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How to write Instagram captions that increase engagement

Increasing your engagement on Instagram is the secret to getting more followers and growing your reach. 

Ed Latimore, author, blogger, and retired pro boxer
Ed Latimore Author, retired boxer, self-improvement enthusiast

A great Instagram caption compels people to take action on your post. 

There are only four actions they can take on your post: they can leave a comment, like, save, or share. Collectively, these actions are considered engagement. There will be a *lot* more about this throughout the article

While Instagram users are primarily interested in the quality of your photo, if you have great photos, they are far more likely to read your caption. If they read your caption, a few things will happen that greatly contribute to the likelihood of success on the platform, all of which are related to increasing your engagement.

This article will teach you everything you need to take your instagram engagement to the next level.

Learn the Instagram Algorithm

The number goal for you on Instagram is to increase engagement.

The Instagram algorithm uses your rate of engagement to determine the popularity of a post. The more popular a post, the more it’s shown in the user feed of your followers. How exactly does the algorithm figure out your engagement rate and use it to make your posts more popular?

The individual engagement metrics (likes, comments, shares, and saves) on a single post are added, then divided by your total number of followers. As the result of this operation increases, more people are shown the post.

This also helps the post appear on various discover pages and be more competitive in the rankings (more on how to do this by choosing relevant hashtags later in the post). This is another reason why engagement is important: it makes your Instagram profile easier to discover and with that ease of discoverability comes 

A reasonable engagement rate on a non-promoted post is anywhere from 2-3%. Anything more than 3% is exceptional. I’ve seen 4% a few times. I don’t know anyone who gets 5% on a post or their account without promotion.

This all leads to an increase in your followers and the establishment of the legitimacy of your page. This is the goal of increasing our engagement. Generally speaking, all social media platforms follow this formula, and they do it for two reasons:

This is a great way to identify fake Instagram profiles

These are Instagram accounts with an artificially inflated follower count and/or pictures that they’ve stolen. These are accounts that are only followed by other fake accounts. The signs that you’re being followed fake accounts:

  • Jibberish or non-sensical user names. These user names usually aren’t even words in any language and have numbers and punctuation.
  • Random assortment of non-related photos. Since these accounts aren’t real, they tend to have an assortment of stolen Instagram photos and screenshots. You can tell the photos are stolen because they aren’t of the same person, nor do they match the profile photo.
  • Empty bio. There are no legitimate profiles on Instagram that have an empty bio. Even the most unsophisticated Instagram user puts something in their bio.
  • No Instagram stories or Instagram reels. These are bot accounts. They never use live features like stories. These bot accounts would never tke the time to video or produce reels.
  • No captions underneath their photos. Not only will there be captions underneath the photos, but there were won’t be any hashtags either. The stolen photos are just there to prop up the account.
  • Following a lot of people with very few people following them. Some people primarily use social media to consume other’s content, so they don’t have a lot of followers. However, you will almost never see someone following thousands of people with less than 100 Instagram followers.  
  • Non-existent or nonsense comments. Since these accounts are only followed by bots that don’t represent real people, their posts never receive many likes, comments, shares, or saves. The comments tend to be simple emojis or single words. They also 

Once you spot them, it’s important to remove these accounts from following you so they don’t mess up your engagement, as these accounts never like or comment on your photos. Whenever you see a scheme claiming to sell followers, this is usually how it’s done.

These bot accounts never engage, and they ruin the credibility of your account. Here’s how to remove them.

fake profiles ruin instagram engagement ed latimore

A typical fake profile. Nonsense user name, mismatched/stolen pictures, and an outrageous follower to following ratio.

1. Pull up your Instagram account and navigate to the follower’s page you wish to remove. Once there, click on the menu dots in the upper right-hand corner.

how to remove fake followers on instagram to boost engagement ed latimore

2. Click on this and navigate down to “remove follower.” Tap that. It’ll ask if you’re sure before proceeding.

how to remove fake followers on instagram to boost engagement ed latimore

It helps the algorithm determine what to show

No matter how popular your account is, your posts just aren’t seen by everyone who follows you. This is for various reasons, but the one most relevant to the engagement discussion is because it doesn’t prioritize their feed when they log on.

