Inside the Instagram Algorithm for 2021: How It Works and Where to Shift Your Strategy

How Instagram's Algorithm Really Works | 1HUTCH

From SEO to social media, algorithms are often what determine who actually sees the content you publish and who doesn’t.

As these algorithms change, yesterday’s marketing tactics might become less effective tomorrow. That’s why your strategy on each platform needs to constantly evolve too.

On Instagram in particular, simply posting on a regular basis with the right hashtags won’t necessarily guarantee that your new content always reaches its intended audience.

Instead, you’ll need to consider how you can work with the new Instagram algorithm updates to shake up your approach to Instagram marketing.

How does the Instagram algorithm work?

  • How the algorithm works for Instagram feed
  • How the algorithm works for Instagram Story
  • How the algorithm works for Instagram Reels and IGTV

How the Instagram algorithm works for the feed

The new Instagram algorithm dictates the order of the posts that users see when they’re scrolling through their feed.

Based on specific signals, it prioritizes the best posts, pushing the most relevant ones toward the top and giving them the most visibility, while other content ends up being placed further down.

While it’s important to note that the new algorithm is subject to change, these three main ranking factors can still help inform your Instagram strategy:

  • Relationship with the user. If a certain user has interacted with a lot of your past Instagram content, they’ll be more likely to see your future content. This makes continual, repeat engagement on your posts important for building a loyal audience.
  • Interest the user has conveyed. This signal is based on whether the user interacts with similar posts and accounts when they explore Instagram. Users who also engage with similar content are more likely to see your own posts.
  • Relevancy of the post. When you publish a post on Instagram, the algorithm gives it a relevancy score, which impacts who it shows in the feed.

There were also other, more general considerations that Instagram shared, which you should make note of:

  • If users follow a lot of accounts, you’ve got more competition for the top spot in their feed.
  • If users either don’t spend a long time on Instagram or don’t open the app that often, you decrease the odds of having your content seen if you aren’t in one of the very top slots.
  • Business accounts on Instagram are not immediately at a disadvantage in terms of organic reach compared to personal accounts.

How the Instagram algorithm works for Instagram Story

Instagram Stories that appear first in a users feed are from accounts they engage with most. Comments, likes, and DMs all count toward your place in a user’s feed. Users are also shown Stories by location, which is why using location hashtags in Stories is becoming more common.

The more people engage with your brand through Stories, the more likely they’ll be to see your updates every time you post. Knowing this, you’ll want to consistently post Stories to reach people as they open their Instagram account. 

How the Instagram algorithm works for Instagram Reels and IGTV

The algorithm for video content like Reels and IGTV is similar to the algorithm for the Instagram feed. Your content shows to people who interact with your account the most.

To increase visibility for your Reels, share them to your feed first and include hashtags. Instagram tends to boost discoverability for new features, so you’ll want to jump on a Reels strategy as soon as possible.

Instagram Reels Example

To extend the reach for an IGTV video, share a preview to your Instagram feed to increase exposure. 

IGTV in Feed

Read more: How to Use Instagram Reels to Market Your Shopify Store

Now, you might be wondering how all of these facets of Instagram’s algorithm will influence your own Instagram marketing strategy. So let’s take a look at some of the different ways you can adapt your approach to reach more of your customers.

Tips for working with the Instagram algorithm in 2021

Focus on relationships, not just reach

Audience loyalty and continual engagement from your followers is now more important than ever, especially since it can earn you one of the top spots in their feeds.

Some ways to create these relationships with your content include:

Post user-generated content on your Stories. User-generated content is content about your brand that your followers have posted. Posting it not only inspires more UGC, but users whose content you share may tag you in their Stories and further expand your digital footprint on Instagram.

Cream Magazine Reel

Share Reels. Instagram Reels are short, entertaining videos your business can post on Instagram. You can record 15-second clips with audio, effects, and different creative tools to amuse viewers and grow your Instagram following. Reels are shared on your feed and can appear on the Explore page to reach more people.

