We take a look at candidates’ strategies on Facebook and Instagram, weighing up the different approaches and level of engagement.
Cartoon of the remaining three Democrat candidates

Facebook and Instagram are two very different platforms and offer very different opportunities for engagement. While Facebook remains a principle source of referrals, networks like Instagram, reddit, and Twitter provide key opportunities to connect with audiences.
Our recent analyses of political candidates on both Facebook and Instagram indicate that the channels reward different strategies, with Instagram exuding a warmer vibe in place of Facebook’s strict professionalism. Here are some of the differences we noticed in candidates’ strategies.
As ever, all the data comes from our content discovery tool Spike. Want to keep on top of social engagement around Election 2016? Sign up for a 14-day free trial now.

“Issues” posts

One clear difference that is evident from our data is the dearth of issues-based posts on Instagram. Facebook is a more natural home for discussion of hard-line campaign issues. This is unsurprising when one considers that Facebook facilitates multiple forms of engagement (likes, comments, and shares) and several different content formats. Candidates can use images, videos, text updates, or links to external content to boost engagement. While native content tends to elicit more engagement, text posts allow candidates to speak more directly on important issues.
This strategy has proven particularly effective for the Republican candidates. Our analysis of the leading names suggests that text posts are consistently effective among followers, with some candidates harvesting huge amounts of engagement from them. Ben Carson’s update after the first GOP debate drew huge numbers on Facebook. A December post by Donald Trump garnered almost 569,000 total interactions. Marco Rubio’s biggest post in December and January was a statement about campaign tactics, earning 44,120 engagements.
[fb_pe url=”https://www.facebook.com/DonaldTrump/posts/10156389541395725″ bottom=”30″]
The success of these posts suggest that Facebook audiences respond to direct updates from candidates. These represent a more open channel to candidates and users can respond and engage in the comments. Instagram, as a mainly visuals-based platforms, doesn’t provide the same facility for in-depth discussion of issues. While candidates can upload captioned imagery and expand in the description, there’s less of a conversational feel.

Democrats fare better on Instagram

The numbers elicited by some Republican candidates on Facebook are staggering. Even discounting Trump, whose profile makes him something of an exception, candidates like Ben Carson have notched up as many as 11 million interactions in a single month. The Democrats, by contrast, have tended to yield smaller figures – but they come into their own on Instagram.
Trump still earns huge numbers on Instagram, but he ranks far ahead of the other Republican candidates. In fact, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders comfortably out-perform every GOP candidate except Trump on Instagram. Between them, they generated over 2.5 million interactions through December and January, placing them considerably ahead of the nearest Republican, Ben Carson, who earned 451,370 interactions in the same period.
Their success would seem to reflect Instagram’s unique ethos. The platform has an aspirational element and users seem keen to engage with positive, uplifting, inclusive posts. The Democrats have presented a largely unified stance throughout their campaign – negative ads only recently began to appear (Sanders had initially vowed to avoid them), and Clinton has been forthright in her praise of President Obama. Martin O’Malley, who is less active than his rivals, has nevertheless used his Instagram to show solidarity.

This strategy differs from the heated tactics employed by Republican candidates, which gain more traction on Facebook. Notably, those candidates who have posted lighter content on Instagram saw greater engagement on it than on negative posts.

Engagement around events

One tactic we noted on Facebook was the level of engagement around major events. This was particularly important for Republican candidates, given the high number of debates on their schedule and the significant number of politicians in contention. With a field which at one point comprised 17 names, branded imagery and excerpts from debates were one way for individual candidates to distinguish themselves on Facebook. We noticed an evolution in this tactic in our most recent look at the Republican names. While references to debates popped up frequently, there was less of a tendency to post clips or images. Instead, candidates used text updates and often opined on particular issues without feeling the need to contextualise. The responses presuppose that followers will have a certain familiarity with their and opposing candidates’ positions, which makes sense this far into the campaign. On Instagram, only Marco Rubio seems intent on driving engagement around debates. While other candidates post photos of the event, Rubio’s campaign uses calls to action, spurring more active engagement.

Double-tap if you’re cheering for Marco tonight in the #GOPDebate! A photo posted by Marco Rubio For President (@marcorubiofla) on

Democrats, on the other hand, have started to use this tactic more in recent weeks. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders posted several times in relation to major events. The posts include active language and urge followers to be forthright in showing support.

It’s possible that the stakes are higher for Democrats at this stage of the campaign. The GOP race has attracted so much scrutiny that the Democrats have benefited from a largely smooth run thus far, meaning supporters may be less inclined to engage. Using the candidates’ strong showing on Instagram to boost engagement could prove advantageous.


Perhaps surprisingly, there’s very little reliance on Instagram video among the candidates. Given the numbers generated by some candidates on Facebook video – Ted Cruz, for example, earned over a million engagements on video content alone in October and November – it might have been expected that candidates would make similar use of it on other platforms. Considering Instagram facilitates the kind of short-form video which has been successful on Facebook, this is all the more unusual. However, while Facebook video continues to yield big numbers, it hasn’t proven as alluring on Instagram. For most of the candidates we looked at, their top 20 posts featured only one or two videos, if even that. Those videos overwhelmingly comprised excerpts from speeches or debates, with Trump also porting over his signature straight-to-camera approach. Marco Rubio set his feed apart by including more humorous outtakes from debates, underlining the Republican candidates’ tendency to take a more light-hearted approach on Instagram.

? This moment… #GOPDebate A video posted by Marco Rubio For President (@marcorubiofla) on


Facebook and Instagram show different sides to political candidates. Instagram tends to feel more open, with figures from both parties opting for a lighter approach. Republican candidates can seem aloof on the platform, preferring instead to cultivate richer engagement on Facebook. Activity on both platforms allows candidates to reach a wider and more varied audience across multiple different demographics. As we go forward, we’ll be monitoring how the different names perform on these and other channels.
On Monday, we’ll be keeping an eye on social engagement around the candidates as the Iowa caucuses kick off. Be sure to stay informed by following us on Twitter.
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Featured image via DonkeyHotey/Flickr

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