technology | Nov 29, 2023 |
Sick of the Instagram hamster wheel? 4 secrets to beating the infamous algorithm

The Instagram algorithm has become notorious for its mystifying methodology, which can make or break user success with every invisible whim. What does it take to get it right?

Anyone who uses Instagram as a business tool has likely come up against the same foe: the algorithm. In a short time, it has come to dominate discussions
of social media—confounding even the most astute users and sparking an entire cottage industry of experts dedicated to helping them decipher the system.

Is the algorithm really as mysterious as it seems? Julie Lancia thought so, until she got an invitation to take a peek inside the machinery. Alongside her twin sister, Jodie, Lancia had been creating design content on social media for years; at some point, the pair’s content expanded to include audience growth and engagement tips too. Then came the message: Administrators from Instagram reached out, asking if she wanted to hop on a call—part of the company’s efforts to offer more hands-on customer service to the platform’s creators. “It was like talking to the Wizard of Oz—the curtains were pulled back,” says Lancia.

In the conversations that followed, she came to a realization shared by many social media analysts: Despite the uncertainty around the algorithm, the metrics that govern it are not hidden or mysterious—and properly applying its principles to your content can make all the difference in boosting your social presence. “The algorithm’s goal is to help your content reach its ideal audience,” says Lancia. “That’s what you want, and that’s what it wants.”

BOH spoke to design influencers and social media experts to uncover the algorithm’s hidden mechanics—what works, what doesn’t and how to find lasting success in the industry’s constantly shifting social media landscape.

What Is the Instagram Algorithm?

An algorithm is a set of rules, classifiers and processes programmed by the platform’s engineers that dictate which content shows up for users, and in what order. Referring to “the” algorithm is in many ways an oversimplification—there is not one but in fact many overlapping algorithms and ranking processes, personalized to each user based on their interests, that govern what appears in a feed. Back in 2010 when Instagram first launched, the app simply showed users a chronological list of photos posted by the accounts they followed. By 2016, Instagram decided to alter its main feed to prioritize posts tailored to each user’s interests. The only way to achieve that mix would be through a more complex algorithm: a computing system that deciphers a trove of data—including which posts you like and which accounts you DM or, more recently, how many times you watch a Reel—to predict what content matters most to each user, and thus what shows up in their feed.

Sick of the Instagram hamster wheel? 4 secrets to beating the infamous algorithm
A sun-drenched dining room by design influencer Cara Newhart is set for a stylish fete. Newhart likes to test out new social media features, like Reels on Instagram, knowing that the platform rewards creators who embrace new tools.Courtesy of designer

While it’s easy to lament the secrecy surrounding the forces shaping what shows up in your feed, Instagram is fairly transparent about major changes in the algorithm, which are communicated regularly in videos by Instagram executive Adam Mosseri that offer insights into new features and how content is ranked. The problem is, it can be hard to keep up with the more nuanced changes that are implemented daily—there’s no way to stay abreast of the latest tweaks in real time. The drivers for algorithm changes can also vary, and are often impacted by what’s happening in the broader tech industry. “We’re at an interesting time in social media history,” says Paige Kylee Knapp, founder of consulting firm Kylee Social. “The industry is in a pressure cooker at the moment as all of these platforms compete for users’ attention.” To do it, they’re relying on the algorithm.

The last few years have seen an explosion in the competition among rival social media companies, which became most apparent with the rise of TikTok, whose skyrocketing popularity became an instant threat. In 2022, users spent 197.8 million hours a day on the app, compared to 17.6 million hours on Instagram. Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, sought to counteract the rising dominance of TikTok by rolling out its own short-form video features, like Instagram Reels; YouTube has done the same with YouTube Shorts. But the dueling for user attention doesn’t stop there. There’s Twitter (now X), with which Instagram has also competed in recent months by debuting Threads; TikTok owner ByteDance launched its own Pinterest competitor, Lemon8.

As platforms strive to retain audiences, those efforts are reflected in the algorithm as well. Case in point: the sudden prioritization of Reels on Instagram, which came about shortly after TikTok began taking off in late 2019, demonstrates how the app uses the algorithm to its own advantage. In this case, Instagram rewarded users who created Reels with more visibility, more impressions and greater reach, all while the company cut into its competitor’s market share. “This illustrates the point that social media as an industry is changing quickly, and that has a direct trickle-down effect on anyone who’s creating content there,” says Knapp.

How to Make the Algorithm Work for You

1. Get Consistent

The easiest place to start is to post consistently. “[The algorithm] wants to expect you,” says Lancia. “It can better receive, interpret and send out your content when it knows who you are and that you’re coming.” She recommends designers take a look at their weekly schedule, decide how many pieces of quality content they have the bandwidth to produce and then commit to meeting that quota. “Your posting schedule needs to be set in cement—same time, same day, week after week,” she says. Within that framework, there’s some flexibility: “As long as [your followers] are awake, it doesn’t matter the time.”

