Feed Me! Instagram Grows Up.

A couple of weeks ago Instagram announced that they will be making changes to how content will be prioritised in a user's feed. Since Instagram launched in 2010, the feed has always been displayed as a timeline with the most recent posts of the people or businesses you follow displayed first. This will be changed in 'coming months' using an algorithm to prioritise content it thinks you will personally find more relevant to the top of your feed.

Given the main feature of Instagram is the feed, this announcement has been extremely unpopular with the Instagram community. But is there any real reason to be upset? Will I no longer get my daily dose of food porn? The answer to this depends on who you are and why you use it. Let's check out what's going on and how the change will affect you.

Why is Instagram doing this?

According to Instagram people 'miss out on seeing 70% of their feeds'.  As it continues to grow and a larger amount of content is displayed, there's a greater chance that the content you want to see from the people or brands you care about is buried away and might not be seen. Instagram is addressing this through an algorithm which looks at criteria such as post timeliness, your relationship to the person you follow (e.g. do you like or comment on their posts often) and how popular the person or brand is and how popular the post is. The end result is you should see the things you really want to see first.

I believe Instagram when they say this and I genuinely think it will end up being a better experience for the end user, however they also have another motivation for doing this. Advertising dollars.

Facebook bought Instagram in 2012 for $1 billion US. At the time Instagram had 27 million users. As of January 2016 this number has increased to 400 million active users and still growing. That's a lot of eyeballs. None of that matters though if they can't make any money off it though. 

Facebook have left the functionality largely untouched. Sponsored advertising started to appear in feeds from November 2013. These were and still are clearly marked as advertising. They didn't appear too frequently but the number displayed has increased dramatically this year. People don't always respond to blatant advertising though so which decreases the value a company is willing to pay for it. There are other ways to monetise though without charging the end user and Instagram had to look no further than the strategy used by Facebook themselves. 

The news feed you see in Facebook is already algorithmic. A mix of posts your friends posts as well as pages of companies, news publications, businesses and community organisations you follow. Outside of your friends posts not all of the posts from all the pages you follow appear in your feed. Facebook deliberately throttles their posts to a percentage of their followers. If they want more of their followers to see a post they can pay Facebook to 'boost' the post. This has made it more difficult for businesses to grow their follower base or have their posts seen, as well as more costly. No such restrictions are placed for businesses on Instagram.

Introducing the relevance algorithm to your Instagram feed can be viewed as their first step towards a boosted post monetisation strategy.

Who is upset?

The reasons why the Instagram community are upset differs based on the type of user. We could break this down into three broad categories;

  • The consumer - those who use Instagram to consume content. Their primary purpose is to check out pictures their friends posts as well as those of celebrities, social media 'influencers' and brands they like.
  • Brands - businesses promoting their products or services visually through their offical Instagram account.
  • Influencers - Celebrities and public figures are the obvious ones. However this also includes people respected for their knowledge, talent or entertainment value within particular fields (e.g. Kayla Itsines).

Why are they upset and is it justified?

The upset consumer

People don't like change. Instagram is fine the way it is some say. But we don't know what we don't know. Who's to say a better experience can't be offered? I think the general consumer of content has the least to be worried about. They are less likely to miss out on their friends posts, in fact the new feed will most likely make it easier to see them as it will work out they are posts that you like or comment on. The same goes for influencers and brands you follow. If you engage with them they're more likely to hit the top of your feed. Let's face it, a lot of these posts are just noise that you skim past and they should hopefully be pushed further down your feed.

The upset business

All businesses, from the multi-national brand to the local cafe will need to take a look at their Instagram strategy. Posts that rely on timeliness (e.g. '40% off all t-shirts today only') may no longer be as effective. Flooding your followers with too many posts per day probably won't reach as many potential eyeballs either but hey guess what, it was rarely a good strategy anyway. If you're a relatively new business with a small following it's likely it will be harder to have your posts pushed up to the top of a feed. It's not all bad though. Your engaged followers (those who like, comment or repost your content) are likely your most valuable. Your content is likely to appear closer to the top of their feed and be seen more often even if it's a day old.

The upset influencer

Influencers do have reason to worry. A number of influencers are 'paid to post' or receive freebies to promote products in their posts (such as wearing a dress or mentioning the brand of ingredient used in a recipe). The value of influencers to brands for produce promotion will diminish if the number of eyeballs drops. It will be tougher for those with smaller followings to build up influence over the larger ones. However as per businesses, your engaged followers are likely to see you closer to the top of their feed and more often.

What does it all mean?

It's important to remember that exact details on how the feed algorithm works are not known (and never will be to the public). It's effect will become apparent once it's in operation. No doubt digital marketers will work out ways to game it and enter the continual game of cat and mouse with Instagram continually tweaking the algorithm to combat this.

It's unreasonable to think that Instagram was not going to look for additional ways to monetise their product and it should really come as no surprise to most businesses that this would happen at some point. Businesses and influencers will likely need to adjust their Instagram strategy, the type of content they post and how often they post it. This isn't a bad thing and they won't necessarily find Instagram becomes a less effective marketing channel. Businesses and influencers should have a multi platform approach to social media anyway, with content tailored to best suit the strengths of each platform. Unfortunately most don't but changes such as this will hopefully get them thinking this way.

What's of more concern is that some form of paid for boosted posts is likely on the horizon. If and when that happens businesses will be forced to think about whether Instagram is effective for them and what percentage of their marketing budget which should be allocated to it.

It's also important to note that the methods to 'discover' someone on Instagram have not changed. Using hashtags effectively is one of the most important discovery methods and no changes have been announced there. Driving traffic to your Instagram account from other social media or marketing channels will be no different to now. Posting high quality and engaging images has always been important and a quality over quantity approach will hopefully now prevail.

As for the everyday user, the consumer of content - I think those who are upset have little reason to be and once the change comes into effect may even be pleasantly surprised. If the algorithm works as stated then the content from the people and businesses you care about should be more accessible. And that's a good thing.