What Is the Instagram Algorithm in 2020? We Break It Down.

Instagram Algorithm Changes

It’s been a while since there was a major update to the Instagram algorithm. But understanding its history and the smaller updates, while frustrating, are still important. If trying to decipher the Instagram algorithm is a task you don’t even want on top of your already hectic workload – we get it. We’ve been there.

Like you, we’re still recovering from the infamous 2018 Facebook & Instagram algorithm updates that made all organic reach virtually impossible. (And we work with many cannabis businesses that are not allowed to advertise – trust us, we get the struggle.) And you’re probably here because you noticed that your Instagram account’s reach has plummeted in the last year, desperate for answers about the inconspicuous Instagram algorithm. We hear the same questions around the office all the time: Is it me, or has engagement gotten worse for brands? Is Instagram’s goal to become a pay-to-play platform?

Don’t worry, we did the research so you won’t have to. In this blog post, we will break down everything we know about the Instagram algorithm, AND share some of our secret sauce  — our social media process and tactics to ensure you see successful results. 

Instagram Algo Iphone Image

Beat the Instagram Algorithm with JEMSU

There will come a time when your social media profile is so successful, Instagram algorithms won’t faze you. We’ve seen it with some of our brands, and we also struggle with some of our others. The difference is clear – some clients simply have the budget to put in the time it takes in maintaining a successful social media presence. While others don’t understand the value in the investment. 

JEMSU has partnerships and paid subscription for technologies that study your follower’s demographics and other data to not only identify the day and time your target audience is most active on social media, but also the best kind of content to post – including hashtags. This information varies not only with the seasons, but even month to month. Take Covid-19 for example. Social media user behavior changed drastically during this time. Instead of taking our time to manually analyze data and restructure, our tools provided us with all the information we need with the click of a button.

Having a social media expert with access to those tools, saving you time and stress, is not always feasible. We get it. So, let’s dive into what you need to do.

Guy Checking Marketing Stats

New Updates to Instagram Algorithm 2020

If you’re new to social media marketing, then it’s probably best to understand the old Instagram algorithm and any updates that came before 2020. Let’s go back to 2016 with one major update – the platform stopped showing posts in chronological order, that’s when the algorithm really came into play and brands started becoming more tactical.

Scrolling Instagram

This was no surprise to anyone who is active in the social media marketing world. In fact, the same trend started with Facebook and carried on to become even more aggressive in 2018. This is why your Facebook feed used to be filled with activity from pages you follow (remember all the memes?), and now, it’s filled with updates from that one uncle you avoid. Anyway, in that same year, Instagram made ANOTHER update. And we only knew about it back then because we spent hours researching.

Here’s how the big algorithm update, which is still in place today, works:

The algorithm relies on three factors:

  1. Interest – How much Instagram thinks a user cares about a post, based on their past actions on similar posts. The more interest, the higher the post will show in the feed.
  2. Recency – The newer the post, the more prominence it receives.
  3. Relationship – In an effort to prioritize posts from friends and family, Instagram claims that posts from those a user has interacted with the most will appear higher in the news feed.

If this sounds simple, we’re sorry to tell you that it gets a bit more complicated. Here are some other factors that must be taken into account as well:

  • How often a user opens the app, with new posts appearing each time they do
  • How many people a user follows, with users who follow a large number of accounts seeing less from particular pages. While those who follow few accounts will see less of a variety
  • How much time a user spends on Instagram. If sessions are short, they’ll see only the most relevant posts. For longer sessions, Instagram digs a little deeper to show more posts, even those it considers to be less relevant.

This all sounds pretty straightforward, and like what an efficient algorithm is supposed to do. But social media managers noticed something sketchy. If the algorithm prioritizes posts from accounts that users care about, then why did some of our previously engaged followers suddenly stop engaging with our posts? (The answer is: they stopped seeing us in feeds.) 

The reason everything is questionable? Instagram is never 100% straightforward with its algorithm. (This is why we dig DEEP.)

Let’s talk about more recent years, though.

