Understanding Instagram’s Business Model
Before we clarify how the algorithm works, you need to know how Instagram’s business model works.
This is important because:
You will know why Instagram’s algorithm is designed to function the way it is.
So what is Instagram’s business goal?
Because Instagram is free to use, they rely on revenue from advertisers to make a profit.
It works like this:
Instagram is always optimizing their algorithm to show you content which it believes you will enjoy.
This keeps you using the platform for LOOOONNGGEERRR periods of time — so that they can show more advertisements and increase profit.
It’s pretty simple right?
Basically, the longer you spend looking at posts and stories on Instagram, the more advertisements they can show you.
For example let’s say:
- You spend 10 minutes on Instagram, they can show you 2 advertisements and make ~$2.00
- But if you spend 30 minutes on Instagram, they can show you 6 advertisements and make ~$6.00 #Cha-Ching
While Instagram is trying to show you more advertisements, they are also designing their platform to better users experience.
Instagram wants users to enjoy using their service, which thus keeps them on the platform longer.
As you can see, the theme here is that the algorithm is designed to keep people active on Instagram for as long as possible.
But how does it do this...
How the Instagram algorithm works and what its designed to do
So you have established how the algorithm is designed to keep users on the platform for as long as possible.
The algorithm is designed to make you spend as much time as possible for each session (each time you open the app).
The algorithm is also designed to keep you reopening the app. This is known as a ‘Casino Effect’ which I will talk about in the next section.
So how does the algorithm keep users on the platform longer?
Believe it or not, the algorithm is constantly monitoring the interests of all 1+ billion users on Instagram.
The algorithm looks at your interests, so that it can show you content it believes you will like — naturally this makes you want to spend more time on the platform.
Think of it like this:
If you keep seeing images and videos that you have interest in, you naturally keep scrolling as you want to see more.
If that content suddenly isn’t interesting, your attention is lost and you move on to something else.
Therefore, Instagram’s algorithm is always analyzing your behaviour, and every other individual users behaviour too.
And then it shows you what it believes you’re interested in.
This is known as reward prediction:
So while the Instagram business model won’t ever change, you can bet your socks that their algorithm will always be designed and updated with the goal of keeping users active for as long as possible.
If you remember when Instagram removed the chronological feed, why do you think that happened? — It was to prioritize the best content at the top; to keep users interests high. However it backfired because it would keep showing the same posts over and over again, losing users interests.
Now, before we discuss how you can use this knowledge to make a profile that the algorithm rewards, let’s discuss the ‘Casino Effect’.
How the algorithm implements ‘The Casino Effect’ to increase addiction
We're about to get down and scientifical here.
On Instagram they apply a ‘Cassino Effect’ to keep users addicted to using the app.
Here’s how it works:
Slot machines in casinos reward people with both positive and negative results: winning and losing.
Video games also do the same, by rewarding players randomly with upgraded items.
Researchers discovered that humans need a balance between positive and negative outcomes to keep our brains engaged.
Otherwise we get bored...
So if you’ve ever played slots, you’ve probably experienced that intense anticipation while each row is spinning — this is because your brain releases dopamine.
The dopamine 'tells' your brain that it’s going to be rewarded:
Because you know there is a chance of a positive outcome (a reward) for the action you took.
Dopamine is a chemical associated with addition, it’s a compound present in the body as a neurotransmitter. It enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move towards them. It also helps regulate movement, attention, learning and emotional responses. Simply put, that ‘good feeling’ you get when you’re rewarded is dopamine being released.
So how does the 'Casino Effect' apply to Instagram’s algorithm?
The ‘Casino Effect’ happens when you post on Instagram.
When you post to your profile dopamine releases expecting the reward of likes and comments. When you receive the likes and comments your mind associates this with reward because it feels good that you’ve gained social approval from other peers.
In fact been said that:
Instagram’s algorithm delays the giving of likes to make this dopamine release more intense: increasing your addiction as the reward feels even better.
So instead of receiving likes over a period of time, it is much more rewarding to receive a lot of likes at once.
