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Instagram’s Update: #Goals or #Throwback?

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After 5 years and billions of photo shares, Instagram has grown from a photo sharing platform into a robust content tool with video, private messaging, and marketing capabilities. With 500+ million active users drawing value from the app everyday, recent changes to the app experience have have spurred knee-jerk reactions.

In March, Instagram announced a plan to change the way users see content in their newsfeeds. While Instagram’s feed content has traditionally appeared chronologically, the app began testing an experience driven by a proprietary algorithm. According to Instagram, the algorithm is influenced by factors like a post’s timeliness, user’s relationship with the person posting, and whether a user is likely to find the post “interesting”. In early June, Instagram confirmed the changes were live.

As Instagram has grown an estimated 15% this year alone, so have the average number of people a user follows. One consequence of feeds becoming busier and busier is that users miss an average 70 percent of their feeds. The introduction of a proprietary algorithm is intended to curate the feed experience and keep Instagram’s community active and engaged with the content they’re most interested in.

This logic begs the question: do users really care whether they miss a post here and there? Apparently yes. A Charge.org petition protesting the update has attracted more than 300K signatures from users who are concerned the feed change will mean they miss posts they care about, or worse — followers miss their posts.

This possibility is especially unnerving for brands and influencers who use the platform to get messages out to fans quickly. With a proprietary algorithm in place, there’s no free guarantee that followers will see a brand or influencer’s content unless they turn on post notifications, a feature that sends push notifications when an account posts and an extra step many users aren’t likely to take.

It’s no surprise this announcement comes on the heels of the release of the new Instagram for Business platform. Last month, Instagram announced a plan to launch new business tools including profiles equipped with contact buttons, mobile ad-buying capabilities, and analytics. This Insights tool will provide businesses with a small set of very basic KPIs: follower demographics, accessible follower counts, and post performance data including impressions, reach, and link clicks.

As Instagram rolls out analytics over the next few months, the platform will become a more practical resource for businesses. Brands will have the ability to make choices based on demographic information and past post performance. This will be especially useful if the algorithm changes do indeed improve users’ ability to interact with relevant and desirable content, as it will become more important than ever for brands to create content that feels authentic to fans. Businesses might look forward to leveraging analytical learnings from Insights, but for now the tool remains basic and is just a first step towards a greater understanding or post performance and audience behavior.

The algorithm will likely drive brands to spend more money on Instagram’s paid offerings in order to secure their place in user feeds. Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, moved towards a propriety algorithm years ago, and an emphasis on paid content and business analytics tools followed. Paying to promote content to receive the same kind of engagement users once got for free is no one’s preferred outcome. However, this is the cost of using a “free” platform to achieve brand marketing goals.

In a statement announcing the implementation of the algorithm, Instagram reassured users they saw increased organic engagement (likes, comments, and shares) in the beta test group who were exposed to the algorithm early. They expect to see a similar trend across the community as a whole.

Over the next few months we’ll see how Instagram’s business capabilities and proprietary algorithm affect brands. Marketers should continue to monitor changes and focus on creating quality content that feels authentic to their consumers.

Emma Zumzen
Integrated Strategy

Caroline Mercer
Communications