Beating and Outsmarting the Instagram Algorithm

Jason Fagan
Written by Jason Fagan, Marketing Executive


I think it's time we speak about the Instagram Algorithm. And if just seeing the word "algorithm" freaks you out, I understand.

But here’s the thing, you don't need to be a data scientist or digital marketing guru to ensure your efforts are in line with what Instagram is trying to do.

Firstly, to outsmart something you first need to understand it. Like SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) you're trying to achieve certain things with your brand profiles so they rank highly. Think of the algorithm as a method to enforce certain rules, follow the rules and you won't have a problem.

Now Instagram has recently made a lot of changes to their algorithm, goodbye 'likes'. More on that here.

They have also made certain changes which means engagement is harder to achieve. In this guide, I'll be breaking down the algorithm as I know it and follow up with some specific strategies and tactics to ensure that you're maximizing your organic reach as the algorithm continues to evolve.

So before we dive in, here's a little mindless plug. If you aren't interested in learning about this stuff for yourself. Why not just contact us and see how we can assist raise your brand above the algorithm and any future changes that come with it.

Now, sorry about that.

In 2016, Instagram announced a massive change in how the platform would operate. A users feed would prioritise "the content you care about". Translation, what you engage with the most is what pops up first. Good news for the user, bad news for brands and users who now need to up their game. This announcement led to a massive scramble, a lot of complaining and a little crying (was that just me?). Anyway, Facebook later introduced the same sentiment in 2018. A pledge to put Family and friends first (rolls eyes emoji).

Finally, the specifics of this update and subsequent changes were vague beyond the introduction of the "you’re all caught up" notification on your Instagram feed.


Now let's pull this forward to present day, well, the present year. In January 2019, Instagram finally acknowledged the growing public concern over its algorithm on, Twitter (Not judging its a great platform for industry and company news).

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So the algorithm is always listening and collecting data to provide the user with a personalised feed of all the stuff they love. Lovely! But how do you ensure you end up at the top of a users feed? Well, that’s easy, you come up with a content strategy that gives the Instagram algorithm exactly what it wants. And below you lucky ducks, we will talk you through it.

While it's important to note that the new algorithm is subject to change, these three main ranking factors that are singled out can still help inform your Instagram strategy:

  • Relationship with the user. If a certain user has interacted with a lot of your past content, they'll be more likely to see your future content. This makes continual, repeat engagement on your posts important for building a loyal audience.

  • Interest the user has conveyed. This signal is based on whether the user interacts with other, similar posts and accounts when they explore Instagram. Users who also engage with similar content are more likely to see your own posts.

  • The recency of the post. While Instagram's simple chronological feed is a thing of the past, timeliness is still relevant. More recent posts will be favoured and pushed to the top of the feed, while older posts will show up a little further down.

There were also other, more general considerations that Instagram shared, which you should make note of:

  • If users follow a lot of accounts, you’ve got more competition for the top spot in their feed.

  • If users either don't spend a long time on Instagram or don't open the app that often, you decrease the odds of having your content seen if you aren't in one of the very top slots.

  • Business accounts on Instagram are not immediately at a disadvantage in terms of organic reach compared to personal accounts.

Now you might be wondering how these facets of Instagram’s algorithm will influence your own Instagram marketing strategy. So let's dive into some of the different things you can be doing or doing differently.

1. Step up your photo quality

According to Instagram themselves, ranking higher in your followers' feeds goes hand in hand with creating 'great content'. It’s one of the reasons we only hire professional photographers here in Socio Local and critique their work on sample shoots before sending them to our clients. Producing professional visuals these days is an expectation rather than an exception in our industry; that said not every post needs to contain a shot from a professional and if you'd like to try your hand at some shooting why not read our Teaspoon article which will give you a few tips. It'll touch on things like the use of flattering angles depending on what you are shooting. A 45° angle for a dish with volume while a pizza can look great from a birds eye view.

Just remember that "Great Content" really lies in the eye of the beholder, what I might like doesn't appeal to the person next to me. And that leads to my next point.

2. Understand your audience

Next week in our Socio Teaspoon article we will be diving into this in a little more detail, so keep on the lookout for that, it is released at 9am every Wednesday.

To touch on it now however and as we mentioned above. Great content is in the eye of the beholder and so you need to understand who you are looking to attract with your imagery. "When you picture your clientele what personality traits come to mind? Fun or serious, fancy or relaxed, clean-cut or rugged? If you can identify the type of people, you can reflect that personality in your social media which creates great client relationships and drives loyalty.""

3. Post when your followers are most active

Posting at strategic times can often lead to a surge of engagement when the post first goes live, this tells the algorithm this is something more of your followers may wish to see. Maximise your efforts and have content go up during peak posting times. And remember, if you're unsure how to check this you can ask us to help.

