The Great Instagram Shift

Alternatively titled: “Why Instagram Is Losing to Tik Tok & Why Instagram Doesn’t Care”

This post is kind of long, so scroll to the bottom if you want the TL;DR.

Before I begin, let me just say that this might be the most opinionated I’ve ever been on an Instagram article. If you’re looking for “cold hard facts”, this might not be the article for you. If you’re looking for a brutally honest opinion on the new Instagram landscape from an Instagram marketer’s perspective, then feel free to read on.

I love Instagram, but Instagram has been making way too many mistakes for me to blindly support them. If you truly love something, you need to be critical of it… right? That’s what I learned from my dating my ex. (That last sentence was a joke.)

Instagram’s Messy New Gameplan

The Instagram meta has changed, and that’s partially due to Meta. As you are probably well aware, Instagram’s parent company is technically no longer “Facebook”, but it is now “Meta”. Meta’s main goal with Instagram, from my perspective, is to shift Instagram away from a “social media app” and change it into your “mobile social media homepage”. And that’s what I will attempt to explain in this article.

So what do I mean by that? Instagram’s CEO has said that Instagram is “no longer a photosharing app”. Despite what The Verge is suggesting in that article, I don’t think Instagram is trying to become like Tik Tok. Instagram wants to be something else. You see, Instagram knows it can’t compete with Tik Tok. They’d lose a lot of money if they tried to do that. Can you imagine if Instagram truly cared about your reach? That would cripple their ads revenue.

The reality is: Instagram lost to nearly every social media app in 2021. Tik Tok took over entertainment. Snapchat did better with communication. YouTube did better with long-form content (remember when IGTV was a thing?).

But let’s talk about Tik Tok. That’s the elephant in the room.

There are a lot of reasons why Instagram’s algorithm is failing in comparison to Tik Tok. But here’s the biggest reason: Instagram doesn’t “batch” their normal feed posts. Tik Tok batches 100% of their content. Instagram only uses batching for their Reels. But most normal people won’t use Instagram to post Reels.

Not sure what “batching” is? Let me quickly explain.

Why Instagram Needs Explore Batching for Feed Posts

After you post a video on Tik Tok, your content will be pushed to a specific “batch” of people on their For You page. Even people who don’t follow you will see your content. This is done to find the right audience for your specific post. After the first several rounds of batching, Tik Tok evaluates how viral that content is based on that “test batch”. 

If that initial “batch” of people react well to your post, it’ll get pushed to more and more people. If your post does well with a subset of people in the batch who typically enjoy cooking videos, then your video will get sent to more and more people who typically enjoy cooking content. Tik Tok uses these batches to categorize your content and push your content out to the world. This is why Tik Tok’s algorithm is so addicting. Tik Tok will find the right content for you, based off proven results from people who are similar to you.

This is a brilliant algorithm, and it’s the best way to reach people who might be interested in your specific type of content. Tik Tok rewards hyper-specificity in content. Because it categorizes viewers into hyper specific groups of interests. Due to this hyper-specificity, Tik Tok is a powerhouse in generating viral content. No viral moment will go unnoticed on Tik Tok. It will get noticed.

Now, obviously, I don’t know as much about the Tik Tok algorithm as I do with the Instagram algorithm. But it seems clear to me that Tik Tok’s algorithm provides a natural incentive to create high performing content. Tik Tok creators have trust in the algorithm that their type of content will be directed towards the people who actually want to see it.

Instagram adapts a very similar “batching” algorithm when it comes to Instagram Reels; however, the Reels algorithm is incredibly rusty compared to Tik Tok. If you spend 15 minutes scrolling through the Reels feed, you’ll likely see a lot of posts with zero likes, zero views, and zero comments. This is how you know that Instagram batches when it comes to Reels.

Why Instagram’s Current Feed Algorithm Is Flawed

A massive part of Tik Tok’s success comes from when small creators post viral content. Those small creators rarely get the viral boost from their fan base, but they get that boost from the batching process. A college kid can create an art project that none of his friends care about, but it will drive the art community wild. The batching process is the ideal way to generate viral content, because it gives people a realistic chance at going viral with the right audience.

Instagram’s feed algorithm (not their Reels algorithm), at present, is not designed to show you the best content possible. It is not designed to entertain. If you spend 15 minutes on your explore page, you likely won’t find any piece of content that has zero likes, zero views, and zero comments. You also likely won’t find any content that is younger than 2-3 hours old. This is why Instagram will not beat Tik Tok when it comes to “entertaining”. I think Instagram knows this.