Sick of the Instagram hamster wheel? 4 secrets to beating the infamous algorithm
Cara Newhart has made testing out new features a key part of her social strategyCourtesy of designer ​

Once you’ve set your schedule, focus on what you actually post. The metrics that matter most to the algorithm are how much time users spend viewing your content and how much they interact with it. With grid posts, a great way to optimize for both is posting a carousel (several images posted in one group) as opposed to a single image. Your caption can serve the dual purpose of encouraging viewers to swipe through the images (another way to boost engagement, not because of the action of swiping, but because users will spend more time with the post) while also nudging them to engage in the comments (for example, by asking them to vote on their favorite room out of several images).

Instagram Stories are a slightly different game. Here, engagement matters even more: If a user responds to your story, the algorithm registers that user as a “friend” and will boost your presence in their feed. Encouraging that interaction could be as simple as posting an interactive poll or asking for follower input on a design choice. “Completing a segment”—a technical way of referring to viewing a Story post to completion rather than clicking through—“is another clue to the algorithm that viewers are paying attention,” says Lancia. To increase users’ time on your slides, she recommends keeping segments short, roughly 10 or 15 seconds

On Reels, the algorithm works differently. It’s a lot more like TikTok, where the majority of a user’s feed consists of posts from accounts they don’t follow. This is a creator’s chance to reach new followers, or even to go viral. What often performs best on Reels are quick-hit, entertaining clips with high replay-ability. For home creators, that might be cooking and cleaning tutorials, which invoke a viewer’s sense of immediacy—something they can do right now—or content that’s funny or controversial.

For designers focusing on project-related content, the ultimate goal is to create a sense of engagement right away: “The most important thing is watch time, so you need to bring people in and engage [the viewer] in the first one to three seconds,” says social media consultant Meena Dimian of Meena Consulting. “Whether that’s with a money shot from a project or an image of you, always lead with the best! Bring people in with the first few seconds.”

Once you’ve got a viewer hooked, your approach can vary: “I’ve seen eight-second and eight-minute house tours work,” adds Lancia. “It just depends on your niche.”

Even if one thing you post goes viral, the overnight success of one Reel doesn’t always translate to lasting growth or engagement. “A lot of my friends who have gone viral—who shot up to 100,000 followers very quickly—have had their engagement tank [afterward],” says New Jersey–based designer and content creator Kathleen Martin. “Sometimes a Reel may [do well because it’s] funny or silly, but it might not be true to what you put out all the time. Those 100,000 people who followed you for a ceiling dancing Reel—when you actually produce DIY content—eventually realize you might not be for them.”

Martin has experienced both sides of the equation, with fluctuations between her content being primarily viewed by her followers (which means no new growth) or served to nonfollowers (which often means low engagement). The trick, she says, is to strike a balance by creating content that appeals to both demographics. “I think, How does this support the people who chose to be here? But also, how am I providing value to the person who has yet to discover me?” For Martin, the solution was creating a series called How to Transform Your Home With Paint, which surveys her past uses of color in projects, tapping into something existing followers would recognize while providing education and entertainment for her new followers. Designers navigating those same swings should ask themselves the same questions and look to strike a similar balance.

2. Test Out New Features

It sometimes seems like a fluke when a designer hits it big on social media just by testing out an emerging feature or platform, but algorithms are often designed to reinforce that behavior—which is why design influencer Cara Newhart has made it part of her social strategy. “If you’re willing to bet on their new feature, they’ll bet on you by pushing you out in the algorithm,” she says.

The approach has worked for her across platforms, boosting her following and engagement from the early days of Instagram Stories and helping her find growth following the launch of TikTok. Even so, she doesn’t recommend restructuring your online presence around every new feature that rolls out. Some never gain widespread traction, and therefore won’t be worth your time in the long run. For example, Instagram’s broadcast channels didn’t work for Newhart, and haven’t caught on with users at scale. Plus, in the case of waning popularity of a given feature, the app is liable to scrap it altogether, as in the case of the now-shuttered IGTV long-form video content.

Sick of the Instagram hamster wheel? 4 secrets to beating the infamous algorithm
Marissa Nelums saw her following spike as an early adopter of Reels Courtesy of designer ​

When designer and content creator Marissa Nelums started making Reels soon after the feature’s rollout, she saw her follower count spike. “Within half a year, we went from about 70,000 followers to 110,000—and it was all because of Reels,” says Nelums. “Back then, you didn’t even have to be great at it, it was just about using the feature.” During that period, she saw some of her content go viral for the first time, while other content had unusually low visibility. Now, that’s less true: Though Reels had an outsize role in the algorithm for a while, Instagram has spent the last several months reincorporating the importance of grid posts, now that the new feature has gained traction.

“It’s complex to stay in tune with,” she says. “I have posted content that is extremely amazing and it gets no visibility at all. I’ve also posted things that are not that great, that were supposed to be a one-off filler, and it goes viral. Instagram internally picks and chooses what’s going to be great, and it can be really difficult to know. You have to look for what’s performing well and what’s not.”

3. Follow the Rules

A sudden drop-off in visibility—when the number of likes on new posts falls to single digits, or the views on a Story aren’t flooding in like they used to—can be a frustrating reality of life on social media. Creators sometimes lament that they’ve been “shadow banned,” a term that refers to the perception of having one’s account muffled by a social media platform without any outward markers of restriction or official account suspension. Lancia says that unless you’ve actively broken the rules, that line of thinking is far-fetched. “It’s a misnomer to blame your lack of success on the algorithm,” she says. “You only get ‘shadow-banned’ if you have done some artificial activities, or something to trigger the platform’s content warnings.”

