Social media growth hacking is not a list of how-to tips on how to make content go viral. It takes a strategy and a deep understanding of how Instagram works. Growth is a long-term process.
In this article, I want to suggest Instagram growth hacks for improving your Instagram marketing strategy. And it will be definetely useful for those who use Instagram to promote their online business and eCommerce stores.
Duncan J. Watts, a sociologist at Microsoft Research said in his 2014 lecture after winning the Everett M. Rogers award:
“Engineering social epidemics (virality) is a fantasy. This is something in our dreams we would be able to do. I don’t see any evidence that anyone can actually do this intentionally.”From “5 Questions for Duncan Watts” (USC Annenberg)
I agree with him. If your Instagram account gets on average 10 likes per post you can’t just “engineer” a post to get millions of likes. In this article, I want to try to answer the question: what does the word viral mean?
The root of this growth hacking Instagram strategy lies in the understanding of the mechanism of virality, of how Instagram works.
According to Google, within the first 10 days of June 2020, there were 4 times more views of videos related to the “Black lives matter” movement than in the entire year of 2019.
Most people would agree that the black lives matters movement went viral. What can we learn from the virality phenomenon? By understanding the definition of what is viral we can come up with a growth hacking Instagram strategy.
How does the Instagram algorithm work
I base my explanations in this article on quotes from another article, by Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram.
“One of the main misconceptions we want to clear up is the existence of “The Algorithm.” Instagram doesn’t have one algorithm that oversees what people do and don’t see on the app. We use a variety of algorithms, classifiers, and processes, each with its own purpose.”
From “Shedding More Light on How Instagram Works” (A. Mosseri)
In this article, I will refer to all of the different algorithms of Instagram as “the algorithm”. But the algorithms of the news feed, the explore and reels have differences between them.
The reason I still refer to all of them using the term “the algorithm” is because of the context of Instagram growth hacking. When content goes viral, it gets its boost from all of these algorithms together, so I want to focus on the aspect that all of these algorithms share.
The mechanism of how content goes viral is logical and simple. It’s made of two elements: the estimated demand for the content and the level of competition.
“Supply” and “demand” are not common terms when speaking of social media. In digital marketing, they are more commonly used when talking about organic search engines (like Google).
The users of Google search and Instagram might behave differently, but the algorithms are similar in the way they rank the content.
I said it’s simple and then started using complex words, but as soon as we break down the viral content journey it will become clear and logical, so stay with me.
We’re going to break it down step by step. But before our viral content starts its journey, we must clarify the fundamental difference between search algorithms like Google and social algorithms like Instagram. That is Intent.
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When people open Google they want to search for something. They are very likely to interact with the content that they find on the search results page because they have searched it.
(Maybe you found this article on Google too, what did you search for?)
But when people open Instagram, most of the time they don’t look for something specific. When you suddenly see a video that interests you, you might interact with it or might just scroll to the next one.
You don’t come with the intention to interact with the content you see. You don’t look for this specific content, the content finds you.
But there is one thing Instagram and Google share in common: how they rank content.
How Instagram ranks content
The way Instagram ranks content is by predicting demand. The algorithm calculates the chance the users will engage with the content they see and ranks it accordingly.
“The first step we take is defining a set of posts to rank. To find photos and videos you might be interested in, we look at signals like what posts you’ve liked, saved, and commented on in the past. Let’s say you’ve recently liked a number of photos from San Francisco’s dumpling chef Cathay Bi (@dumplingclubsf). We then look at who else likes Cathay’s photos, and then what other accounts those people are interested in. Maybe people who like Cathay are also into the SF dim sum spot @dragonbeaux.”From “Shedding More Light on How Instagram Works” (A. Mosseri)
That’s why 80% of businesses consider engagement as the most important metric for them.
To fully understand how content ranks on Instagram, we need to follow the journey of an Instagram post that managed to go viral from start to finish.
The journey starts, obviously, when it’s being posted.
Every time something is posted on Instagram, it immediately gets ranked high, but only for some time and only in the feed of some users.
Instagram chooses the users with the highest chance to interact with the content. For example, your most recent followers or people that gave you likes consistently in the past months.
This is some free exposure, but it is also a test to see how engaging your social media content is.
You can see it happening yourself, just go on Instagram and follow a new account. The next time this account will post something it will probably rank among the first posts in your feed.
The high rank lasts as long as the new follower keeps interacting with the account: liking, commenting, saving, and sharing the content. If you don’t interact with the account the rank will drop, and the content will be replaced by posts of other accounts that you follow and that whom you do interact.
How much exposure exactly a post gets eventually depends on its ability to generate engagement. Both from the most engaging followers of the account and from new people that get exposed organically to it.
The ranking algorithm is personalized and the feed looks different for each person on Instagram, here are a few of the parameters that Instagram mentions they use to personalize it, ordered by its weight on the ranking decision.
