Successful branding is far from an easy task, and for organisations of a certain size that rely heavily on their branding, it is vitally important to remain relevant to fend off the threat posed by competitors. It’s the reason so many brands only have a certain shelf life because moving with the times means trying to entice new customers without affecting their appeal to their existing customer base. And it’s tricky balance to maintain.
From the outside, Instagram appears to be on a never-ending upward curve, coming a long way since launching in October 2010, with an estimated one billion viewers now active every month. However, since Instagram head Adam Mosseri announced in 2018 that the social media site was no longer a photo-sharing app, the shift towards video content has increasingly frustrated their user base.
Of course, there are still plenty of photos on Instagram, but their video content (“Reels”) is now front and centre as it attempts to compete with the continued rise of TikTok. Photographers, artists and designers are just some of the professionals who are seeing a negative impact on their accounts, and when you start to delve a little deeper there appear to be some troubling signs for Instagram.
What is happening to Instagram?
Whether it’s because people are becoming tired of influencer marketing or because of TikTok’s huge growth in the past few years, Instagram’s figures appear to have slowed down.
When you look at Instagram’s organic reach – where people find your content without paid advertising – a bigger picture starts to emerge. Parent company Facebook has seen a huge decline in organic reach, which once stood at 16% in 2012 before dipping to a low 5% in 2020. The trend is only going one way and the same is happening to Instagram.
Organic reach is being killed off because Instagram wants businesses to use paid advertising to promote their brand. The days of successfully using the platform for free advertising are over and if you want to build a strong audience on Instagram, you now have to dig deep into your pockets to pay for the privilege.
It’s a tried and tested method used by investor-backed companies who entice people to use a service for free or at low cost, and once a large enough audience has become reliant on it, changes are slowly implemented to increase revenue. Similar noises are also starting to be heard at Twitter, which loses hundreds of millions of dollars every year. However, there has been talk of ‘premium accounts’. Video monetisation schemes are already available, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see their model change in the coming years.
Other elements affecting organic reach
It’s not just Instagram’s drive to push brands towards paid advertising that has reduced many businesses ability to reach an organic audience.
The rise in paid advertising has ensured Instagram’s algorithm is not geared towards likes and comments as before, and it has become increasingly difficult for audiences to distinguish between paid and organic posts on their feed.
This could also impact how readily people engage with content, as sponsored influencer posts becomes more dominant. From the outside it may look like an organic post, but there are small tell-tale signs that give it away, although they are easy to miss if you quickly scrolling through your feed, and once clicked on it tells the algorithm you’d like to see more of the same. And so the cycle continues.
Micro-influencers with a follower count over 10,000 on Instagram focus on a particular niche area and are used by brands due to their ability to foster strong bonds with a smaller audience. Again, this creates more advertised content, as people are likely to engage with others they can relate to and with influencers with a more intimately sized follower count.
Instagram users are also far more self-aware of the amount of time they spend on social media and how it could negatively impact on their lives. A few years ago Apple introduced a new feature that allowed people to limit and manage their screen time. It has been estimated that as many as 60% of 16-25 year olds keep a close eye on the time spent using their phone, which is likely to affect how long they browse Instagram.
Why engagement rates matter
A lot is said about social media engagement and how important it is to building a successful brand. With Instagram’s organic reach seemingly dropping year on year, you should be keeping a close eye on your engagement rate. A good rate is usually somewhere between 1-4%, although the average tends to sit at the lower end of that scale.
But why should you be concerned about your engagement rate? The answer is really two-fold. First of all, potential commercial partners look at your rate for social proof, while customers will view it in much the same way. There is usually some suspicion when you see someone with a lot of followers but a low level of engagement, and it could look like the audience is not real.
While buying followers looks good, it doesn’t really help you build engagement in the long run. Only an active audience will show interest in your posts and they can help create a buzz and spread the word about your services or products.
Engagement is particularly important when it comes to the Instagram algorithm. If your content generates likes or comments, or a post that someone might save and come back to, then it will ‘feed’ Instagram’s algorithm and boost your presence on the site. And it naturally follows that the more you are seen, the more engagement you will generate, creating a positive cycle for your content.
In general, people like to click on posts that have already been liked or commented on, as it offers a level of credibility and self-assurance that their response isn’t an outlier. The opposite is just as true, so the longer your content remains untouched, the less likely it is that people will engage with it.
What can you do about your Instagram engagement rate?
While there is cause for concern when it comes to the declining rate of Instagram’s engagement rate, it offers a good opportunity for you to assess your current online social media strategy. If you are currently only focussed on Instagram you should take a step back and look at other platforms so not all of your resources are centred into a single area.
It is always useful to take stock and review the current marketing strategies being used to ensure you are receiving the expected return. With organic reach now falling to its lowest ever level, look at your statistics and feedback you are getting from the content you produce. Instagram will continue to implement changes that affect how audiences engage with your brand, and you need to ensure you are making effective use of your resources, especially if you are a small business.
Major changes will also continue to occur on other platforms aside from Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. For example, recently eBay changed the way money is processed on their site, with sellers now receiving the money directly into their bank accounts rather than into a PayPal account. Fees have also changed, which will also potentially impact seller’s prices and cost margins.
For more creative-minded industries in particular, such as photography, art and design, Instagram is making it clearer than ever that money now comes before community building. What was once a creative space has now become a place of commerce first and foremost, and the opportunities it once offered for smaller businesses to find a larger audience for free have now become seriously curtailed.
Of course, Instagram is in no immediate danger of disappearing from the internet, but if you are not an online store or bikini-clad influencer, it’s probably time to rethink what you expect to get back from it.