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Instagram algorithm 2021: How does it work?

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Ah yes, the ever-changing Instagram algorithm. Just when you think you’ve figured it out, it’s changed again.

If you’re experiencing a drop in impressions or declining engagement, keep reading. We’re breaking down the key factors that determine how high your content ranks on someone’s feed — and giving you 5 actionable ways to use the Instagram algorithm to your advantage in 2021.

How does the Instagram algorithm work?

Instagram introduced the algorithmic timeline in 2016 to customize each user’s Instagram feed to surface the “best,” most relevant content for that individual. While it seemed elusive for a while, in 2018, Instagram revealed the 6 main factors that affect its algorithm. They are: 

  1. Interest: This is how much the Instagram algorithm predicts you’ll care about a post, with higher ranking for content that matters to you. This factor is dependent on your past behavior with similar content. For example, if you interact with food content frequently, posts around recipes, restaurants, and the like may appear higher on your feed. 
  2. Recency: This means more recent content will take priority on your feed. Newer posts are often more relevant, and therefore are ranked higher in the feed than older ones.
  3. Relationship: This is a prediction of how close you are to the person who shared content, with higher ranking for people you interact with a lot on Instagram. This is determined by interactions like commenting on each other’s posts or being tagged together in photos.
  4. Frequency: This tool tracks how often you open the Instagram app, as it will try to show you the best content since your last visit. 
  5. Following: The more people you follow, the less you may see from any specific account. By proportion, if you follow 1,000 people, Instagram will be picking the “best” content from a wider pool than if you follow 100 people.
  6. Usage: This is a measure of how long you spend on Instagram, which will determine if you’re just seeing the best posts during short sessions, or digging deeper into the feed in longer sessions. 

While these factors are important to keep in mind, we’ve got some more actionable tips for you to take advantage of the Instagram algorithm to get your content in front of your desired audience in 2021. 

How to beat the Instagram algorithm in 2021

1. Prioritize Reels — at least for now

Reels are Instagram’s most notable new feature, meant to be a competitor to TikTok. As the company rolls out the short-form video feature more widely, it’s quickly becoming a cheat code to success on Instagram. 

In fact, an unnamed Instagram Partnerships insider recently revealed to Rachel Reichenbach, an artist and small business owner, that Reels are currently being prioritized in the Instagram algorithm. 

Reichenbach recaps their conversation stating, “If you are not posting at least 1 Reel a week, the algorithm is going to punish all your posts.” For example, if you post a Reel on Monday and go back to creating “regular” (non-Reel) content for the rest of the week, all of those posts for the week will see higher engagement because of the single Reel. On the other hand, if you don’t post a Reel, none of your posts will garner much engagement. 

Reichenbach adds that Instagram even has a team dedicated to finding good Reels for them to promote. If your Reel is chosen to be featured, they’ll choose to show it to more people for a month — driving views and potentially follows! However, it’s important to note that Instagram is specifically looking for Reels that were made using Instagram’s in-app editor, not recycled TikToks.

2. Diversify your content format

Speaking of Reels, switch up your content format not only to keep things interesting for your audience, but also to get your posts favored by the algorithm. Use a combination of available features on the app, including regular feed posts, Stories, Reels, IGTV, shoppable posts, and so on. The algorithm prefers accounts that use:

  • Instagram’s in-app camera and filters
  • Geolocation tags
  • IG’s messaging tool
  • Story buttons and stickers (even the limited edition ones, like the “I Voted” sticker)

3. Be consistent with your posting schedule

Posting often is encouraged by Instagram. In fact, according to Reichenbach, Instagram’s ideal posting schedule looks a little bit like:

  • 3 feed posts per week (including Reels & IGTV posts) 
  • 8-10 Stories per week, preferably 2+ per day 
  • 4-7 Reels per week 
  • 1-3 IGTV a week

However, this is slightly unrealistic for the average Instagram user. So, if you don’t have the time or resources to create content on a daily basis, at least post at a consistent cadence over time. For example, have a plan to post content every other day, or three times each week, or every Wednesday — you get the point. 

Make note of when your audience is most active and schedule your content to go live at that time, every time.

4. Post carousels

Carousels are a great way to boost post engagement and get audiences to spend more time with your content. While Instagram hasn’t explicitly prioritized carousels, Hootsuite found that carousel posts pull 3x the engagement and 1.4x the reach of other post types. 

So, leverage this feature and post up to 10 swipe-worthy images, whether it’s before-and-after shots, a collection of customer reviews, event recaps, or your favorite pieces of user-generated content. 



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5. Leverage hashtags

Hashtags have been around for years for good reason. Adding hashtags to your post can increase your chances of reaching a wider audience, as people are constantly searching and following relevant hashtags. In fact, studies show that posts with hashtags receive higher engagement than those without.

But remember to get specific. Branded hashtags, such as Revolve’s #revolvearoundtheworld or Fabletics’ #myfabletics, are a great way to build a community around your brand. These tags don’t only help with brand awareness, but also allow you to seamlessly collect community-generated content

instagram hashtags

Incorporate these strategies into your 2021 Instagram content plan 

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to growing your Instagram engagement, following these tips and analyzing what kind of content performs the best will help inform your Instagram strategy for the rest of the year. 

Besides the strategies listed above, our best advice is to continue engaging with your community with great content and real conversations. That way, you can build authentic relationships and serve content people really want to see, boosting your ranking on their feed. 

Want to learn more? Schedule a time to strategize with one of our experts. 

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