social medias growth strategy

Instagram Organic Growth Strategy: How does the Instagram algorithm work?

I analyzed the words of Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, to build an organic growth strategy plan.

Growth strategy is not a list of how-to tips on how to make content go viral. Strategy requires a deeper understanding of the long-term process of growth. Understanding how the Instagram (and other algorithms) work sheds light on how to use the platform correctly in both short and long term.

In this article I want to suggest a long term growth strategy for your Instagram marketing journey. I personally apply it now only to the social media accounts I manage but to my entrepreneurial journey in general. 

Duncan J. Watts, a sociologist at Microsoft Research said in his 2014 lecture after winning the Everett M. Rogers award:

“Engineering social epidemics (virality) is a fantasy. This is something in our dreams we would be able to do. I don’t see any evidence that anyone can actually do this intentionally.”

From “5 Questions for Duncan Watts” (USC Annenberg)

I agree. If your account makes on average 100 likes per post you can’t engineer a post to make a million likes. But I also think there is a broader definition of the term “viral”.

The root of your strategy lays in the understanding of the mechanism of virality, of how Instagram works behind the scenes. It always seems to me somewhat magical, but the mechanism behind it is actually simple and brilliant.

According to Google, within the first 10 days of June 2020 there were 4 times more views for videos related to “Black lives matter” than in the entire year of 2019. It created peaks of attention not only to the hashtag #blacklivesmatter but also to content related to the protests.

Most people would agree that the black lives matter movement went viral. There are important lessons we can learn from the virality phenomenon. But more importantly by understanding the definition of what is viral we can come up with a growth strategy.

How does the Instagram algorithm work

I base my explanation on an article by Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram in Meta (previously Facebook). He is basically the CEO of the Instagram business unit in this big corporate.

“One of the main misconceptions we want to clear up is the existence of “The Algorithm.” Instagram doesn’t have one algorithm that oversees what people do and don’t see on the app. We use a variety of algorithms, classifiers, and processes, each with its own purpose.”

From “Shedding More Light on How Instagram Works” (A. Mosseri)

In this article explains I will refer to the different algorithms of Instagram using the term “the algorithm”. But the algorithms of the news feed, the explore and reels have differences between them.

The reason I still refer to all of them using the term “the algorithm” is because within the context of Instagram growth strategy it is what they all share in common that matters. When content goes viral, it gets its boost from all of these algorithms together, so our focus is on this mechanism they all share.

The mechanism of how content goes viral is logical and makes sense. It’s conducted of two main elements: the estimated demand for the content and the level of competition. 

Supply and demand are not common terms for social media, in the digital marketing terminology they are more commonly used when talking about organic search engines (like Google). The users of Google search and Instagram might have a different intent levels, but the algorithms are similar in the way they rank the content.

These sayings might sound complex, but after we break down the viral content journey it will become simple and logical, stay with me. 

But before our viral content starts its journey, let’s clarify the fundamental difference between search and social algorithms: Intent.

Search vs. Social Media intent

When you open Google you intend to search for something. You are very likely to interact with the content that you find in the search results page, the chance you will click on an article and read it through is high.

(Maybe you found this article on Google as well, what did you search for?)

But when you open your social media app, Instagram for example, you have no idea what you are about to see. When you suddenly see a piece of content that interests you, you might then interact with it or even explore further the account of its creator or the hashtag that was attached to the post.

But you definitely didn’t come with the intention to look for it. Social media traffic counts, in general, as traffic with low click-through-rate compared to search engine traffic due to the lower intent. 

Before digital experts disqualify me for what I say, I’ll add as a disclaimer that Intent is a relative term. There are cases where the intent in social is higher than the intent in search. For example when someone is looking for something that appears directly in the search results of Google and isn’t likely to click on anything.

I asked Google when Instagram was created, I don’t think I’ll click on anything there.

But what does this have to do with how to go viral?

The behavior of the potential attention (aka demand) is different between the search and social platforms, the way the explore page on Instagram works is fundamentally different from the way google search works.

Except of one thing. 

There is one thing the Instagram explore page and the Google search results page share in common: ranking.

The way that Google’s search engine decides how to rank the content is similar to the one of Instagram. They both rank the content based on the most important parameter of content creation, which is the goal of every content creator.

How Instagram ranks content

The way Instagram ranks content is by predicting the chance for successful engagement with the content as it reaches more people. It makes sense when you take in consideration the actual customers of Instagram. 80% of businesses consider engagement as the most important metric for them.

“The first step we take is defining a set of posts to rank. To find photos and videos you might be interested in, we look at signals like what posts you’ve liked, saved, and commented on in the past. Let’s say you’ve recently liked a number of photos from San Francisco’s dumpling chef Cathay Bi (@dumplingclubsf). We then look at who else likes Cathay’s photos, and then what other accounts those people are interested in. Maybe people who like Cathay are also into the SF dim sum spot @dragonbeaux.”

