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Is the Instagram algorithm giving you a headache? 

If so, you’re definitely not alone.

Despite recently passing the one billion active user benchmark, it’s well-documented that organic reach on Instagram is actually down from where it was in 2020.

The takeaway here is that competition in Instagram is more fierce than ever. As a result, brands need to do everything they can do to fine-tune their Insta presence for maximum engagement.

And doing so starts by understanding the Instagram algorithm.

In this guide, we’ll break down the basics of how the algorithm works and the steps you can take to make sure your Instagram account gets the reach it deserves.

How Exactly Does the Instagram Algorithm Work, Anyway?

Sure, social media algorithms can be complicated. But they aren’t a total mystery.

Simply put, Instagram uses algorithmic ranking to serve and present content to users. 

Translation? The algorithm uses machine learning to analyze your interactions, followed accounts, and engagement to determine what content to put in your feed. The same rings true for your own content popping up for your own followers.

Compare this to the old-school, reverse-chronological feed which presented content to users in the order it was posted. Instagram actually experimented with a “Latest Posts” feature in early 2020 that didn’t stick around. Users can still see when they’re “caught up” with the most recent posts in the feed, though.

Instagram algorithm lets you know when you're all caught up

Social networks are typically hush-hush how their algorithms work. 

But according to the platform themselves, a combination of likes, comments, reshares, and views are the most “important” engagement for ranking in the Instagram algorithm. The concept is simple enough: higher engagement rates make your content more likely to rank.

7 Ways to Make Sure You Rise in the Instagram Algorithm

Rather than try to game the algorithm or hope that your content goes viral by chance, you’re better off focusing on increasing your social media engagement

No tricks, no secrets.

Below are seven actionable, data-backed tactics that brands big and small can use to boost their rankings.

1. Start with a Consistent Publishing Frequency

This might seem pretty obvious, right? 

However, the importance of consistent publishing on Instagram can’t be overstated.

After all, you can’t “feed” the algorithm unless you’re regularly putting out content. Although you obviously shouldn’t spam your followers or sacrifice quality for quantity, it’s no coincidence that many of the top brands on Instagram post like clockwork (often daily).

Speaking of clockwork, there’s plenty of debate over the best time to post on Instagram. Research from Sprout Social recommends mornings and early afternoons during the week for maximum engagement. That said, it’s important to look at your own account data to see when your target audience typically engages.

The best time to post according to the Instagram Algorithm

Think of your content as the fuel to propel your account and stand out versus your competition. If you let your feed gather cobwebs, you’re less likely to score any meaningful engagement.

2. Use Stories to Stay Front-and-Center in Your Followers’ Feeds

Stories have become a cornerstone of Instagram, representing one of the platform’s most popular and engaging features.

While Stories don’t necessarily hold much weight when it comes to the Instagram algorithm, they do present a prime opportunity to “skip the line” in your followers’ feeds. 

Putting out Stories on a regular basis means that you’re always fresh in fans’ minds, making it more likely for your followers to check out your latest in-feed posts and engage there. In fact, the top 25% of accounts on Instagram publish at least 16 stories per month.

The beauty of Stories is that they can be relatively low-effort and are fair game for brands regardless of budget. 

Oh, and they are also a goldmine for engagement. For example, many restaurants use Stories to show off customer photos and behind-the-scenes snapshots. This approach to Stories results in more tags and shout-outs from followers, all good news to the Instagram algorithm.

Using Instagram Stories to engage your audience

Beyond that, features baked into Stories such as Q&A stickers, Live, and polls can all encourage followers to go back-and-forth with your content. Doing so means more familiarity with your brand for the long-term.

Instagram Stories Poll Sticker
Instagram Stories Question Sticker

3. Prioritize Carousels and Multi-Photo Posts

Although Stories and video content are often considered the go-to for engagement on Instagram, a recent study notes that carousels are making a comeback. In fact, carousels now boast the highest engagement rate (1.98%)  versus any other type of organic, in-feed content.

The popularity of carousels is no secret. Look no further than the top posts for any given category on Instagram right now.

Instagram Carousels Drive Engagement

As a result, brands should strive to put together more multi-photo Instagram posts. Doing so is great for tip-style content and tutorials, for example.

Educational Instagram Carousel

And for ecommerce brands, carousels can also help you show off your products from multiple angles.

Instagram Carousel Using eCommerce products

By default, carousels also encourage followers to stick around your page for longer to scroll through your photos. This provides even more opportunities to win likes and comments to improve your engagement rate.