That said, breaking the rules can sometimes be tempting. The unpredictability of the algorithm, especially during new feature rollouts, can prompt users to take desperate measures to sustain their growth and engagement—and that could get you in trouble. Aside from violating Instagram guidelines, other tactics for inorganic growth that will backfire include follow-for-follow schemes, sending spammy direct messages, or doing product giveaways in exchange for follows. The problem is, these schemes are the same as falsely inflating your following—in the platform’s eyes, you might as well have purchased your followers. (Don’t do that either!) Not only will the platform flag your content but brands who seek to work with you may see the sudden spikes in following and opt out of working with you.

“Now that there’s so much money in this business, [brands] can get this information on accounts [through self-reporting, or from outside apps], and no brand wants to work with an account that has built their following falsely,” says Lancia. According to Dimian, this kind of illicit behavior can often stick with an account for years, hindering long-term growth. “It’s very hard to shake off,” he says, noting that platforms may place limits on the number of impressions an account can receive after perceived wrongdoing. In some cases, the only way out is to delete the account and start entirely from scratch.

Sick of the Instagram hamster wheel? 4 secrets to beating the infamous algorithm
In a small powder room, designer Annie Elliott paired a stunning scenic wallpaper with an ornamental mirror. To take her social media presence to the next level, Elliott engaged consulting firm Kylee Social in 2021. Kip Dawkins Photography

4. Nail the Design Niche

The success of a post is largely dependent on how well a creator knows their audience. For designers, that means producing content that plays well with design fans (and potential clients) in particular. It’s an arena Dimian knows well: He started his social media consulting firm in 2016 to help interior design- and architecture-industry clients generate business leads rather than merely racking up likes and followers. His number one piece of advice for designers on social media: Invest in high-quality photography and videography on all projects, and be discerning about what images make it onto your feed. “I tell our clients, ‘Treat your Instagram feed the way you treat a room when you’re designing it,’” says Dimian. “You’re going to be selective, you’re going to curate and put your sensibility on it.’”

When posting on the grid, stick to high-resolution images, and shift perspective between images to create a more visually interesting experience for users. The corresponding caption should target your core audience—former clients, colleagues, the design community—and act as a conversation with users, with insights about what inspires you in a project or reflections on seasonal trends or other timely topics. Tagging brands and vendors could provide another boost to your visibility: Those companies could share your post to their accounts, exposing you to another segment of design-centric users.

Designer Jessica Davis of Atelier Davis, who works with Dimian to enhance her design firm’s social media presence as well as that of her hardware brand, Nest Studio, has seen direct results from this tailored approach. “For the hardware side of my business, developing a larger following and having people know our brand has a direct correlation to sales,” she says. “On the design side, the people who find us and start saving images that we’ve posted start to understand our aesthetic, and then they tend to come to us for projects.”

Sick of the Instagram hamster wheel? 4 secrets to beating the infamous algorithm
Annie Elliott spends more time in front of the camera now, thanks to coaching from Kylee SocialCourtesy of designer ​

Another key strategy that’s often overlooked by designers is stepping in front of the camera. Some dread it, others take to it right away—but no matter how you feel, it’s one of the simplest ways to create the kind of personal relationship with followers that keeps your content at the top of their feed. “It’s called social media for a reason—people like to connect with people,” says Dimian. “When somebody in the industry sees a post of yours and they like it and engage with it, it’s because subconsciously they’re trying to send you a message: ‘I enjoy this, I want to let you know this is good, I support you.’ That human element is forgotten because everybody’s just trying to reach a big number.”

When designer Annie Elliott first started working with Knapp’s consulting firm Kylee Social in 2021, she was reluctant to take on a more video-facing social media role. Still, Knapp knew that sharing more of Elliott’s personality would offer potential clients a glimpse of what it would be like to work with her, while also reaching a wider overall audience in anticipation of the designer’s then-forthcoming book. “To know Annie is to know that her personality is so vivacious, and she captures attention in a way that makes design accessible,” says Knapp. “But at the time, her Instagram strategy wasn’t leveraging short-form video.”

The agency started Elliott out on TikTok and Reels, with simple videos of the designer speaking directly to camera—taking viewers through her design projects, her home and her shopping routine. The strategy was so successful that her account has been nominated for a Webby award (like the Emmys, but for social media) and now boasts a following of more than 188,000 on TikTok.

For Elliott and Knapp, the best part about the strategy is that TikTok—which tends to reward more casual, less polished content—has become a kind of laboratory where they can test out new ideas. In a fickle social media landscape, that willingness to experiment and be open-minded may be the key to success.

“People want to see the stumbles and the sense of humor that might come up when you’re not planning,” says Elliott. “It’s not going to be perfect, and it turns out there’s an upside to that.”

This article originally appeared in Fall 2023 issue of Business of Home. Subscribe or become a BOH Insider for more.

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