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How to get more Instagram likes, according to science


To pull in Instagram likes, the biggest rules are obvious: Be a name brand, or just have a ton of followers, and include witty accompanying text.

But a group of researchers at North Carolina State University wondered what would happen if they ignored follower-count sizes and clever captions and just examined the images by themselves—how could users attract more likes by choosing to upload certain types of pictures?

To try to answer that question, they wrote a computer program, scanned some 147,963 Instagram images, generated scores based on six different visual qualities that previous studies have shown lead to high user engagement, then accounted for confounding variables (number of followers and the like). Their findings were published today in a paper that could double as a primer on which visual traits images ought to posses to optimize their Instagram likes.

The results amount to one of the most meticulous combings-over of Instagram images ever conducted. (The paper’s title is “Simplicity is not key: Understanding firm-generated social media images and consumer liking.”) Ultimately, the researchers settled on two rules as a sort of key yin-and-yang pair: Mix up the balance of light and color, Goldilocks-style, so it isn’t too little or too much, but also ensure the image is either extremely simple or very complex.

These are the six specific qualities that the paper (whose full text is paywalled) breaks down:

  • Color complexity: The richness of the colors contained in the image. Here, essentially, less complicated is going to equal more likes.
  • Luminance entropy: The intensity of the brightness in the image. The more, the merrier on this one.
  • Unique objects count: How many different things are crammed into your one photo. The paper found an indirect relationship—it’s best to aim for fewer objects in the frame.
  • Edge density: This refers to the ratio of edges to non-edges in the picture, which sounds like a preposterous calculation, only the authors note an ideal image will have struck an almost-perfect balance between the two. Imagine a large flag in front of a windowed building; for this one, neither intricate patterns nor giant solid-colored backgrounds help.
  • Irregularity of object arrangement: Visual clutter—think of a brick wall, versus a wall of graffiti. The study found the more irregularity there is, the more likes an image will usually receive. Extreme simplicity can also get likes.
  • Asymmetry of object arrangement: How much symmetry, both vertical and horizontal, the image contains. The amount of image symmetry was the study’s trait most directly tied to generating more likes.

Luckily, Instagram’s AR designers already do the hard part of this job for you, the authors write: “In practical terms, we found that you could improve the number of likes of any given image by about 3% if you applied the appropriate filter . . . What’s more, our model suggests that optimizing both feature and design complexity could improve consumer engagement by about 19%.”

Their goal was to create a program and data set that could be used “to inform decisions made by design professionals in the marketing sector,” but the team adds that they’re also releasing the raw code for the program itself. “It’s not in a user-friendly format right now,” admits Bill Rand, executive director of the school’s Business Analytics Initiative and a coauthor of the stuy, “but I’m sure the right tech-savvy people could use it to create a valuable tool for the industry.”

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