The Instagram Algorithm (May 2019)
On May 6th Tawny Fritz posted the following article to her Patreon.
Instagram provides a free marketing platform for visual content creators. The days of advertising executives making all the decisions is over.
This is GREAT news for creators. It means that we have a free stage and a free bullhorn with which to bring an audience to our art.
"Ok great. So how do I fight the algorithm?" -you, maybe.
Fighting the algorithm will only frustrate, annoy, and enrage you. I know, because I tried fighting it for years. Then I discovered that it isn't by fighting the algorithm that we can find some success, it's by understanding and working with the algorithm.
Algorithms can be very frustrating, especially when we don't understand why they exist. Learning their purpose and how they serve the platform will also aid us in using that platform to our advantage.
The first thing we have to understand is, what the platform is. Instagram is a free image sharing platform. It is the be all, end all of visual content for consumers. However, as users, we often forget that something has to pay for this free platform. So, how does Instagram continue to not only exist, but thrive?
Ads paid for by companies (as well as smaller creators like us) pay for the bandwidth needed to sustain Instagram. But users don't want to just see ad after ad after ad. Consumers want to be entertained, not sold to. So Instagram has to maintain a balance between the free content and the ads, strategically placed and curated to look like regular content.
Now, I don't know how it works precisely, but Instagram knows when a user pauses, clicks on, likes, or otherwise interacts with a post. Any of these activities cause a user to stay on the platform longer. Instagram wants consumers to stay on the platform as long as possible so they can show them more ads.
If your posts cause users to pause and/or interact, Instagram will essentially "reward" you by boosting your posts to the top of your followers' feed. You scratch Instagram's back, Instagram scratches your back.
How does Instagram prioritize content?
With the point of the algorithm being to keep users on the platform longer, Instagram wants to show users content they are most likely to interact with. To do this, Instagram tracks what accounts the user most likes, comments on, and shares. It will then put that account's content at the top of the user's feed. You want your account to be one of them that your followers interact with a lot.
Instagram tracks the interests of its users based on activity. If a user looks at a lot of cat accounts, their Explore feed will be populated with a lot of cats. If your content is consistent, uses related hashtags, and has followers similar to the user in question, your art will show up on their Explore page.
Although the feed is no longer chronological, posts that are similar content still rely on timeliness to beat out the competition for the top spot. This is why knowing the times when your audience is most active is important. You want to be the most relevant and most recent on your followers' feed.
How I Get People to Pause
Ok. This is gonna hurt but you have to know this: Instagram is a social media network platform. We simply cannot game a system that's designed to build a network by not participating in that network. So the short answer is: Engagement. This includes you engaging with your followers, not JUST your followers engaging with you.
This doesn't have to take all your time though. I spend an average of 30 minutes a day on Instagram, and this includes the mindless scrolling I do when waiting to pick up my kid from school. Find those moments in the day when you can do these things (everyone spends a lil time in the powder room no?):
Post great content.
Obvious, I know. Start here.
Interact with the followers you already have. Reply to comments. Post engaging captions that get users thinking about themselves and what they like. Respond to DMs, even if it's just to "♥️" the message they sent.
Use relevant hashtags.
I have a whole post about this already right here.
Post fun stories.
Stories are a great way to let followers in to your life a little bit, so they can feel like they get to know you more. Utilize stories to their full potential by posting polls, asking questions, and posting quizzes.
All of these methods will result in people feeling like a connection is being made, and everyone wants to feel seen. If you can make your users feel seen, they will remember you, they will connect with your content, and over time, they will become loyal to you.
How do you plan to adjust your posting and engagement strategy to build the relationships you want on Instagram?
If you are an artist interested in figuring out how to make Instagram work for you, I truly hope this post helps in some way. Instagram is a powerful tool for marketing, and as artists we have to accept and be willing to work with the tools at our disposal. It doesn't have to be an exhausting fight at every step, it just requires patience and a willingness to put forth a little extra effort.
(I am not an Instagram expert and I don't claim to be. I am simply sharing my experiences and what I've learned during my trek to build a sustainable audience.)
Tawny Fritz is an independent, self-initiated artist originally from New Orleans, currently living in Colorado. She works primarily in ink, creating bold, fierce works with striking contrast. The purpose of her pieces vary from just having fun to addressing internal emotional conflict.