Beating the Algorithms on Instagram

Instagram is arguably one of the fastest growing and developing social media networks out there, having grown from 700 million users to 1 billion in just two years. This puts it just behind Facebook in the social media rankings for active users.

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Of that 1 billion people 34% of them are millennials, an audience that are far more clued up and cynical of brands on social media than their baby boomer parents. With 4.2 billion likes taking place on the platform each day (more than any other social media channel) Instagram is officially the happiest place on the Internet – providing brands with an invaluable route to reaching their millennial target audience in an organic way, cutting through the cynicism that millennials feel towards brands on social media and actively engaging them.

Because of this, 86% of top brands have Instagram accounts, but Instagram isn’t only great for huge corporates, it’s also equally brilliant for smaller brands and businesses who have a real opportunity to build a great network of customers on the channel. The great thing about Instagram is that it is an up and coming channel for businesses and brands, meaning that it’s far easier to master than Facebook for example, with less algorithms pushing brands to the bottom of people’s newsfeeds.

With these elements in mind we recognised that Instagram was a key social media channel for our business, with many sales of tickets for our courses coming directly from Instagram. In the month of January, we aimed to improve all our Instagram stats (post reach and post engagement on our best performing post, followers, overall post likes, overall post comments and our story reach) by 100% in comparison to December’s stats.

Getting the Strategy Right

In order to get 100% improvement across all stats we couldn’t rely on luck, so we formulated an Instagram strategy based on previous analytics. In order to compile this we looked back at the best performing posts for the last 6 months (these can be accessed through your Instagram insights) to understand what our audience liked to see. From this, we found that images tagging in lots of people and including our clients got great engagement and was something that we wanted to replicate. We believe firmly in not reinventing the wheel – if something has worked well recently, learn from that and replicate it in your future posts.

Interestingly enough, the posts that we had expected to perform just as well the second time didn’t do as well as we had anticipated, our likes improved in comparison to week 1 of December, but not enough for us to be hitting 100% by the end of the month. This might not be the same for every business account – some might find that replicating content is a great strategy to grow their channel and discovering whether it’s right for you is all about testing it out and seeing what happens! We learnt that it wasn’t right for our feed, therefore it was back to the drawing board and time to do some serious research with three weeks left to up our stats.

Improving Your Instagram Reach

Your Instagram reach is the amount of people that see your posts, whether that be on their main feed or on their explore page. Much like Facebook, Instagram reach differs from engagement as many people might see your posts without interacting with them. Reach is important to building a following on Instagram and getting in front of both new and existing followers and fans of your brand. The good news with Instagram is that reach is relatively easy to improve if done in the right way. In order to increase our own reach, we took several different tactics.


Firstly, we built up a bank of hashtags for our brand. Building a bank of hashtags isn’t as simple as tagging everything with #ootd or #love. Hashtags are under-used as a brilliant resource for brands. Research taught us that hashtags should be carefully selected. We created some guidelines for hashtag selection, these were:

1.       Hashtags should be community minded – simply selecting the hashtag with the most posts is rarely the right way to go for your business. Instead, find hashtags that generally have less than 50k uses to reach a really targeted and specific community of people.

2.       Hashtags must be targeted for the business – getting in front of people that aren’t interested or engaging with your content is pointless for hitting your business objectives. Hashtags should be targeted to reach people that you know for a fact will be interested in what you are posting about – whether that be new customers, other brands or organisations that you want to work with.

3.       Hashtags should be changed every month – like all elements of social media you shouldn’t stick with something because it worked once. You must constantly analyse your hashtags to continue to improve and grow. Plus, if you keep appearing on the same pages at some point that audience will tire of seeing your posts and it’ll be time to target someone new!

Instagram now allows hashtag analytics which is great to see. On your ‘insights’ page, you can view how many people found your posts via a hashtag and see which are performing best for your account. This can help you refine which hashtags you use and help you to improve your reach.

During our research we found lots of rumours that you should only use five hashtags on your posts or Instagram will flag you as spam. However, we tested this theory by posting with only five hashtags and posting with up to 30 hashtags (the maximum you can have on Instagram). Consistently, our posts with more hashtags on performed drastically better than those with only five hashtags, putting to bed those rumours.


