What we learned from 500 Instagram captions

August 8, 2017

Written by NewsWhip
social media monitoring Instagram captions

Instagram captions give a voice to your visual content and a chance for deeper engagement. Here’s how you can tell the best story, in just a few words.

A great caption can make or break your post. While a stunning photo or video will catch your audience’s eyes, a well-written and clever caption can hold their attention. A caption is the icing on the cake that is the Instagram post. Captions add context, create a deeper connection with the content, and can encourage more engagement.

But how do you create the perfect caption?

We turned to NewsWhip Analytics to examine the top 25 media publishers on Instagram and their captions on their top posts. Here’s what we looked at:

• Caption length
• Emoji usage
• Hashtag usage
• Mentions
• and calls-to-action

The best practices of content are still in play here. Know your brand, your audience, and the value of the content you’re delivering them. Be authentic and consistent.

These data-driven tips can add context into what works on Instagram to what you already know thrills your audience. Here’s what our data revealed around the most engaging tactics of the top publishers.

1. Every word counts

How many words should you limit yourself to? Instagram captions can include up to 2,200 characters, including emoji, and up to 30 hashtags. However, only 125 characters will appear before users have to click

“More” to see the rest of the caption.

In our analysis of 25 Instagram publishers, the average amount of words per caption was 33 words. We looked at their top 20 most liked/commented posts to find the winning average.

However, there are some significant outliers. Tastemade’s average was 161 words per caption, as its Instagram captions include the full recipe behind each of its mouthwatering posts. Billboard had the shortest average, at 2 words per caption.

The median hovered at 13 words, showing that these publishers are generally favoring brevity.
Along with Tastemade, TIME, Vogue, and National Geographic also tended toward longer captions, around 100 words per caption. National Geographic, Vogue, and TIME‘s top posts often provided context in the captions, cultural or historical significance, or quotes from the photographer.

2. Use emoji where it makes sense

What emoji show up in the top engaging posts? Below are the ten top used emoji across these 25 publishers and how many times they appeared in the 500 posts that we analyzed.

The top used emoji was variations of the camera emoji, which was often used to credit the photographer behind a post. Heart emoji accounted for three of the top used emoji. The baby emoji was a surprising addition to the list, but appeared due to Beyonce’s twin children being featured in top posts.

How many emoji should you use? It does depend on whether emoji fit in with your brand voice. Some of these publishers, like Vogue and National Geographic, strayed away from using emoji in their captions. The ones that did use emoji, tended to limit themselves between one and three per post.

3. Add hashtags for visibility

Hashtags on Instagram are great for helping users discover your content, or for tying a campaign all together. But how many hashtags is too many and will seem like a grab for attention to your users?

The average amount of hashtags per post was only one hashtag,  due to many of the top 25 publishers not using hashtags. Out of the publishers, only 12 of them had an average that was greater than zero.

National Geographic, Tastemade, and CricTracker had the highest average of hashtags per post. National Geographic’s hashtags focused on the photography and scenery of the post. Tastemade’s hashtags were related to the ingredients and flavors in its recipes. CricTracker loaded up its hashtags around cricket, sporting events, and the athletes.

What are the most used hashtags? We created this word cloud to find out.

For Teen Vogue and other pop culture publishers, hashtags around celebrities were common. Fox News used Donald Trump as a hashtag repeatedly.  The Dodo’s hashtags were focused toward animal philanthropy.

4. Contextualize with mentions

As we noted above, providing context is a popular tactic of National Geographic and the other publishers with high word counts. One way that publishers add more to their Instagram posts is by tagging the subjects of the photos, or those that took the photo, in the caption.

Much like using a hashtag, mentioning other Instagrammers can make followers interested to learn more about the post and further content.

Vogue, National Geographic, TIME, and THRASHER Magazine used the most mentions in their posts, as many as 15 tags in a single post. The average across all 25 publishers’ top 20 posts was one tag per post.
For Vogue, using tags means mentioning fashion brands, celebrities and the stylists/team behind the post.

For National Geographic, it means tagging the photographer and giving them a platform to explain their photo. THRASHER Magazine tags the people performing the gravity-defying stunts in its posts.

5. Use a call-to-action

One way these publishers optimize their captions is by asking users to take an action. They ask their followers a question, ask them to tag a friend, or direct users to a link in their bio for more information.


27 percent of the 500 posts we analyzed used one of these tactics to drive follower engagement. When we ranked these 500 posts by the most commented ones, half of the top ten commented posts prompted their followers to take an action. The above post from ESPN drove more than 35,000 comments.

While there isn’t a magic formula that can create your perfect Instagram captions (yet), keeping an eye on the data can help. Looking at what’s working with audiences can help us make sure that we’re reaching them in the best way for the platform.

The Stories format is shaking up storytelling on Instagram and Snapchat. Read more in our 2018 guide.

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