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What Your Brand Can Do To Win the Instagram Game

Instagram virality can be a natural byproduct for marketers who mix an understanding of the algorithm’s desires with a devotion to the customer-content experience.

Instagram crawls content to determine how popular, valuable, and relevant posts are for an audience segment or individual. Thus, the algorithm is in control of the content that surfaces for Instagram users.

Given how much Instagram controls, what is a content marketer to do? It turns out you can make a big difference as I’ve learned growing my New Earth Knowledge project to 60,000 followers in a little over two years.

@Instagram controls its algorithm, but that doesn’t mean #content marketers are powerless, says @mjbecker_via @CMIContent @corpv. Click To Tweet

It boils down to two things: eliciting your followers to act and optimizing your content for discovery.

Elicit desired behavior among your followers

I’ve identified a five S approach to address what the Instagram algorithm rewards:

  • Speed – quantity of actions immediately after publishing

A flood of likes, comments, and shares within the first hour or two of the post going live indicates value and popularity to the algorithm. Prime your audience to react with a message on your story. Announce your scheduled post before its release. Set expectations to prompt a view and reaction. Consistency can be your best friend here.

  • Story shares – how many people feature your content on their feeds

You can do a few things to increase story shares and sends. 1. Include a call to action asking others to share in the caption. 2. Ask other accounts targeting your audience, particularly those with at least 50,000 followers, to share your post to their story for 24 hours and offer to do the same for them.

  • Sends – how many people send your post to friends

Make a simple ask. Just write something like this: “Send this to someone who really needs to hear it.”

  • Saves – how many people hit the ribbon to archive your post in their library

There’s no shortcut to getting people to save your post other than to create such knowledge-infused and/or entertaining content that motivates viewers to file your post in their saved folder so they can easily come back to it.

  • Social engagement – comments, replies, and likes

Right after posting, add a comment that includes information you didn’t share within the caption. Make sure you respond to every comment left on your post. This simple task doubles your total comment volume. You also can ask others to tag friends within the comments (e.g., “tag the most important person in your life) and pin the most popular comment to the top.

I don’t have an official source or citation for this conclusion, but my experience makes me think it’s likely true: Algorithms like to see a range of sentiment within the comments of posts. While you don’t want to instigate or become combative, you can be witty, curious, and provoking.

Instagram revolves around the 5S’s: speed, shares, sends, saves, and social engagement, says @mjbecker_via @CMIContent @corpv. Click To Tweet

To understand how a post is performing, tap “view insights” beneath an existing post. The revealed metrics show what the algorithm is designed to favor – likes, comments, shares, and cumulative engagement.

Image showing number of users who have liked, commented, sent, and saved an Instagram post.

While the five S approach is helpful, it’s not all you can do. AI-driven algorithms monitor actions users take on a post. For example:

  • Are people zooming in on your post and on a particular area of the image?
  • Are people taking screenshots of the post?
  • How long are individuals staying on your post?
  • Are people pausing in stream to look at your post?
  • Are users extending comments to read the thread?
  • Are users clicking to view your profile from your post stream, story, or a comment you made elsewhere?
  • Are users tapping “others” to see who else has liked the post?

You can be strategic with your content by designing it with these not-so-well-known goals in mind. For example, people love to zoom in on posts that include people (specifically influencers or celebrities) and places (the more scenic, the better).

Be strategic in designing your @Instagram #content so people zoom in, take screenshots, view your profile, and more, says @mjbecker_via @CMIContent @corpv. Click To Tweet

To encourage longer consumption times, create an experience instead of just a picture post. Listicle-style carousel posts or mini-stories that warrant four to five posts for the price of one indicate a big reveal at the end, prompting users to keep viewing. Lengthier captions also can be helpful for this.

An Instagram post showing and image of an older man sitting down with a lengthier caption.

While you focus on how to involve your audience to make your posts more attractive to Instagram, you also can take set up your content to be structurally attractive, too.


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Optimize page and posts for discovery

Instagram is more likely to boost posts to the top of users’ feeds and bump stories to the front of the line that capitalize on the technical best practices. Here are three to consider:

  • Use best post size for engagement. Posts that take up more of the screen work the best. The ideal ratio is 1,080 by 1,350 pixels (4:5 ratio). The image is slightly longer vertically than horizontally and takes up the whole screen in the feed.

Square posts draw the user’s eye away from your content and entice them to keep scrolling to a handle’s content that is more readily visible.

  • Time your post for engagement. Statusbrew reports the best time to post on Instagram for engagement is 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays in your primary audience’s time zone. Of course, you may realize a different best time based on your audience, industry, purpose, etc. Pay attention to your engagement analytics to help inform your timing decision.
  • Publish at ideal frequency. Most major brands post at least once per day to remain top of mind. While consistency is more important than how much you post, aim for a five times per week cadence.

From a content discovery standpoint, posts also are best positioned to be found by wider audiences using tags and special demarcations. Tactics to employ include:

  • Use hashtags, emojis, and unique fonts. I like to use a fancy text generator to stylize and spruce up insights in my captions. Emojis add flavor, while hashtags add context and discoverability.
  • Add alt text for organic search and tag others to be found by similar audiences. Include a keyword or two to your alt text just as you would for blog or web imagery. You can also tag relevant larger accounts in your posts. Both tactics will help extend your reach.

An image showing an Instagram post using relevant alt text.

  • Add a location, CTA, shoppable component, or other details. Additional relevant information in a post helps the algorithm understand who you are, where you are, who you’re targeting, and what you want those people to do. All that data increases the odds that it promotes your post more often than those who use the spray-and-pray method, hoping to hit it big.

Do your own promotion

Lastly, in addition to urging followers to help amplify your Instagram content, you can do the same. Among the direct promotional activities:

  • Share your posts by direct message with other accounts. Right after you post, use the send arrow to mass deliver (individual) messages to others likely to engage with that content.
  • Cross-promote by sharing the posts on Facebook and embedding them on your blog. Post a direct link to your Instagram post in relevant Facebook groups. A post’s embed code used on a (ideally high-ranking) website also can serve as a vote of confidence to Instagram.

Game the ’gram

The Instagram algorithm doesn’t exist to help your content blow up just because it’s good content. Rather, its goal is to show individuals what they’re most likely to be captivated in the moment based on their behavior throughout the day and to keep them immersed as long as possible within the platform.

By keeping that in mind – and actively working to address that understanding – your Instagram content will have a better chance of getting discovered and growing in popularity.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute