Navigating Instagram Changes, Reels, and the Algorithm as a Creative Business

April 5, 2022

I’ve been using Instagram for my business for almost 6 years now. It’s been an incredible tool for me to attract clients, build meaningful connections within the creative industry and document all of the ways that my business has grown. And even as the platform has changed over the past few years, I’ve always stuck up for it because it has been such a big part of my journey as a creative. But if I’m being honest, I’m a little exhausted by Instagram right now. And I know that I’m not the only one, so let’s talk about it.

Ultimately, Instagram just isn’t working for creatives and small businesses like it used to. I’ve spent nearly 6 years organically building an audience of over 20k people and late last year, my posts would typically reach around 9-12k people. And there are a few contributing factors to that. The algorithm, the type of content, the day/time it was posted, etc. And honestly, the biggest factor that I think many people miss is that the average Instagram user is just following way too many accounts. If you’re following 800 people, how are you ever supposed to have the time to scroll through all of that new content every single day? It’s just not realistic, so of course our content is going to be missed sometimes.

But even with all of those obstacles, I still felt like Instagram was working well for me… Until this year. Once reels and trending audio took over, it felt like my Instagram engagement changed overnight.

All of a sudden, that 9-12k reach dropped to under 5k. And my steady stream of new followers completely stopped and has barely moved in over 5 months. It just didn’t make sense and left me feeling scrambling to figure out what I was doing wrong.

It was clear that the platform was prioritizing reels, so I started experimenting with those. I even bought a course on how to make reels which was fun and make me a bit more excited to try them. But honestly, I haven’t really seen much of a difference in my overall engagement. Instead, my takeaways from posting reels just made me more frustrated…

01 / Instagram doesn’t want valuable content anymore. It just wants memes.

It seems that the reels that perform the best are the ones that don’t really have much value or relate to my actual services. Color palettes, lifestyle videos, memes, the pointing fingers. And that’s something that I’m noticing across most social media platforms – it feels like people are more drawn to things that are just funny rather than informative. Maybe that’s because we’re still overwhelmed with everything that’s been happening in the world over the past few years and just need some comic relief? I’m not sure… But posting funny memes isn’t what I want for my business marketing. I want to offer value, but it feels like that’s just not the content Instagram wants us to be posting anymore.

02 / Trending audio kills originality.

It might be the trending audio that annoys me the most. From all of the Instagram experts that I’ve listened to, it’s clear that Instagram wants us to use trending audio in order for our content to be prioritized in the algorithm. And I understand why. However as a designer whose job it is to help brands move away from trends and find ways to stand out, this all feels very backwards and counterintuitive to me.

On one hand, I suppose that trending audio can encourage you to be creative in order to make your content fit what’s currently trending and try to put your own spin on it. BUT at the same time, I think that it’s also killing creativity because it encourages people to create content just for whatever audio is trending that week. Which results in lots of people creating similar content that blends into the feed. How do you stand out when you’re literally being asked to create content solely because it’s what everyone else is also creating?

My other issue with the trending audio is how it forces you to constantly be staying on top of what’s popular and making you feel like you can’t use the audio that you really want because you know it won’t perform as well. It’s obviously another way for Instagram to keep us on our phones longer, constantly searching for what new audio has that little arrow beside it so we can quickly save it and come up with some last-minute content to go along.

I could go on and on about all of the things that frustrate be about how Instagram is changing and I know that you likely feel this way too. When I shared about this topic on my stories last week, I got so many messages from other creatives and business owners who felt the same. Lots of people who had seem extreme drops in engagement. Lots of people who feel forced to make funny, trending video content that doesn’t really align with their brand voice or how they want to communicate with their audience. And lots of people who, like me, are feeling like it might be time to move on from Instagram.

And as much as that pains me to say, it does kind of feel like Instagram has run its course for me. At least as my primary focus for marketing my business. Looking back, it’s amazing that it worked so well for nearly 6 years. But nothing is meant to work perfectly forever in business. Things change, strategies must evolve. And I think that’s where I’m at with Instagram right now. It’s time to evolve how I use it for my business.

Where I’m Shifting My Focus Outside of Instagram

  • Cold outreach to attract new clients
    Rather than relying on hashtags, engagement and the algorithm to get my business in front of my dream clients, I’m going to start reaching out to them directly! It’s something that I’ve always been too shy to do, but I feel confident that it’s going to be really good for Wayfarer. Each month, I’ll put together a list of brands that I want us to work with and our Operations Coordinator will be responsible for reaching out to them + handling any follow-ups. If you are interested in doing cold outreach, but don’t know where to start, I highly recommend this Cold Emailing Guide from Alway Services!
  • Trying out TikTok
    Look, I’m honestly not super optimistic that this platform will be any more effective that Instagram has. BUT it does seem that their algorithm works a little bit more in your favor, so I’m going to give it a try. Plus if I’m creating stuff for TikTok, I can easily share it on IG too and kill two birds with one stone. BUT my rule is that I won’t allow trending audio to influence what content I create. I am only allowed to create content that I feel is worth sharing and valuable to my audience. Because otherwise, what’s the point?
  • Building relationships + seeking connection opportunities in online communities
    I’ll be putting more focus on engaging in online communities where our dream clients might be hanging out and seeing how I can offer value to those communities in the form or workshops or resources.
  • Focusing more on blog posts + newsletter content
    Because that’s where you have more control over reaching your audience directly rather than through an algorithm! It also gives me more freedom to add more value to the content that I share since I’m not limited to a certain number of seconds. And, of course, I’ll then be sharing that blog content on Pinterest where it will have a longer lifespan to be repinned and clicked on.
  • Testing paid ads for my educational resources
    If I can’t rely on the algorithm to organically get my educational content in front of designers, it feels like the right time to try paid ads! I’ve only dipped my toes in ads so far and I’m interested to see how effective they are after a few months of testing.

I’m not sure which of these things will work the best for me, but I hope it gives you some ideas on what you might shift your focus towards if you feel like Instagram isn’t really working for you anymore. I don’t know that I’ll ever fully leave Instagram because I do still get value out of using it. But here’s what I’ve realized over the last few months:

Getting the best engagement or going “viral” doesn’t bring me joy or value from Instagram. What brings me joy + value is when I share the content that truly matters to me and leads to meaningful conversations with other creatives.

THAT’S what I’ll be focusing on with Instagram from now one. Not trends. Not insights. Just sharing the things that feel worth sharing to me. ❤️

– Abbey McGrew, Creative Director at Wayfarer

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