The year is 2019, we thought times were bad because we didn’t know what 2020 had in store. Anyway, Instagram actually announced a thing or two about it’s algorithm. Here’s what it had to say.



As you can see, this confirmed our 2018 theories. 

But what does it mean for social media managers? Well, there’s only one answer: Create posts and brand strategies that feed the Instagram algorithm. Meaning, sharing images and captions that will always provide engagement. (We’ll elaborate next – promise.)

How To Hack the Instagram Algorithm

To clarify: it’s not always Instagram’s fault. We see many prospects and new clients come in sharing content that just don’t cater to their audience or thrive on Instagram. So basically, it could be you that’s the problem. However, with our guidance in this blog, you’re about to make Instagram struggles a thing of the past. 

Based on experience, we know firsthand what works, and what doesn’t  — even with a pesky algorithm.

Here are some Instagram tactics to help you boost your numbers:

Captions Still Matter

Since engagement plays a big factor in where you stand in user’s feeds, captions are a great place to, well, indirectly ask for it.

Don’t worry. While this is frowned upon on Facebook, doing so on Instagram is still fair game. Asking people to double tap, tag a friend, drop a comment or even ending your caption with a question are ways to boost your engagement. And yes, these are “vanity” metrics that don’t promise sales or leads, but they DO make you more visible and more popular on Instagram, which does count for credibility. And indirectly translate to sales.

Obviously, asking for engagement in every post will make your marketing efforts too obvious, which is never a good look. Effortless social media marketing is what users love the most on Instagram. So, don’t force or overdo it. 

Contests, Giveaways and Partnerships 

This kind of ties into our last tactic. Giveaways usually require people to engage with posts someway, somehow. Whether you ask your target audience to utilize a specific hashtag, create content or simply commenting/liking a post, all of these engagements can be considered entries into contests. And, with an incentive like a prize, users are more likely to engage with your content. 

Remember, the less work users have to do, the more likely they’ll engage. User-generated content is a big ask, for instance. But dropping a comment is not. 

That said, before you host a contest on Instagram, please read all the rules.


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Take Better Photos

Okay, we know we’re stating the obvious here. But it’s rare (and we mean extremely rare) that a client comes to us with already great photos, so it needs to be stated. And yes, it’s all subjective, so here’s what works on Instagram: Bright or bold colors, human faces and landscapes. 

Instagram Profile

Instagram profile: @kjp

If this is not the kind of content you are creating, and hiring a professional is out of the budget, look no further than your smartphone. These days, you can get professional quality photography with just your phone! Not to mention, there are plenty of apps that help you get presets (or filters) to keep your profile “vibe” on brand. 

If you’re here because you’re seeking professional social media help, we are capable of helping with shot lists for photography or even taking photos for you. We also have a full design team to ensure all your photos fully represent your brand. This screenshot is an example.

Instagram Pictures

Our client! @alixiherb

Frequent Posting to Stories

This is often neglected by other marketing agencies, and left out of their scope of services.

If you’re unsure how Instagram stories fit in with the algorithm, keep reading.

Stories have become the most popular form of Instagram viewing with more than 500 million viewers a day! The more users view and interact with stories, the more you’re pushed up in their feed! Plus, you can promote your feed posts in Stories, so it’s a double win. Many brands think that posting on Stories takes away from feed posts, and that those static posts are essential to the algorithm – they’re not wrong. But this is why we say utilize both to their full potential.

Instagram Stories Polls

Image source: Buffer

Not to mention, Stories are a great place for content that doesn’t need a long shelf life (they expire in 24 hours). Think event-related updates, a sale or promotion, or any other short campaign. You will show up at the top of a user’s feed – so the question here is: why not?

Video Remains A Favorite

While there is no black-and-white claim from Instagram that states whether video content is prioritized, we have figured this out through deep research and testing, as well as the information that we do have. Remember when we said Instagram prioritizes your content in a user’s feed based on how much time they spend on your content? Well, videos take time to watch, which gives your brand more prominence in user feeds! 

Not to mention, Instagram auto-plays video, which makes it more likely for users to stop and pay attention. (Engaging content!) 

