What Instagram’s Switch to an Algorithmic Feed Means for Brands

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Last week, Instagram announced it’s officially experimenting with an algorithm to personalize content feeds. The move will make the app feel more similar to the experience of parent company Facebook’s network, but also comes at an interesting moment: fresh on the heels of competitor Twitter’s full-scale implementation of its feed-arranging algorithm.

So how will the change affect brands and publishers that rely on the platform to engage its global user base of some 400 million?

Shifts in the engagement equation

Instagram issued an email to agencies last week, according to a Digiday report, allaying any potential concerns for marketers. “This change will increase time spent and posts viewed on Instagram, which benefits everyone who utilizes the platform,” read the email. But the article points out that inevitably, there will be winners and losers.

Brands and publishers that have best exploited the platform’s visual focus—in categories like fashion, beauty, food, travel and luxury—stand to benefit from the change. The algorithm will be designed to give users more of what they like, so these already-beloved categories are likely to maintain their engagement levels, or potentially even see a lift.

On the other side of that coin, brands or publishers can no longer rest on their laurels assuming that some followers are bound to see a post regardless of its appeal. “Instagram is awash in ho-hum marketers pumping out dreck that lands with a thud,” writes Digiday. Any algorithm is likely to handicap these tactics, forcing “less sexy” brands to try harder or pay to play.

The signs in the data

Signs that the glory days of high organic engagement for brands on Instagram would be coming to a close had been noted earlier this year. Ad serving on the platform appears to be increasing while organic engagement for brands has slipped.

The introduction of an algorithm is yet another signal in a clear pattern from Instagram copying its parent company’s trajectory on ad monetization. If that happens, the algorithm will siphon organic engagement for brands that have grown accustomed to earned media. As a result, those brands will increasingly have to pay for the impressions they had been cultivating organically.

A glimpse of what’s to come

The announcement also hints at what shiny new ad products Instagram may put out into the market. The company’s blog post alludes to the factor of “timeliness” coming into play for its feed—which means that news and conversation trends can have more of an impact on what rises to the top for users.

Tracking trends (as Facebook also now does) opens the possibility down the road for advertisers to target ads based on conversational trends—previously Twitter’s home turf in the social ad game. This encroachment, coming at a period of uncertainty for Twitter, begs another question: What other competitors are waiting in the wings to seize on that platform’s misfortunes?


—Jared Spears is a Verbal Identity consultant for Interbrand New York

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