‘Sandwiching’: How to outsmart Instagram’s algorithm to drive engagement

While attempting to outsmart Instagram’s elusive algorithm is no easy feat, companies including Authentic Brands Group are employing tactics to get around tricky infrastructure designed to obscure promoted posts.

Though Instagram does not share specifics about how the algorithm operates, fashion and beauty marketers have a general understanding that post placement within a user’s feed involves a mix of seven key components. They include engagement levels, relevancy to the user based on interests, how often a user interacts with a specific account, time of publishing, profile searches, direct shares and time spent looking at a single post. Together, they generate a formula that ranks certain posts over others. Posts are featured in a uniquely customized order for each user, rather than chronologically.

However, the shared perception among marketers is that Instagram weeds through promoted posts so they rank lower, making it difficult for companies using the platform to share time-sensitive sales or promotional content. To combat this, ABG started using a process unofficially dubbed “sandwiching,” which refers to strategically placing promoted posts between imagery forecasted to have high engagement rates, based on existing data.

Adam Kronengold — vp of digital innovation at ABG, which owns 29 brands, including fashion and retail companies like Juicy Couture and Aeropostale — said his team started to test the strategy after noticing that certain Instagram posts were receiving particularly low engagement. “We thought, ‘Why the hell is this only reaching 3 percent of our audience?’ Over time, we’ve been able to structure our strategy to get promotional stuff in front of the most eyeballs possible,” he said.

Kronengold and his team found that, while the most effective posting cadence and strategy varies by brand, for the most part, posting a promotional post the day after a well-performing post (with a high number of likes and comments), and then following it up the subsequent day with another highly engaging post, yields the best results for the promoted content.

For example, ABG owns the licensing rights to Elvis Presley as a posthumous brand, and operates his official Instagram page. During an early test on Instagram strategy, ABG found that when it used the sandwiching tactic, the promoted post reached 1.2 million people. In a subsequent post that didn’t employ the strategy, it reached just 500,000, less than half of the reach.

An example of a promotional post shared using sandwiching

Meanwhile, ABG is using the method to build engagement for its struggling brands, including Aeropostale. (The company acquired Aeropostale shortly before it announced bankruptcy last year.) Kronengold said the team sandwiches product shots that direct shoppers to buy between general lifestyle photos that aren’t directly tied to the brand.

“Aeropostale has a lot of product-focused content on its Instagram, but it also has shots of landscapes and ice cream cones,” he said. “In a vacuum, you wouldn’t say ‘Oh, that’s Aeropostale,’ but we use that [lifestyle] content to tell the story of the brand. Those pieces of content will be much more engaging than a product shot, so we sprinkle those through the feed.”

In the case of working with influencers to share promoted content, Kronengold said his team doesn’t have to dictate sandwich posting strategies, since most already share a high volume of engaging lifestyle content and are already inadvertently using the sandwich method. However, the brand teams do require that the influencer doesn’t share promoted content from other brands immediately before or after a commissioned post.

“Because of the nature of being an influencer, you’re already putting out the content your fans want to see,” he said.

Gil Eyal, founder and CEO of influencer platform HYPR, said while sandwiching can be a helpful method to increasing promoted post visibility, Instagram’s lack of transparency around the algorithm ultimately makes it impossible to fully crack.

“Brands may be underestimating how sophisticated the Instagram algorithm is,” he said. “Recent levels of activity on an account are only one of several components that go into determining how widely Instagram will distribute the content. A much better strategy would be to identify relevant active hashtags that have a lot of interest around them and include them in the post.”

Photo courtesy of Aeropostale and Instagram 


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