Understanding the Instagram algorithm and what it means for your brand

If Instagram was a country, it would be larger than the US and UK combined. With 400 million users, I don’t see how they can keep every citizen happy all the time. The current cause of unhappiness amongst millions of Instagram users (and anxiety for brand managers) seems to be caused by the addition of an algorithm to personalize the feed as opposed to merely displaying all the pictures from accounts one follows in a simple, straightforward reverse chronological order.An Algorithm is a mechanism where Instagram observes each of its users, learns what they like and dislikes based on certain signals, and then show them more of what they like first.

From an average Joe signing a change.org petition, to celebrities tweeting their dislike to the new algorithm, there’s an avalanche of dislike expressed towards the new algorithm in question.  Anxious marketers on the other hand are urging followers to turn notifications on. What’s causing Instagram to introduce the algorithm and what must marketers know?

Here’s my take:

Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom emphasises that “people miss about 70 percent of the posts in their Instagram feed” and the algorithm is a measure to make the 30% worth it. This makes complete sense if we do some simple maths: A study of 21,000 Instagram users reveals that the median follower count is 265, assuming each of them share one picture a day and let’s say people take five seconds to look at a picture and glance at the top two comments, then an average user has to dedicate roughly 22 minutes to scroll through all the 265 posts just once. In Zuckerberg’s own words, people spent 21 minutes per day on Instagram as of 2014.

An average smartphone user spends 200 minutes per day on apps, by that notion 21 minutes per day on Instagram is phenomenal, but the challenge is not where they are today, it is about where they want to be. Zuckerberg aims to touch the billion user mark for Instagram in the next few years, assuming they do so, then the median follower count can go up from 265 to 883, this means an average user needs 73 minutes per day to scroll through all the post at least once. This makes no sense and calls for an intelligent intervention.

With reducing attention span among people and explosion of content, there’s no way people are likely to spend 73 minutes scrolling through their Instagram feed. Hence the algorithm to enrich user experience by showing them what they care about the most.

In simple words the algorithm is a machine learning process, a mechanism where Instagram observes each of its user, learns what they like and dislike based on certain signals (likes, comments, etc.,) and then show them more of what they like first.

How can brands make this work for their advantage?

Reduce noise: in other words, less is more. The sheer explosion of content has led to the introduction of an algorithm to show people quality and meaningful posts; the higher the quality (read: creative, interesting, share-worthy) of a post, the higher the chances of it being seen, liked and commented. This leads to a virtuous cycle, good content starts getting higher organic engagement and the opposite for average content. In summary, posting one awesome piece of content triumphs over three i-also-posted kinds.

Invest in ads:
Instagram can’t make it any more obvious than this.  Facebook did this exercise in 2014, now Instagram has come of age. Investing even a small budget of a few hundred dollars a month can have a positive impact on engagement levels, thereby triggering the virtuous cycle.

Try videos:
Instagram now allows videos up to 60 seconds long. They even announced that the time users spent watching videos has increased 40 percent in the last six months. With multi-clip features one can even make interesting stories by combining different clips. Oh, by the way uploading your 60 sec TVC is not really how this works. Time, effort and money has to be spent to create content that fits the bill.

Leverage influencers:
Celebrities and influencers are going to be in more demand than before. After all, Priyanka Chopra’s kichadi & chicken soup post gets 71,000 likes. It is all about placing your brand / product as naturally as possible to gel with the celeb’s lifestyle.  The Australian Tourism board looping in Parineeti Chopra to share remarkable pictures of her exploring the coral reef and Queensland makes an interesting case-study of leveraging celebrity.

There’s an inevitable truth about digital marketing as a whole, there’s no free lunch here. Winning this race warrants an agile approach to marketing where adaptation has to be quick, smart and in sync with advancing technological shifts like machine learning (the heart behind Instagram’s new algorithm) which replaces conventional understanding of consumer behaviour.


Sreeraman Thiagarajan is Vice President at Publicis Beehive.
Views expressed are personal. He tweets at @sree_raman.

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