How to ensure engagement on your Instagram photo

September 23, 2019
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As journalists we usually establish the premises for an article in the first paragraph. Under normal circumstances this would mean, that we in these lines would convince you that photos are crucial for your posts on social media. We would maybe even pull out some statistics to prove our point.

However, in this exact situation doing so is unnecessary. Because you, dear reader, most definitely already know that. And we wouldn’t want to waste your precious time.

It’s so commonly known, that photos are essential when it comes to catching people’s interest and making them engage in your posts on social media.

Which is exactly what we want!

Whether we represent a company, a blogger or a private person, that small upward thumb and the sweet comments are the reward for all the hard work, which maintaining an interesting publishing flow is. However, we can’t ignore our journalistic ways – we can’t help including a tiny bit of statistics:

Photos generally give 94% better engagement according to

After picking up our jaws from the floor due to these staggering numbers, we couldn’t help but wonder:

Does it even matters which photo you use?

We spend half a year and a whole dissertation to answer that question. We have turned the results into recommendations, that we will introduce to you in this blogpost.

A new world

After nearly five years of studying journalism, there was no doubt that our future within journalism would going to center around the digital universe. This is due to both the digital culture that we are already part of in our private lives. Like social media which is a huge time robber, keeping us from homework and dishes. But it was also very clear that the University of Southern Denmark was aware of which role the internet would play for future journalists.

We spent a great portion of our time in the lecture halls. Trying to redefine the way we produce news, so it can be integrated in the powerful digital universe.

As journalists we are often asked the very stereotypical question: “You’re a journalist! Which paper are you working for?”. However, we already knew that our focus no longer should be on the newspaper, but on the internet.

For that reason, it also felt natural to take advantage of our dissertation and investigate that one journalistic tool that draws more digital attention than text: Photos.

The survival of photos in a digital world

It may seem like a waste of time proving the relevance of images. That proof is already made of steel – photos are more relevant than ever. On the other hand, we couldn’t find any information on which options we actually have when it comes to using these photos. Are there any buttons we should press more than others to ensure engagement, which on social media refers to likes, shares and comments? We were also very aware of the difference the context of the photo makes.And by context we mean platforms. The buttons to push undeniably vary from platform to platform. Some things work better on Facebook, and some on Instagram.

“But a picture is just a picture! Does it even matter, which platform it is on?”, You might think.

And we don’t blame you!

Cut to the bone a photo is just a photo. However, it is usually the overall experience that affects how we react to it.

To prove our point, here’s an example: When you look through your Instagram feed or search for a specific hashtag, all the posts will be presented to you side by side. Without text. The images compete for your attention! And doesn’t that create some very specific success criteria, compared to Facebook, where a photo is often alone and with text above it. Text that frames the picture and outlines the context to the receiving end. That is at least our statement.

To investigate the photo’s actual chances and not the surrounding circumstances, we chose to focus on Instagram, where the photo is the main focus and the text secondary.

And how do you investigate that?

Coding 2000 Instagram photos

The answer is a scary amount of coffee, 2000 randomly chosen Instagram posts and an Excel sheet. And then it’s all about coding. Which is a cool and totally misleading term, which actually just means that you take notes, one by one, in the excel sheet.

Before we started coding, we had determined some parameters to refer to. For example:

Is the photo black/white or in color?

Does the photo have a caption?

Is there human anatomi in the picture?

In total we had nine variables. 18.000 notes in our notorious excel sheet and two months later, we had our results. And heavy bags under our eyes.

Despite the bags under our eyes we ended up with some interesting results. Results translated into recommendations. These recommendations were originally intended for Danish publishing firms and Danish media and should have been a supplement to the existing news criteria, that we work with as journalists.

However, we have used the recommendations so much in our work as content specialists ourselves. We therefore have no reason not to share these recommendations on how to gain more likes and comments with the rest of you – no matter the incentive.

The three chosen recommendations to ensure engagement on your posts on Instagram are:

Recommendation number 1: Human anatomy

Always make sure to have a part of the human anatomy in the photo.

Are you planning on posting a photo of a bouquet of flowers you just received? Then make sure you can see a hand holding the flowers. That they’re not just placed in a vase. This makes a huge difference in the number of likes and comments.

Our analysis shows a clear difference in how many likes and comments a post got, if it had human anatomy in the photo.

At the same time, it showed that especially popular accounts with many followers did this. Whereas unpopular profiles with fewer followers didn’t include as much anatomy in the photos.

It’s a great and easy tool to give your post a stronger weapon in the battle for attention.

Recommendation number 2: Relevant caption

Have a caption in your post, and make sure it’s relevant!

It might seem a little silly to think about what the caption to a post should be. Most people just look at the photo before they like a post anyway?

To a certain extent that is true.

However, our analysis showed, that there was a moderate increase in the number of likes on the posts with a relevant caption. The major difference, however, was seen in the number of comments.

A relevant caption will more likely make the spectator want to engage in the post with a comment. And here it is also interesting to look at the difference between a like and a comment.

Because you probably know it yourself:

You are scrolling through your feed and liking the photos, that appeal to you. Maybe you simply just like it or  you know the person behind the profile. A like may represent a slight degree of engagement but isn’t as heavy as a comment. Because a comment takes more energy. You need to involve in the photo and the caption. Otherwise you wouldn’t have anything to comment!

And no matter who you are – company, blogger or private – then it is the heavy degree of engagement, you should aim for. The deeper you engage in a post, the better you remember it. And exactly that is what companies and bloggers want.

But what is a relevant caption then?

It’s a hard question to answer. In our analysis we marked the missing relevance, where it was most obvious.

An example could be a selfie of someone smiling inside a house with the caption “It’s a beautiful day outside!”. Here, the relevance is subjective. It is important to make the relevance obvious for the receiver – in the caption.


Recommendation number 3: Colors!

Make sure your photos are in color!

 “But what if my picture looks better or more artistic in black and white?”

Nothing stops you from publishing a black and white photo. And if you have a graphic or artistic style and reason behind it – don’t hold back!

Our analysis showed a distinct difference in how much people engage in images that are in black and white compared to photos in color. The photos in color had the most engagement. The reason for this is probably due to the fact that on Instagram a feed filled with photos is presented to you. The black and white photos may not be any different when compared directly to a photo in color, but when presented in the massive number of photos, it tends to ‘drown’.

A black and white photo will therefore have better chances to generate engagement as photos with color on other social media platforms. For example on Facebook, because the photos stand alone and not in as sharp competition to the other photos. Which is the case on Instagram.

It is therefore an important point to be aware of, that colors can win attention. If Instagram is the platform you’re using.

More about us

We hope that you could use our suggestions. Even though the methods aren’t new, they have been proven effective.

And in a digital world filled with opportunities, it can sometimes be nice to let specific recommendations and results guide you on your digital journey. So that your post won’t drown in the large number of photos out there – and all your hard work goes to waste.

Are you interested in learning more about our results, our do you need help finding the right So-Me strategy? Then please don’t hesitate to contact us on You are also more than welcome to follow our LinkedIn profiles, where we always update your on the newest content trends.

About the author

Sophie Schlichtkrull Dalgaard and Sofie Helene Grue both have a master’s in journalism from January. Sophie works as a freelance content specialist focusing on text, social media and marketing. Sofie works as a Content Specialist at Konsolidator.