Sam Smith Reel

Produce IGTV content: IGTV features long-form, immersive videos that take up a user’s entire screen. IGTV content shows up in the Explore page, so it’s easy for them to discover and watch videos from creators (hint, that’s you!) and follow them on Instagram. 



The Instagram algorithm tends to broadly share content from its newer features, which today is Reels. It’s also important to think outside of your own content if you hope to find your customers on Instagram. This is a social network, after all.

Comment on posts from relevant users and brands 

You can also engage with users on their posts to build relationships outside of your own content by leaving interesting and involved comments on content from potential customers, relevant influencers, and related businesses.

Posting first on larger accounts that have a big following can help get your comment more visibility and get more Instagram followers for your profile. Think about accounts that your target audience is likely to follow, follow them, and join the conversation.

When doing this, be genuine and add value. Don’t try to just look for opportunities to get in a public sales pitch or leave generic responses. For example, if they tell you to check out the link in their bio about their new product, actually click the link in their Instagram bio, check out their product, and leave a thoughtful comment. Show your brand’s personality and engage in a meaningful way.

Fashion Nova, for example, can regularly be found in the comments on posts by rapper Cardi B, among other influencers, where it gets a fair bit of exposure and the chance to build relationships with its target audience. 

 Comments on Cardi b IG

You can even opt to get notified of new posts for specific accounts so you can comment early, increasing the likelihood your comment will be seen, thanks to the Instagram feed’s focus on recent posts.

To do this, you need to be following the account first. Then, click on the three dots located in the top right hand corner of the app and tap “Turn on post notifications” to start receiving push notifications whenever they publish a new post.

In addition to connecting with similar-minded creators, try following certain hashtags with relevancy to your brand and engaging with posts that use those tags. This is another great way to optimize for higher engagement rates.

Post when your followers are most active

Since timeliness is still a factor in where your content ends up in your followers’ feeds, use it to your advantage. Getting a surge of engagement when the post first goes live doesn’t hurt either and will show Instagram that it’s a post that more of your followers would like to see.

To maximize the potential of every post, try to have your content go up during your peak posting times.

Finding your peak posting times may take a little bit of trial and error, but a good place to start is in your Instagram Analytics report, available to all Instagram Business profiles in the mobile app.

If you click on the Audience tab in your Insights and scroll all the way down, you’ll see a small section showing you when your followers are online. You can view this information by days of the week or by the hour on specific days.

Active posting times

You’ll want to test out specific posting times to see what works. Maybe posting right before a big surge of activity will work best for your account, or maybe you’ll find that it’s better to post right after a surge starts.

Respond to comments while they’re fresh

Have you noticed a lot of other business profiles responding to as many comments as possible on Instagram?

This creates social proof for your content, increasing your comment count while also encouraging further replies. But it also boosts your chances of earning more engagement while your post’s potential reach is at its peak.

Responding to a comment can also encourage follow-up comments from the original poster, even if it’s just a thank you for answering a question. In some cases, though, this can jumpstart a conversation, giving you significant engagement that will help the reach of this post and future posts, too.


Use hashtags to reach active users

Instagram hashtags can increase your reach by helping you show up in relevant searches.

For this tactic to be effective, however, you need to choose the hashtags that your target audience actually searches through to discover content and other users.

Community hashtags are especially active. These niche hashtags may not have as many posts as the more popular hashtags, but they are already being circulated and searched through by groups on Instagram looking to connect with others who are interested in that topic, movement, or community.

This is where you’ll actually get views that can lead to clicks through to your profile, engagement, and potentially new followers.

Tortuga backpacks

While these valuable hashtags will differ by industry, you can generally spot them because they adequately describe your ideal customer and are continually populated with new posts under the same theme:

  • A merchant selling custom luggage could use the community hashtag #welltraveled.
  • Online stores selling beard oil could opt for #beardlife.
  • Store owners that sell health food items might choose #livingfit.

