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18.03.16 / What does Instagram’s new algorithm mean for you?

Instagram announced this week their intention to change the newsfeed from chronological to algorithmic: essentially from what the last thing posted was, to the most ‘relevant’ thing posted in the period since you last logged in. Commentariat was predictably eager for the dramatic ‘user revolt’ story (the petition against runs at 150k signatures), which belies some of the more nuanced and considered analysis which would drive understanding of what comes next.

Why are they changing the Instagram newsfeed?

The Instagram blog post says it’s in response to the fact that users miss 70% of posts. Now this won’t actually change that (switching how things are presented in this way doesn’t make people view more, it makes people view a ‘better’ set of images) but it will theoretically ensure more ‘value’ from the time those users spent. That could long-term drive a stickier platform.

In reality it’s about addressing the ‘noise’ in the feed. If users don’t feel they get what they signed up for, they switch off. Now your feed is full of things you’ve chosen to subscribe to, but forgotten why. It’s also full of poorer quality content as the platform grows, and you become more enthusiastic in your clicks. This is arguably truest of long-standing users. Email has suffered this issue for years, Twitter grapples with it constantly, and algorithms are theoretically the way to address this, by automatically showing you the most relevant content.

In practice, it’s also about the long-term profitability of the platform. This change better prepares their ability to make brand use, in particular, commercial and not organic in nature.

What does it mean for my organisation, or for my Instagram influencer career?

The first thing to note is the lack of surprise from those who’ve spent their time in the development of social media. This was an inevitable Instagram strategy – it’s straight from the Facebook playbook. First you introduce adverts, then you make the algorithmic newsfeed, then (having established the principle you decide what’s best for users, with an invisible hand), you squeeze out the organic reach of certain classes of users – most notably brands. Brands are then required to use adverts to activate their existing audience they’ve previously treated as a captive audience. The endpoint, one way or another, is very likely to be effectively zero organic reach for brands, should the same plan be followed as Facebook deployed Facebook owns Instagram, ICYMI).

One interesting outtake from the Instagram blog post was the first official estimate of what organic reach currently looks like in practice. Instagram analytics are virtually non-existent beyond on the ad products, and so there’s been no meaningful way to gauge how many people typically see an organic post. Now 30% is high compared to other social platforms, so the newsfeed is by no means as noisy as the Twitter one, for example.

A specific concern from some of those protesting the move is that this limits discovery of surprising or new ‘voices’. This is somewhat confused – if it were in your newsfeed you’d already decided to follow them, so that’s less relevant. It does point to a specific challenge within Instagram for all users though – discovery. The absence of ‘viral’ social gestures (essentially a sharing mechanic like Fwding an email, Retweeting, ReTumbling) means you only see content your existing users post, not them sharing others. To some extent people have got round this by hacking regrams, but it’s never had the same dynamic as on other networks. So, in practice people have discovered new Instagram content in two ways: via other networks (e.g. cross-promotion in Twitter etc) or via topic search (i.e. #breakfast). These are going to remain unchanged, and if anything an even greater emphasis will be placed upon them as routes to gain popularity. Snapchat sees similar viral discovery barriers through its absence of an equivalent social gesture.

Algorithms also shouldn’t be viewed as de facto ‘bad’. Bad algorithms are bad, good ones will, definitively, provide a better experience for everyone who doesn’t literally live their day on Instagram. Concerned users would be better lobbying Instagram over the dimensions in the algorithm (e.g. if one wants to ensure they’re exposed to great content more than just that of their friends, that’s achievable). There’s no theoretical reason Instagram couldn’t allow users to personalise what matters to them in their newsfeed in this way… (Just sayin’).

Specific areas which might lead Instagram to different rollout decisions to Facebook might include that brands arguably are more relevant in Instagram. For many it is a platform about the visual aspirational world: a space to consume and collect things more beautiful than the ‘real’ world they live in. To that extent, luxury brands, cars, beauty, fashion brands are as (potentially more) relevant than in Facebook, which really is about your ‘real’ social network (babies, cats, beers), combined with media content distribution. One downside of the advertising product rollout in Instagram has been the rise of irrelevant brands to the medium, and it could be that Instagram don’t universally penalise brands in quite the way Facebook have, but do so more selectively, based on relevance. Ask followers if they view ASOS posts as essential to consume, and you’ll quickly get the idea of the importance of brands to the medium…

Many who rely on Instagram as a medium to share their content (e.g. Instagram influencers) are rightly concerned. What if their audience drops? One positive for this group ought be that they are likely to be the ‘winners’ from this. Non-brand, well-followed highly-engaged content is almost certain to top an algorithmic newsfeed, especially if several of someone’s friends also follow your feed. Those who might want to look nervously over their shoulder might include those who have “like gamed” over the years, or bought followers, and therefore have worse follower/engagement ratios. That sort of thing is what newsfeed algos penalise, and is likely to see reach drop.

In fact influencers may see the burgeoning economy for their placements from brands rise. Assuming brand reach declines and (good) influencers holds up, the ‘value’ of a post from the latter is likely to raise yet further. Facebook never had this aspect of “homegrown” stars, so it’s an area without clear precedent for Instagram.

What should I do to prepare for the Instagram newsfeed?

As a user, you have no control. The sober way this was announced via the NYT shows they’ve considered this. It’s happening. Deal with it.

As an Instagram influencer, ensure your content is really, really engaging. Look for the stuff which drives hearts, not just artistic style points. Also, encourage your followers to get their friends to follow. You’d probably do this anyway, but “affinity” scores matter in algorithms.

As a brand, you ought to have been anticipating this for some time, and factored it into your plans. You will, in the medium-term, need to adopt a strategy with three broad components: paid amplification, customer activation (get them to create own content), and influencer placement.

It’s the circle of (social network platform) life, to paraphrase a wise cartoon lion.

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