There are companies which specialize in this technology:
It’s something to be aware of, as it’s not uncommon for social media platforms to exploit the brain of its users to increase their addiction.
If this stuff interests you, there is more about it on a Harvard study here.
The 3 decisive Instagram algorithm factors that create your feed
On Instagram there are three main factors it considers when it creates an optimized feed for you.
Here’s the kicker:
There is no one default feed on Instagram — each profile has a feed designed for them specifically based on three decisive factors.
This is great because it means you have a chance to grow in your niche...
...unlike in 2017 where you had to compete with everyone.
Let’s discuss each factor and why they’re important:
The algorithm is designed to look at a users past interests so that they can predict what content you are most likely to engage with.
If a user gets shown content they’re interested in, they stay on the platform for longer.
The algorithm looks at interest factors such as:
- What content you like
- What you comment on
- Profiles you follow
- Hashtags you follow
- Stories you watch
- Stories you respond or engage with
- Who you are DM’ing
- What advertisements you click on
For example, if a user spends a lot of time looking at makeup profiles, it will show them more makeup posts in the top of their feed.
So if you upload high quality and interesting posts for your niche:
Instagram will be more likely to show people your posts who interested in your niche but are not following your profile.
This is the #1 factor the algorithm considers.
Next up is your relationship with other users on Instagram.
The Instagram algorithm looks at:
- How often you look at a profile
- Do you DM each other a lot
- Are you tagging each other in posts or comments
- Do you save each others images
- How long are you watching their stories for
The better your relationship with another user, the higher the priority Instagram places on showing your posts to that user.
Therefore, it’s important to have close relationships with your followers so that Instagram is always showing your posts to them = more engagement on your profile.
Finally, Instagram’s algorithm places new content at the top of your feed over old content.
This is not as important as your Interests and Relationships, but still is important to know.
You want to post at times your followers are most active at to maximize your engagement. I wrote a guide on automatically posting and finding your best times here.
You can use your Insights > Audience to understand your best posting times.
Now that you know why the Instagram algorithm functions and the three factors it considers to create a users feed...
...we can look at how you can create a high quality scoring profile that the algorithm naturally promotes.
Get organic algorithm promotion by getting a high quality score on Instagram
Let’s discuss on how you can use the algorithm to give you a high quality score...
...and promote your content for free.
Simply put, a high quality score means the algorithm believes that users like your profile a lot — this means:
- Having lots of engagement (likes and comments)
- Being tagged by other users
- Having your posts saved
- People sharing your content in stories or DM’s
- Having lots of followers
- Posting consistently
- People spending a lot of time on your profile
There is a lot that the algorithm considers when you post too:
But the main goal you need to work towards is:
Create and grow a profile that keeps users on the platform for a longer period of time.
Instagram LOVES profiles that keep users engaged and active on the platform — because Instagram can show additional advertisements and make more profit.
Because you’re posting content that is high quality and engaging, Instagram will show it to people who are not following you in:
- Hashtag results top posts
- Explore page
- In users feeds as suggested content
- And in suggested users after a person follows a similar account to yours
Which means you get free organic growth!
So here’s some tips on how to increase your quality score and boost the amount of time people spend on your profile.
Upload your best posts consistently
This one is obvious, but for some reason people don’t do it.
Upload only your best images!
They naturally get more engagement because they’re your most interesting posts.
If you’re not sure what to upload, you can use your insights to see what content is getting the most likes.
Or look at successful profiles in your niche and analyze the type of content they’re uploading — look at the subject, colors, editing, caption, hashtags and so on...
Keep posts consistent for an aesthetic grid
You need a profile grid that is pleasing to look at.
It needs to look as if it is one whole and not a bunch of random seperate images.
Therefore keep your subject (niche/topic) and editing consistent.
For example, notice how this account of beckiandchris has the same editing and colors on all their images:
Think of your grid as if it was a brand: the tones, colors and style should be similar.
This will keep people scrolling through all your images because they’re of the same interest and are edited in the same style.