- Engagement with the post
- The history of interactions with the account that posted
- The history of interactions with other similar content
Measuring engagement performance
Your content’s performance is measured during the time it’s ranking high, right after you post it. During this exposure time everything is measured, here are a few examples not only from Instagram:
- Time spent watching a reel on Instagram
- Retweets on Twitter
- YouTube “save to watch later” clicks
- The type of reaction on Facebook (like, wow emoji, sad emoji, etc.)
The head of Instagram explains which parameters exactly they measure:
“We make a set of predictions. These are educated guesses at how likely you are to interact with a post in different ways. There are roughly a dozen of these. In Feed, the five interactions we look at most closely are how likely you are to spend a few seconds on a post, comment on it, like it, save it, and tap on the profile photo. The more likely you are to take an action, and the more heavily we weigh that action, the higher up you’ll see the post.”
From “Shedding More Light on How Instagram Works” (A. Mosseri)
Like I said, it is the fans of your account that are responsible for the potential of your post going viral.
Their engagement level is what signals to Instagram that an interesting piece of content was just posted. From there, the Instagram algorithm continues exposing the content through the explore page, hashtag followers feeds, reels, etc.
Another channel of organic exposure is when people share the post. Sharing is a powerful tool, in the article on what is social media growth hacking I showed how word of mouth, aka sharing, helped Dropbox to reach its valuation of billions of dollars.
On Instagram and other social media platforms where the content finds the users the algorithm must predict what people will want to see. Seems like in the 21st-century algorithms already know what we want to see before us.
To determine in which place to rank content, the performance of it is measured against the performance of other content that competes on ranking first for each Instagram user.
But it’s not only with other accounts that your followers follow that you compete.
According to Instagram, by 2016 people were missing 70% of the content posted to their feeds (imagine what is the number today). It happens because the different feeds compete with each other, the home feed with the stories feed and the stories feed with the explore feed, etc.
The competition is of course also an opportunity. You can gain exposure from the explore page, reels feed, when people tag your account in their posts, from shares to stories etc.
It’s a bit like a jungle, and you are going to have to find a way to beat the competition against accounts that are much bigger and more popular than yours.
You need a strategy.
You need to become a growth hacker.
“The term growth hacking may cause confusion. Many people identify it with computer hacking and believe it’s immoral and unlawful”Says Tal Klinger, CEO of The Social Proxy.
Then he explains the difference “computer hackers are renowned for exploiting security flaws, growth hackers exploit open gateways for business results. Both of their objectives are to discover breaches. But Growth hackers do it in a way that enables companies to succeed intelligently and rapidly. All within the bounds of the law and ethical principles”
You might think that you have no chance against bigger accounts. That’s not true, as Instagram explains, it is not only the total number of likes your post gets that helps you rank. It’s also about relative measures like how fast you gain them.
“We are looking at how popular a post seems to be. These are signals like how many and how quickly other people are liking, commenting, sharing, and saving a post. These signals matter much more in Explore than they do in Feed or in Stories.”
From “Shedding More Light on How Instagram Works” (A. Mosseri)
What it means is not how quickly you got to 100 likes or 100,000 likes. It means how quickly you’ve got to the average number of likes for your account.
That is what is compared against how much time it took other accounts, even bigger than yours, to get there.
If you manage to generate high potential demand in the eyes of the algorithm and your content meets low competition, you have the potential to gain high organic exposure. How high? To answer that we need to define the term viral.
The better the performance of your content is, the more organic exposure it gains. The term viral is related to things as small as a meme that is being reposted again and again or as big as the #blacklivesmatter movement.
This meme by @worldstar got more than 300,000 likes.
You may call it viral, but how do you know if 300,000 likes is viral or not?
The best benchmark for virality is the average engagement rate of the account. For example, according to a report I created using Viralspy, @worldstar has 76,719 likes on average. The meme above got almost 4 times the number of likes the account gets on average.
The meme was a huge success. It reached new followers through the explore page, it got shared and the account got credit when it was reposted.
At the end of the journey
Virality is a snowball, but even snowballs reach an end. The last part of the journey of any content that is going viral is when its performance is starting to decrease.
A graphic representation of what happens to content is the life cycle of products, as it is taught in business schools.
Notice how similar it is to the life cycle of a piece of content. The engagement from the early fans gives it the first exposure kick (introduction), then it grows quickly like a snowball (growth), reaches its peak (maturity), and eventually gets outranked by a new, more relevant content (decline).
The life cycle concept applies also to this blog post. A post that you share on Instagram will probably have a shorter life cycle of a couple of days while a blog post you can rank #1 in Google for a couple of years until other content outranks it.
The understanding of this mechanism of virality and how the Instagram algorithm works is what I believe should be the basis of your social media growth hacking strategy.
To succeed you need to have a good marketing strategy, and Instagram strategy is one part of it.
Instagram Growth Hacks: 3 Steps to beat your own average.
I suggest you do not focus on going viral. Don’t get me wrong, going viral is wonderful and I have experienced a fantastic journey of going viral with DSM Tool.
When it first went viral on YouTube it got a lot of traffic, organic traffic I did not have to pay for.
I do with you to go viral. But I don’t think it’s a smart strategy to aim at.
