By Colleen Patterson

We all felt when Instagram engagement dropped. It felt like it happened overnight.

You put a few hours of hard work into crafting a gorgeous Instagram post, perhaps one commissioned by a brand or perhaps one that perfectly embodies you, personally.  You post it and hold your breath.

100 likes.

That’s it? You’ve got at least 10K followers and your post with its carefully researched hashtags and technically perfect composition isn’t liked?

Last year Quintly put out a study that reaffirmed what thousands of Instagram already knew: Instagram engagement dropped big time in 2016. Post interactions decreased by 33%.

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In 2016 alone, bot crack downs and algorithm changes slashed Instagram engagement by a solid third. Furthermore, the famous Instagram engagement drop continues to be inversely related the number of account followers.

In other words, the more followers you have, the less likely they are to see your posts. The silver lining is that even after Instagram engagement dropped, it still generates higher engagement rates than its fellow social media platforms, Facebook and Twitter. The cloud is that higher engagement rates don’t come easy to anybody anymore. You have to work for them. So here’s what you can do:

So Instagram engagement dropped—ask for engagement!

You know how Instagram captions are cut off after the first three lines? Use the first three lines to tell your followers to engage with the post! It’s called adding a call-to-action. Ask them a question like, “what do you think?” If you’re sharing an experience, ask if they’ve had a similar experience.

When your caption fails to explicitly ask or tell its viewers to engage with it, they’re going to skim by without comment. At the very least, a professional image will earn itself a like — but you want engagement. Because Instagram engagement dropped for everybody, these days, engagement rarely occurs before you explicitly initiate it.

Sometimes, that initiation simply comes from a work of art so emotionally evocative it elicits an immediate reaction from the viewer. More likely than not, you’ve got to add your own commentary and supplement your visuals to get a response out of your audience.

There’s no way to tell you how to do this, only to try a variety of methods of communicating with your audience and focus on the ones that garner the best responses.

Don’t stress the hashtags. They’re not your only engagement tool. 

Did you know that what you see within your Top Posts on Instagram differs from what your best friend sees and from what their mom sees and from what their mom’s best friends sees and so on?

It’s quite difficult to gauge the visibility of the hashtags you choose because Instagram will always show you what it thinks you want to see. You’re not seeing what everybody else is seeing. No two Top Posts are the same.

Common wisdom suggests that among the thirty hashtags you’re permitted to use in a single post, you curate a mix of popular and less-likely-to-be-used or branded hashtags. It’s the same theory behind diversifying an investment portfolio or not “putting all your eggs in one basket.” What if you drop the basket? You put money on an unpopular hashtag and never get seen!

The theory goes that you have no idea how any given hashtag will perform, so if you give yourself a solid variety, chances are they’ll average out and your posts will do okay. It’s good advice:

Be strategic with the links you’re going to include in your post: go broad, go specific, go few, go up to the limit of thirty, and try not to repeat yourself too often.

Here’s the argument against agonizing over hashtags:

The ultimate method of discovery—the method that Instagram uses to deliver your content to potentially interested users— is other users’ behaviors.

And that is uncontrollable.

It’s not the hashtags you use that will get you discovered, it’s how similar your account is to the other accounts someone who has yet to encounter you follows.  Do your due diligence and know that there’s only so much you can do. The majority of your energy, on Instagram at least, should go into creating a beautifully original post.

Be real with your fans on Instagram

In other words, don’t use bots.

It’s very tempting to rely on an automated service that likes and comments on relevant accounts—in effect, simulating engagement in the hopes that they return the engagement. Zoom out, however, and it’s easy to understand why the use of bots is a bad practice.

First of all, people recognize bots. They can tell that when you “like” a random photo of theirs from two months back, that that like is not coming from you.

Bots are a red flag these days! I know that if a bot crawls my page, I don’t follow that account back. It’s cheating and I’d rather rely on my own search methods for discovery.

Secondly, Instagram is very clear in its distaste for automation. Instagram engagement dropped, arguably, in response to automation! Check out Instagram’s Terms of Use. It may look like a daunting read, but it’s an important one.

Instagram isn’t the bad guy, here. It just wants its users to play fair and stay true to the spirit of the platform. Its goal is to eliminate spam and phony behavior.

Barring the pressure of trying to maintain the status quo, remember that the current status quo doesn’t reflect reality. Today, follower accounts are inflated; engagement is difficult to measure. Just as your average user is bound to spot bots, brands, too, are catching on to fake followers and auto-engagement.

They want access to real fans. We’re in an up-in-the-air phase right now where values are shifting and the metrics by which we used to determine those values are no longer effective. Forget the software and you do you.

For a detailed look on Instagram’s algorithm changes or for general engagement tips, check out these posts:

Colleen Patterson is the content marketing manager for Muses, the only digital growth app focused on building long­-term relationships. She’d love you to get involved.