The Instagram Algorithm: An Ecommerce Guide

Social media platforms are notoriously secretive about their algorithms. That said, Instagram algorithm paranoia is next level.

When Facebook makes an algorithm change, for example, there is a big post from Mark Zuckerberg, backed up with additional details from a bigwig like, oh, the Head of News Feed.

Meanwhile, when Instagram makes an algorithm change, we get an anonymous, nine-sentence update on Instagram’s Tumblr. (And we’re including “Learn more in the Help Center” as one of those nine sentences.)

But even if the Instagram algorithm is treated like a nuclear launch code, we do know some stuff about it. This post will break it all down. We’ll look at:

  • Why Instagram built their algorithm the way they did
  • How to use Facebook Business Manager to launch Instagram campaigns
  • How Instagram uses Facebook data to place ads
  • And finally, how to get the most out of Instagram marketing

How Does Instagram Work?

The Instagram algorithm uses a combination of time- and relevance-based factors to determine what you see on the photo-sharing platform. As a result, feeds are not purely chronological, and instead also account for the likelihood that users will be interested in certain content.

Before we go on, let’s quickly clarify what we mean with “Instagram algorithm.” We don’t know for sure (because of course Instagram would never tell us), but there are presumably numerous algorithms fueling Instagram.

For this post, though, when we say Instagram algorithm, we’re talking about the algorithm that dictates what you see in your Instagram feed. Whether it’s your friend’s picture from the beach, or advertisements from that website you just visited.

Why Does the Instagram Algorithm Function Like This?

The switch away from a purely chronological feed, which was first announced in March 2016, rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.

In an article called, “New algorithm-driven Instagram feed rolled out to the dismay of users,” The Guardian wrote, “Users are now seeing their feed as organised by Instagram’s own formula, and they’re not happy.”

Justifying the switch away from the chronological arrangement they’d used since launching in 2010, Instagram wrote that users miss up to 70 percent of the content in their feeds. With the help of the Instagram algorithm, “When your best friend posts a photo of her new puppy, you won’t miss it.”

Timeliness was reintroduced as a more relevant factor in March 2018, when the company launched changes “to ensure that newer posts are more likely to appear first in feed.”

As Instagram explained: “With these changes, your feed will feel more fresh, and you won’t miss the moments you care about. So if your best friend shares a selfie from her vacation in Australia, it will be waiting for you when you wake up.”

Wait, Isn’t That the Same Stuff Facebook Always Says?

Yes, indeed. Facebook, which owns Instagram, is usually a bit more flowery with its rhetoric, but like Instagram, Zuckerberg & Co. insist that the platform is designed to connect you with friends and family.

As Zuck said earlier this year when explaining Facebook algorithm changes, “The first changes you’ll see will be in News Feed, where you can expect to see more from your friends, family and groups.”

Facebook Engineering Director Lars Backstrom sings the same song: “We are updating News Feed over the coming weeks so that the things posted by the friends you care about are higher up in your News Feed.”

What does this commitment to friends and family mean for online store owners? Well, it’s not great. These algorithms don’t want your hot deals crowding out content from people’s friends.

So what should you do to get the most out of Instagram for marketing your store?

Playing by the Instagram Algorithm’s Rules

Because Instagram doesn’t like to talk about this stuff – we asked; they didn’t answer – one of the most public explanations you’ll find about the Instagram algorithm comes from Thomas Dimson, an Instagram software engineer who spoke for about 40 minutes at a 2017 “@Scale” event.

In his presentation, Dimson discussed why Instagram’s feed went away from being purely chronological and began incorporating predictions about what users will find most interesting.

“At the end of the day, what we want people to do is come to Instagram, be happy, enjoy their experience, come back more.”

He added, “It’s not likes or comments [that we’re looking for]. It’s, ‘At the end of the day, are people using the app more?’”

This has two clear implications for your Instagram marketing:

  1. Your posts needs to generate engagement to get seen.
  2. Because it can be difficult for businesses to generate organic engagement, we should consider ads and influencers to supplement our Instagram efforts.

Let’s take a closer look at these two truths.

Generating Engagement On Instagram

There’s a mysterious interview that an “Instagram spokesperson” gave to Business Insider back in 2016. Highlighting just how tight-lipped Instagram is about this stuff, this anonymous source has been cited by Buffer (“An Instagram spokesperson said to Business Insider…”) and Hootsuite (“Speaking to Business Insider, an Instagram spokesperson got a little more specific…”), among others.

The key takeaway from Instagram Spokesperson is that the ways in which people interact with accounts plays a huge role in the organic content what shows up in their feeds. Factors include:

Timing: While Instagram ditched the purely chronological feed, timing is still a factor. That means it’s important to know the best times to post on social media.

If you’re running an online store, then you might have customers all over the world, which of course makes it tricky to know the best times to post. But do some homework about where you Instagram followers are from, and do the best you can based on the most important time zones.

And remember: Even if your post goes out at 3:00 a.m. for some customers, Instagram rewards popular content regardless of what time it was posted.

Shares: When users share your content, it tells the Instagram algorithm that they are interested in your brand. And when the Instagram algorithm knows that someone is interested in your brand, it will show more of your content to them, which gives them more chances to share.

So make your content as shareable as possible. Put that extra bit of effort into your photos, descriptions, and hashtags.

Relationships between accounts: User who interact with an account are more likely to see content from that account. So:

Get followers. Hey, just because something is obvious doesn’t mean it’s not important! Getting followers is the surest route to comments and likes, which are signals that the Instagram algorithm wants to see before putting your content in front of more people.