The only time I see posts in my explore that are under 2-3 hours old (extremely rare), those posts usually:

1.) Are extremely well received by the creator’s followers (lots of likes and comments)

2.) Are from someone I have a lot of mutual friends with

3.) Are from someone who I’ve interacted with before (but don’t follow)

I spent a solid hour logging all the dates of the posts in my explore. The average was 2 days old. The oldest was from 2018 (I’m not kidding, the screenshot is below). The youngest was 2 hours with lots of mutual friends.

A post on my explore from 2018…

Because of their lack of feed batching, Instagram is hiding content from people who actually might be interested in it. Instagram’s current algorithm will only promote content on explore if it’s well received by the creator’s current following – but what happens if that creator wants to promote a new type of content? Try something new out? Switch niches? Is your account doomed?

In short, yes. Your account is doomed. That incentive to create good content? That’s gone.

And there’s a reason why Instagram doesn’t batch feed posts: Perfectionism. I believe that’s because they don’t want to promote anything that’s “not tested”. The explore page is a collection of highly curated posts that Instagram thinks you’ll be interested in. However, since their algorithm is already a messy meme of re-posted content; promoting potentially unpopular batched feed posts would make it much worse.

Look how incredibly messy the explore page looks on a fresh account. At this point, I don’t understand why they just don’t batch feed posts.

Tik Tok can discover viral content effortlessly. It’s what you expect when you get a full-page video experience. If you stumble across new, batched content on your For You page that you don’t have any interest in, then the algorithm kicks in, and it quickly makes it up to you by providing you with content they KNOW you will enjoy.

I suppose Instagram thinks that to get people to spend more time on the app, they should only show “proven” pieces of content on their explore page. But their unwillingness to test those untested posts is ultimately why it was so easy for Tik Tok to take over.

Tik Tok allows people to truly find their audience. The talented creators from Instagram went to Tik Tok so they can get the exposure they deserve.

I’m not a strong content creator. I don’t really desire to be one, either. I’ve made two ironic, gym humor Tik Toks that were highly specific to my tastes (they’re stupid, don’t watch them). However, they somehow found the right audience. Both those videos were seen by about 100k people each. Now imagine if your feed posts, videos, or carousels got that kind of hyper-specific attention? It’s possible, Instagram just won’t do it, and that’s why creators left to go to Tik Tok the moment they had the chance.

What bothers me about Instagram is that there is way more unique, powerful, and creative content on Instagram than there is on Tik Tok (for now). But Instagram’s algorithm hides that content – never to be seen by anyone again. You likely have posted content on Instagram that deserved more attention, but the algorithm is set up in a way that doesn’t give you the benefit of the doubt. It is what it is.

In summary, Instagram won’t “batch” images, carousels, and video posts. That leads to an algorithm that doesn’t understand our true tastes. That leads to an app like Tik Tok to expose Instagram’s bad algorithm. Almost all accounts that don’t have a solid base of engaging followers aren’t going to get organic reach on Instagram (unless they start consistently posting reels).

On Tik Tok, I enjoy 70-80% of the content that I see on my For You page. On Instagram, I enjoy less than 5% of the content I see on my Explore / Reels page (even considering that Instagram “batches” Reels). The overall Instagram algorithm has my personal account so poorly categorized that nothing on my explore page or Instagram Reels interests me that much anymore, and I don’t believe that’s due to a lack of content on Instagram. I think the algorithm is literally broken, and it needs to be fixed.

So, if you’re an influencer and you want to switch your genre up a bit, don’t. It won’t work on this algorithm unless you have a ridiculous level of follower support. Create a new account and post your content there.

We now have proof that Instagram knows their algorithm is busted. Recently, Instagram began pushing for users to create new accounts, in order to follow specific interests. See the screenshot below.

Instagram openly encouraging users to create more accounts.

I don’t think this is a move to “get users to spend more time on Instagram”. Although that might be their secondary objective.

Creating multiple accounts just to be able to properly use a social networking app is evidence they’re fully aware that something isn’t quite working correctly. Can you imagine YouTube telling you to create two different accounts so they know what to recommend you on your home feed? This is embarrassing.

I do; however, think they are using this strategy to gather more information about you, so they can figure out why their algorithm is a mess.