When you open up Instagram, it *appears* to randomly decide what to show you. The reality is that your Instagram feed considers several ranking signals (target audience, hashtag use, geography, perceived relationship with poster, etc.) to determine what content to show you. One of those ranking signals is the engagement of the post. 

The more engagement a post gets, the more it tells the algorithm that it’s likely a popular post and should be shown to more people. Engagement is also a key factor in your ranking for how you rank on Instagram hashtag pages. This is important because it’s one of the main ways for people to discover your profile and follow.

Posts with more engagement make your profile grow and they make it more discoverable. Writing a good caption makes it more likely that your post will be discovered. Before we get to the exact details of writing a perfect instagram caption, there is one last thing about engagement that needs to be mentioned. 

Measuring engagement

Now we understand not only why we want engagement, but we have a goal for each post: Within the first few hours, you want an engagement rate of .05-1%, with engagement rate being defined as the number of likes, comments, shares, or saves divided by your total following. 

Don’t worry. You don’t have to count this out yourself. The stats in IG make this reasonably easy to figure out for individual posts. Several sites allow you to discover the engagement rate for your entire account. My personal favorite is www.socialblade.com, but it occasionally will not have an account uploaded to its database. Another great tool that can be used is www.phlanx.com.

If you want to see the individual stats on a post, the following steps make it easy for you to do so. First, pull up your post and click on “view insights” in the lower left-hand corner.

Once you do that, it’ll present you with a quick menu that shows you the insights of your post. You can scroll up to see more, but at this point, we are mainly concerned with the first bit of information that shows up. 

The symbols, from left to right, are your likes, comments, shares, and saves. You get the post’s engagement rate when you add these together and divide them by your follower count. On this particular post, I got an engagement of 3.07%, which is pretty good.

With this brief primer on engagement out of the way, let’s focus on the writing.

Use hashtags

Instagram is unique amongst other social media platforms in that it shares pictures.

Facebook and Twitter use a machine learning SEO algorithm to determine what your post is about and then show it to the appropriate people. Each of those platforms uses words as their primary means of propagation. As a result, SEO algorithms look at the content of the post to determine what it’s about.

This is not (yet) possible with pictures alone. Therefore, something else is needed. This is why you must use hashtags.

At this point, it’s appropriate to explain a little more about the Instagram algorithm, and social media algorithms, in general. The algorithm’s primary job is to show people what they want to see.

The algorithm uses certain signals to determine the likelihood that this post is what someone wants to see. A major signal is how often you interact with the poster. If you regularly like and comment on someone’s posts, the algorithm assumes that you have a relationship and you’d like to see their content.

If you ever stop seeing someone’s content and you want to start having it populate in your, simply go to their profile and comment something on their latest post. The next time you open the platform, their stuff will be part of the posts you immediately see

Another major signal is content. The algorithms for Facebook and Twitter are driven by machine learning so powerful that is can figure out what you’re talking about. Every time you discuss something, it figures out what you’re discussing and then shows it to people who are most interested in that subject that follows you.

With Instagram, people can put a caption undeath the picture totally unrelated to the picture. This isn’t intentional or malicious. People post photos for several reasons. The captions don’t often reflect this. If you doubt that, think of that times you’ve seen someone post a selfie with a random quote.

Because the algorithm has no way to determine what the post is about and who to show it to from the caption alone, instagram relies on the use of hashtags to solve this problem.

Hashtags are phrases that are preceded by the hash (or pound sign). For example; #Instagram, #goodlife, #wordsofwisdom. You’ve seen them. You know what they are, but perhaps you didn’t realize exactly what they’re there for.

Instagram needs a way to know what your picture is about. Your hashtags help it do that. If the engagement rate of the particular post is high, then this tells Instagram that it’s a post worth showing to other people who have interacted with material that used that hashtag. It does this in one of three ways:

  1. If a person directly follows a hashtag, they’ll see posts that use this hashtag. The more engagement a post gets, the more likely it is to be shown in the first few entries of that display page.
  2. People may see the post randomly displayed in their feed because they’ve interacted with posts that typically post content using a hashtag they commonly use.
  3. It’s more likely to show up on your discover as a suggested post for someone if they typically interact with posts that use that hashtag.

