Coca-Colas and BBCs of this world. For pages with smaller audiences – less than 100,000 – the percentages are higher. Many bloggers may enjoy percentage reach in the high-teens or more.
Instagram is less mature than Facebook and typically sees higher reach and engagement rates – for now. However, it’s a nailed-on certainty that the Facebook trend will repeat itself here, as surely as night follows day.
1. Where Facebook goes, Instagram follows
Instagram is owned by Facebook. Where the parent goes, the child invariably follows.
Take Facebook’s News Feed algorithm, which customises the order in which content is shown to users. This was introduced in 2006. Instagram’s algorithm, which works in a similar way, came along in 2016. Paid advertising has become a part of Instagram’s offering – and can be managed through Facebook’s Business Manager. Both platforms offer a Stories function. And so on.
This is no coincidence.
2. Basic maths
Time. We never have enough of it.
It’s one of the key reasons Instagram introduced its algorithm. Over time, we tend to follow more people. So our feeds are getting busier. But users aren’t spending more time on Instagram. Something has to give.
The equation is simple. More content plus the same amount of time equals fewer views (and engagements) per post. Basic maths.
If Instagram maintained a strict chronological timeline, what we see would be dictated more by timing than preference. If my favourite Instagrammer is posting at 8am and 8pm and I only check my feed at midday, I probably wouldn’t see their content.
The algorithm tries to correct this by taking posts by people it knows we tend to engage with and bumping them higher up our feeds. That way we’re more likely to see content based on relevance than recency.
However, it’s a zero-sum game. For every post that is promoted by the algorithm, there has to be a corresponding ‘loser’. Which means increased reach for some posts but reduced reach for others. The algorithm doesn’t necessarily reduce reach but it does try to reward relevant over merely recent content. (It’s not perfect, by any means, but it does mostly work.)
It’s also important to recognise that Instagram doesn’t directly control the volume of content available to us. We control it as users by following more (or fewer) people. The algorithm simply curates their content on our behalf. So in this respect we are a bigger part of the problem than Instagram is.
3. Money, money, money
There is, however, one key element of Instagram’s strategy that definitely has a negative impact on organic reach, and that is its desire to monetise.
Now let’s recognise reality here. Instagram doesn’t owe influencers a living. There is a symbiotic relationship between the two because influencers create content for the platform that brings other users in, which is good for Instagram. But it isn’t a charity; it’s a business. And the aim of a business is to make money.
Like the other major social networks, Instagram is ‘free’. We don’t pay; there’s no subscription model. So it must find other revenue streams, which means paid advertising.
It’s similar to the difference between the BBC and commercial TV. In return for paying the BBC licence fee, we receive the benefit of ad-free broadcasts. Commercial channels, however, are more like social networks. We don’t pay for them. Instead, we have ad breaks – a necessary evil that funds their programming.
Make no mistake: social media is now a big commercial business. And that’s built on the back of advertising.
Here’s how Facebook’s advertising revenue has grown over the past two years.
It’s a consistent upward trend. (The fourth quarter is always disproportionately high due to the pre-Christmas season.)
In 2018, Facebook’s total advertising revenue (including Instagram) was $55 billion. To put that into context, that’s 1.5 times the annual sales of supermarket giant Sainsbury’s.
Instagram has nearly half as many users as its parent – 1bn versus 2.3bn – but accounts for just $9bn out of the $55bn total revenue. So there is clearly headroom for further growth here.
We’re seeing the drive behind this already. Advertising has extended from the main feed to Stories. Ads in the Explore tab are next. And we can expect IGTV to eventually carry advertising too.
The frequency with which ads appear in our feeds is increasing too. They’re not as prevalent as on Facebook yet – but that will change.
Again, we have a zero-sum game. As Instagram introduces more ads into users’ feeds, organic posts will be pushed lower. When you add that to the still-growing volume of content overall, it’s obvious that organic reach and engagement will only continue in one direction: down.
How do I ‘beat’ the algorithm?
In truth, the Instagram algorithm is not an opponent to be beaten. But it is helpful to keep in mind how it works. If you stick to a few basic principles, the algorithm becomes less of a foe and more of a friend who will help promote your content.
If you Google ‘how Instagram algorithm works’, you’ll find lots of articles on the topic, of varying degrees of accuracy/guesswork. (This is a good one by Hootsuite.) Here are some basic principles to remember:
- The three key things Instagram’s algorithm looks at are: relationship (do you interact with this user a lot?), relevance (have you previously interacted with similar content?) and recency (how old is the post?).
- Not all content is created equal. High quality, relevant content will consistently outperform poorer content.
- Do your posts stand out from the crowd in terms of, for instance, a striking image, colours or movement? People won’t engage unless you first convince them to stop scrolling their feed.
- If you don’t have a business profile yet, you should. Use Instagram Insights to help you understand your audience better and investigate what types of content or hashtags work best.
- Post regularly – but not too often. Users are more likely to engage with people who they recognise from posting regularly – but equally if they come across 20 photos in quick succession, it looks spammy and they are unlikely to interact with every post – if at all.
- Use hashtags. You can add up to 30 per post. There’s no reason to limit yourself to fewer. Instagram doesn’t punish you for using lots of hashtags – just try to make them relevant.
- The benefits of engagement pods are overrated. Remember that the algorithm prioritises content differently for every user. So while agreements to engage with each other’s content will boost visibility within that circle, the impact it will have on people who don’t normally engage with your content will be minimal, if any.
Fundamentally, Instagram’s algorithm can create a virtuous circle. Good content encourages people to engage, which makes it more likely that future posts will be shown to more people, which drives even more engagement. But it can also do the opposite. Users who regularly post poor content will see their reach and engagement steadily decline – or at least fluctuate wildly.
So what now?
There is no going back. Overall, Instagram reach and engagement will continue to decline. There’s no escaping this, and it would be the same even without the algorithm. (And let’s put this myth to bed now: there is zero chance Instagram will ever revert to a chronological feed.)
Instagram is not going to change. Reach and engagement aren’t going to suddenly return to previous levels. So influencers need to adjust their expectations accordingly and focus on competing against current benchmarks rather than historical performance.
The good news is that the secret to ‘winning’ at Instagram remains the same. Post good, relevant, regular content your audiences will want to engage with. It’s increasingly difficult to stand out from the crowd – there are more posts than ever, and of a generally higher standard – but a good content creator will always outperform a mediocre one. That’s what influencers really need to focus on. Get your content right and the numbers will look after themselves.