How the Instagram Algorithm works in 2021 and how to hack it!

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How the Instagram Algorithm works in 2021 and how to hack it!

One of the questions I get asked most is “but how does the algorithm really work?” and it’s causing a lot of confusion for many! If you’re using Instagram as one of OR the main channel for growing your business, then you have to understand the algorithm on the whole, and how it’s changed. And unfortunately it’s not as simple as it was 11 years ago (yes it’s been around for that long!) when, much like Facebook “back in the day”, it followed a chronological feed.

Instagram’s algorithm is based on a machine learning model – aka it tries to figure out what you like. And yes this seems simple, but it can get complicated… and seem a bit intimidating. But, instead of seeing the algorithm as your enemy, try and understand it, and make it your friend – if you do this, you’ll get what you give (and isn’t that what a good friendship is all about?).

Let’s find out what Instagram’s algorithm has in store for 2021 together:


There’s a total of 6 key factors that influence the Instagram algorithm for feed posts. In no particular order, these are:

1. Frequency

This is about how often you open the app – if you’re very active on Instagram, your feed will look more chronological, since Instagram tries to show you the best posts since your last visit. If you open the Instagram app less often, your feed will be sorted into what Instagram thinks you’ll like, instead of chronologically.

2. Usage

Linked to point number one – the amount of time you spend on the app scrolling and interacting with content counts! If you spend a lot of time on Instagram, you’re going to see more posts as Instagram digs deeper into its catalog. If you spend enough time on Instagram, you can even run out of new content to see (jup, this happens to us!). Once this happens, the algorithm will serve you suggested content from new accounts which is based on your previous interactions.

3. Following

How many people do you follow on Instagram? Yes, your answer does play a role! If you follow a lot of people, then Instagram has more options to choose from, so you probably won’t see all of the posts from every account. However, if you’re following only a small number of people, that could be limiting your ability to interact and grow your account.

Something else that’s worth mentioning is having a look at your followers and removing “inactive” accounts. If a large percentage of your following is inactive, they could be doing more harm than good for your account’s algorithmic ranking.

4. Interest

Consistently showing up on Instagram is so important (and we cannot stress this enough). This gives your audience more opportunities to interact with your content. And the more they interact, the ‘happier’ you make Instagram, and the more the algorithm will ‘favour’ your content.

When it comes to feed performance, we know the algorithm prioritises content that receives the most engagement. But what are the most important metrics of engagements? According to Instagram, the most important engagements for feed ranking are comments, likes, saves, and views for videos, which is really helpful to know as you plan your content and captions.

5. Relationship

Much like Facebook, the Instagram algorithm wants to prioritize posts from your friends, family, and accounts that you care about. A software engineer at Instagram, shared how Instagram could theoretically figure out who you care about the most, based on how you use the app:

  • People whose content you like 
  • People you direct message
  • People you search for
  • People you know in real life (yup, Instagram knows …)

Instagram will try to calculate this relationship (and your interest level) as soon as you follow someone by serving you their content and monitoring how you engage with it.

6. Time

Have you noticed that your post from today is receiving more likes and engagement than your post from two weeks ago? Instagram’s algorithm cares about when you posted, because it always wants to serve you the latest, most interesting posts.

You can use Instagram’s insights feature to see what time of the day, for the different days of the week, your followers are most active and schedule your post for optimal time to get better results! If you post at a time when your followers are online and most active, you give yourself a better chance of getting more traction.

About IG’s Algorithm when it comes to Stories, Explore page, IGTV, and Reels

These content sharing methods are just as important as your feed posts, don’t forget that!
Explore page

Overall, the Explore page and the feed algorithm are quite similar: both deliver content that Instagram thinks you’ll be most interested in, based on your most common interactions. However, remember that your Instagram feed will be made up of content from accounts you already follow, whereas the Explore feed will consist almost entirely of content from new accounts. If you’re a brand or business, take advantage of this so that a new audience can explore your content!


