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Instagram's New Algorithm Means the Free Ride May Be Over for Brands

Brands fear an algorithm also means pay-to-play.

Instagram / Spoon University, Keep

Instagram is testing a new algorithm, which means the company is (or soon will be) choosing which posts users see in their feed and in what order.

That could be a good thing for users. It means that, if the algorithm works, you should see the best photos and videos every time you open the app.

For brands, though, especially those that rely on the app to reach their customers for free, the algorithm news is less than stellar. Influencers are getting nervous too. That’s because an algorithm gives Instagram control over what you see, but also what you don’t see.

The fear among some brands is that the new Instagram algorithm will relegate their posts to the sidelines.

“Nobody knows yet how it will impact them,” said Bobby Farahi, CEO of Dolls Kill, an online fashion brand with more than 900,000 Instagram followers. “So everyone is basing it on what happened with Facebook and running around scared.”

What happened with Facebook is this: It originally encouraged brands and businesses to build followings for their Pages, and even offered ad units specifically intended to acquire more “fans.” The idea was that more followers meant more people would see the company’s posts in their feed, so brands paid willingly to acquire them.

Then Facebook slowly pulled the rug. Little by little it changed its algorithm until posts from brand Pages were seen by just a fraction of users who followed the Page. In 2012, Facebook announced organic posts only reached 16 percent of a Page’s fans, and encouraged brands to pay to sponsor their posts instead.

Brands are bracing for a similar change with Instagram.

“It all equals ‘spend money in order to get exposure,'” said Courtney Harwood, CMO of fashion site Keep, which has 50,000 Instagram followers.

Mackenzie Barth, CEO of food site Spoon University, agrees. “The pay-to-play situation we’ve seen on Facebook has been frustrating,” she said, “not to mention expensive.” Spoon University has 132,000 Instagram followers it currently reaches for free, but Barth said the company might experiment with Instagram advertising if organic reach dips.

Instagram claims the algorithm is not intended to make businesses pay. “We are doing this to show people more of the content they want to see, including content from businesses,” a spokesperson told Re/code. “Content from brands is more likely to appear higher in the feed for the people who find it most interesting.”

That roughly translates to “we treat brand content like all other content.”

But brands have seen this play out before. Instagram is also building business profiles, special accounts specifically for brands. Once that happens, it will be easier for Instagram to identify (and possibly rank) which accounts belong to a business and which belong to an individual.

The result will likely be publishers who post specifically to appease the algorithm. Spoon University has already been doing this on Facebook, consciously posting more video over the past year in hopes of taking advantage of Facebook’s algorithm — which favors video.

Barth says her Page saw 100,000 new likes last week alone thanks to some successful videos.

“If you play the game and create video like they want you to do, they prioritize your post,” she explained. “But you see this happening with all publishers that are creating videos. So as the entire tide rises, it’ll be interesting to see what the value of a ‘Like’ is in the future.”

Additional reporting by Jason Del Rey.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.