Ask questions in your captions
Asking users to leave a comment is a great engagement trigger.
It’s going to increase both your engagement and time users spend on your posts.
Keep questions simple though, as if someone has to type out a long answer it’s less likely to cause a response.
Things such as:
- Do you agree?
- How cool is this?
- Would you ever do this?
- Rate this from 0-100
- Leave a comment about XYZ...
It’s also much easier if you pre-schedule your posts to write all your captions at once, I have a guide on how to do this here.
Post when your followers are most active
Make sure to post when your followers are using Instagram.
You can see this in your insights after switching to a business profile.
Head on into the Audience tab and at the bottom you’ll be able to see when your audience is most active for each day.
This will ensure that as many as your followers will see your post due to the Recency factor.
Engage with your followers
Make sure to like and comment on your followers posts.
This builds your relationship so that the algorithm will show your posts to each other more frequently.
This ensures that your posts are getting as much engagement as possible in the future and also that people are spending more time on your profile.
Make your comments stand out by using emojis 😍
Emojis make your comments more visually captivating and draw eyeballs to them...which can mean more clicks to your profile.
Get users to tag you in their posts
If you run a business get people to tag you in their photos if they’re using your product.
In addition, reward them by re-uploading their posts if they’ve tagged you.
You can mention this in your bio as so: “Tag us for a chance to be featured”.
I use this tactic all the time on my reposting accounts. I tell my followers to tag me in their images for a chance at being reuploaded.
And they will do it, especially if you have lots of followers because it’s free exposure for them, just make sure to only repost high quality photos!
Join an Instagram course
Learning a strategy that is up-to-date and shows you exactly how to do this can be very helpful.
For example being shown how to optimize your profile and gain followers can be helpful in a video walkthrough.
There are plenty of courses you can join.
But if you are looking for a FREE course, I’ve got you covered :)
Instagram algorithm myths
To finish up we need to clarify some myths about how the algorithm works.
These myths can get into your head and become highly annoying if things are not going right.
Which happens to everyone.
You need to remember that the algorithm uses machine learning and is always changing.
Bugs and natural errors happen — it’s not always your fault if things are not going right, so don’t beat yourself up over it.
Just keep uploading high quality posts, engage with others and you can’t go wrong.
Anyway, on to the myths:
Myth — Instagram hides your posts
Instagram has stated that it doesn’t hide posts of accounts you are following.
“We [Instagram] have not made any recent changes to feed ranking, and we never hide posts from people you’re following – if you keep scrolling, you will see them all. Again, your feed is personalized to you and evolves over time based on how you use Instagram.”
Note they say “people you’re following”. Therefore, yes your posts and other users posts will be hidden from you to an extent. This is because they won’t show you cat images if you only like dog images.
It’s once again the algorithm optimizing a feed that shows you content it believes you will like.
Myth — Your posts are shadowbanned
Shadowbans are not real on Instagram.
If your posts are not showing it’s due to three reasons:
- A hashtag you are using is currently reported by the community and content isn’t showing. Even if it is one hashtag, it will stop the image showing in all of the hashtags you use.
- Your post has been considered as spam by Instagram’s algorithm, this will happen if you’re promoting a product, service or even a freebie.
- Instagram doesn’t show you posts that you’ve uploaded, instead it shows you content from others users as it wants to show you new content which you haven’t seen. You can always see the post on your profile.
Myth — You need to post stories to be seen by more people
Technically if you don’t use stories or IGTV it won’t affect how many people see your posts.
However, using stories and IGTV will organically increase your growth as they are other channels where people can discover you.
For example: if you post a story and use hashtags on it, plus include a poll to boost engagement, people who are following those hashtags can discover your profile.
Myth — Switching to a business profile reduces your growth
Switching to a business profile doesn’t change your profiles reach.
“Instagram does not give extra feed presence to personal accounts or business accounts, so switching won’t help your reach.”
Therefore it’s a great idea to switch to a business profile because it gives you access to free insights and extra features for your profile.
I talk about this more inside my free Instagram course here.