Typically, Instagram Stories that appear at the start of your feed are from accounts that you engage with the most, whether that’s through likes, comments, story views, reactions or DMs. Make sure you regularly create interactive stories (think questions and poll stickers), and that your brand also interacts with relevant brands’ and people’s stories on IG. This way you are increasing your engagement game, which in turn makes the algorithm favour your page!

IGTV & Reels

Regarding IGTV videos and the new, popular Reels, the algorithm prioritises content from the accounts you interact with the most, as well as the type of posts you typically engage with. Beyond the home feed, Instagram serves suggested IGTV videos and Reels in relevant Explore pages, including the new Reels tab, which Instagram is currently pushing organically (something to take advantage of!). For brands and creators, this creates a new opportunity to reach new audiences, be creative, and set themselves apart. So be sure to incorporate video content into your strategy.

More about IG’s NEW REELS: Instagram’s Reels Algorithm has been a bit of a mystery, especially when it comes to what’s shown as a suggested post, or in the Reels Explore tab. 

However, more recently, Instagram shared that the algorithm will make content that is visibly recycled from other apps (with visible watermarks or logos) less discoverable. So, be sure to create and edit your Reels on IG.

Here’s our 6 tips to outsmart Instagram’s algorithm so that you can grow your brand on the platform:

1. Use Instagram’s latest features

Stay on top of Instagram’s latest features, embrace it, and try it out! This is a fast-track way to gain favour with the Instagram algorithm. Instagram will always give their latest features (such as Instagram Reels) a nudge to drive popularity, so it’s a good idea to jump on the latest trends and take advantage of this extra boost.

2. Get engagement going (organic engagement)

Encourage engagement through interactive story stickers and writing good captions, asking questions to your audience. Instagram has confirmed comments are super important when it comes to feed ranking, so including a call-to-action in your Instagram caption can go a very long way when it comes to driving more interactions. Plus, remember to also interact by commenting on posts from other accounts relevant to your brand or business. Try commenting with more than 4 word and interacting with others’ stories – you’ll see an immediate difference.

3. Don’t forget about hashtags

Hashtags, hashtags, hashtags… make sure you have a good strategy, and stick to it! Adding hashtags to your posts is one of the most effective ways to get discovered by more people on Instagram, which means more “views” for the Instagram algorithm to take into account. And with a good hashtag strategy, you won’t just reach more people — you’ll reach people who are relevant for your business, and most likely to engage with your content.

4. Get the most out of your content

As Instagram has grown, so has the number of channels that you can share content: feed, stories, IGTV and Reels. And thanks to these different publishing channels, you can strategically use them to drive different audiences to your most recent content. Use one piece of content and repurpose it for all these different channels.

5. Dive into analytics to test what’s working

Monitoring how your content is performing (or not performing) is one of the most reliable ways to take on the Instagram algorithm. Having a better understanding of what’s working and what’s not, will help you with your content and marketing strategy. Remember, in digital we’re constantly testing and improving – that’s how we learn! To do this, go to Insights, posts and take a look at which feed posts got the most engagement. You can filter it by comments, follows, likes, saves, shares, profile visits and more.

6. Be consistent

You’ve probably heard the saying ‘content is king’, and that’s true, but we’re here to let you know that CONSISTENT content runs the show! Your audience will realise you’re reliable once you show up consistently for your brand. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to post every single day, this rather means that you need to plan a content strategy (for example, three feed posts, one Reel, and two Stories per week), work on it and try and stick to it as much as possible. Don’t let this make you feel that you can’t or shouldn’t post on-the-fly – you definitely can and must, but try to be as consistent as possible with a planned content calendar.

Do you feel like you understand the algorithm a bit better? We truly hope this inspires you to embrace all of Instagram’s features, work on your content strategy and engage with others! This is the only way for you to expect the same in return.

Need help with your content strategy for social media? Have a look at our Social Media Strategy service, and get in touch!

Call us: +27 79 896 1593 or email info@prettysocial.co.za

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