Should Brands Fear Instagram’s Feed Algorithm?

Despite assurances from Instagram that brands will be unaffected by the feed algorithm it plans to introduce, businesses can’t feel too comfortable.

Despite assurances from Instagram that brands will be unaffected by the feed algorithm it plans to introduce, businesses can’t feel too comfortable.

The Facebook-owned photo- and video-sharing network announced Tuesday that it will soon begin populating its feed the way its parent company populates its News Feed, stressing that users “miss on average 70 percent of their feeds,” and saying:

The order of photos and videos in your feed will be based on the likelihood that you’ll be interested in the content, your relationship with the person posting and the timeliness of the post. As we begin, we’re focusing on optimizing the order—all the posts will still be there, just in a different order.

If your favorite musician shares a video from last night’s concert, it will be waiting for you when you wake up, no matter how many accounts you follow or what time zone you live in. And when your best friend posts a photo of her new puppy, you won’t miss it.

We asked Facebook if Instagram users will have the option of switch to a “most recent” feed, as Facebook users currently do with their News Feeds, and we will update this post if and when the social network responds.

Instagram addressed the algorithm introduction’s potential impact on brands in a separate Instagram for Business blog post:

To improve the experience, feeds will soon be ordered to show the moments we believe people will care about the most—and that includes content shared from businesses.

If you post about an upcoming flash sale or a new product, it will be waiting for consumers when they wake up, no matter how many accounts they follow or what time zone they live in. And when you post a video of your barista pouring the perfect latte, customers won’t miss it.

Instagram co-founder and CEO Kevin Systrom and co-founder and chief technology officer Mike Krieger expressed similar sentiments to The New York Times, with Krieger saying:

Look at my feed now. I follow accounts from all over the world. It doesn’t really matter to me what time it is.

Systrom added:

If there’s one thing we do really well as a company, it’s that we take big change slowly and deliberately and bring the community along with us. It’s not like people will wake up tomorrow and have a different Instagram.

Tuesday’s announcement was likely unsettling for brands on Instagram, despite all of the reassurances that followed. Analytics providers including Locowise and Quintly have been reporting on plummeting engagement for brands’ posts on the network for months now, and the introduction of the feed algorithm may mark the last step in the transition of Instagram into a pay-to-play platform, as advertising may be the only way for brands to ensure that their messages reach users.

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James DeJulio, co-founder and chief creative officer of Tongal, a Facebook Marketing Partner and member of the Instagram Partner Program, agreed, saying in an email to SocialTimes:

The updates mirror Facebook’s. we saw that introducing more of an algorithm to the News Feed ultimately led to brands buying more media in order to break through. I expect the same to happen over time on Instagram, and brands that test and learn with Instagram ads now will have a leg up for down the road, when it becomes even more essential.

Is there anything brands can do, besides brace for the inevitable advice about creating compelling content to reach their followers?

Gartner research vice president of consumer technology Brian Blau spoke with Wired about Instagram’s announcement, saying that from a user standpoint:

You may have some friends who are prolific, some friends you may only want to hear from once in a while, some you want to hear from all the time. (Facebook has) a lot of great research on what keeps people engaged.

As for the algorithm’s impact on brands and, specifically, advertisers, he told Wired:

Understanding your available inventory, how engaged your users are, what the proclivity is to purchase based on exposure—all of these things are really important to the ad business. Without that algorithm, (Facebook would) have a lot less control. With the algorithm, it can fine-tune things.

Agency Sway Group manages influencer programs for brands on social media challenges, and Tracie Nall, its community manager, said in an email to SocialTimes:

While likes and comments have always been a metric for sponsored content, engagement will now push views and resulting impressions in a way it never has before. Influencers will need truly engaged followers to build and guarantee awareness–a large audience is not merely enough. In addition, greater incentive will be placed on acquiring likes and comments through direct calls to action, such as tagging a friend, like it to own it and double-click for more information. Time will tell how the new model effects user engagement with sponsored content, as well as its ratio to brand advertisements.

Readers: How do you think brands should react to Instagram’s announcement of the impending launch of a feed algorithm?

Image courtesy of Shutterstock. David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.