Updated April 25, 2023
When it comes to social media, things are ever-changing. The popular photo- and video-sharing app Instagram is just one example. Instagram updates have shifted from prioritizing photos to videos and back to photos again over just a few short months. Do these shifts mean Instagram lost touch with its user base? Maybe. Learn more about how the app is fighting to find its way back to its roots in 2023.
How is Instagram Changing in 2023
Over the summer of 2022, Instagram attempted to tap into the increasing popularity of TikTok by pushing more video “Reels” to users and serving fewer photos in feeds. Both content creators and content consumers pushed back and, once again, Instagram announced a change.
February 2023: Instagram Brings Back Balance
The new year brought even more changes to Instagram. And this time users are rejoicing. As of February 2023, the app has seemingly gone back to its roots. A recent update removes the Reels button from its center position and instead places the plus icon (Compose button) in this prime placement. This screen real estate swap might suggest the app is once again prioritizing photos posted to grids over video Reels in users’ feeds.
This isn’t just speculation. Instagram head Adam Mosseri confirmed the app’s shift in focus in a series of questions and answers posted to his Stories in January 2023.
“I think we were overfocused on video in 2022 and pushed ranking too far, and basically showed too many videos and not enough photos. We’ve since balanced, so things like how often someone likes photos versus videos, and how often someone comments on photos versus videos, are roughly equal, which is a good sign that things are balanced.”— Adam Mosseri, Head of Instagram
March 2023: Additional Changes Came in Like a Lion
March brought a shakeup in how creators can identify themselves and gain clout on Instagram. Meta Verified launched in the U.S., turning the coveted blue checkmark into a paid subscription feature. The verification service is currently available to celebrities, public figures, and well-known brands.
“Verified” creators will have increased protection against account impersonation and access to “real-person” tech support. Perhaps most importantly, Meta Verified also promises subscribers “increased reach and visibility.” This means that the content creators who “pay to play” will have their content shown more in searches, comments, and recommendations.
Meta Verified seems to have garnered a few negative reactions from social media users. Twitter user Ahmed Younis (@ahmdpress) replied to MetaNewsroom’s announcement and asserted that “now you can’t protect yourself without paying.” Other replies to the announcement include questions about why Meta prioritized launching the verification service before responding to “major tech issues” on Facebook and why those who do paid advertising on the platforms don’t have access to the same level of support.
Users and creators have noticed other, unannounced changes that came with the March 16, 2023, update, including algorithm tweaks that change how content is pushed to app users. For example, creators have found that the updated Instagram algorithm seems to prefer and more predominantly feature video content edited in the app rather than on another platform, like TikTok or CapCut. Additionally, creators have found the new algorithm seems to favor daily grid posts and multiple Stories shared at specific times throughout the day.
Many users have noticed that algorithm tweaks changed how content is displayed in their feeds. Some content creators have taken to Reddit to seek solutions as their audience reach and engagement dropped after the March updates. Other users are pleased with the updates as their feeds are now chronological and feature more photos and content from the creators they follow as opposed to sponsored content and recommendations.
These anecdotal changes are defined in a TikTok video shared by Design Driven Media CEO Michelle Daboul. In the video, which has garnered nearly 2 million views, she asserts that the new Instagram algorithm changes support the fact that the app now considers itself an SEO platform. Instagram is increasingly making it easier for creators to optimize their profiles and content to leverage keywords which can increase the likelihood of showing up on in-app search features.
As the app shifts direction and more changes are implemented, paid media buyers and advertisers also have an opportunity to change course to achieve balance. Depending on user base and customer preferences, advertisers might opt to prioritize image ads and carousel ads as the app’s focus shifts away from Reels. Brands might opt for verification to increase reach and support paid placements. Advertisers might implement new strategies based on changing organic factors as well.
While photo-focused app users are celebrating the new balance and the way content is delivered to users, it is important to remember why Instagram decided to go back to the basics while pushing forward with other changes. Let’s take a look at what happened to Instagram in 2022 to understand why the spotlight has shifted to a more balanced and consumer-driven user experience.
What Happened to Instagram in Summer 2022?
The changes Instagram users saw in 2022 sparked outrage among many users, including Kylie Jenner who has over 301 million followers. These changes prioritize “recommended videos,” filling users’ feeds with videos from accounts that may not be relevant to the user instead of content from accounts they follow. Instagram is also pushing out video “Reels” instead of photos, which means a lot of content goes unseen by users, further upsetting content creators and users alike.
Why Has Instagram Made All of These Changes?