I have found some of the best times in general are when people begin feeling hungry or at times they will be thinking about their next meal. 12pm / 3pm / 6pm are all good staples to go by. Posting a picture of your special from the right angle can be just the ticket that leads to additional reservations that evening.

4. Respond to comments

Remember to engage with your audience. Respond to comments, messages and reviews. This shows you like to interact with your followers and that you care about what they have to say. It’s also a key ingredient (pun intended) in boosting engagement, it encourages follow-up comments from the original poster even if it’s just a simple "thank you". In some cases, however, it can jump-start a conversation and draw in more of your followers which will help the reach of future posts significantly.

5. Repost old content

Just because you've posted it before doesn't mean you shouldn't post it again. Your audience has hopefully increased since it was last posted or a large percentage of your following may not have seen it. Repurposing great content is an ideal way to fill a post if you need extra traction on the platform. So repost that weekly special, Christmas menu remaining the same? That means the imagery of it is too. Make your life easier and repurpose what you can.

6. Use stories to draw attention

Instagram stories get a lot of attention because they aren't subjected to the same algorithm as your posts and they lead into one another so are less likely to be missed. Got something going on in your restaurant, inform your fans with short little snippets of the happenings or simply boost engagement by sharing your posts to your story. It can drive people to the post itself to engage with it.

7. Pay for reach through advertising

The fastest and most sure-fire way to solve any issues of limited reach is through paid advertising. Done correctly, this can give you a burst of momentum that can help you drive better organic results later on. It's also a great way to target the exact demographic you want to see come through your doors and lead to the following you are looking for.

8. Publish more video content

Instagram doesn't downright say that video is prioritised over imagery but damn do they hint towards it. You also have loads of new ways to post video content from stories to IGTV.

Now remember what we said earlier about great content and imagery. Well, given that a video auto-plays in your followers feeds, there's arguably no better way to grab their attention when they are on one of their many scrolling sessions. Video requires people to stop and look, and that's half the battle in then driving engagement. Instagram also announced back in February that IGTV will begin showing up in people's feeds, another sure-fire sign they are pushing video content.


Side note - videos don't need to be a full-blown production. A boomerang of your chef in the kitchen or a timelapse of a dish being prepared. The point is, videos will work for businesses big and small and what matters is that the content is being published.

9. Craft compelling captions

So the Instagram algorithm prioritises engagement and nothing helps drive engagement more than a compelling caption. We often stress that likes and shares are mere vanity metrics and brands should be concerned with more pressing metrics (such as reservations) but encouraging interactions directly is totally fair game on Instagram and feeds that pesky algorithm exactly what it is looking for. So "tag a friend" or "question based" captions help to get people talking.

10. Run a competition/giveaway

For many businesses, you'll notice a competition or giveaway is one of the easiest and most sure-fire ways of creating engagement on their social channels. Whether it's sharing your images of the restaurant with them on Instagram or simply tagging the friend you would take with you for dinner in the comments. Competitions raise awareness, reach and engagement for the cost of a dinner for 2. That really is a winner-winner chicken-dinner.

11. Harness the power of hashtags

The more eyes on your posts the better and this is where hashtags come in. Including hashtags in your digital strategy is an essential part to being found by foodies and travellers alike. Tourists especially will often use hashtags in a region to find local eateries and restaurants so by not utilising them you are immediately limiting your reach. Always include a combination of branded, product and community hashtags in your posts

12. Post often

Finally, don't be afraid of the frequency you post. While I would never recommend posting to your profile more than once a day you can still post constantly and throughout the day to your story, keeping people in the loop of what's going on and keeping them all engaged.

If you're utilising Socio Connect you are already at a distinct advantage. You will see a clear layout of your posts and be able to plan for the weeks or even months ahead depending on how organised you are. Queue up posts in advance and that's one less thing to worry about in the day to day and gives you the freedom to get on with what needs to be done on the ground.

13. Are you ready to take on the new Instagram algorithm?

So with all that said, we have come full circle. The Instagram algorithm doesn't need to be this big scary thing, it's actually rather simple and just needs time and commitment in order to be solved. Remember that if you are too busy to take this on yourself, we are here to help and our team of dedicated Community Managers already know what's up. We have a price plan for every type of business big or small, family-owned to large multinational franchises. Click the button below to contact us and see how we can help.

Jason Fagan

Author: Jason Fagan

Marketing Executive with a focus on social and lead generation. Jason joined Socio Local having worked for himself for a number of years which has provided great insight into a multitude of different sectors. When he's not in the office you will usually find him in the mountains on some sort of 2 wheeled transport.