There, I said it.
It’s time that we pour one out for what Instagram once was: a photo-centric social network that was about sharing, discovering, and appreciating the photography of our friends and other photographers.
I loved Instagram five years ago, when it was about sharing great photography with friends and other followers. But now, Instagram isn’t about photography anymore.
That phase of Instagram is no more.
The time where Instagram was a photography platform has passed.
Instagram, like Facebook as its parent company, is now all about driving time-on-platform, which leads to more eyeballs for selling more advertising (and other revenue opportunities). There’s a reason you see so many sponsored posts. There’s a reason they have a shopping feature, and keep toying with adding it to the main menu of the app. None of those reasons have anything to do with helping you share your photography. The Instagram algorithm is about fostering Instagram’s goals… and that algorithm has changed quite a bit since I last looked at it two years ago.
Instagram is a general-purpose visual (but not just photography) social network.
As we roll into 2021, there are going to be two (or maybe three) distinct camps of photographers on Instagram:
- Those that use Instagram by posting still photos (posts) as they’ve always done. This group will likely see a fairly stagnant Instagram experience, with relatively low engagement or new followers.
- Those that embrace the new Instagram that mixes still photos with stories, reels, and IGTV. These folks — with organic (non-paid) content — will be favored by Instagram’s algorithms and likely see more engagement and discovery through the app.
- Those that purchase ads to gain views and new followers. This is the pay-to-play model, and replicates the current state of Facebook pages.
Photographers can choose whether they want to use Instagram for fun (and do whatever they want) or use it as a serious marketing and growth platform. If you want to use it for growth, you’re going to need to play Instagram’s game in order to be rewarded by the algorithm.
Personally, I’ll admit that I don’t really want to get into reels, IGTV, and more multimedia content on Instagram. But that’s exactly what the company has said is required if you want maximum visibility on the platform without spending money for sponsored posts.
Take a look at this article from Rachel Reichenbach where she shares a conversation with Instagram two weeks ago aas they laid out what is going to lead to success on the platform right now. The bad news for photographers is that:
Success won’t come from posting still photos
As Reichenbach notes (and you really should go read her entire article if you didn’t already), the Instagram algorithm favors those who don’t just post images, but also share stories, reels, and IGTV video. Sharing one type of content will result in increased exposure for your other types of content.
We have a choice as photographers at this point. Post our images to Instagram for fun and to (hopefully) be seen by folks we already know, or fully embrace the work of using Instagram as a marketing platform. The former is easy; the latter is more work. Which is “right” for you depends on your Instagram aspirations.
The good news, for those of you who want to play the game, is that you have the tools needed to make stories, reels, or IGTV videos. That modern iPhone you’re using to browse still photos? It has a great camera. That camera records video. And whether you use Instagram’s native tools or other apps to edit and prepare your content, what matters is that you’re sharing the content.
Unpaid Instagram photo engagement isn’t what it used to be. And it isn’t going to be that way again. Just like with Facebook, you can’t depend on a free platform whose business goals don’t align with yours. If you’re willing to play within the ever-shifting rules, you might get some traction. But you have to be willing to play that game, and realize that Instagram isn’t focused on photos anymore.
Which path are you going to choose on Instagram this year?