Reachpocalyse 2016 -- The Fallout From Instagram's Algorithm Change

Instagram's new algorithm change means major shifts in the way marketers will now and forever approach the platform. We heard it from all sides last week, ranging from ecstatic users (likely those buried in photos from 2,000 follows) to angry agency types who are ready to start calling this what it just may be: Reachpocalypse 2016.

While Instagram doesn't depend quite so much on real-time content, there’s still an interruption of the native user's curated chronology that must be reckoned with. Much like Facebook's EdgeRank 2009 rollout (with subsequent changes in post viewability) and Twitter's more recent shift, this week’s big timeline change represents a fundamental jolt in how users will see their Instagram world. And like the aforementioned shifts, this one will also have its tradeoffs.

From the advertisers' point of view, this particular kind of feed manipulation is the first step toward throttling. On a platform where the average user is only seeing 30% of their total content, Instagram now has the power to force companies to pay for even the slightest visibility -- sometimes only if to prove their own value. Since by nature the criteria of algorithms aren't a matter of public knowledge -- in order to prevent manipulation -- they're also immune to audit. This means that costs metrics can change on a dime, and advertisers don’t have much recourse when staring at a black box auction model, outside of Facebook’s nebulous “relevancy score.”

Even Google, which has guarded its algorithms closely, gives significantly more feedback on ad performance. Its parallel measure, Quality Score, has been published freely to advertisers -- down to the keyword level -- and was recently broken out into three separate scores. Plus, Google’s overall reporting allows for far more granularity and optimization across all types of campaigns. In short, advertisers know what they’re up against. Contrast this with Facebook, where campaigns volumes can drop to zero in a day without a single button push, and even the reps won’t know why.

One could assume that Instagram is quick to embrace the same reality that befell Facebook and Twitter. With the rise in the amount of content fighting for screen space, there’s simply no way to consume it all once it reaches a critical mass. The logical choice is to push “quality” content to the top of the feed. And that's what IG is purporting to do with this move. But brands have good reason to worry as Facebook (which IS Instagram, after all) is the resident expert in throttled content, and they know the potential payoff firsthand.

Instagram has some work to do if it wants its ads to catch up to the level of post quality within the typical user stream. They are currently missing a core ad unit found in Facebook -- the boosted post. Without it, small advertisers don't possess the on-the-fly ability to place more contextual ads and within the IG platform. (Instagram self-service ads are managed through Facebook exclusively.)

The promise of a mathematical formula pushing up the content that you're likely to be most interested in isn't hard to understand. In a more complicated way, it learns what you like and simply gives you more of the same. From the brand perspective, everyone's screen just became a lot more crowded, and you're going to have to pay a lot more to squeeze yourself in. Like Google's Quality Score, ads will have to meet a mark to get a repeat performance, and that too will cost.

And so while curation may be entirely necessary in the face of more content coming through a very limited portal, the question remains: what will this mean for brands, and how does this ultimately change the user experience for Instagram users? My guess is that Instagram has done the math.

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