Why Brands Should Act Like Users on Instagram

One of the biggest subjects in today’s social media landscape has to do with the fact that the social media darling of 2015, Instagram, is transitioning to an algorithmic feed and let’s just say the response to the news has been… varied.

Reasons for the change

With all of the information that has been appearing over the past week or so, it is easy to speculate that there could be a number of reasons for the change:

  1. As Instagram co-founder, Kevin Systrom, has noted, on average people miss 70% of the image and video content on their feeds;
  2. After being lauded as the “King of Engagement,” for brands with engagement rates up to 25x that of Facebook in 2015, experiencing a 40% drop in interaction rate; and
  3. Instagram is a business and it needs to figure out how best to monetize.

All of these are truths that are hard to deny. Yet and still, for the most part, these are issues that greatly affect Instagram directly and its users not as much. Even the point about users missing much of what appears on their feeds has not been a pain point voiced very loudly by Instagram nation. And while I appreciate any brand who wants to fix a problem before complaints arise, is this the best way to do so? The popular opinion is, “no,” as this petition would suggest. The only thing saving Instagram from the Simpson’s-esque mob is the fact that the non-chronological feed will be available by choice – well, you’ll more than likely have to opt-out of this feature, but chronological feeds will still be available. For now, at least.

Fearing the Worst

As marketers, we know all too well that people, in general, are averse to change. When people are comfortable, they do not like things that feel like they will disrupt said comfort. Furthermore, when the change is one that is not fully understood, whether by concept or related to syntax, the change is not only unwelcome, it can be scary.

Algorithm has quickly become a dirty word – not that is was held to the highest regard before. The fact of the matter is, any mention of the word algorithm, especially when connected to a property that is in close proximity to Facebook, fear is imminent. As a matter of fact, it is quite possible that brands should be ready for what could be next, the death of organic reach on Instagram… and who wants that?

Please note that while the last statement is absolute conjecture, I don’t believe too many people will be shocked if this became the case.

The other fear is that the algorithm will favor those with empirically higher audiences and leave those with lower follower counts in the dust. We are used to seeing the highly successful account with 10,000 followers get between 600 – 1000 likes on a given post and gladly laud them for a job well done. But what about the account with 100 followers that gets 20 – 40 likes and a string of comments on a given post? Their engagement rates are much higher and clearly what they’ve posted matters to their audience. Should they be penalized for having a smaller audience? I’d like to think the majority of answers to this question is no.

Quality over Quantity

It is no surprise to any of us in the industry that Instagram’s popularity with its core users has caused brands to figure out how they can be involved in the goings on that are going on. According to a study by Quintly, in 2015, the frequency of brand posts, on average, has increased from 0.89 to 1.04 per day.

Granted, this does not mean that the content posted is necessarily the greatest, on average, but it does show a level of the platform’s importance that users find the need to be this active.

In addition, as marketers, we continually speak about the need to prioritize quality over quantity – better images and videos on Instagram, or any social media platform for that matter, will have higher interactions and more engagement. This notion is true more often than not and there is a school of thought that the algorithm will force brands to create better content. However, as true as I hope that is, it is not necessary.

The experience of the chronological timeline is not greatly affected by subpar brand content. We must remember that content, outside of the Instagram ads that users are not 100% happy about, is opt-in. In order to receive content all of the content from any particular brand(s), you have to follow them. Thus, what the algorithm is doing is taking control away from the user.

Many users have already figured out, at least for their own communities of followers, how to serve up the imagery and video content their audiences want and time is often a factor of that. People are used to scrolling in terms of time and that is part of their consideration regarding how they consume the content. It is not even about which way content is served initially, it is about considering user behavior and what they want to do.

What Matters Most to You?

The biggest possible advantage of the algorithmic feed is that, because a chronological feed is not scalable, the content that you find most interesting will, over time, be served first. The ability to cut through the noise is a benefit that cannot be ignored.

With that being said, we cannot forget that what most matters to users includes the experience. Much of the Instagram experience has been based on a chronological feed. Users have figured out how to (1) avoid much of the noise by either not following or unfollowing those who create noise for noise’s sake; and (2) create content that their audiences want to see. Users have also created quality content because it matters to them and fits within the experience. This is why brands, even with all of their business goals, milestones and monetary needs, should not act like brands, but act like users.

Users have figured out how to optimally use Instagram. They have found the value in the content both in terms of consumption and distribution. Human interaction through the act of sharing and receiving content is one of the major draws of any social media platform. Brands can participate in human interaction because the company behind the brand is a collection of humans with ideas, philosophies, needs and desires to enhance the lives of others.

This is what matters most to many Instagram users. Being a part of the larger community in general and a smaller community in particular, will guide what the content you publish will be. As helpful as a thoughtfully devised, well intentioned algorithm can be, it is not necessary to shape the quality of content by anyone. Quality content will win in an organic, chronological setting regardless.

Furthermore, if brands adopt this philosophy, they are less likely to be viewed as platform polluters. Once again, this idea is one completely exclusive from the need for an algorithm -- even one that would help hide low-quality content. Users already know that you're a brand and they are ok with that. What matters is, they would rather interact with you as a user, not a brand, and if you want to bolster a relationship in order to get a sale somewhere down the line, you better adhere to the users' desires and act like one of them.