It’s no secret that Instagram (right behind its parent platform Facebook) is shifting more and more into an e-commerce model. Brands are readily paying for the privilege to get in front of their target audiences, flocking to Instagram to take advantage of the excellent ROI and ever-increasing popularity of the platform.

Thousands of business profiles pop up daily, with brands and influencers hoping to rise above the noise and get viewers’ attention. The problem? The increased number of business accounts has saturated the market and now, brands have to pay up for the same exposure they could once get organically.

Looking at the numbers, it makes sense that organic reach and engagement are lower than ever. After all, there’s only so much real estate in viewer’s feeds and attention spans. With so many brands vying for attention, it’s no wonder engagement rates are down.

The real turning point came in June 2019 where the decline began to be seen and felt by brands and personal accounts alike. Multiple Reddit threads popped up over the course of summer 2019 with Instagram users trying to figure out what was happening; was it an algorithm change? A crackdown on bots? Were hashtags and discovery dead?

According to a recent study that covered 1.5 million data points of branded content on Instagram this year…

The sharp decline in engagement is very real.

“Since the beginning of May, average engagements have declined over time precipitously and now hover around 0.9%, a decrease from earlier this year of 1.1%. This represents an 18% decline in average engagements (mostly likes) since the beginning of the year.” - TrustInsights

The main concern is that Instagram is following in the footsteps of its parent platform, Facebook. A few years ago, brands were able to use Facebook for organic reach, then over time, engagement rates declined. Then they declined some more. Now, organic engagement for branded content is so low on Facebook that it’s very difficult to make any kind of non-paid-for connection with a new viewer. It seems Instagram is poised to follow the same pattern.

So what should brands & influencers do?

First: shift more of your marketing budget out of advertising and into influencer marketing. Even with the decline in engagement rates, brands get higher-quality leads from Influencer Marketing than from any other promotional channel. The return on investment simply can’t be beat.

Second, work with influencers to use their stories to promote sponsored content, and even feed posts. Instagram stories have over 300 million daily active viewers, as well as a multitude of ways for users to interact with posts (beyond simply liking or commenting). Using polls, questions, hashtags, swipe up, and the full menu of stories features allows for additional, meaningful connection with your target audience.

Finally, invest in a tool that gives you valuable data about your target audience. What are their affinities? Demographics? Who do they follow? What are they already engaging with? These kinds of data points are crucial to making sure sponsored content has its desired impact and reach.