Here’s a realistic scenario on why batching matters for Instagram’s general algorithm:

Let’s say you love Chinese cooking, Chinese recipes, and Chinese food. You regularly support that kind of content on both Tik Tok & Instagram. An influencer (that you never heard of) posts a video of themselves preparing a Chinese dish on both platforms. This influencer usually makes Italian food, but they decided to have fun and make a really unique Chinese dish.

On Instagram, they post using a feed video (not a Reel). On Tik Tok, they post as standard Tik Tok video.

Since this creator typically doesn’t post Chinese food videos, you are unlikely to see this specific video on Instagram. On Tik Tok, it’ll likely be one of the first videos you see when you login. Even if the user posted the video to Reels, there’s still a strong chance that you won’t see it on your Reels feed due to how conflated the Reels & Explore algorithms are.

That’s why this matters.

Incredible creators are likely creating content that you’d love to see; however, Instagram’s algorithm won’t batch this type of content, so it won’t ever get seen.

How To Navigate Instagram’s Flawed Algorithm

With all that being said, here’s why this is important. Any followers that follow you that don’t engage with you are hurting your account’s reach.

“Real” followers don’t mean anything anymore. “Engaging” followers is all that matters.

The best chance of getting exposure on the explore page is getting as many active, engaging followers as possible; and while that’s always been the case, it’s become more obvious than ever that “real followers who don’t engage” are likely worse than “fake followers who don’t login”. At least those dead followers aren’t going to give you negative metrics on your posts.

These “real followers who are active but don’t engage with you” are hurting you.  This signals to Instagram that your content might not be worth promoting on the explore page.

For example, if you’re thinking about buying “giveaway followers” because they’re real followers: Don’t. That’ll destroy your reach even more. Instagram will see that people have followed you, seen your posts, and not engage. It will instantly decrease the reach of your future content.

Yes, I said it – fake followers that you can buy for 10 cents are going to be better off than buying a $900 entry to a Cardi B giveaway contest.

I would never, ever recommend buying fake followers for various other reasons. But the followers you earn in a giveaway contest are going to do much more damage to your reach than those fake followers.

Like I already mentioned earlier, if you’re thinking about experimenting with a new niche on your account: don’t. You’ll be better off starting a new account.

Instagram will kill your reach if you post content on a new topic. The negative reaction from your audience will likely hurt the reach of your future content too. If you want to try new content & new topics, you better hope you have an insanely supportive fanbase. I think personal accounts will likely have more success in attempting new niches; however, brand & niche-specific accounts are going to get slaughtered by the algorithm if they experiment in new niches.

Mythbusting Instagram’s Algorithm Claims

I want to dissect two videos that the CEO Adam Mosseri posted in 2021.

The first is called “How the Algorithm Works” in which Adam discusses how the various algorithms work on Instagram. This was posted on June 23, 2021.

The second is called “Changes Coming to Video” where Adam discusses how Instagram is leaning into the idea of “no longer being a photo-sharing app” and embracing Reels; and becoming an “entertainment” app like we already mentioned above.

The reason I want to dissect both videos is because these videos felt extremely conflicting. The first video describes why things are the way they are (and not entirely truthfully, I might add). The second video talks about why things are going to change.

Note: The second video was released exactly one week after the first video. I think this was done to be “transparent” about Instagram’s changing landscape, but it came off as disingenuous and shady.

Here are the highlights of what I’ve gathered in those two videos:

