Let's talk about the gold standard of Instagram growth. While follower engagement and follower interactions are discussed all the time, there is a term that is not stressed nearly as often. That is Instagram engagement rate (ER). Firstly, let's see what Instagram engagement rate means and how to calculate it. An often used engagement rate calculation formula for Instagram accounts is the one below. It is also the one used by the most popular Instagram engagement rate calculators.
Engagement Rate = (Likes + Comments)/Followers * 100
In simple words, your Instagram account's engagement rate approximates what percentage of your followers engages with your content, especially if you count the interaction of a follower who liked your post and left a comment as one engagement. Even better if you remove users' interactions that liked or commented without following you (meaning they did not convert).
In that case, you get a very coarse-grained percentage of the followers that show interest in your account's content.
A simple Engagement Rate case study
Consider the following example to understand the importance of Instagram's engagement rate. Imagine that you were a brand looking for influencers to partner with. In that case, would you choose an influencer with 10,000 followers and a 5% engagement rate to advertise your brand? Or an influencer with 5,000 followers and a 20% engagement rate?
While the first one has 500 actively engaging followers, the second one has 1,000 actively engaging followers. So if you are gathering followers, you should instead make your existing ones highly interested first because that is how you attract your account.
The engagement rate is important for everyone.
Obviously, a higher engagement rate across your existing followers is good for you as a content creator or a business. However – and this is where things get interesting – your Instagram engagement rate is not important just to brands. If you haven't guessed already, Instagram itself cares about your account's engagement rate.
After all, what is Instagram's goal? To keep as many users engaged in their screen for as long as it can. And consequently, make money from the ads it sells. Remember, “if it's free, then you are the product.”
Keep engaged, engagement rate—two very similar phrases.
Do you see the connection? Instagram's “algorithm” or that machine learning system that runs the show behinds the scenes will promote content from users with a higher engagement rate to hashtag, the explore page, or other users' feeds.
The reason being that they have a higher probability of getting new users engaged. So, it's no surprise that a post from an account with a high engagement rate is a post that has a higher chance to go viral.
How important is the engagement rate?
Two days ago, I ran a little experiment. I posted the same post from two different accounts with the same caption and hashtags and the same location tag. At the same time, just before peak hours for my audiences.
- The first account was my main account @borderpolarphotographer, with 2.7k followers and an average of more than 100 likes per post and around 4 comments per post.
- The second account was @borderpolar.central, with 65 followers and an average of 15 likes per post and 2 comments.
For the record, I did a repost (have a look at my best free Instagram tools post for repost apps) of the post that was number one on the #mentalhealth hashtag.
First, let's calculate the two accounts' Instagram engagement rate based on the formula and the numbers I provided. So the engagement rate of @borderpolarphotographer was 3.8% on Thursday. Meanwhile, for @borderpolar.central, the engagement rate was 26%. So which of the two posts would you expect to do better?
Personally, I expected that a small account could not produce a post with high reachability. The post would not get enough traction from existing followers' interactions to compete with other posts.
At worst, I would expect the post from @borderpolarphotographer to do only slightly better due to my followers' low engagement rate. Here is what happened, though:
The not-so-surprising truth
However, from my prelude, you can guess which post is from @borderpolar.central and @borderpolarphotographer. Yes, the post from a small account obliterated the same post from a much larger account. But this is not something that can be accomplished on merit alone. Instead, Instagram chose to put @borderpolar.central‘s post in an advantageous position. From there, it kept faring better and better for the next two days. So what does this mean? In simple words, it means that a low engagement rate makes your account look uninteresting, and Instagram is obviously aware of that. Thus there is no reason to risk showing more of @borderpolarphotographer‘s posts as it is an irrelevant account. On the other hand, @borderpolar.central is an account worth investing in for Instagram.
How Do You End Up With a Low Engagement Rate?
Aside from the obvious and irrelevant remark that your content may not be interesting enough, other reasons could play a part. As a matter of fact, if you have a meager engagement rate, it was probably artificially created. And here are several possible causes for this, so let's list them:
- Did you buy Instagram followers? If you did, you should know that those fake followers are completely inactive. So they drop your engagement rate. Imagine having 100 likes and/or comments per post with 1000 followers and then buying another 5000 followers. Whoops… One could argue that you can increase your engagement rate if you also buy fake likes/views. Read my post about buying Instagram followers and likes, and you will see why that doesn't work.
