The world’s most popular image-sharing network is now a mainstream channel, and political campaigns have taken notice. Every major 2016 Presidential candidate has an Instagram presence, indicating that the political world has caught up with marketers in recognizing the network’s importance.
The network is a natural fit for politics. Campaigning is all about driving engagement and Instagram is the King of Social Engagement. But while every candidate is trying to connect with voters on Instagram, some have been more successful than others.
Instagram is not like the other major networks. While it’s possible to manage it without investing too much time, you do need to understand what works, what doesn’t, and what’s different from other channels.
Who’s got their Insta-game down and who needs some help? After choosing a group of presidential hopefuls based on the first GOP debate selection model (i.e. malleable) we’ve scored each candidate based on the essential elements of an effective Instagram strategy: great photos, consistent content, original ideas and images, an authentic expression of brand identity, and real engagement with followers (Tie goes to the candidate with the higher follower count). Here’s our ranking of candidates’ profiles:
Hillary’s first Instagram post, a photo of a clothing rack of her trademark pantsuits with the caption “Hard choices,” points to a self-awareness and ability to poke fun at herself. That photo set the tone for Hillary’s Instagram presence, a youth-oriented and engaging feed. Hillary’s team recently shared a selfie with none other than Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, as well as a personalized Hillary Snapchat logo, complete with pantsuit and a pearl necklace—they recognize the demographic they are targeting through the platform.
Like all the candidates, Hillary’s Instagram tactics have occasionally missed the mark, such as when she posted a question asking followers to express their feelings on student loan debt in three emojis or less. Politicians should always be wary of taking too light a tone on a serious issue. But overall, in 106 posts, Clinton campaign has shown more wit, more creativity, and better cultural instincts on Instagram than that of any other candidate.
2: Scott Walker
The rest of the GOP field should take notice of Scott Walker’s Instagram presence. His photos are polished without looking forced. He shares candid moments and comes off as a relatable everydude. He also looks like he’s really having a lot of fun—something every teenager knows how to do on Instagram, if only to inspire FOMO among friends, but most politicians don’t seem to have figured out. If his originality were judged strictly against his 2016 competitors, he’d have earned a higher score, but much of what he’s doing—right down to the regular food shots—is standard fare for the average ‘grammer.
Chris Christie’s Instagram account feels like it’s actually run by the candidate himself. Christie has balanced the traditional campaign posts with a healthy dose of personal and family-oriented images. One of his most recent posts shows the Governor kissing the top of his son’s head, with the caption a personal birthday message. This post shows Christie as a relatable and proud dad, lending his social media presence important authenticity. While consistency is key, Christie does seem to rely heavily on the classic “politician shaking hands” pose, as seen in a comical number of his photos. However, his personality is still palpable throughout these posts, showing a candidate who recognizes potential of Instagram.
On social media, as in the rest of his campaign, Bernie Sanders outperforms expectations. While aging, curmudgeonly socialists aren’t typically known for their social media savvy, Bernie’s Instagram is among the more sophisticated of the 2016 field. Where his strategy stands out against the competition is in giving his followers the feeling that they’re really on the campaign trail with him. Most of the candidates publish photos from their rallies, but Bernie’s authenticity shines through. His weakest category is engagement, but overall his campaign’s Insta-game is strong.
Although he doesn’t have a huge following at this point in his campaign, Martin O’Malley’s Instagram posts show an approachable and engaged candidate. Posting vintage photographs of his family alongside more official looking portraits and text highlighting his politics, O’Malley showcases a wholesome and likeable guy through the images he chooses to share. With the use of hashtags such as #TBT and #DogsForOMalley, as well as the reposting of Snapchat videos, O’Malley’s social savvy shows he understands the demographic targeted through Instagram. Also, Dalai Lama #FTW.
6: Rand Paul
Rand Paul’s Instagram account provides numerous text-heavy images such as quotes, logos, and slogans. Instagram for politics isn’t a beauty contest, and this gives his campaign a serious, credible appearance. However, while rich in official branded images, his Instagram presence does little to highlight his personal life. Without this look into the man behind the campaign, his posts come across as fairly dry and boring. There is little consistency, with seemingly random comics, video clips, and images with text overlayed. However, the simple engagement tactics such as encouraging followers to ‘Favourite’ a photo if they agreed he won the GOP debate, and re-gramming follower photos, shows definite effort on Paul’s part.
7: Donald Trump
On Instagram, like in the rest of his campaign, The Donald is behind the pack when it comes to professionalism. With his mercurial rise in the polls and sheer force of personality driving the campaign, he’s yet to bring experienced political operatives into his organization, and it shows on social. He earns high marks, however, for authenticity and originality—frankly because he doesn’t seem to know any other way to be. Even his contrived and over-produced moments are vintage Trump, unlike anything you could imagine coming from another campaign. He also does well on engagement, primarily owing to the comment count on his posts.
8: Marco Rubio
Marco Rubio’s first Instagram posts are a confusing (yet amusing) sequence of close-ups of LeBron James and un-rotated images of Rubio’s own book. This initial rocky start, which puzzlingly has not been edited or removed, indicate a casual attitude toward the channel and the candidate’s followers. However, more recent posts show Rubio as he prepared and took part in television interviews, the GOP debate, as well as with his family, showcasing a slightly more refined and thoughtful image of the candidate. His account is a grab-bag of images and messages—everything from official portraits, personal quotes, candid shots, and attack-ad style comics.
9: Ben Carson
Ben Carson’s Instagram presence is managed competently, but lacks standout attributes. He’s good at featuring the people he meets on the campaign trail, rather than letting the candidate himself dominate the feed, and if you follow Carson, you get the feeling that he’s connecting with the GOP grassroots well. But to break out of the lower tier (on Instagram, at least) he would improve photo quality and originality.
10: Ted Cruz
Senator Ted Cruz’s Instagram presence could use some improvement, but he is using the channel in a way that most of his rivals haven’t figured out yet. He emphasizes graphical banner-style images. He relies on text-heavy images, which come across as serious but maybe too boring for the platform. While Cruz’s account is definitely consistent, it lacks personality—with the exception of his candy and soda shot in celebration of National Junk Food Day.
11: Jeb Bush
The former Florida governor’s weakest category is originality. His Instagram feed looks like it could belong to almost any politician—lots of smiling handshakes, lots of red, white, and blue. (The one exception, of course, being that former Presidents show up more frequently and in more familial moments.) Interestingly, though, Jeb’s strength is authenticity, which in most campaigns is closely aligned with originality. Essentially, Jeb is an authentically generic, undifferentiated candidate on Instagram. To his credit, though, he appears to be committed to the platform, so photo quality (another weak category) has been improving over time.
12: John Kasich
The weakest category in John Kasich’s Instagram feed is originality. The Ohio Governor rarely posts anything that would appear to be unique to him or his campaign. He also struggles with image quality, posting lots of dark or blurry shots. If you were a passionate supporter following this feed to get to know Kasich better, you’d get bored and un-follow after a few weeks.
13: Mike Huckabee
It’s surprising to find Mike Huckabee at the bottom of this list. While his campaign, generally, continues to lag toward the back of the pack, engagement with supporters has been a strength. The most important thing his campaign does wrong on Instagram is to treat it like a conventional channel. His photos are almost entirely drawn from events, and seem to have been shot with a pre-social sensibility. That said, for his feed to rank so poorly against his competitors is evidence of the rising level of Instagram sophistication in this field. Six months ago, simply by virtue of having a basic degree of professionalism and consistency would have earned Huckabee top billing among Republican Insta-dates. Not so after a summer of rapidly improving strategies and execution across the rest of the field.