  • Instagram’s goal is to keep you on the platform for as long as possible. They make that pretty clear in the first video when they discuss the ranking algorithm. Instagram wants to show you posts that you spend the most time with, and they push those posts over posts that take less time to engage with. Personally, I don’t really mind that. But when their algorithm intentionally hides, potentially quality content; like we discussed, it’s quite damning. Also, when they later introduce the “Take A Break” feature, this comes off as either incompetent or simply a PR stunt.
  • Instagram wants to compete against Tik Tok and try to become an “entertainment” app. Yet they’ve completely embraced the idea of a commercialized shopping app; who’s algorithm is flooded with a pay-to-win structure; and once again, they likely hide their best content. Again, this comes off as either incompetent or shady. This is why I don’t think they’re trying to be an entertainment app, and their clear utility is being your mobile social media homepage.
  • For some reason, Instagram was blatantly deceitful about how they rank feed posts. In my 8 years of being an Instagram marketer, it’s obvious to me that the biggest indicator of whether I’d see a specific piece of content on my homepage was if I had a history of interacting with that user. Period. According to Instagram’s CEO, that was the last thing listed in order of importance. I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that the people you interact with on Instagram is the biggest indicator on whether you’ll see their posts in the future. Full stop. Why Adam suggested this wasn’t the case, I’m not sure. Extremely odd.
  • Adam highlighted the use of “close friends” as a means to promote the people you wanted to see higher on your feed, yet recently they began openly encouraging the use of creating multiple accounts to follow different interests. Again, I think this shows that they know their algorithm is broken, and they’re trying hard to get people to spend as much time on their platform as possible. I think Adam’s emphasis on adding users to “close friends” was an indicator that Instagram is going to add as much suggested content to the home feed as possible in hopes they can “figure you out” and create a better explore page for you.
  • Instagram confirmed they shadow banned people. I was always aware by this, but I do think 90% of the time people aren’t really “shadow banned”, they just failed to create compelling content and the algorithm punished them for it. But the skepticism is over – Instagram confirmed they do in fact shadow ban people.

Now that we’ve discussed that, let’s talk about Tik Tok again.

Tik Tok’s algorithm is incredible. If you spend 5 minutes on the app, you’ll already start to see it cater towards your interests.

What about Instagram’s algorithm? I’ve been on Instagram for almost 10 years, and my explore page, Reels, and homepage is filled with accounts and content that I have absolutely no interest in.

My Tik Tok feed is filled with ironic gym humor and hyper-specific content made for men in their mid-twenties. My Instagram explore feed & Reels tab is filled with German Shepherds and attractive women in their mid-twenties.

Don’t get me wrong, I love German Shepherds and women, but it makes me want to close the app immediately. I can only imagine millions of other people are going through this same issue.

Instagram knows you are reliant on their app to connect with your favorite accounts, your interests, and your friends. Instagram does many things better than Tik Tok. One of those things is being able to connect with friends.

If Instagram gave you the information you wanted right away, you wouldn’t spend much time on the app at all. That’s why we see all this suggested content on our home feed. Not to go full-blown conspiracy theorist on you, but that’s basically why they took away the chronological feed. They maximized the time spent on the app while decreasing the optimized time you spend on the app.  Instagram’s CEO has made it clear he wants people on the app for as long as possible, so there is incentive for making it harder to find posts you might be interested in. That strategy worked when Tik Tok wasn’t around, but now that Tik Tok is the top dog in town, they’re reversing course a bit.

Instagram is making a lot of changes because of Tik Tok, and I think they’re going to continue to make some big mistakes along the way. I don’t think they’ll fix their feed algorithm anytime soon.

“Well Ethan, Instagram is a billion-dollar company… they must know what they’re doing.”

Here’s my response to that:

“Instagram had a roughly 7-year head start, billions & billions of dollars in funding, and they got absolutely clobbered by Chinese spyware dancing app.”

– Me

Instagram lost the culture war with Tik Tok. They’re not going to win it back anytime soon.

However, Instagram… is far from dead, and I don’t think they’ll die anytime soon. Instagram has established itself as an all-in-one mobile platform, but it’s no longer a photo-sharing app… and it’s definitely not an entertaining app.

Instagram is an app where you can manage all your mobile interactions. You’re able to create any specific type of content in order to cater to your audience. Instagram is a jack of all trades, and a master of none. However, there is a ton of utility in having an app that can do it all, and Instagram will likely see a ton of success in that category.

So what does this all mean?

Now that we’ve discussed what seems to be true about the current algorithm, we have to discuss what this means now for reach, content, and the future.

Let’s just put it this way: You better hope that your audience loves you and all your content types.

Instagram’s algorithm has shifted away from “creator-focused” and it has shifted to “audience-focused” in an attempt to get users to stay on their platform longer. I think that was the wrong move, but it does fit the overall narrative of Instagram’s transformation into a mobile homepage.

Instagram serves as a functional place where you can interact with your audience and sell things to them. Obviously, you can still find new followers & fans on Instagram, but it’s no longer the top mobile platform to do that, as Tik Tok has rightfully taken the #1 spot. The people who have gained the most followers on Instagram in 2021 were definitely Tik Tokkers. There’s a lot of utility in converting your followers on Tik Tok to followers on Instagram.

Instagram pushing Reels by putting a Suggested Reels midroll on the home feed.