From “Shedding More Light on How Instagram Works” (A. Mosseri)

But in order to build a growth strategy, it’s not enough to understand how Instagram ranks content. We need to follow the journey of a piece of content that went viral, from start to finish and see what conclusions we can draw from it.

Before we dive into the process and analyze it I want to show you a wonderful post by Josh Ryan, social media growth expert. It is a visual representation of the journey that every new post goes through.

Brilliant post, to be honest. I commented on it “You just explained in 1 flow chart something I tried to explain using more than 3000 words in the Viralspy blog”. I do recommend you to keep reading of course as I dive more in depth into the flow and then explain on how to optimize it.

The journey of every viral content starts when it is being posted. Every time you post something new on social media it immediately gets ranked high, but only for some time and only for accounts there is a high chance that will interact with your content, for example your most recent followers. The social media algorithm gives you some exposure, it puts your content to the test. 

You can see how it works yourself, just go on Instagram and follow a new account. The next time this account will post something it will probably rank very high in your feed. The high rank lasts as long as you keep interacting: liking, commenting, saving and sharing the content. But it will drop if you don’t interact with the account, being replaced by other content that you follow and that you do interact with.

How much exposure exactly you get eventually depends on your ability to generate engagement from both your most engaging followers and from new people that get exposed organically to your content, these are the potential new followers you hope to teach.

The ranking algorithm is not only complicated, but also personalized and works different for each person on Instagram, here are a few of the parameters that Instagram mentions they use to personalize the ranking for each user, ordered by its weight on the ranking decision.

  1. Information about the post – Likes, comments, shared, saves etc.
  2. The history of interactions with who posted – Previous likes, comments etc.
  3. The history of interactions with other similar content – There are other accounts that post similar content to yours, the user history of interactions with them impacts your chance to rank as well.
  4. Your accounts engagement history – Previous interactions with your content by other users can impact how high you rank for new users you reach

It is the last 3 reasons that defines your initial exposure window, but it’s the first one that defines whether it is going to go viral or not.

Content engagement performance

Your content’s performance is measured during the high-ranking initial exposure period. During its exposure lifetime everything is measured, you won’t believe the depth social media platforms go into when it comes to measurements. 

Here are some examples, not only from Instagram:

  • Time spent watching a reel on Instagram
  • Retweets on Twitter
  • YouTube “save to watch later” clicks
  • The type of reaction on Facebook (like, wow emoji etc.)

The head of Instagram explains better than me which parameters exactly they measure:

“We make a set of predictions. These are educated guesses at how likely you are to interact with a post in different ways. There are roughly a dozen of these. In Feed, the five interactions we look at most closely are how likely you are to spend a few seconds on a post, comment on it, like it, save it, and tap on the profile photo. The more likely you are to take an action, and the more heavily we weigh that action, the higher up you’ll see the post.”

From “Shedding More Light on How Instagram Works” (A. Mosseri)

It’s the biggest fans of your account that are responsible for the potential of your post going viral. It is their engagement level that signals to Instagram that an interesting piece of content was just posted. From there, the Instagram algorithm continue exposing the content through the explore page, hashtag followers feeds, reels etc.

By the way, if I had to guess I’d say that with all due respect to the explore page and even to reels, what brings the most new followers are organic shares of the content. In the previous blog post where I explained what is social media growth hacking I showed how word of mouth, aka sharing, helped Dropbox to reach its valuation of billions of dollars.

So shares must be extremely valuable in the “eyes” of the algorithm. But you can assume a high correlation between likes, comments and shares, so it isn’t necessary to focus on any one of them, when you post something good – it will be liked, commented on, and shared.

It’s interesting to compare, again, social media engines to search engines. The engagement levels that your content generates indicates to the Instagram algorithm the potential “demand” level for the content. For the Google search engine the demand is simply the number of searches, digital marketers including myself usually measure monthly search volume to estimate the demand.

On Instagram and other social media platforms where the content finds the users the algorithm must predict what people will want to see. I find the approach of predicting demand very sophisticated and even a bit controversial. We’re in the 21st century and technology seems to predict what we want to see before we even know it.

Competition

To determine the ranking of your content, the performance of your content is measured against the performance of other content that compete together with you on ranking first for each individual user. This is also where the difference between the feed algorithm and the explore and reels algorithm comes in place. 

“Over the years we’ve learned that Feed and Stories are places where people want to see content from their friends, family, and those they are closest to.”

From “Shedding More Light on How Instagram Works” (A. Mosseri)

According to Instagram, by 2016 people were missing 70% of the content posted to the feed (imagine what is the number today). But there is still low percentage of exposure you can get from the news feed, and there is a lot of room for exposure on the explore page, reels, tagging, shares etc.

That is where you compete with other accounts. It feels like a jungle, you have to find a way to beat the competition against accounts that are much bigger and more popular than yours.

You need a strategy.

You might think that you have no chance versus bigger accounts that have millions of followers. But that’s only partially true, as Instagram explains it is not only the absolute number of likes of a post that helps you rank, it’s also how fast you gain them. 

“We are looking at how popular a post seems to be. These are signals like how many and how quickly other people are liking, commenting, sharing, and saving a post. These signals matter much more in Explore than they do in Feed or in Stories.”

From “Shedding More Light on How Instagram Works” (A. Mosseri)

But even there, they don’t mean how quickly you got to 100 likes or 100,000 likes. They mean how quickly you’ve got to the average engagement rate of your account, versus how much time it took other accounts, even bigger than yours, to get there.

If you manage to generate high demand potential (by people engaging with your content) and your content meets low competition, you have the potential to gain high organic exposure. How high? To answer that we need to define the term viral.

How many likes does it take to go viral?

The better the performance of your content is, the more exposure it gains. Everyone has experienced something going viral in front of their eyes. It can be as small as a meme that is being reposted again and again or as big as a the #blacklivesmatter movement.

This meme by @worldstar got reposted so many times that I am not even sure if they are the original creators of it. Maybe they too just reposted it, I can’t tell for sure. What I am sure of is that it got over 300,000 likes.         View this post on Instagram                     

A post shared by WorldStar Hip Hop / WSHH (@worldstar)

You may call it viral, but how do you know if 300,000 likes is viral or not? 

The best benchmark for virality is your own average engagement levels. For example, @worldstar has 76,719 likes on average. This means that this meme got almost 4 times the number of likes the account gets on average.

The account average performance analysis feature in Viralspy

This meme was a huge success. It is very likely reached new followers through the explore page, shares and mentions when the post was reposted and took part in the account’s growth. 

From a business perspective, when you think about how to make money on Instagram, this success translates to more money no matter how the account monetizes its traffic.

Virality is a snowball, but like every snowball it also comes to an end. The last part of the journey of any content that is going viral is when its performance is starting to decrease. 

Since I am a software entrepreneur, the best analogy I could think of was the graph below that demonstrates the life cycle of a product. 

 I find it incredible how similar it is to the life cycle of a piece of content. The engagement starts to generate more exposure (introduction), then grows quickly like a snowball (growth), reaches it’s peak (maturity) and eventually gets replaced by a new, more relevant content (decline).

It’s true no matter what kind of content you’re creating. A post that you share on Instagram might have a short life cycle of a couple of days while a blog post you can rank #1 in Google for a couple of years until someone outranks you (unfortunately for me, that is true even for this blog post).

The understanding of this mechanism of virality and how does the Instagram algorithm works is what I believe should be the base of your social media growth strategy. 

Instagram Growth Strategy: 3 Steps to beat your own average.

What I am about to suggest you is not to focus on the goal of going viral. Don’t get me wrong, going viral is wonderful and I have experienced a fantastic journey of going viral with one of my businesses, DSM Tool.

It went viral on YouTube which keeps on generating a lot of traffic, until today.

Look at the number of views, we did not pay for those videos.

But that’s rare. 

So I want to suggest something more common, healthy and practical.

Steady and healthy growth

There is an alternative way to define virality. It doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to experience full scale virality, it means that you broaden the definition of what the term viral means to you.

I want to suggest to you a theory that says that any piece of content that beats your own average engagement level should be defined as viral. 

We saw in the example of @worldstar a post that got X4 more likes than average. If it would have gotten only X3.5 would you still count it as viral? 

What about X2 or X1.5… There isn’t a YES or NO answer to the question if something went viral, virality is a range.

In statistics it is common to look at a distribution of a range using a Bell Curve. If you are not familiar with it then it might look scary in the beginning. But it means something very simple: there is an even distribution of likes among all of the posts in your account.

Most of them are close to the average, some get very low engagement and some get very high engagement. Everything above the average “goes viral” to some extent, only a few will really get multiple times more likes (or any other form of engagement), these are the extremely viral posts. 

The goal I suggest you aim at is growing the average

For example, If on average you make 100 likes then the rest of the posts will distribute between 10 likes to the least successful content to 500 to the most viral content (these are just hypothetical numbers).

But if you grow the average to 1000 likes, your range grows as well to between 100 to 5,000 likes.

There are many growth tactics to increase your average engagement, from follow-to-follow power groups to paid promotions. But my favorite is generating the most engaging content.

