Chronological is so yesterday: what the Instagram change means for brand managers

For Jana Bowden, the changes to Instagram, while significant, will not disadvantage those who use it effectively to engage their audience.

Today there is widespread panic, dismay, and outrage. Instagram, that once teen-sharing photo app which is now projected to rack in $USD1.86 billion in revenue, is in full swing preparations to follow in its big brother’s footsteps and make the shift from chronological newsfeed to networked algorithm order.

Personal users of Instagram are inundating Instgram with complaints and petitions and Instagram’s small business community are frantically beckoning their followers to subscribe to their channels via posts of ‘Let’s Stay Together – Turn Notifications on!’ Some might say that we are facing a #FirstWorldProblem, But is this change really going to impact brands and will this impact be for better or worse?

For years, we have been schooled to refresh our feed and check for the latest content from the pages that we follow. We have been used to seeing our brands post content at particular times of day, and we have checked back in at those times to make sure that we don’t miss out on the latest brand content. We have relished the spare moments that we have had over a cup of coffee and scrolled back through our feed knowing the further we scroll back, the older the material is.

It has all been rather, pardon the pun, orderly. But, it’s set to change. According to Instagram’s media statements, “on average, people miss about 70 percent of the posts in their Instagram feed,” (Kevin Systrom, co-founder and chief executive of Instagram). He went on to explain that this change was designed to ensure that the 30% of what users do see is the best 30% possible. Instead of using a linear model of content sharing, the new algorithm will take a networked approach – it will examine social signals to create new order. The algorithm will take into account the followers frequency of engagement with posts of the target brand; number of engagement contacts with the target brand; relationships between users and their target brands; and intensity of engagement with the target brand over time.

In short, the new algorithm will focus on ‘relevancy’, rather than ‘recency’, feeding content that Instagram perceives to be of most interest to you.

This new approach is argued to overcome the apparent limitations of chronological feed. The first major pitfall of chronological feed exists for personal users. On average they follow 800+ unique pages, and they are by nature flooded with feed most likely leading them to miss seeing your brand’s post.

The second major pitfall of the current approach exists for business users. Chronological means having to post repeatedly throughout the day, and at very specific and limited times during the day when your target market is online and paying attention. Instagram is presently home to 1.59 billion monthly users, and 400 million regular visitors so the move is partly to do with the app’s popularity – brands have been searching for a better way to manage the sheer volume of content flowing through their own and their followers feeds than on a minute by minute basis. So this change sounds good, right?

This news has however, created a tidal wave of complaints. Petitions have been launched via Change.org, requesting that the chronological order remain; small businesses who have grown their followers, and reputation solely via the platform are angered and posting comments on their accounts such as ‘tomorrow is doomsday for us insta stores,’ and ‘Instagram is making life harder for small businesses.’ Personal users are panicking that they won’t see their besties’ selfies the instant that they happen.

But what does this change really mean for brand managers? Is it really doomsday, as the nay-sayers are making it out to be? Are there potential upsides to this? And, what can brand management do about it all?

Content is king

1. Don’t satisfy, engage

Instagram users aren’t using the service for mundane, run of the mill information. They want to be stimulated, excited, exhilarated, and more than anything passionately engaged with their brands.

Successful Instagram pages recognise that engagement is much more than mere satisfaction, it is a complex multi-dimensional mixture of a customer’s cognitive, emotional and behavioural dimensions of a customer’s brand experience. It focuses on how each interaction that a customer has with the brand subsequently shapes, and redefines their perceptions of their brand-relationship.

Brands that enjoy high engagement rates know their followers well and create a context in which their followers love to get involved and share brand related content. Create content that your followers want to consume.

2. Co-create and don’t alienate

Engagement is to do with how customers co-create their experiences, and the way in which they participate in the creation of the brand experience itself. Instagram followers are active contributors to the collective brand dialogue, and they are also the brand’s source of advocacy, and collective commitment.

As opposed to inactive targets, followers help to establish connection between users and non-users of the brand and participate in the sharing of collectively created brand narratives amongst their highly interconnected ‘web’ of influencers and influences. Brands can leverage this by creating strong call to action messages in their post captions ask followers to actively take part in brand narratives (eg. hashtagged images of brand in use; downloadable content obtained via traditional website media which is then shared on Instagram).

Brands can also make sure they hit the sweet spot by blending traditional medial channel initiatives with social media channels – strategic initiatives whereby followers are asked to take part in user-generated content competition and inclusion and re-use of that UGC in traditional media channels.

3. Don’t lose the ‘social’ side of social media

Traditional one-way, transactionally-focused forms of brand communication have been replaced by dynamic, interactive and co-creative forms of communication. A collective form of brand advocate now exists. This networked actor is able to integrate resources and mobilise advocacy through the creation of relational value – linking members together within peer networks and manipulating them to engage with the brand.

Importantly, these agents have the potential to exert an equivalent channel power that was once formally reserved for the organisation and its management teams. Engagement is a vector of value creation.

4. Deep dive into analytics

First cover the basics. Track and analyse your results – which posts get the most attention? What are the key characteristics of those posts that capture followers imaginations? Was the timing key to relevancy? Which targets responded to the posts? How did they respond? There is nothing new here, this is basic market research.

Second, enlist the help of a few experts. There are a range of key analytics apps that can help you cut through and crunch your data for you. A few that come to mind include; Crowdfire (who followed, who unfollowed, who are your fans); Social Insight (28 data points on follower growth, average and max post engagement, most engaging content); Latergram (scheduling and post notification reminders); Soldsie (conversion tracking and inventory management); SocialRank (identifies your most valuable followers, advocates, and influencers and ranks them). Without data management you’re dead in the water.

So, while the change from chronological to relevancy might seem frightening on the face of it, feeds remain one of the most powerful ways for users to navigate brand content, and get the information that they need. Like any service, feed-based services need to engage in service innovation and reinvent the wheel in order to keep their audiences coming back and lingering longer. While Instagram has said that ‘it’s not like people will wake up tomorrow and have a different Instagram,’ there will always be those who oppose change and those who welcome it. The key point to remember is that before and even after the changes take effect, engagement reflects a user’s willingness to make cognitive, emotional, and behavioural investments in interacting with the brands that the follow.

It is about their motivation to interact and invest in the brand narrative and experience. As history has shown, it is up to brands to engage, and in that regard the big take-out here is that nothing has changed at all.

 

Dr Jana Bowden is a senior lecturer in marketing at Macquarie University.