Instead, I want to suggest something more practical.
Steady and healthy growth
There is another way to define the term “viral”. It doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to experience full-scale virality, it means that you broaden the definition of what the term viral means to you.
I want to suggest to you a concept that says that any piece of content that beats your own average engagement level is somewhat viral.
We saw in the example of @worldstar a post that got X4 more likes than average. If it would have gotten only X3.5 would you still count it as viral?
What about X2 or X1.5… There isn’t a clear answer to the question if something went viral, virality is a range.
In statistics, it is common to look at the distribution of a range using a Bell Curve. It means something very simple: the number of likes of all of your posts is distributed around an average.
Most of them are close to the average, some get very low engagement and some get very high engagement.
This concept says that everything above the average “goes viral” to some extent. Only a few will really get multiple times more likes. These are the very-viral posts.
A steady growth hacking Instagram strategy is to aim at growing the average.
For example, If on average you make 100 likes then the rest of the posts will distribute between 10 likes to the least successful content to 500 to the most viral content.
But if you grow the average to 1000 likes, your range grows as well to between 100 to 5,000 likes.
There are many growth tactics to increase your average engagement organically. From follow-unfollow automation to collaborations and giveaways.
I want to focus on one of them. The one that I created Viralspy for: posting content that generates more engagement, hence which is growing organically.
The 3 steps to generating high engaging content
Other accounts in your niche that target similar followers, post similar content and use similar hashtags generate tons of content.
Some of it performs better and some worse. The content that performs better reaches the top of the virality range of their account. By analyzing it you can grab content ideas which you then recreate or repost.
Christen Bouc, who manages multiple repost accounts with millions of followers through his social media agency said in this post:
If you have a repost page, the fastest way to grow is by posting viral reels. So far, I’ve been able to pull 1M reach in the last 7 days with 1 reel a day on my own theme page and it’s only been climbing as the daily reels stack up.
From the Facebook community Instagram Marketing Secrets, by Christien Bouc
He attached to his post this screenshot:
Christien is reposting content because he is building theme accounts. But this growth hacking Instagram strategy is not exclusive only for accounts that repost content.
If you are a creator you can use the same principles to find content ideas.
“Every production starts with research. We research the competitors of the brand, popular international accounts in the niche, and even general trends on Instagram. We never start shooting any videos before we have the data on the current trends”
Here is how you find viral content on Instagram:
For example, I am going to manage an account that reposts content about dogs. There could be many different reasons why I’d want to post content about dogs, for example:
- I am a dog trainer and I want to promote my course or services
- I am a store or a brand that want to promote my ecommerce products
- I am growing a theme account for dog lovers with funny dog content
The number of use cases is endless, but they all have one thing in common – They all post content about dogs.
The first step in the process of finding the current trend is creating a list of accounts and hashtags you want to start monitoring. All you need in order to get started is to find one account or one hashtag and use Viralspy to find the rest.
You can create reports in Viralspy with multiple accounts and hashtags. But just one account is enough for Viralspy to provide you with 50 similar accounts and a list of top hashtags.
You can add these accounts and hashtags to the report and even create multiple reports on different topics that you are interested in analyzing.
Step 2: Perform the analysis to gain insights
By default, the posts in the reports of VIralspy are sorted by their performance. For reports with multiple accounts, the posts are sorted by the percentage of likes above the average likes of the account. for hashtags by a total number of likes.
You can change the sorting by different engagement parameters:
- True-views will show you the top reels (a view becomes a true-view when users watch the video for more than 3 seconds)
- Comments will reveal the best topics to create discussions around
- Likes will show a mix of all types of topics, the reports are sorted by it by default.
In other words, it shows you the most viral content among all of the accounts and hashtags.
Notice how when the report includes multiple accounts posts aren’t sorted by the total number of likes. Instead, they are sorted by the percentage of likes above average.
For hashtags though, the information on the average number of likes for the accounts is not part of the report. This list is sorted by the total number of likes by default.
Step 3: Create a schedule
The insights you collect from performing the research are the basis for your content creation. How to use them depends on what kind of an account you manage.
Some manage theme accounts and just repost viral content, others use the insights in order to come up with content ideas they create themselves.
You need a systematic approach, you need a schedule.
Choose how often you want to plan the upcoming content: 1, 2, or 4 weeks. I personally run my companies in iterations of 2 weeks.
You can filter the report by date range. It is useful because you will analyze the same account again and again and it will filter out older content you already analyzed.
By working according to a schedule you benefit in two ways.
First, you can monitor your average engagement rate growth. This is eventually what this strategy is all about. Second, you commit to a systematic approach for building your accounts, your growth is planned and doesn’t happen ad hock.
The process of Growth hacking Instagram has great benefits, you gain a lot of attention and you can monetize. Turning new followers into fans by creating content they are likely to engage with increases your average engagement, hence your organic exposure.
Aim at steady and healthy Instagram growth.
Who knows, you might find yourself suddenly going viral.
So what do you think is more important, the number of followers or the engagement rate of your posts? Write your answer in the comments section below.