Let's Talk About Instagram Engagement

Featuring an interview with Jayde I. Powell, Head of Social & Community at Sunwink.

I’m in a few social media manager Slack groups, basically chat rooms for people who work in social, and one message seems to keep popping up: “WTF is going on with Instagram engagement”.

I’ve previously spoken about the Instagram algorithm and how frustrating its unpredictability can be. But right now feels different. I have never seen so many social managers noticing a dip in engagement and reach, all at the same time. In one social media manager group someone posted a link to an article “Why Your Instagram Engagement Kind of Sucks Right Now”. In another group someone asked “Has anyone noticed organic reach going down this past month?”, replies like “Yes big time” and “yes!!! I thought it was just us, it's been so dead recently, I'm at a loss!” poured in. In September, Jayde I. Powell tweeted, “is it just me or is instagram engagement feeling lower than ever?”. Something is up.

For today’s newsletter I spoke with Jayde about what she thinks is going on with Instagram and the tips she has for combatting this dip in engagement.

Rachel Karten: Can you tell me a bit about your current role and your previous social media roles?

Jayde Powell: I am currently the Head of Social & Community at Sunwink. In my role, I focus on content strategy for our social media channels which involves calendar planning, creating content, and monitoring the performance of our social media content to see how it measures against our KPIs. I also manage our relationships with content creators and influencers to ensure that new audiences are learning more about our brand and the products we offer. Previously, I worked on the social media team at Delta Air Lines, focusing on community management, and Parallel—a cannabis company that owns several dispensaries throughout the U.S.—where I led social media strategy. In my free and fun time, I am also a content creator.

RK: Because I don't ask this enough, what do you love most about working in social media?

JP: The role of the social media marketer looks different for every brand and for every team but one thing is always consistent: creativity. I’ve always been a person that sees the world as a big art piece. While I am able to think strategically and focus on the numbers, creativity is something that comes more naturally to me. That’s what I love the most. It’s knowing that words I wrote, a song I selected for a Reel or TikTok, or a meme that I conceptualized made someone laugh, feel inspired, or seen. That feeling is priceless!

RK: In late September you tweeted, "is it just me or is Instagram engagement feeling lower than ever?" and got a lot of responses. I've also been seeing this sentiment from other creators and social managers. Do you have any hypotheses for what's happening with either the algorithm or user behavior (or both)?

JP: I think it’s very clear to most social media marketers that Facebook and Instagram are  “pay to play” spaces. The reality is that if you want your content to be seen, you’re going to have to open your purse—even if you’re doing social media organically. What’s even more clear is that Instagram is pushing its users to create more Reels, to keep up with TikTok. While I think their push is a bit aggressive, I do understand it. They want to keep users on their platform and make Instagram an all-in-one space for users to produce more content.

That being said, I believe that Instagram will find ways to incentivize its users to support their own internal initiatives. I have personally witnessed how Instagram has inflated engagement in Reels in order to incentivize me to create more. This is no different from 2014 when Facebook announced that users would need to pay to ensure their content was seen on the timeline. While it makes sense from a business standpoint, it did and still does make the job of a social media professional more challenging.

I also think that consumer behavior has changed. Last year, we were in the thick of the pandemic. Most people were on their devices, seeking entertainment and interaction because they couldn’t be outside in the real world. Social usage was at its highest, which meant people were more engaged online than ever. That has changed now. People are back to living their lives again, and if anything, find the “real world” to be more precious. Engagement has likely dipped because of that. As a marketer, it’s kind of a bummer but as a person who values well-being more than anything, I truly love to see people thriving and back in their element again. It’s beautiful to witness. 

RK: Everyone is very much in this "post more Reels to get Instagram engagement up!" mode. Do you agree with this strategy? And if you've tried posting more Reels, are you seeing the benefits?

JP: I do believe posting Reels helps introduce your content to new audiences because Instagram is prioritizing Reels on the feed and ensuring that video content is an integral part of the Instagram user experience. However, I cannot say that they help increase engagement. In my work at Sunwink and for my personal brand, we still get the best engagement on in-feed videos and static posts (i.e. images and carousels). I would say that Reels help expand reach and visibility, while traditional in-feed content keeps your community engaged. That’s why it’s important to have a good content mix.

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RK: As a social manager, when your brand's engagement is down (especially when you haven't made any huge changes to your strategy) it can feel confusing and upsetting. Do you have any tips or advice for explaining to your boss who might be wondering why engagement is in the red without knowing the ins and outs of what's happening on the platform currently?

JP: I have gotten in the habit of being able to say, “I’m unsure”. Social media can be tricky and even as professionals, we won’t always have the answers. The best thing you can do is listen to your community and just test to see what works. We all know that social media evolves every single day. I’ve always been a big fan of setting expectations and letting stakeholders know that the strategy will change. Your social media strategy should be fluid and there’s nothing we can do but embrace the complexities of social media platforms’ shifting nature. Truthfully, it is something that I’ve had to improve on but it is our responsibility to be proactive and keep our teams and leaders in the know so that we can make informed decisions as a team.

RK: With platforms like TikTok on the rise and engagement on IG feeling wonky, what's your current relationship with Instagram like? Do you still feel like it's a platform worth investing in, both from a personal and professional perspective? 

JP: I will always love Instagram, even though I have many frustrations with it as a platform. As a social media manager, I’ve seen how it has done wonders for brands’ visibility and turned their customers into community. As an individual that uses Instagram personally, the platform has been a space for me to explore all areas of my creativity. It has even afforded me opportunities to collaborate with brands as well as network with other creators and influencers. I even got my job at Sunwink because my boss slid into my DMs on Instagram. To me, it will always be a great investment! However, I always think it’s important to diversify your platform and channel presence. Consumer behavior changes too much to be married to one platform or channel. Instagram will have its ups and downs but you can always be prepared by having a presence elsewhere.

RK: Any other final words or thoughts?

JP: This work can be tough but it can also be incredibly exciting! When engagement is down or your content isn’t performing the way you want to, do your best not to take it personally. This is something I constantly have to remind myself. Get in the habit of not only celebrating the small wins but also writing them down. Having that list of wins will re-inspire you and remind you of the great work that you’ve accomplished so far. This and taking time away from social is the best thing you can do for your mental health. For me, it has been a challenge but it’s something that I continuously practice for the benefit of my mental health and overall well-being. We are worth it.

No job postings this week! But I do have a request! I am doing a future Link in Bio that will be along the lines of “Ask Link in Bio”, essentially me answering any and all questions you have about social media. If you have a burning q, please ask it here!

Hope everyone has a restful week where zero posts go Bad Viral, engagement is through the roof, and no one calls you a social media intern in the comments. Very grateful for you all!