Instagram Pods

One of the new tactics that Instagram users are taking to get around algorithms for reach is ‘Instagram Pods’. These are a relatively new phenomenon in the industry, having come about to get around the fact that Instagram prioritises content that gets lots of engagement, very quickly. Essentially, Instagram pushes to the top of your feed the posts that have had a ‘flurry’ of likes and comments very soon after being posted. Instagram pods are groups that Instagram users have formed, in which they agree to engage with each other’s posts as soon as they have gone live.

This is a tactic that we tried in the office, getting everyone to like and comment on the posts as soon as we have posted – and it worked! The first post that we tried this out on went on to become our best performing post of the month.

One key thing to bear in mind if you are going to try this tactic is that Instagram only really ‘counts’ comments that are longer than four words, and sadly, emojis don’t count either.

Tagging in Other Users

Using high-profile users to get in front of their followers is a great tactic to improving your Instagram reach. Sharing content from bloggers and tagging them in or tagging in prominent thought-leaders in your industry can improve your reach if you’re lucky enough to get a like back. When they like or engage with your content, your post will appear on the ‘explore’ page of their followers.

Improving your Instagram reach very much sits alongside improving your Instagram engagement and the two stats go hand in hand – improving your reach will improve your engagement and vice versa.

Improving Instagram Post Engagement

Post engagement is a key metric for achieving most business objectives on social media, and engagement is the buzzword of the moment – but how can you improve it? Well, Instagram, like Facebook, is all about building a community and encouraging organic engagement. Here’s how you can do that…

Engage with Others

Engagement is a two-way street, and you can’t expect to get tons of likes and comments on your posts if you’re not engaging with others. Following key Instagram users, whether that be new customers, other brands or existing customers, and engaging with them regularly will help you to build a community of loyal followers that regularly comment on and like your posts. Engaging with others is a long game, and miracles don’t come overnight. It’s not as simple as just liking a few other people’s posts, it’s about building an ongoing conversation with people that are key for your business.

Engage with Your Own Content

Whilst engaging with others is vital, it’s even more important to engage with your own content! It might sound silly but many brands put up a picture on Instagram and expect it to get loads of comments and likes, when the process doesn’t work quite like that. When people engage with you by commenting on your posts, demonstrate that you are active by commenting back quickly. Not only will they appreciate your time and energy, but by asking an open-ended question it keeps the conversational ball rolling, getting you even more comments and thus improving your reach.

Bring Value to Your Audience

Why should people actually engage with you? Do you have an answer to that question? Nowadays, you have to earn your engagement, and no one is entitled to it. In the social media industry, there are three elements to producing brilliant content that adds value to your audience’s day: entertainment; inspiration and education. If your content falls into one of these three categories then you’re on to a winner! Here’s a breakdown:

1.       Entertainment – is what you’re posting going to brighten someone’s day? Make them laugh or cry (in a good way of course!). Users will actively come to your channel if they know you to be entertaining.


2.       Inspiration – whether we admit it or not, most people use social media to improve their appearance in their social circles and show off the best parts of their life. Posting inspirational content encourages shareability, as users engage with your inspirational content to inspire their own followers in turn.


3.       Education – are they learning something? Remember, you are the expert in your own industry, and you can help to teach them something with your channel. Plus, this is a great opportunity to show off your own achievements whilst also adding some value for your audience! For us, sharing a great article that we secured for a client with some information about how we did it performed well.


Understanding how to bring value to your audience comes down to understanding them and what they want to see from you. By heading to your insights tab and checking out the audience insights you can find out more about your followers in detail. Then it’s all about brainstorming what type of content that audience would like to see and creating it.

Using Long Form Content

Adding value to your audience goes hand in hand with creating long-form content. The longer that a user spends on your post, whether that be reading the caption or writing a response, the more Instagram likes it and the higher up the feed it will end up. You can engage people for longer by using long-form content that they spend a long time reading, but make sure it’s adding that value for it to actually keep your followers engaged.

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Use People’s Faces

Users like the personal touch on Instagram, a behind-the-scenes look at the human face behind the brand if you like. This is clearly evidenced by the fact that posts with faces in get 38% more likes than those without.