You can definitely think yourself as you’re creating content how to make it engaging, how to add a viral “spice” to it. But if you want to consistently generate highly engaging content the best way to do it is to create content based on what’s already viral.

The 3 steps to generating high engaging content

Other accounts in your niche that aim at the same followers, posts similar content and uses similar hashtags generates tons of content, some of it performs better and some worse. Follow them and locate what content of theirs reached the top of the virality range for their account.

Now that you know how the algorithm works, you know that their best performing content generated the most engagement in the shortest amount of time. You can learn from it and take an action upon it: repost, recreate or even just resonate with it (like reaction videos on YouTube). 

Christen Bouc, who manages multiple accounts with millions of followers through his social media agency said in this post:

If you have a repost page, the fastest way to grow is by posting viral reels. So far, I’ve been able to pull 1M reach in last 7 days with 1 reel a day on my own theme page and it’s only been climbing as the daily reels stack up.

From the Facebook community Instagram Marketing Secrets, by Christien Bouc

He attached to his post this screenshot:

Credit: Christien Bouc

Christien is reposting content because he is building theme accounts. But this strategy is not exclusive only for accounts that repost content. If you are a creator yourself you can use the same principles to find what content is currently viral and then recreate it yourself.

Danna Kushnir, an influencer herself and the CEO of the Instagram marketing agency Mantra manages accounts for local brands in Israel. In a conversation she explained me their workflow:

“Every production starts with a research. We research the competitors of the brand, popular international accounts in the niche and even general trends on Instagram. We never start shooting any videos before we have the data on the current trends”

Let’s take a look at an actual example of how to find viral content you could repost or recreate.

Step 1: Build a list of accounts to monitor

I manage an account that posts content about dogs. There are many different reasons why I’d want to post content about dogs, for example:

  • I am a dog trainer and I want to promote my course or services
  • I am a store or a brand that want to promote my ecommerce products
  • I am growing a theme account for dog lovers with funny dog content

The number of use cases is endless, but they all have one thing in common – They all post content about dogs.

The first step in the process of finding the current trend is creating a list of accounts and hashtags you want to start monitoring. All you need in order to get started is to find one account or one hashtag and use Viralspy to find the rest.

You can create reports in Viralspy with multiple accounts and hashtags. But just one account is enough for Viralspy to provide you with 50 similar accounts and a list of top hashtags.

Click on the account icon in order to open the drawer with the top hashtags and similar accounts

You can add these accounts and hashtags to the report and even create multiple reports on different topics that you are interested in analyzing.

Step 2: Perform the analysis to gain insights

By default, the posts in the reports of VIralspy are sorted by their performance. For reports with multiple accounts, the posts are sorted by the percentage of likes above the average likes of the account. for hashtags by total number of likes.

You can change the sorting by different engagement parameters:

  1. True-views will show you the top reels (a view becomes a true-view when users watch the video for more than 3 seconds)
  2. Comments will reveal the best topics to create discussions around
  3. Likes will show a mix of all types of topics, the reports are sorted by it by default.

In other words, it shows you the most viral content among all of the accounts and hashtags.

Notice how when the report includes multiple accounts posts aren’t sorted by the total number of likes. Instead, they are sorted by the percentage of likes above average.

For hashtags though, the information on the average number of likes for the accounts is not part of the report. This list is sorted by the total number of likes by default.

Step 3: Create a schedule

The insights you collect from performing the research is the basis for your content creation. How to use them depends on what kind of an account you manage.

Some people manage theme accounts and just repost viral content, others use the insights in order to decide what content to create themselves. You need a systematic approach, you need a schedule.

Decide how often you want to build the content upfront: 1, 2 or 4 weeks. I personally run my companies in iterations of 2 weeks.

In Viralspy you can filter the report by date range. It is useful because you will analyze the same account again and again and it will filter out older content you already analyzed. 

Working according to a schedule you benefit in two ways.

First, you get to monitor your average engagement rate growth if you make sure to look into it every time you start planning the content. Eventually, this is eventually what this strategy is all about.

Second, you create a systematic approach for growing your account(s), your growth is planned and you don’t end up working ad hock.

Tip

Together with analyzing others’ viral content, use a content calendar to come up with ideas of what content could be relevant in the upcoming two weeks.

Conclusion

Systematic strategizing your growth has great benefits, you gain a lot of attention and you can monetize. Turning new followers into fans by creating content they are likely to engage which increases the average engagement, hence your organic exposure.

The main takeout from this read, in my opinion, is: aim at steady and healthy growth.

Who knows, you might find yourself suddenly going viral.

So what do you think is more important, the number of followers or the engagement rate of your posts? Write your answer in the comments section below.

How to grow organically on Instagram

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