Instagram's New Algorithm is a Disaster for Indie Bloggers
Seems we should be calling this new phenomenon antisocial media. <Smirks to self.>
Ok, but now I'm getting political.
The new Instagram algorithm reminds me of the Republican tax reform plan. It benefits the uber-rich (those with upwards of hundreds of thousands of followers) and chokes out civilian users such as indie bloggers, casual dabblers in social media, and basically anyone without a bulletproof PR team (and budget) in place.
It's also not unlike net neutrality, in that it's created this ladder of pay-to-play chaos in which an account that wants visibility has to play the game and pay up or risk getting buried in the fray of Instagram's hundreds of millions of accounts.
To improve your experience, your feed will soon be ordered to show the moments we believe you will care about the most.
This press release, eye-rollingly titled "See The Moments You Care About First," refers to one of the first times that Instagram (noticeably) changed its algorithm. Its March 2016 update changed it from a timely feed where the most recently posted images were displayed to one in which an image from six seconds ago was immediately followed by a photo from six days ago, in an order that makes sense only to the social media app's computers.
This seemed bad enough, but it didn't really ruin the experience entirely, per se, just switched it up a bit.
Now, however, users and accounts alike are complaining about noticeably less variety in their feeds - I, for one, see the same ten or fifteen accounts at the top of my feed, every single time - and less engagement where previously posted similar images would have received far more likes, comments, and organic reach. Aside from majorly reduced engagement, there's also weirdly unexplainable insights wherein a video is reported by the app to have made, for example, 1000 impressions but was only viewed 879 times. This hardly makes sense, unless a couple hundred of those people were sharing their screen with a few friends, right?
I'm a member of a Facebook group with 30k+ members that is geared towards sharing Instagram tips and complaints. Lately, most of the new comments in the thread from fellow Instagrammers (with followers ranging anywhere from hundreds to hundreds of thousands) are complaints or genuinely confused inquiries, all some variation of "Has anyone else here noticed SERIOUSLY decreased engagement lately? I went from X number of likes per post to a fraction of that now."
Among other changes and "improvements," the algorithm uses data based on what photos you've previously liked, looked at for extended periods of times, commented on, shared, etc. to gauge what to keep showing you at the top of your feed. This seems to be a vicious cycle, though - if I'm only seeing, without risking arthritis from frantically having to scroll down what feels like miles - the same handful of accounts, I'll only keep liking their images, and won't be able to engage with other accounts within the allotted time I spend on Instagram each time. (Hey, as much as I could easily spend hours on it, I can't and don't.) Plus, just because I "like" a couple dozen glossy, fashion-forward photos, that doesn't mean I won't also love seeing and engaging with photos from my friends, local stores, artists, etc. that have a different aesthetic and far less followers.
I recently went on an unfollowing spree - mostly celeb accounts that I don't feel need my support as much as indie accounts - and was so surprised to see hundreds of accounts I remember following, but can't remember having seen photos from in months.
Seriously, what is even the point of following people now that this new algorithm is in place? It's a gamble whether or not you'll ever even see their content, anyway!
It's been theorized that the new algorithm is also meant to encourage users to only post their best, most compelling content. That is to say, as the number of Instagram users increases, so too, most likely, does the amount of content being posted, which jam packs users' feeds. So, Instagram put into place a new algorithm that rewards the best content (which it deduces by the number of followers an account has) to streamline your feed and make it manageable - otherwise it would be a non-stop stream of imagery presented in a purely chronological, i.e. not curated or aesthetically cohesive, manner.
It's also been theorized that Instagram is punishing accounts that have done one of the following transgressions:
1.) Used bots or automated apps to like, comment and follow other accounts.
I get it. It messes with their algorithm, and also automates your Instagram experience so that you don't have to physically spend as much time on the app as you would have, since you now have a robot doing the work of interacting with other accounts for you. But, it's also annoying. Members of the Facebook group I mentioned previously have complained about receiving innappropiate comments on an emotional or even mournful post. "Love it!" and a laughing emoji under a photo talking about a recently passed relative or a #MeToo story scream bot, are are just so creepy and inauthentic. Not what we're all here for. But, Instagram's blacklisting, or shadow banning, as it's called by users, of accounts who have turned to tech for a boost feels really dictatorial, especially considering that they would happily accept money from the same accounts for promotions on their own terms and within their own app, i.e. "Promoted Posts" on Instagram.
Which brings me to the next transgression:
2.) Having ever paid for Instagram to promote a post.
A friend of mine pointed this one out to me; she paid for ONE promotion of an image within the Instagram account (paid promotions work similar to Facebook paid promos) and she said ever since then, she's gotten less engagement on her organic, unpaid content. "It's like Instagram said 'Clearly she's willing to pay, let's make it so she always has to get back the engagement she had previously become used to before she started paying.' " In other words, give Instagram an inch and it'll take a mile.
3.) Have you ever copy-pasted hashtags under each of your photos? It's a good way to alert like-minded users and attract likes from people interested in your content. Yeah, well now you're shadow banned. Apparently, that's the digital flyers-under-windshield-wipers-equivalent, and Instagram is punishing anyone who tried to spam the airwaves with hashtags intending to get views and likes for their posts.
(I've done all three of these things, by the way.)
It's not all bad news. There is some method to the madness, and there are some ways to play the game. Later, a marketing platform geared towards Instagram, has a pretty handy article outlining what Instagram is looking for in terms of content and engagement, and how to work the system to get your account the most visibility.
Some ways to do that include:
-Get lots of engagement right away, i.e. in the first few minutes after posting;
-Post slideshows or video content to get people to look at your content for longer - every second counts;
-Post at strategic times each day;
-Use a compelling CTA, or Call To Action in the caption.
-Later even suggests creating spreadsheets to analyze what time you posted and how many likes and comments you received during that time slot to gauge what your best time is, or using their analytics features.)
The thing is, though, not everyone has the time of day - and it does take a lot of time, no matter how many new apps think they are "streamlining" the process to make it "virtually effortless" - to do everything it now takes to be an Instagram success story, even on a small scale. I worked at an ecommerce company that had not only a social media department, but also regularly used crossover hours from copy department to create content for its Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Indeed, it takes massive amounts of planning, editing, strategizing, and more, so individuals who don't have designated marketing professionals or social media departments at their fingertips are at a huge disadvantage. On the other hand, it's a real book for the accounts of career bloggers, socialites, celebs, rich folks with assistants, and people who can afford to invest in social media planning apps such as Later or Scout (from $99/month), or who can at least afford not to work other 9-5 jobs in order to spend the time it takes to meet Instagram's new algorithm's best practices. People like me who have other jobs and other lives, but are still trying to grow their social media presence and use Instagram as a tool are, it seems, just plain out of luck.
Look, all I'm saying is this: I shouldn't need a degree in analytics, an intern, or a day off my regular job to enjoy and organically grow my Instagram following, right? I shouldn't have to make an investment or a lifestyle change to be able to get more than 0.05% engagement. For this supposedly free app, "free" isn't free.
And yes, I know that there are plenty of people who are still thriving on Instagram even with the new algorithm, but, if the Facebook group I'm a part of is any indication, everyone is feeling a pinch.
Thoughts? Have you noticed less organic engagement, or had difficulty growing your account? What are some tips and hacks you've found work in this newest Instagram iteration?