Our Most Engaged Post

Following our research, we put all our points into practise. We created a bank of relevant hashtags for our audience, wrote some long-form content that taught our audience how they could do their own PR and shared it alongside a picture of our lovely Account Manager Alex. We tagged in prominent journalists and brands including our client, Jimmy’s Iced Coffee and posted it. We then had the whole team like and comment on the post. As you can see from the below – it worked! The post went on to become our best performing post EVER and drastically improved on our best performing post from December – our likes increased by 142%, our comments increased by 366%, our profile visits increased by 350% and our reach improved by 111%!

Getting More Instagram Followers

We hear very often about businesses who are setting out just to get more followers on Instagram, especially as Instagram reserves the coveted ‘swipe up to buy’ feature on Instagram stories for those with more than 10k followers.

Having loads of followers isn’t relevant if the audience isn’t engaged, and we would encourage always prioritising genuine engagement over follower count. However, we totally get why businesses would want to improve their follower count, whether that be so that they have the same amount or more as competitors or whether it’s just to access the swipe up feature.

We believe that the best way to improve your follower count is to build an actively engaged following, thus killing two birds with one stone. Here’s how we improved our followers by 226% in January:

1.       Following and unfollowing – there is an easy way to get your name in front of potential customers, and that’s by following them! We aim to follow 50 new people a day where we can, which really improves our follower count. However, we don’t want followers that won’t engage with us, therefore we’re super careful about who we follow. You could follow those that like similar brands to yours, those that follow influencers that you work with or even those that actively engage with your competitors. Taking this approach will help you to up your followers without sacrificing engagement.

2.       Increase your post reach – it goes without saying that the more people you get in front of, the more followers you will get. Using the above tips to increase your post reach will help you to organically boost your followers.

3.       Get in front of the right people – using the right hashtags and engaging with the right people as mentioned above is key to building that highly engaged following that we all want!

Improving Instagram Story Reach

Stories is an entirely different ball game from feed posts which we have been discussing in this blog so far. Stories are a hugely growing feature of Instagram, in fact, they’re growing 15 times faster than feed-based posts! We found stories the most challenging element of Instagram to master as they are a relatively new feature and there isn’t too much research out there yet. In the end, we managed to improve our story reach by 27% - it was the only stat not to hit 100%. Whilst we didn’t quite hit our target, we were pleased to have improved the reach at all due to how challenging it was. Here’s how we did it…

How Do Stories Work?

Stories are prioritised on your ‘storyline’ (the bar of stories across the top of your feed) by the brands and accounts that you engage with most. The more of someone’s stories you watch the higher up they will appear. In order to get around this, improving your stories reach must be approached as a long game. Consistently posting ultra-engaging and super-targeted content on your stories will make users realise that they want to be checking out what you’re up to, and the more they visit your stories the higher up they will appear. Therefore, creating story specific content (not just sharing your feed posts to your stories) is really important.

Make Use of Story Features

There are certain features available on stories that aren’t available on feed-posts, such as GIFs, location tags and hashtags. Making use of these distinguishes your stories from your feed posts and engages users far more than generic stories, meaning they won’t click past your content so fast!

Tag in Other People

On stories you can tag in other Instagram users, who can then share your content to their own story. This is a great way of not only improving your story reach but also getting on the feeds of brands that you admire and in front of those all-important potential customers.

Our best performing story was one that tagged in Sunny our MD, who has a highly engaged following on Instagram, which she then shared to her feed. This prompted lots of her followers to then visit our profile and engage with our feed posts too.


Overall, Instagram is a great platform for reaching a millennial audience in an organic way and cutting through the noise of advertising on Facebook. Remember though that millennials aren’t the only people on Instagram, so it’s all about checking out those audience insights to see who is following you.

Since doing this research and putting it into practise, our Instagram is consistently achieving almost 100% better than it was before the research, and the great part is that many of these tips are things that can be put into practise quite easily and quickly. For example, having a bank of hashtags in the notes on your phone that you can copy and paste onto all Instagram posts.

Like all social media, what worked for us might not necessarily work for you – so make sure you test all these tactics thoroughly to understand what works best for you and your business.