Don’t just add these hashtags to your own posts, however. Click through and engage with the posts you see that are using them. A simple like on someone’s post, at the very least, might translate into a profile view or even a follow.

Again, even if your posts aren’t reaching these users, you yourself can.

Learn more: How to Make Money on Instagram (Whether You Have 1K or 100K Followers)

Repost old content to Stories

If you’re struggling to figure out what to post on Instagram to get traction on the platform or you want to make sure that specific content gets seen as much as possible, repurposing past posts is a good way to go, especially as your following grows.

This brings your best content back to the top, showing it to more people who may have missed it the first time around.

While some will simply delete a post and upload it the same way they’ve shared in the past, repurposing your content is the ideal approach here.

Repurposing content can be a huge time-saver, but remember to do it sparingly, switch things up, and prune your own feed to remove repeat content. Users can still scroll through your gallery, and you don’t want them to see the same photo come up over and over again.

Encourage engagement on your Stories

Instagram Stories get a lot of attention because they aren’t subjected to the same algorithm as posts in your feed. They’re also a great way to speak to your followers and build loyalty, resulting in more engagement on your static Instagram posts and thus, more reach.

There are several ways you can use them:

  • Add hashtag stickers with your branded hashtag. When users tap through on your branded hashtag sticker, they’ll be taken to a feed of static posts using that hashtag, whether they’re your own, customer submissions, or both. Add a location tag as well to help your content show up in local searches. 
  • Share Stories from other users. Instagram allows you to not only be notified when someone shares a Story that mentions you, but also to then share their Story directly to your own. You can even encourage or incentivize your followers to share one of your posts to their Story.
  • Inspire engagement with interactive stickers. This includes poll stickers, the emoji slider, and question stickers. The latter lets you ask users questions and then post their replies to additional Stories later on. This gives you even more content that your followers might interact with.

IG Story

But did you know you can also share your own Instagram posts to your Stories?

Simply tap the direct message button on one of your own posts and you’ll see the option to “Add Post to Story,” where you can resize it and apply text and other edits.

This is a great way to ensure your most important posts (like a new product announcement) have a better chance of reaching your followers.

Embrace direct messages

Instagram’s private messaging platform has been gaining popularity as the app’s usage and number of chat features increase. More and more users are sending businesses private messages to ask questions and get in touch.

Direct messages often involve longer conversations, and it gives you a chance to nurture an individual relationship one-on-one.

This also works when you use direct messaging for outreach. You can get in touch with qualified customers, potential partners, and influencers you’d like to work with, either by messaging them through their profile or their Story.

Note that this is a strategy that doesn’t scale well, so you need to be selective about who you’re reaching out to. Look for brand advocates, customers who seem to need help based on their comments on your posts, and partners or influencers you’d like to work with. Focus on each conversation separately, and avoid generic responses in favor of authentic ones.

Pay for reach with Instagram ads and influencers

The fastest way to solve limited organic reach on any platform is to pay for it instead. Done correctly, this can give you a burst of momentum that can help you drive better organic results later on. You have two main options here: Instagram advertising and influencer marketing.

Instagram ads do cost money, and the ad spend can add up quickly if you’re not careful, but it’s a good investment if you’re having trouble gaining traction on the platform.

Be sure to set a lifetime budget, especially if you’re new to Instagram, so you remain in control of your spend.

Monitor how your efforts translate into results

You can track your progress with these strategies by checking your Instagram Insights for telling metrics. While most people focus on follower count, you’ll learn more about what your Instagram marketing is doing for your business by looking at profile views, reach, and website visits.

Accounts reached

The Instagram algorithm may change, but building relationships doesn’t

If you want to get the most out of Instagram, it’s not enough to fixate only on publishing content regularly. Instead, it’s essential that you also focus on overall relationship building and high-quality content while engaging with Instagram users outside of your posts and on them.

Instagram algorithm changes will always happen. But if marketers are willing to change with them, you’ll find surprising new ways to reach your intended audience.

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