No matter how religiously you follow updates to the Instagram algorithm, getting your posts in front of people isn’t going to do you much good if they don’t actually like what they’re seeing.
Social media is ultimately for people, not robots — which means getting true engagement requires appealing to what people like.
We already know that visually beautiful or interesting content performs best here. (You’ve been trying out our tricks for taking and editing good Instagram photos, right?)
But beyond composition or graphic design, is there a type of photo that people like more?
Well, the hunch of many a social media manager is that pictures of people perform better than those without. (Sorry, landscape photogs.)
But why rely on a gut instinct, when we have a whole special column here on the Hootsuite blog devoted to rigorously testing these suspicions?
It’s time to put a theory to the test with a deep analytical dive, and a little trial and error. (My dad always wanted me to be a doctor, but I’m sure being an unauthorized Instagram scientist is the next best thing.)
Does putting your best face forward yield better results? Let’s find out.
Bonus: Get 5 free, customizable Instagram carousel templates and start creating beautifully designed content for your feed now.
Hypothesis: Photos with people perform better on Instagram
Common sense is driving this hypothesis. Contrary to what general internet culture and human behavior might lead you to believe, people love people.
There’s a trend that happens near the end of a calendar year, where people run their Instagram accounts through a “Top 9” generator (here’s one; here’s another). The generator pulls their most popular posts from the year into a grid. Anecdotally, those nine pics are almost always face-focused… whether you’re my improv coach or Taylor Swift.
History says we’re obsessed with faces
The publishing industry already knows that we’re obsessed with faces. There’s a reason why 90% of the covers on any given newsstand have faces on them.
Our brains even see faces where there aren’t any, that’s how much we love them. Paper, digital or in the flesh, we see a pair of eyes and subconsciously think: “Friend!”
…and social science seems to agree
Back in 2014 (a generation ago, in social media years), researchers from Georgia Tech looked at 1.1 million photos on Instagram and found that pictures of faces were 38% more likely to get a like than photos without faces. Face photos also were 32% more likely to snag a comment, too.
The same research discovered that age, gender, and the number of faces didn’t make much of a difference. If there’s a face (or two, or 10), no matter whose it is, we’re just inclined to double tap.
I’m going to test this theory here in 2021 — albeit with a far smaller sample size — by doing my own face-versus-no-face comparison. Let’s see just how it stacks up.
It seemed to me that the best way to test if faces get engagement, would be to look back at my Instagram account and see whether photos with or without faces got more engagement, as measured by likes and comments. So simple it’s genius? Thank you.
Of course, testing this on my own personal account alone, where my face is obviously beloved by a biased group of followers (e.g. my mom) would not be enough data.
Luckily, I just so happen to have the digital keys to the Instagram account of a local weddings magazine (upon which I’ve experimented on before — don’t tell my boss!), so I decided to also observe how a larger pool of followers (10,000+) reacted to face versus non-face photos.
(Another distinction from my personal account: on @RealWeddings, we post a wide variety of faces that may have no personal meaning or connection to the audience.)
To make sure we had a wide pool of samples to pull from, I looked back at each account’s posts from the year 2020 and reviewed the top 20 posts of the year.
TL;DR: Faces don’t actually seem to have a particular advantage on Instagram. Content that aligns with your brand and what your audience loves does best, face or no face.
On my personal account, I admittedly didn’t post much in 2020. But here’s the breakdown of my top 20 most liked and the top 20 most commented photos.
- 16 out of 20 featured people (80%)
- 3 out of 20 were illustrations (15%)
- 1 was about a cute patio makeover… who could resist? (0.5%)
- 11 out of 20 featured people (55%)
- 6 out of 20 were illustrations (30%)
- 1 out of 20 was a food photo (peaches, if you’re curious) (0.5%)
- 1 out of 20 was a landscape photo (0.5%)
- 1 out of 20 was my cute patio makeover again — HGTV, call me! (0.5%)
Over on our wedding magazine account, here’s the breakdown.
- 15 out of 20 featured people (75%)
- 5 out of 20 featured venues (25%)
- 15 out of 20 featured people (75%)
- 5 out of 20 featured venues (25%)
So far, it seems like faces take the cake. But here’s the thing: these numbers happen to align pretty neatly with the amount of faces content either account is posting overall.
Are faces really more engaging than non-face content? Or is it just more likely that you’ll have more faces in your top posts if you post faces more often?
When I look at a few other accounts I have access to (I’m a busy woman in media and comedy who craves attention! I wear a lot of hats!) that don’t post as many photos of faces, the numbers dip pretty proportionally.
For @VanMag_com (a Vancouver city magazine where I work as an editor at large) we see about 40% of the most-liked posts have people… but really, only about 40% of the posts in general feature people. (Food is the real star here — check out our Restaurant Awards!)
For @WesternLiving (another publication I work for), we see just 20% of the most-liked posts with people in them. The focus for this brand, though, is homes and design, so 80% of its content, in general, is glamor shots of interior design or architecture.
And one final example is @NastyWomenComedy, an all-women comedy trope I am part of. While a whopping 100% of our most-liked posts have faces… 100% of our content includes a face (or 10). Is it genius marketing or are we obsessed with ourselves? Only you can decide.
What do the results mean?
I was honestly expecting faces to blow all other content out of the water.
But reflecting on all of this, I think the common thread across all of these top posts is that they reflect each individual brand’s specific content niche — face or no face.
Creating consistent content that aligns with your brand is what drives engagement.
You don’t need to plan psychological tricks to get likes and comments: just do what you do best, authentically and with meaning — whether that’s sharing a surprising restaurant review, or showing off a patio makeover you’re proud of. (The secret? Astroturf.)
But, of course, this was a small-scale investigation. It also didn’t take into account what time or day any of these things were posted. So conduct your own experiments and A/B testing (try out Hootsuite’s scheduling tool!) to discover what your own audience likes best — and don’t forget to Tweet at us with the results.
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