person looking at instagram on their cell phone

Can You Beat the Instagram Algorithm in 2021?

Whether you’re a content creator, marketer, influencer, or just a casual user with an Instagram account, chances are you’ve heard of The Algorithm — that all-knowing thing that decides which content goes viral and which posts are sent to the bottom of the pile, never to be liked or shared again.

For as long as The Algorithm has existed, people have been bound and determined to beat it, to find that one weird trick or series of hashtags you just have to use to grow from one follower to a million. But can it really be done?

The short answer is yes — there’s a tried-and-true way to increase your engagement, reach more potential followers, and find success on Instagram. But the path to get there might look a little different than you may expect. For the long answer, we have to dig a little deeper into how The Algorithm works.

 

What is The Algorithm?

What I’m about to say next may come as a shock, but I need you to stick with me here: The Algorithm doesn’t exist.

Or, at least, not in the way most of us thought it did. Instagram recently published an article called Shedding More Light on How Instagram Works to clear up some of the misconceptions about the Instagram platform. In it, Adam Mosseri explains that there is no singular algorithm that controls everything on Instagram.

“Instagram doesn’t have one algorithm that oversees what people do and don’t see on the app,” Mosseri explains. “We use a variety of algorithms, classifiers, and processes, each with its own purpose. … Each part of the app — Feed, Explore, Reels — uses its own algorithm tailored to how people use it. People tend to look for their closest friends in Stories, but they want to discover something entirely new in Explore. We rank things differently in different parts of the app, based on how people use them.”

In other words, The Algorithm is actually a whole collection of algorithms, all working at the same time. The article also explains that Instagram examines thousands of factors, which they call signals, to determine what a user does and does not see.

Most of the algorithms center around a few key signals though. These include:

  • Information about the post — Thing things like popularity, when it was posted, how long it is (if it’s a video), location tags, how quickly the post is gaining attention, and much more. If it’s a reel, this also includes things like the audio track, pixels, and popularity.
  • Information about who posted — These signals are mostly used to help Instagram get a sense of how interesting the user might be to another user. This could be based on how similar their content is to other users you engage with, or even how many of your close friends interact with their content.
  • Your activity — This collection of signals is used to get a feel for what you’re interested in and what you’re most likely to interact with. This includes what you typically like, save, share, etc.
  • Your history — If you’ve interacted heavily with a particular user in the past, chances are you’re interested in seeing their content again. Instagram explains that one signal might be how often two users comment on each other’s posts, but this also includes things like direct messages, shares, and other factors.

In the article, Instagram actually goes through each of their algorithms in detail, providing better insight into how they work, what affects them, and how those signals are weighted.

What does this mean?

To put it bluntly, it means that “beating the algorithm,” something which users have struggled to do since Instagram’s inception, is actually even harder than we thought. There’s no one single strategy that will work for each type of post because the signals that Instagram cares about are weighted differently for each form of content.

This also means that all the posts you see about the algorithm specifically focusing on video, or how saves matter more than shares, might have a grain of truth to them, but they’re far from the complete picture.

More importantly, Instagram has essentially confirmed that the likelihood of a post appearing on a user’s Feed or Explore tab is more dependent on the user themselves than the poster. Each individual user’s Feed, Explore, and Reels tabs are customized for them, predominantly based on their own interests and habits.

In other words, if you’re not creating content that would be interesting to them, they probably won’t see it. While hashtag strategies and best practices still matter, the truth is that the algorithm(s) is too complex to simply follow a few rules and become the next mega-influencer.

 

So, wait, can you beat the algorithm or not?

In a nutshell, no, you can’t “beat” the algorithm. Instagram’s algorithms are too advanced to be defeated, hacked, skirted around, or fooled. Anyone that says otherwise is full of it. (If you don’t believe me, here’s an influencer’s take.)

That said, you can make the Instagram algorithm work to your advantage. The only true way to “beat” the algorithm is to give it what it wants — or should I say, give your audience what they want.

Today, your best bet to find success on the Instagram platform is to create truly incredible content. While that might seem like a humdrum answer, it’s the truth. If you want to beat the algorithm, you have to create valuable, consistent, and shareable content — which is to say, you win by doing the thing you’re supposed to do, not by cheating.

Luckily, for users who want to do it the right way and put in the work, there are some great strategies that — when followed consistently — can help take your Instagram game to the next level.

 

Here are 6 Instagram strategies that actually work.

1. Find a community

instagram-community

You can’t be everything to everyone all of the time. Start by identifying your specific target audience and figuring out what they care about most. Narrowing your focus will help you create real connections with real people, and those connections will be the foundation for your growth.

Next, take a look at other successful accounts in the community. Find out how often they post, see which hashtags they’re using, and try to pinpoint the specific tactics they’re using to drive engagement. This could be things like posting times, caption length, photo styles, and a million other factors, but chances are the things that make them stand out should be fairly obvious.

Once you’ve identified the community you want to join, start posting the kinds of content those community members expect to see on their feed. The goal here isn’t to disrupt the market — the goal is to give people more of what they already want, and do it really, really well.

 

2. Engage with people

One of the best ways to improve your chances of being seen and engaged with is to establish relationships in your community. The more you interact with a particular user, the more of your content they’re likely to see. That means you have to put in the work and create authentic connections through comments, direct messages, likes, shares, tags, and saves.

If you want to reach more users, you have to be an active user yourself. The more active you are in the community, the more likely the community is to see your content and interact with it in kind. It seems like a simple concept, but it’s one of the most crucial steps to boosting your engagement.

 

3. Post all kinds of content

    • Static Posts
    • Carousels
    • Stories
    • Instagram Live Videos
    • Reels
    • IGTV

As you can see, Instagram offers a ton of ways to engage, and you should be using all of them to some extent. While anecdotal evidence might suggest that your strategy should focus on Reels or video, the numbers don’t lie. According to Sprout Social, carousels actually score the highest engagement rate at 1.94%, and static images (1.74%) actually beat out all forms of video content (1.45%).

So, does that mean you should only be posting carousels and photos? Absolutely not. Experts like Sprout Social agree that video is still booming. The fact of the matter is engagement rates for all types of content are remarkably similar across the board. That means users are engaging with all kinds of content while they’re on the app, so the more types of content you’re posting, the more likely you are to expand your reach, and that means video content is vital to your growth.

instagram-engagement-graph

And don’t sleep on Stories, either. Instagram says that nearly half a billion people use Stories daily. Plus, Stories are a great way to recycle the content you’ve already created and reach more of your audience.

As for Reels specifically, this one’s a no-brainer for your content strategy. Instagram explains that the Explore and Reels algorithms are specifically focused on sharing new content to users. That means that your Reels are more likely to reach new accounts than, say, a static image.

Plus, Reels are one of the fastest-growing aspects of Instagram, which likely comes as no surprise, given the popularity of other short-form video apps like TikTok. With over 1 billion users on the Instagram platform, reaching new accounts outside of your immediate community should be an essential part of your overall strategy, and Reels are one of the most effective ways to do that.

 

4. Pay attention to analytics

Insights, Instagram’s built-in analytics dashboard for creator and business accounts, is an absolute blessing for content creators. With quick access to growth visualizations, performance metrics, ideal posting windows, and more, Instagram makes it easy to optimize your content strategy based on how your followers are engaging with your posts.

One of the most important factors to home in on is your audience’s “Most Active Times.” This chart shows what days and times your followers are typically on the platform, and that can (and should) have a major impact on when you choose to post and engage with them.

While research will tell you that the overall best time to post on Instagram is 11:00 AM on Wednesdays, the truth is that it varies wildly from community to community. For instance, for my personal Instagram account, my ideal posting window is at noon on Mondays. Engagement tends to spike a bit higher between Wednesday and Friday but then dips again over the weekend.

You can use the 11:00 AM on Wednesday statistic as a starting point but pay attention to your own analytics and try different strategies. You may find that posting a bit earlier or later is more effective, or the specific posting time may not have a major impact with your particular community. Just experiment!

There are also tools that give you insights into your reach, content interactions, and performance metrics for each individual post.

When you’re first beginning to grow your account, dig into the analytics every now and then to see which posts performed especially well. Try to determine what the posts have in common that could explain why their engagement was higher than other posts. The more content you create, the easier these trends will be to spot, and as your account grows, dialing in your content to your audience’s preferences will become easier and more effective.

 

5. Learn how to use hashtags

instagram-hashtags

There are a million articles out there with amazing advice on how to leverage hashtags to expand your reach (this one from Hootsuite comes to mind, as does this one from Later). I can’t recommend those (very) detailed articles enough if you’re looking for a true deep dive. For those of you who just want the highlights on how to choose the right hashtags, here’s what you need to know:

  • What are Hashtags? Hashtags are Instagram’s way of organizing your content and making it easy for users to find.
  • How many hashtags can I use? Each post can include up to 30 hashtags, and there’s a healthy debate over whether you should use all 30 or not. I vote yes, use all 30. There’s literally no definitive research that shows using fewer hashtags is more effective, or that it negatively impacts users in any way. The majority of arguments around using fewer tags center around anecdotal evidence and the idea that users find it “spammy,” but the numbers don’t support the argument. In fact, the vast majority of experiments prove that the more hashtags you use, the better your reach will be.
  • Where do hashtags go? You can include your hashtags in the post caption or the first comment. Here again, there’s a debate on which approach works better, but there’s no right answer. It’s entirely a matter of preference and style.
  • Which hashtags are the most popular? You might be tempted to use the most popular hashtags on Instagram, like #love and #instagood. This is a trap. Top 50 hashtags aren’t likely to boost your engagement or help your account in any way whatsoever. About the most you can expect is to be bombarded with spam comments.
  • How do I know which hashtags to use? There are tons of tools available online for hashtag research (some better and some worse). But in my opinion, the best way to figure out which ones you should be using is by looking at the hashtags used by popular accounts in your community. It’s a great place to start. Once you’ve found a collection, you can start narrowing down your particular go-to hashtags based on the specific kind of content you’re creating. Focus on smaller, more targeted, and niche hashtags that are specific to your community.
  • Can I keep using the same hashtags? Sort of. Vary up your hashtags from post to post. The Algorithm gets fussy if you use the exact same tags on all your content. It’s okay (and encouraged) to select around 10-15 staple hashtags for your community that you use on every post, but always be sure to include a few that are specific to each piece of content.
  • What are branded hashtags, and should I be using them? Branded hashtags are unique hashtags that specifically relate to your content. They could be the name of your business, a tagline, or something else that only applies to your brand. By using branded hashtags, you can create a community around your brand, ensure that all of your content is grouped together, and provide an opportunity for other users to easily share their own content that relates to your brand with your brand’s community. So, should you use them? That’s entirely up to you, but there’s very few downsides to the strategy. Branded hashtags are a great (and very easy) way to boost your brand identity, build community, and encourage engagement.
  • What’s the most important thing to know about choosing hashtags? Be authentic. Use hashtags that actually apply to your content. Don’t try to fool people into stumbling onto your content by using popular but unrelated tags. It won’t work, and it’s more likely to have a negative impact.

 

6. Inspire engagement

Boosting engagement is one of the biggest hurdles for many content creators and brands on Instagram. Luckily, there are tons of strategies out there for increasing the number of comments, likes, shares, and saves your content receives.

Now, it’s important to remember that these aren’t guaranteed to work for your audience, and what may work for your account may fall flat for another. That’s why experimentation is key. Try new things, track your analytics, and focus on optimizing your strategy as you grow.

That said, one of the single best ways to boost your engagement is to invite engagement. Focus on creating content that’s interactive, that encourages users to spend extra time watching or reading, and that’s easily shared. Here are a few ways to do just that:

  • Write longer captions

In most forms of online writing, conventional wisdom tells us that less is more. But surprisingly enough, that doesn’t seem to be the case on Instagram. In fact, according to research from Influencer marketing platform Fohr, average caption length has more than doubled since 2016.

In other words, storytelling is becoming a much bigger part of what users want out of the accounts they follow. It’s not just about the image or the video, it’s about the story behind it. With a max character count of 2,200 (which comes out to about 300ish words), Instagram provides plenty of space for creating a compelling narrative.

If you’ve never tried exploring that space, use it! Write longer-form posts and try to pull your readers in. You might be surprised at how many of your followers actually take the time to read.

  • Make your Stories interactive

instagram-stories

Stories are a great way to share your thoughts, your own content, and other accounts’ content quickly and easily. One simple way to boost the engagement of your stories is by using all the tools available to you, which Instagram calls stickers. These include:

  • Polls
  • Questions
  • Sliders
  • Countdowns
  • GIFs
  • Quizzes
  • And more

Try incorporating these stickers throughout your stories. These simple additions can have a huge impact on the attention your Stories receive and the number of conversations they start. Plus, whenever your audience responds to your questions, you can share those responses for additional content!

  • Encourage comments

Ever noticed how some content creators and brands will end their captions with a question? Things like:

  • What do you think? Let us know in the comments!
  • Which one is your favorite?
  • Where should I travel next?
  • What’s your favorite food?

While it might seem gimmicky at first glance, there’s a reason this tactic has become a staple on the platform — it works.

Think about it: If you’re scrolling through your feed and read a 200-word caption, and that story just suddenly ends without any direction, what are you going to do? Take the time to think back and choose some part of the story to comment on? Probably not. You’re more likely to just tap that like button and move on with your day.

But once a question is posed, especially right there at the end, commenting becomes easy. It’s a prompt, almost like a call-to-action. So, next time you’re about to post content, think about ways that you can encourage your users to engage easily. As a bonus, those few seconds of extra effort to add in a question also help you know whether your followers are really reading your content or not!

  • Embrace the carousel

 

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A post shared by Infinity Marketing (@infinity_mkt)


We’ve all been guilty of mindlessly swiping up on our feeds. At some point, everything starts to blur together, and it can be easy to skip over a post. Carousels are a great way to encourage users to pause, to break up that reflexive swiping, and to take that extra second to see what the next image is (and the next, and the next).

This momentary pause can be the difference between a like, a comment, a share, or a missed opportunity. Maybe that’s why carousels receive some of the highest engagement on the Instagram platform.

This doesn’t mean that every post has to contain 10 images, but it might mean that you should consider varying the number of photos you include from post to post. Try out different combinations and watch your analytics to see what’s resonating with your audience.

 

And that’s the end of this rabbit hole!

So, in conclusion, no, you can’t beat the Instagram algorithm, but you’re not at its mercy, either. While every community is different, one thing will always be true: People love great content. If you’re creating it, the followers and the engagement will come.

Go give some of these strategies a try and find what works for your account. Oh, and reach out to us on our social channels to let us know how things are going! We’re always happy to chat.

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