And in case you haven’t noticed, Instagram is subtly showing us it prioritizes video by pushing IGTV. And as of recently, IGTV content became visible in feeds! This is certainly something not to be ignored! 

If video content is not your specialty, rest assured. Many successful social media users rely on their phone to take IGTV-friendly videos, and the production is not at all professional. You don’t even have to post long form videos. Simple, short form videos are easily digestible and receive a lot of engagement when done right.

Instagram Live

It’s scary, but it works. 

While Instagram Live doesn’t directly influence the Instagram algorithm, it does keep your feed top of mind. Here’s how: When you go live on Instagram, your followers are notified right away. Not only that, it puts you at the very top of the Story feed! Yes, ahead of everyone else! This feature is under utilized by most, so you can almost guarantee an increase in visibility when you go live.

Instagram Live

The best part? Good production is not expected! This is where in-the-moment content fits in perfectly. If you’re a restaurant owner, for example, showing a new recipe or ingredients would be great here. Or, if you’re a hotel manager, this is the place to show live activity at one of your facilities! 

Hashtags are Still Alive and Well

Back to our goal: to secure prominence in Instagram feeds. We can do so by being more visible, and hashtags give us exactly that: visibility. 

A key way people find content on Instagram is through hashtags. They essentially make you searchable, which means your content will be viewed by people who don’t even follow your page! 

So, if you want to be more discoverable and land more impressions, you need a combination of hashtags. We normally always have branded ones in there to further establish the brands we work with, then we do a mix of hashtags that are industry- and photo-specific. 

Many people refrain from going hashtag-heavy in fear of looking spammy. However, we have found that as long as you don’t use the same ones on every post, or use any shadowbanned hashtags, you’re safe. 

Yes, we spend a lot of time researching hashtags, and optimizing our content with the best performing ones. We pay for tools to give us the best information out there. But you can get close results by spending time doing this manually. Keep in mind, hashtags need to be constantly researched as their trends are always changing! Not to mention, you must always keep up with the newly-banned hashtags  — using any of these can make you undiscoverable in feeds. This defeats the purpose of using hashtags. It’s tedious work, and that’s one of the reasons why clients come to us for help!

Instagram Live Mark

Best Times To Post on Instagram

This makes sense, right? In order to maximize visibility and engagement, you should be posting at times when most of your audience is online. However, without the proper reporting tools, it’s hard to gather the data for your specific audience. 

What we can share with you is what to do to figure out your best time to post. 

First, you’re going to need a lot of data, which means, you have to post frequently over a long period of time. Posting twice a week is not a big enough sample, and testing this over the course of a month is not long enough. There are seasons (December holidays, summer break, pandemics, and even Daylight Savings) that could all play a factor in your research.

Two Ladies Collab

If this all sounds like it’s complicated – we hear you! JEMSU couldn’t possibly do this for all our clients, which is why we pay and subscribe to tools that do this for us. And since the data is constantly changing, having a software do this for you is really the most effective way to reach your audience at the right time. However, this is NOT a step to ignore.

And that, our friends, is how it’s done. 

If you’re feeling inspired, then we did our job! If you’re feeling overwhelmed, we’re here for you. We eat, sleep, breathe social media marketing, and sadly, algorithms get us excited. So, ask us anything!

Our marketing team is kind of a Dream Team – we’re a mix of creatives and data analysts. One half spends their time analyzing data and presenting new tactics to our creatives, who create your content. It’s a beautiful thing to watch, really. 

If you’ve made it this far, we’d love to hear from you. What are your social media pain points? Is it results, coming up with content, or simple time? Let us know in the form here

To our current clients, our team spends a generous amount of time testing, monitoring and analyzing our content and its frequency to gather information and adjust accordingly. We want you to see real engagement from users who are interested in their posts. What we never do is any black or grey hat tactics, such as engaging in Instagram pods, using bots, or misspelling a caption in an effort to get more engagement from users correcting in the comments. (Seriously, that’s a real thing.)

If you have any questions or concerns, please get in touch with us. We would be more than happy to help!