On Instagram, your personal interactions don’t really have an impact on how well your own content performs, necessarily. You can improve your content with your interactions, but you can’t really hurt your content with your interactions. This is all based off collaborative filtering, which basically means your content is only ranked based off who specifically decides to engage with your content. If you post fishing content on Instagram; but you only interact with photography accounts, you likely won’t see a decrease in your content’s reach (although there are obviously ways to improve your reach by interacting with more niche-specific accounts).

If you can create a bond with other quality content creators in your niche — whether that be through follows, likes, or comments. Then that’s a great signal to the algorithm. I delve into this a bit deeper in the Instagram course I released.

There’s this debate raging on between Instagram marketers on whether saves, likes, comments, or DMs play the biggest impact on your reach. The answer is none of the above. The total amount of time spent on your content will be the biggest signal Instagram uses on whether or not to promote your content.

If someone doesn’t engage on your post, but they spend 5x longer on it than they do with every other post they like or comment on, Instagram will promote the your post more heavily. This is one of the reasons why fake likes & power likes have little to no effect on Instagram anymore.

If you can make people:

  • spend more time on your posts,
  • visit your profile more often,
  • watch the full length of your videos

your content is going to be seen as extremely favorable even if you don’t receive a ton of likes, comments, DMs, or saves (although all those things will be a natural byproduct of creating content that forces people to spend time with it).

The last thing you want are active followers that have absolutely no interest in your content. Instagram is going to use that as the strongest indicator on whether or not your content deserves to be promoted in the explore page.

I have many opinions on how I think Instagram can fix Instagram, but I’m sure you might be tired of hearing my opinion at this point. In any case, we must accept the fact that Instagram isn’t what it used to be, and Instagram serves a different purpose now than it did in 2016.

And hey, that’s just life. We need to learn to adapt.

Here’s a summary of what I just said (TL;DR):

  • If you are going to experiment with new content, start a new account.
  • Use Instagram Reels for reach. You likely won’t get much reach on your feed posts (unless you already consistently go viral on the Explore). Instagram is pushing Reels really hard (they’re including it as a midroll on your feed, by the way), so it’s best to take advantage of this and use Reels. They’re going to likely bring full-scale suggested Reels adaption to the home feed, so stay ahead by creating Reels.
  • If you’re going to create Reels, make sure you create the content in a 3rd party app so you can easily share it on Tik Tok & YouTube shorts. You can then use the traffic you gain on those third party sites to promote your Instagram.
  • Consider Instagram as your “social media mobile homepage’. Instagram is still the best place to communicate with fans and friends. Your feed posts still play a role in your overall account aesthetics.
  • If you’re looking for inspirations for creating Reels, go look on Tik Tok. Tik Tok has significantly better content. The only utility in looking at Reels is so you know how to use specific Instagram filters that they push unfairly in their Reels algorithm. The true “trending” content within your niche is only happening on Tik Tok. You can maintain an advantage on Reels if you bring the trending content from Tik Tok to Reels before others do.
  • Tik Tok was the best way to grow your Instagram account in 2021, and this will likely be the case for 2022 as well. If your sole responsibility is to “create mobile content”, you should put more focus on performing well on Tik Tok and then use that to build your audience on Instagram. The easiest way to gain 100k followers on Instagram is by gaining 1 million followers on Tik Tok and then pushing your Tik Tok audience to your Instagram page (you can also double dip and use your Tik Tok content as Reels on Instagram). Just make sure the content is created in a third-party app so you don’t have the Tik Tok watermark on your Reels, as Instagram will penalize you for this.
  • Only active, real, and engaging followers are going to be able to help you grow your account. Active & real followers that don’t engage are extremely, extremely toxic to your Instagram account. I don’t think you need to remove ghost followers (I’ve never been a fan of this idea), but you should definitely post the kind of content that your audience expects. If your account is horribly damaged by fake followers and inactive real followers, then it might be a good idea to test your content on a fresh account and see if it performs better.
  • Don’t use any kind of “giveaway” services or any kind of growth service that promotes non-targeted real followers. Followers you gain with those kinds of services will kill your account, because Instagram’s explore algorithm is so tightly connected to how well your current followers interact with your content. You’d be better off spending that money to host your own giveaway contest on your account. Posting something along the lines of: “Like this post, tag a friend, leave a comment, and watch my story to win a PS5” or something like that will do much, much more for your reach than an actual giveaway growth service.

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