Because Instagram was designed as a visual medium, it’s hard to know just how much the captions actually matter.
Sure, you can write up to 2,200 characters in your caption… but should you?
After all, a great caption doesn’t just describe what’s happening in the photo. It’s your chance to express yourself to your followers and (hopefully) drive engagement in the process.
Does the algorithm reward wordy posts? Do people like to curl up and lose themselves in a good caption? …Or does a lengthy caption just spur followers to keep scrolling?
Only one way to find out: sacrificing my personal account to the Insta-gods for a series of elaborate and public experiments! (I assume my Pulitzer is coming in the mail?)
Let’s DO THIS.
Bonus: Download a free checklist that reveals the exact steps a lifestyle photographer used to grow from 0 to 600,000 followers on Instagram with no budget and no expensive gear.
Hypothesis: Instagram posts with longer captions get more engagement
There are a lot of people smarter than me who suspect that longer captions get more engagement. I know this because I asked Brayden Cohen, who is on Hootsuite’s social marketing team and manages the @hootsuite Instagram account.
“Overall, I think longer captions provide better engagement on Instagram. There is only so much information, copy, and context you can put in an image,” says Brayden.
In his experience, longer captions offer an opportunity to get more creative and add clarity. Having longer captions provides your audience with more information around a topic. This is especially helpful since it’s hard to add links on Instagram.
“Sometimes all you have is your Instagram caption to grab your audience’s attention and educate them with valuable content,” he adds.
Knowing the length of Instagram captions that your audience prefers is crucial for maximizing your reach. Instagram’s algorithm is likely to position posts with the most likes and comments near the top of your followers’ feeds, so for the best chance of growing your audience, give your existing audience what they want! Which is… longer captions! Probably! We’re about to find out.
To see if long captions garner more likes and comments than short captions, I posted three pairs of thematically themed shots to my personal Instagram account. Each pair of photos contained similar visual content, so I could compare engagement as fairly as possible.
That meant I posted two photos of cherry blossoms, two landscape shots, and two selfies (featuring what you might generously call “statement” sweaters). One photo in each pair got a short caption, and the other got a long caption.
For the purposes of this experiment, I went with Brayden’s definition of “long”: “I would say any captions with more than three line breaks is considered long in my books. Any caption where you need to click ‘more’ is also considered long for me,” he told me.
This seems in line with other social media experts’ perception of a “long” caption, so I made sure all of mine were between 90 and 130 words.
I decided the “short” captions would be just a few words: one sentence, no longer than one line.
Here’s a breakdown of all the lengths and character count, for those keeping score at home:
|THEME OF PHOTO
||LONG CAPTION LENGTH
||SHORT CAPTION LENGTH
||95 words (470 characters)
||4 words (27 characters)
||115 words (605 characters)
||2 words (12 characters)
||129 words (703 characters)
||11 words (65 characters)
I whipped up my captions, scheduled my posts on Hootsuite to go out over the course of a weekend, and sat back to wait for the likes and comments to roll in.
(And as scientist’s usually disclose in professional experiments: likes from my Mom will not be included in the final tally.)
Note: All posts were scheduled (using Hootsuite) for around 4 pm PST (11 pm UTC).
I let the posts sit in my Insta feed for a couple of weeks for good measure, and then I logged in to Hootsuite Analytics for the grand reveal.
In every case here — sweater vs. sweater, landscape vs. landscape, and cherry blossoms vs. cherry blossoms — the photo with the longer caption gathered more comments.
Additionally, the photo with the longer caption got more likes in two of the three instances.
For my cherry blossom photos, I used my long caption to “clap back” against those who sneer at cherry blossom photos. A bold stance, I know, and one that was rewarded by many supportive comments.
My shorter caption received a decent number of likes — but it was radio silence in the comments section.
For my second round of comparisons, I used two landscape-y shots. My longer caption was a bit of a personal reflection on the amount of walking I’ve done during the pandemic: I also recommended a particular park, and asked others to share their favorites. I received a handful of comments in return, and each was very personal and responsive to what I had written — I felt seen!
Meanwhile, my short-caption beach photo got a few more likes, but just a single comment… which was asking if I was doing some sort of A/B testing. (I feel seen again… but not in a good way this time, oops.)
Two amazing sweaters (shout out to Fashion Brand Company and OkayOk!), two very different caption lengths. Though I certainly felt the love from my followers for both of these posts, the lengthy egg sweater post was the clear winner here, with 50 additional likes and 20 extra comments.
Of course, there are any number of factors that go into whether someone likes or comments on a post — maybe people just generally prefer eggs to sprinkles?— so take all of this with a grain of salt.
That being said, there’s definitely a pattern of engagement here across all of these photos that correlates with the longer captions.
Here are the results, sorted by likes:
And sorted by comments:
What do the results mean?
TL;DR: Longer captions drive engagement, especially when it comes to comments.
While this obviously was not a perfect experiment, by looking at the results of pairs of similarly themed photos I could compare apples to apples. And in each pair, I found that the posts with longer captions collected more likes and many more comments than short captions.
(The other important lesson I learned… is that people really love my sweater collection. So yes, I’d say this experiment was definitely worth it.)
There are lots of best practices for writing engaging Instagram posts of any length, but I think with longer posts, you have more of an opportunity to display authenticity or ask questions.
Having a longer write-up, even if I didn’t explicitly do a CTA for comments, seemed to inspire people to chime in and respond. Maybe it was just seeing that I’d put in the time to draft 250 words that prompted people to take the time to read it: I must really have something to say if I’ve spent the time and energy to say it!
Like all of these experiments, this is a very small sample size… and every brand is unique! So don’t take my word for it. Try out some longer captions with your next few posts, analyze the results, and learn from what you see.
You’ve got nothing to lose by experimenting with your caption length (unless you’re Caroline Calloway, I suppose).
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