Super brief backstory: In July 2020, I was a victim of The Isis Flag Hack on Facebook and my rapidly growing Instagram account was shut down and never reinstated. You can hear or read all about it here. The loss negatively affected my audience, but it changed my relationship with Instagram for the better. You can hear more about that in the podcast episode 4 Things I Lost and 8 Things I Gained and How You Can Benefit from My Hack. You could also read a previous post on this topic titled How To Get Over Instagram Anxiety.
Ok, on to the main topic!
First, what is the Instagram algorithm?
It's just a series of steps that Instagram is programmed to follow when deciding how many and which people to show your content to. Programmers are constantly changing it to meet Instagram's goals. None of us have any idea how it really works. We rely on Instagram and (this next part is really important) on our own experiences to tell us how to maximize our engagement.
There *are* best practices for building a following on Instagram and those are well established. Just like "diet and exercise" they're the simple things that aren't necessarily easy: Post high quality, similar content regularly. Engage with your audience. Interact with other accounts in an authentic way.
Growth on Instagram is still totally possible. Instagram can be an amazing tool for building an audience and engaging a community, even in 2021. I get way more engagement NOW on my smaller account than I did before I was hacked, on my hold account. If you've determined that Instagram is a good way to support your work, then you'll need to experiment, be consistent, build a community, and do the work, week in an week out. What you cannot do is find some secret formula for overnight success. And if someone tells you they can give that to you.... they probably fall into one of these three categories:
3 groups of people who say they beat the Instagram algorithm:
(And why you shouldn't listen to them)
- People who got really lucky and are packaging up their luck as strategy. Some of these people found a lot of traction early on, when Instagram was a totally different platform. Some other accounts went viral through a combination of circumstances they didn't predict and no one can reproduce. You can't plan or manufacture going viral. [spacer height="10px"]
- People who really want to sell you something. They know you're desperate to find a "secret" that will boost your followers with very little effort. You're smarter than that.[spacer height="10px"]
- Instagram itself. When Instagram releases new announcements ("We are no longer a photo app") keep in mind they are speaking mainly to their investors and their advertisers. Investors and advertisers are Instagram's client. (We creatives are most certainly NOT their client.) Instagram is constantly trying to figure out what will convince investors that they're keeping up with the phenomenal growth they used to enjoy. (Never mind that it's mathematically impossible to keep up with that rate of growth.) They do this by trying to convince advertisers and investors that they are doing all the same things as the newest and most successful platforms.
If these groups of people can't tell you how to grow followers like crazy or get your content in front of thousands of people by next week... who can?
The problem is: "How can I beat the Instagram algorithm?" is the WRONG question.
Asking how to beat Instagram algorithm is like chasing the end of a rainbow.
You'll run and run until you're exhausted and you'll never really get there. Here's why you won't find the secret to beating the algorithm:
1) Instagram is NOT a transparent organization. Instagram doesn't share their algorithm. They're not telling us how to succeed. Let me ask you a question and answer honestly: Have all the "tricks" to "beating" the algorithm ever really changed things for you in the long term? No, because there *are* no tricks. Instagram often fails to keep their promises about rewarding certain content with the engagement we want. [spacer height="10px"]
As an example, Instagram has been saying for a long time that they reward video - either IGTV or reels. But the truth for the average user? Well, my IGTV views fell so dramatically over the last year that I turned my regular lives into bonus interviews that I release on the podcast for WAY more listens (This was a great move for me because podcasting IS my work and winning at Instagram is not.) [spacer height="10px"]
As another (more controversial example), let's talk about reels. At first, yes, users felt that reels were magic. So many views! But very shortly afterwards, most users agreed that reels weren't exactly the magical ticket for engagement. If you like reels - create them! If you don't - use your time to focus on your *actual* work.[spacer height="10px"]
For me, personally, I'm getting BETTER engagement in 2021 with THOUSANDS fewer followers (because, remember, I had to start a new account from scratch) simply by doing the things I'm best at on Instagram. The things I'm best at doesn't include ANY reels, video (except in stories), Lives, or IGTV. You can check out my engagement here.
2) Instagram is actively suppressing your engagement. Why? Instagram is a business. They don't make money by sharing your work for free.[spacer height="10px"]
And before either of us cast them as villains, let's remember: Instagram owes us nothing. They're a free service for us! They have a right to make money. In fact, as creatives, aren't we always reminding each other to charge our worth? So we can't get mad at another business acting like a business. It's how the world goes round. Every single engagement we get from Instagram is a bonus for our marketing plant.[spacer height="10px"]
We need to keep in mind that Instagram is paying a lot of very smart people a lot of money to write an algorithm that encourages us to pay to play. Honestly? Their programmers are very good at their job. We're not going to trick them. And that's ok. Instagram's not you're work - it's just a great tool that supports your work FOR FREE. (And you always have the option to pay to play, although I can't speak to how well that option works.)[spacer height="10px"]
3) There's just one thing we DO know about the Instagram algorithm: it's designed to keep you on the platform for as LONG as possible. Chasing the Instagram algorithm is very bad for your work because you'll stay on Instagram longer and longer just to win at Instagram. But guess what? You and your business can't succeed if you stay on Instagram all day long. [spacer height="10px"]
You have a decision: Stay on Instagram and neglect your clients, offerings, and content creation? Or use Instagram as a TOOL to support your community, offerings, and content creation? The crazy part? Honestly, the MORE you put into your actual business, the more you have to offer on Instagram, and the quicker you'll grow. [spacer height="10px"]
So what question should you ask instead?
Well, actually, there are dozens! Here are just a few:
Is Instagram currently supporting my work?
Is there anything I enjoy about Instagram? How can I lean into that, so my time on there is enjoyable?
Do I have a community on Instagram? How can I build one?
See, here's what I believe: I believe you have to define your OWN Instagram algorithm.
Just like Instagram goes through a series of steps to determine who it shows your work to, YOU need to have boundaries and permissions that you set on when and how you're going to use Instagram. When you figure out how Instagram best works for you - your work, your energy and time, your community, your personality - it will lose its power over you. Instagram will become just another tool in your toolbox. You'll make a plan and follow your plan. There will be good days and bad days on Instagram, but they won't affect you so much anymore. You'll be focusing on your work not on winning Instagram. It's a relief, I promise.
That's why I made this guided journal for you. There are 18 prompts for you to consider, in order, as you build an Instagram strategy that is peaceful, effective, personalized, and gives you time to focus on your work.