December 16, 2016
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Instagram Captions: FAQs and Tips for Driving Engagement

They say a picture is worth 1,000 words, but we think adding a few more never hurt anyone! Captions on your Instagram photos are crucial for increasing engagement. Sure, your photo is beautiful and interesting, but adding a sentence or two in the caption section can make all of the difference between a few hundred likes and a few thousand. Below are some frequently asked questions about Instagram captions along with some helpful examples and ideas for how to craft your best, most-engaging captions.

Why caption?

There are a number of reasons to add a caption to your photo and determining up front what your caption goals are will be useful when you go to write it. In short, captions can:

  • Explain or give context to a photo
  • Tell a story about your brand (fans love this!)
  • Entertain your audience
  • Call your users to action
  • Announce a contest or new hashtag

All of these things get people more engaged with your content which will inevitably boost followers and likes!

What’s more, Instagram has optimized its formula to prioritize content it thinks individual users will be interested in. How do they determine what a user might want to see? It’s based on the user’s own preferences, plus the number of likes and comments a photo has received. This means you want to increase the numbers of likes on your page to get even more likes and viewings! And adding a comment is one of the best ways to do this.

How long should a caption be?

Technically an Instagram caption can be up to 2,200 characters long and can include emojis and up to 30 hashtags (we’ve already warned of the perils of overusing the hashtag). The average post on Instagram is 138 characters long. But a recent study has shown that there is really no connection between caption length and viewer engagement. This means that a longer caption doesn’t actually detract from a post’s likability.

Before your start writing that epic narrative, be aware there are some rules governing Instagram’s captioning. Instagram cuts off your caption at three lines, or around 104 to 157 characters. The remaining lines and characters will be hidden from view behind the “… more” link, where viewers can see the rest of it.

Given these restrictions, it’s a good idea to limit your caption to 157 characters if possible and to make sure that your first 104 are really compelling so that if you do get cut off, people are more likely to click on the “more” option. Bear in mind that people are sometimes breezing through the ‘gram in their downtime – so to capture them, less is more. A witty, insightful, or exciting one liner can be really all you need to grab people’s attention.

What makes an engaging caption?

Depending on your caption goals, you’ll gear its content in a particular way. In addition to a goal, a good thing to have in mind from the start is who your audience is. You’ve probably already determined who your viewership is based on the research you’ve done for marketing purposes. But it’s a good idea to think about things like age, gender, interests, and lifestyle of your fans to help guide the tone of your caption.

Further to this point, knowing your own brand voice is key to writing an engaging caption. It’s important to keep the tone of each caption, your overall feed, and by extension, your brand, consistent – so identify your voice and then stick with it (not just on Instagram but throughout your marketing strategy).

Should I use a hashtag?

Yes, absolutely. In one study by Simply Measured research indicated that captions with at least one hashtag had 12.6% increased engagement over those without one. This seems to be because hashtags increase discoverability, meaning more users can find you out there on the ‘gram. But be careful. As we’ve mentioned before, overusing the hashtag is a big no-no. It makes your posts look crowded and messy. Limit them to 5 and you’ll be golden. It’s a good idea, though, to separate your hashtags from the rest of your caption by adding line breaks. To do this you basically type a period, then return and repeat for four or five lines to create space in your post. Then add your hashtags. This method hides them from users on their initial view of your post, but reveals them if they click on the “…more” option. For more hashtagging tips, check out this great article by Hootsuite. If you’re not that into putting hashtags in your captions you can always add them in the comments section.

As a final note, that same study above showed that viewer engagement was up by 56% in captions that included the handle (the @ sign) of another user. So, don’t hesitate to give a shout out to some of your fans in your caption, like designer clothing and jewelry brand Vince did here (note the use of one single, simple hashtag, too!)

How much effort should go into my caption?

Just as you do with your photos, it’s a good idea to carefully craft and edit your captions before hitting ‘share’. Anytime you write something, it’s usually only in the second or third (or fourth…) draft that you really nail it. So, don’t hesitate to write and re-write your captions before you post them. Plus, this will give you an opportunity to check for things like spelling and grammar errors, which unfixed can make your posts look unprofessional.

Now you’ve gotten some of your questions answered, let’s move on to some of the more popular and effective examples on Instagram:

Authentic, first-person caption:

Authenticity is one of the basic tenets of Instagram’s philosophy, so sometimes when you go to write a caption, you don’t have to try hard at all if there is a great, real story behind your photo. People will instantly connect with genuine content and everyone loves a good story. Okay, so National Geographic obviously has some of the best photos on the internet, but the NatGeoTravel page amps up its game with compelling little vignettes that accompany each photo. In this example, the photographer personalizes his/her travel experience by giving a first-person account of the scene and location. This kind of caption is great for making content relatable, which will give your engagement a huge boost.

Behind-the-scenes caption:

We’ve mentioned elsewhere that the behind-the-scenes photos are sometimes the most engaging because they give people an insider’s look at your brand. Captioning these images with stories that elaborate on the content as well as give a backstory to your brand are sure to increase engagement. GE is one of my favorite Instagram pages because they make a seemingly mundane subject look so cool. Here they give us insight into what their technicians do and an explanation of how their more complicated products work.

Call to action (CTA) caption:

Your caption is a great place to nudge your viewers to do something. The most frequently used CTA is an invitation to check out a link in the bio section. You can update the information in your Instagram bio as much as you want — so use the caption of a relevant photo to draw people’s attention to fresh content on your other social media accounts (Facebook, website, Twitter, Snapchat, etc). O.P.I. directs fans to their bio to learn more about their new sparkle polish – and they get extra points for also effectively using the product hashtag here, too!

Instagram Contest Announcement caption:

The captions section is a great place to promote your Instagram contest. In this spot in your post, the contest will be highly visible. If you lay out the rules of entry concisely and in the first couple lines of your caption, you’re bound to get the most participants.

Captions that are either a long narrative or a simple line:

As we mention above, the length of your caption can vary depending on your goals and the photo it’s accompanying. Sometimes a long caption is warranted, so go for it! Airbnb, for example, lets its users share their experiences on Instagram as part of their marketing strategy, as here. These travel stories can be effective for getting more people to book on their site. If you do use a long narrative, be sure to temper those narratives with other posts that are just a few lines or words – Airbnb did just this with its stories strategy, which ensures people will keep clicking through the variety of content.

Quotes, questions, and quirks:

A few more really simple formulas can create really engaging captions on Instagram. If you’re having trouble coming up with original content, use someone else’s quote! Something famous and recognizable is always good, just be sure it’s relevant to your brand and photo and give the original speaker credit!

Posing a question to your viewers is also a great way to get people commenting and liking your photos. People love to put in their two cents – you’ll be surprised and delighted by the responses you get!

Quirky captions that show off your creativity and brand voice are sometimes the simplest and the best. Check out what clothing design company Everlane does to promote their new cashmere sweater collection. A cute, catchy, super simple phrase really evokes the feeling of the material and hints at the joys of discovering more on their website.

By now you’ve got all the tools you’ll need to create a great caption for your Instagram posts. Your followers are more likely to engage with photos that have a caption – now all you have to do is choose the format and tone that are most appropriate for your brand and the individual posts. Keep your audience as well as your overall marketing goals in mind to maintain brand consistency. Take as much care in crafting the captions you write as you do in curating the awesome photos you post!