4. Make Sure Your Instagram Account and Posts are Search-Friendly

As more and more businesses migrate to Instagram, we’re seeing a growing trend of the platform becoming more search-centric.

For example, you can now search for content centered around a specific topic or keyword…

Make your Instagram search-friendly

…making Instagram a sort of visual, social search engine.

Make your Instagram a visual search engine

We’re not recommending you treat your Instagram accounts and posts like an SEO blog post. Instead, think about the subtle steps of optimization you can take to increase the visibility of your profile and posts.

For starters, let’s talk about hashtags. There’s still plenty of debate over what’s considered an “optimal” number of hashtags to tack onto any given post. In reality, recent research highlights that brands with larger followers actually take a sort of “less is more” approach in regard to tagging.

Instagram Hashtags

Of course, hashtags make your posts more searchable regardless. To find a balance between visibility and style, consider confining most of your hashtags to the first comment of any given post (see below).

Instagram Post Hashtags

Your brand’s Instagram bio is also valuable real estate, particularly for attracting potential visitors via Google search. Subtle placement of keywords in your bio is a smart move if you’re targeting a niche audience (think: “cruelty-free”). This can likewise help you stand out versus your competitors when it comes to positioning.

Optimizing Instagram Bio for Search

Another way to make your account more search and engagement-friendly is through writing Instagram captions that speak to your target audience. We’re seeing a shift toward longer-form captions that hook followers and encourage them to take action in the form of a comment, share, or click-through.

Instagram Caption Length

Keep in mind that you don’t need to go overboard with optimization and not every post needs to be “perfect” in terms of hashtags or caption length. Remember: the quality of your content always comes first.

5. Publish Unique Reels and Video Content

Video has been booming on Instagram for years now, especially with the recent popularity of Instagram Reels.

The fact that Reels have dominated the Explore page is telling. For the sake of pleasing the Instagram algorithm, it’s always a good idea for brands to get on board with the platform’s latest, up-and-coming features. Much like Stories have become a staple of Instagram engagement long-term, Reels are poised to do the same.

If nothing else, short-form video is all the rage right now. For brands on board with TikTok, translating your video presence to Instagram is a no-brainer.

Using Instagram Reels

However, note that you shouldn’t directly cross-post your content from TikTok to Instagram anymore. Instagram recently announced that they’re fighting back against TikTok by refusing to rank Reels videos that contain a TikTok watermark.

From in-feed video and Reels to IGTV and Stories video, now’s the time to ramp up your productions on ‘the gram.

6. Boost Engagement by Scoring More Mentions

Reshares and mentions are valuable currently on Instagram but they don’t happen by chance.

Perhaps one of the most effective ways to encourage more shares and is through user-generated content campaigns

For example, you can couple your product photos with a hashtag and encourage your followers to share content related to their latest purchases. This not only generates more organic buzz for your brand, but also helps create a constant flood of new content you can share yourself (see Dr. Martens’ #toughasyou tag, for reference):

Using mentions for the Instagram Algorithm

Additionally, influencer marketing campaigns are yet another strategy to introduce your brand to a new target audience and drive more mentions. Relationships with Instagram influencers represent a win-win as you expand your reach and they’re able to benefit from your company’s credibility.

Using Instagram influencers for reach

Another key point to increase mentions and engagements is to not let your existing ones go to waste. For the sake of better customer service and showing followers that you want to go back-and-forth, make a point to respond to questions and comments on a regular basis.

Responding to Instagram Engagement

7. Don’t Discount the Value of “Likes”

There’s been a lot of talk about Instagram moving away from “likes” as a significant engagement metric in recent years.

Instagram removing Likes

“Likes” often do get treated as a vanity metric but discounting them altogether is a major mistake. They deserve your attention.

Why, though? For example, you might find common threads between your most-liked content in terms of format (think: memes versus slideshows versus videos). Likes can also clue you in on potential pieces of content that’d be strong contenders for ad campaigns in the future. When a post gets a flood of “likes,” chances are you’re doing something right.

Measuring Instagram Likes

So much of rising in the Instagram algorithm means assessing what is working and creating more of it. When measured against the rest of your Instagram analytics, “likes” can definitely be an eye-opener for how to improve your content strategy.

Have You Mastered the Instagram Algorithm for 2021?

There is no “right” way or single “trick” to getting better reach in the Instagram algorithm. Using a combination of the tips above can definitely put you on the path toward greater engagement and exposure for your brand, though. Consider small changes you can start making to your account ASAP to build the foundation for more interactions in 2021 and beyond.