The short answer is: TikTok. Earlier this year, Meta (formally Facebook) announced that users are spending less time on its platforms and that they expect revenue growth to slow. This caused Meta’s stocks to drop 26%, resulting in a loss of $232 billion. Meta chief, Mark Zuckerberg, said on the company’s call with investors in February, “People have a lot of choices for how they want to spend their time, and apps like TikTok are growing very quickly. And this is why our focus on Reels is so important over the long term.”
TikTok has done a great job engaging younger audiences with short-form videos and increasing their time spent on the app. This has been made possible with TikTok’s unique algorithm, which learns how each individual uses the platform and feeds them content accordingly. The more time you spend on the app, the more the app will understand which videos to show you. Cue the Instagram changes. At a high level, both platforms are serving video content to users based on their behaviors. So why is Instagram drawing backlash from users for taking a page from TikTok’s playbook? It’s all about the value proposition each offers for users. TikTok was designed as a video-centric platform, so recommending exclusively video content based on user behavior is consistent with what users expect from the platform. By contrast, Instagram started as a photo sharing platform allowing users to connect with friends and family through sharing images. By not just introducing video, but prioritizing video (including video from accounts users don’t follow) over photos from accounts users follow, Instagram’s changes undermine the value proposition for many of their users.
After user backlash this past summer, Instagram took a step back on video prioritization. But that doesn’t mean Reels are a thing of the past in 2023. These short-form videos are still an important part of the app experience, just now with more photo balance based on user preferences.
What Does This Mean for Paid Media?
While the changes to Instagram have been on the organic side of the platform, they could have a chilling effect on users that impacts paid advertising on the platform. If users decide to leave Instagram over the changes the platform is making, this could dramatically decrease the reach of advertisers. Additionally, if advertisers want to be effective on Instagram, they would need to modify their ad content to keep up with the changes Instagram is making. Video has proven to be a priority for Instagram, specifically videos made to fit into Reels, so advertisers would need to make ads tailored to Reels if they want to remain effective. Not only would videos need to be reformatted for a vertical 9:16 ratio but they would need to capture attention quickly which might mean using trending audio, a trending dance, or a trending challenge.
Lastly, if Instagram does in fact become more and more like TikTok, advertisers may need to shift their advertising strategy within Instagram. Users have been drawn to TikTok because they can sit on the app and scroll for hours while being entertained by video. While TikTok successfully launched ads in early 2019, the ads have shown to be great for brand awareness. A study by MediaScience® showed that TikTok ads drive strong brand recall and positive sentiment across various view durations. Brand awareness is great, but Instagram has done a great job at driving direct conversions. If Instagram continues down this path to be similar to TikTok, ads on Instagram may not perform as well as they used to in the past in terms of CVR or ROAS. This is most likely because users are not as likely to click on an ad and make a purchase while they’re being entertained by videos, similar to YouTube, another platform great for awareness, but not as great for direct conversions.
Keep in mind that there is still value in video even after the 2023 changes. Instagram users who prefer video content certainly still exist. These consumers still interact with and make decisions influenced by Reels, even as the app pushes more photos. A holistic and data-driven social media strategy can ensure advertisers balance consumer preferences and content placements for maximum results.
What Should Advertisers Do?
Instagram is still an important platform to advertise on so advertisers must be prepared to adapt if they want their media dollars to be impactful on this channel. Instagram is a well-established, highly effective platform that reaches 1 billion users monthly, whereas TikTok reaches 689 million monthly users by comparison, and 72% of Instagram users cite that they have purchased a product they’ve seen on Instagram. Being able to leverage Instagram alongside TikTok is the key to success. This will help ensure a wide reach among advertisers’ target audiences and exposure on a platform with proven results.
To continue success on Instagram advertisers need to stay up to date with the changes that Instagram is making and the overall trends with social media channels. This is a great time to start creating videos specifically for Instagram Reels and testing them in Reels-only campaigns. While Instagram has delayed some of the rollouts they had planned due to the backlash, it isn’t likely that they will stop pushing Reels. Advertisers need to get ahead of the curve and shift their strategy to align with Instagram’s shifting strategy. It’s in the best interest of advertisers to align their social media ad content with Instagram’s ambition to push Reels as they try to stay competitive with TikTok. Pro Tip: most trends find their way on both platforms.
As social media platforms shift and algorithms are updated, maintaining a strategic paid social media approach hinges on content and placements. For some businesses, that might be a balance between Instagram photos and Reels. Numbers tell the story and can inform advertising investment decisions.
Ready to learn more about getting the most sizzle for your social media spend? Tallwave offers truly integrated CX services, covering everything from conversion rate optimization to data strategy to paid media. Reach out to see how we can help you strike a balance.