Use hashtags. Using hashtags will help people stumble across your content. And the more people who stumble across your content, the more relationship signals you will be able to build.

Ads and Influencers: Going Around the Instagram Algorithm

If you want to ramp up your Instagram marketing faster than it’d take you to accumulate a bunch of followers, you can use advertisements and influencers to jumpstart things.

Let’s start by looking at Instagram ads.

No matter where you want to run your campaign, Instagram makes it simple to create ads. In fact, you’ll create your Instagram ads directly in your Facebook Business Manager backend – the same place you build your Facebook ads and campaigns. Facebook will give you a preview of how the ad will look when it’s translated to Instagram style.

If you don’t customize the placement of your ads, Facebook will put it where it’s likely to perform best. And if you only want your campaign running on Instagram – and not spread around the vast landscape of Facebook ad territory – you can easily configure that.

If you choose to run an ad in the feed, it will look more or less like a normal Instagram post.

Or you can run a “Story” ad, which takes advantage of the video format.

After you run your ad, you’ll be able to confirm the success of your campaigns with the Facebook Pixel.

How Does the Instagram Algorithm Know Who Should See My Ads?

Because Instagram shares Facebook’s business platform, we know that Facebook data underpins the ads users see on Instagram.

Websites across the internet – including yours, most likely, if you run an ecommerce store – have Facebook tracking running in the background of every page. Facebook tracking is so common that Shopify has even built an interface that lets you launch the Facebook Pixel by doing nothing more than copying and pasting your Facebook Pixel ID into this text field:

This tracking enables Facebook to link people’s web behavior with their Facebook and Instagram accounts, and then target them with relevant ads. Here’s what that looks like in action.

Let’s say we went to the fashion store Zalando and searched for running shoes. Our browser history might look something like this. (In German, “laufschuh” means “running shoe.”)

Zalando of course uses Facebook tracking, which means that the store can leverage your onsite behavior to target you with relevant ads later on. So if your browsing history contains a bunch of running shoe pages, chances are that a future trip to Instagram might look like this:

That’s not rocket science: Zalando knows you want running shoes, so Zalando shows you an ad for running shoes.

Not all Instagram ads are this straightforward, however.

Let’s say that after we shopped for shoes, we shopped for watches. Here you can see that we visited Rolex and then, when we saw the prices, headed over to Fossil.

We clearly want to buy a watch. So it makes sense that we see watches when we fire up Instagram:

But wait a second – those ads aren’t from Rolex or Fossil. They’re from Sternglas and Davidoff.

How were these companies able to place ads even though we never went to their websites?

When you (or Sternglass or Davidoff or whoever) create ads in Facebook Business Manager, you can create target groups based on interests. These interests, wouldn’t you know it, can include watches. They can even include “Rolex”!

So you can see the cross-platform profile that Facebook built.

Step 1: We shop for watches at Rolex and Fossil

Step 2: Facebook is lurking in the background on those website

Step 3: Facebook adds us to some sort of “interested in watches” segment

Step 4: Sternglas and Davidoff presumably use segments like this for the Instagram ads

Step 5: Instagram is able to place a relevant ad in our feed, even though we never interacted with the company whose products are being advertised

Influencer Marketing on Instagram

Remember the criteria that the Instagram algorithm uses to determine what to show users? All that stuff about comments, interactions, etc.?

Well, if you don’t have the time or Instagram savvy to accumulate that engagement on your own, you can enlist influencers to do the heavy lifting for you.

“Influencer” is shorthand for “someone who has lots of Instagram followers and will pimp your products for a reasonable fee.” Influencers can be super helpful because they hit on the engagement benchmarks that the Instagram algorithm is craving. And they do it without needing to use advertisements.

Sure, influencers are a form of advertising. But they aren’t part of a campaign that you set up inside Facebook Business Manager. They can get your product in front of thousands of people, and it won’t have that “Sponsored” sticker next to it.

Influencer marketing might seems like something reserved for big brands. But plenty of solopreneurs and dropshippers have had success with influencers as well.

Here’s what we heard about Instagram influence marketing from some Oberlo users.

Tim Vangsness, Dropshipping Guru and creator of this dropshipping YouTube channel

By having influencers promote your product on Instagram, not only do you get the traffic and sales, but you also get the pictures for future use in ads (assuming you include that in your discussions with them). The icing on the cake is you will find that retargeting people who have visited your sites from a certain Instagram influencer with ads that have that influencer in them will give you amazing conversions in comparison to a standard ad.

With dropshipping, a key concern of your customers will be the legitimacy of your store. Through social proof via influencers, you can gain a considerable amount of trust.

Paul Lee, Husky Beard

When looking for Instagram influencers, try and find accounts that get a lot of comments so that you know their followers are actually engaging with their content. It’s also very good if they already have ads on their feed, and even better if these ads are getting a lot of tags and comments. Put a lot of effort into the ad’s creative, as well.

You can read the entire story of how Paul turned Husky Beard into a six-figure business here.

Karolis Rimkus, dropshipping entrepreneur

Don’t hesitate trying out ideas. One of the best partnerships I had [for my store in the running niche] was with a suburban mom that also likes to live actively – not a runner, not a pro athlete, not even posting a lot about running. She actually posted pictures of her kids unpacking my store’s items on her Insta Stories. And it worked great – something I would not have known if I hadn’t tried it.

Want to Learn More?

Still want more on Instagram? Nice. We got you covered. Here is some more from the ol’ Oberlo library.

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