Instagram algorithm marks an end of innocence

Instagram is nearly all grown up. With its announcement March 16 it would be deploying an algorithm to sort content feeds on the platform, it took a big step toward full maturation. And, despite user outcry, it’s not one it’s likely to avoid – or one astute observers did not anticipate.

Rather, it’s using strategies other social networks before it also enacted as they grew to colossal member numbers.

Before they break million-user figures, nearly every social network begins life with a simple idea – generally around being a central location to facilitate conversation of some kind. However, as they grow, social networks face continual issues of scale. Some might consider the necessity to monetize in order to support the maintenance, safety and privacy such platforms require chief among these issues.

Another top challenge is how to retain users despite a growing user base. For example, as we started off using Facebook, we loved seeing all the minute detail about our close friends, presented piece by piece with nothing omitted.

However, something happened as time went on – we invited friends and we gained more friends, we poked and were poked alike, we Farmvilled and backlashed against Farmvillains. Brands found the platform and began to engage as well.

Now Facebook had a crisis – maybe of conscious, but *definitely* of content. So they devised a way they could keep users happy: Sorting that metric ton of content with an algorithm to show the interesting stuff.

And we formed and joined groups like “1,000,000 users against the new News Feed”.

But it didn’t matter. Facebook had enough quality content that it could cut out more than half and leave users happy. And once users acquiesced to the new, algorithmically sorted content, they’d be less aware of the odd advertisement thrown in there.

Now, Instagram finds itself in the same position. Users and brands have streamed steadily to the platform and many regard it as the chief home of exciting visual content online. Now there’s over 400 million accounts (surpassing Twitter even) churning out content on a regular basis. As following is asynchronous and unlimited, it’s easy to understand where Instagram says users miss an average of 70 percent of posts on the platform – in a sea of millions of pieces of content, it’s easy to miss your cousin’s brunch or your BFF’s latest #catofinstagram.

So now, it will leverage its insights from users to determine what content to show them via algorithm, reaching full maturation as a platform (whether or not users forgive them for it).


What it means for brands

Instagram made sure to call out that brands would still be included in this curated organic content presented to users. (And they would be foolish to omit brand content completely.)

However, this ups the stakes considerably for brands in regards to creative. Brands will need to publish only high-quality creative, and identify and maintain themes that resonate with users on the platform. More effort will likely need to be made to ensure content reaches the right demographic, with research and content testing becoming more of a must.

This point is also where it ties back to the cardinal issue of a start-up (though less so for Instagram with Facebook lording over): Advertising revenue. Demographic information abounds at Facebook and has already been married to Instagram users where possible, making it a viable channel for advertisers. Now, the necessity for content variants and testing looks poised to drive even more revenue.

And, of course, if brands want to enjoy the same reach they did pre-algorithm, they’ll have to pay up for it.

Not all this payment needs to go directly to Instagram though; this latest shift could see influencer marketing become an ever more vital component of Instagram channel strategies.


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