- Did you do lots of follow-for-follows? If you did, you are probably interacting with many users who keep doing the same thing. What do you think happens if you have many followers who follow 1000, 2000, or more accounts? That's right. They will never see you in their feed. Don't do likes for likes, follows for follows, etc. You are only damaging your account by engaging in these actions.
- Instagram is full of bots and fake/scam/spam accounts anyway. You may have a lot of those following you. They won't interact with your content, of course, so they harm your Instagram account's engagement rate.
- Even if you do not do follow-for-follow, that doesn't stop others from following you in the hope of you following them back. Obviously, this also leads to the same problem.
All the above are possible culprits if you are witnessing a low engagement rate for your Instagram account.
The best free Instagram engagement rate calculators
First of all, there is no reason to perform your Instagram account's engagement rate calculation yourself. There are engagement rate calculators for that. In my previous post, I recommended two Instagram account engagement rate calculators. I have since replaced one of the two. Let's see the options from best to worst.
- Kicksta's Instagram engagement rate calculator. I think this one is the most accurate and useful engagement rate calculator. Firstly, it checks only the last 10 posts, which makes it more relevant. Secondly, it ignores likes and comments that came from a promotion (as I have already explained in my Organic Social Media Growth post, these don't count towards ranking your posts higher. If we are to believe Kicksta @borderpolarphotographer's engagement rate is 2.13% for my last 10 posts. This is a very accurate approximation of how bad things are.
- Tanke's Instagram engagement rate calculator. This one also seems accurate. The difference to Kicksta is that it takes into account all your posts. So it calculates the all-time value instead of the current trend. That's why I think Kicksta's engagement rate calculator is more useful.
- Phlanx's Instagram engagement rate calculator. Don't use this one. It's inaccurate because it takes into account likes/comments from paid promotions.
Is My Account's Engagement Rate Good?
That largely depends on the number of followers you have. According to socialauditor.io, the average engagement rates based on the number of followers go as follows.
|Number of Followers||Average Engagement Rate|
|5,000 – 10,000||4.5%|
|10,000 – 50,000||2.9%|
|50,000 – 100,000||1.8%|
|100,000 – 500,000||1.2%|
|500,000 – 1,000,000||1%|
Obviously, you want to be above the average engagement rate corresponding to your audience size margins.
What to Do If You Are Not Happy With Your Engagement Rate
The answer is simple yet hard to act on manually. Basically, you need to go to your follower's page on the Instagram app and start removing mass followers (let's say those that follow more than 1000-1500 accounts), fake accounts, e.g., accounts with no posts/profile pictures, etc. The problem? I have not found any tools that can perform the tracking of those accounts and remove them automatically. While apps can do mass unfollows on Android, these apps cannot perform the detection.
I think the situation is different on iOS, and there might be one or two apps that can do this automatically. But basically, you need to do this manually, which is exactly what I'm doing these days. If you have bought a large number of fake followers, you'd better start now. Or wait until Instagram detects them and deactivates their accounts.
Is Instagram engagement rate all that matters?
Nothing is that simple, especially when machine learning is involved (and at such a large scale). However, Instagram's engagement rate is a simple and handy metric. My advice is to perform your engagement rate calculation, clean up your followers, and then see if you have improved reach.
Instagram engagement rate is a good way to rank accounts of similar size. Peter McKinnon's account, @petermckinnon, has 4.51% engagement for his last 10 posts. That's around 121k likes and 603 on average. My new account, @theborderpolarphotographer, has around a 40% engagement rate. Start thinking about Instagram's ranking, like Google's SERP rankings. Peter has a very high domain authority and much more traffic despite the low engagement rate. I don't. This eventually leads us to Instagram SEO optimization to rank higher.
Finally, if you are interested in more Instagram insights, subscribe to my newsletter and stay tuned for more tips on how to solve the social media puzzle and beat the game of exposure!