While hashtags aren’t technically a part of generating engagement, understanding their purpose will help tremendously. Selecting good hashtags helps grow the engagement of your account. This is because every person liking it represents an additional piece of engagement without increasing your follower count. For all of you math heads, this is like adding to the numerator without increasing the denominator.

This also helps you gain more followers because if the rest of your account contains similar content, people are likely to follow and engage.

example of an engaging instagram post ed latimore

Use of hashtags(red) and a a decent caption that is long enough and has a great first line (green).

Write long captions

Don’t be afraid to write longer captions. They don’t have to be the size of a full blown article, but think of your captions as microblogging. The goal of the caption is to drive engagement. This is the meta-strategy of writing captions. 

Greater engagement leads to greater exposure to your content and increases the likelihood that you’ll be able to grow your account.

There are two parts of your engagement that your writing influences: the comments and the saves. The caption doesn’t really affect the other two measures of engagement. 

People like the image based on the image. It’s a near instinctive reaction to double-tap on a photo. When people share, they’re also sharing based on the content of the image. In fact, a share doesn’t show the entire caption when it’s done through the Instagram stories. It only shows the first sentence.

People will comment on your captions if you write something compelling, engaging, and thought-provoking. They will also save your posts so they can easily return to them for the message you place in your captions. This will boost your engagement levels and, directly and indirectly, leading to more people liking and sharing.

Include a call to action (CTA

A “call to action” is something that asks for a response. A simple CTA asks a question, but not just any question; the question is someone’s opinion on something related to the post and the rest of the caption.

If your post is about travel, then example questions are:

  • What is your favorite thing about travel?
  • What’s the worst thing to happen to you while traveling?
  • Where is the best beach you’ve ever been to?

These examples all have one thing in common: they’re open-ended. While a response to a “yes or no” question still counts as engagement, a question that can be answered simply is not likely to inspire a response. It also doesn’t leave much room for a conversation to develop.

Conversations and responses that take place between people in the comments of your Instagram post count as engagement. This is a great place for a hot tip: respond to every comment that someone leaves because your responses count as part of the engagement. 

A few responses to comments probably won’t make a difference when you have 10k+ followers, but if you have fewer than 1000 followers, this can significantly increase your engagement numbers.

Give Value

If you do nothing else in your captions, give value. Even if your picture is terrible, at least make sure the caption provides value so you can maintain followers and grow your engagement via comments. 

All value stems from the ability to help people handle their problems. To be valuable, you must do at least one of the following:

  • Provide solutions to their problems directly
  • Educate them on solutions to their problems
  • Persuade them to feel better about their problems
  • Entertain them in such a way that they forget about them

 

Value is the ability to do one of these things. This is the meta-rule that guides all of the captions you create.

If you notice, there is a growing trend of accounts that don’t even bother posting pictures in the traditional sense. Instead, they post infographics and text. These posts do great because they stick to the principles of delivering value.

Have Strong opinions

There’s an old internet saying: if you want the right answer to a question, just give the wrong one on the internet. 

People will not only correct you, but they’ll remind you to be more educated, do your research, and insult you for being so stupid. 

As long as your strong opinion doesn’t insult anyone based on their sex, sexual preference, race, religion, ethnicity, or national origin, then you’re fine. In other words, refrain from talking about someone’s innate characteristics, and you’re fine

Strong opinions (a.k.a. Polarized opinions) motivate engagement because people have to either prove you wrong or show their agreement. If you do this correctly, you should end up with a lot of engagement in your captions as people actually start to talk and argue amongst one another in your comments.

Use common sense

This is a general but useful guide for improving the captions that you use. It will work on any post, but you have to think before using the captions. For example, if you’re taking pictures of nature, being polarizing and giving a strong opinion is a bad idea.

It’s a lot better to focus on inspiring people and then giving them a call to action. Also, don’t just give a boring description. Put some life into it.

Every picture has a story, lesson, thought, or inspiration behind it. The challenging part about writing captions is that you think they have to describe your picture directly. They do not. Think of your pictures as an attention grabber for your caption rather than a supplement to your picture. 

If you’re having trouble coming up with things to say, then this perspective shift should help. For a long time, I thought of Instagram as solely a photo-sharing app. Then I realized that people actually stop, read captions, and interact with them if they contain a CTA, give value, or make a strong opinion.

Take advantage of the first sentence

Until a person expands, only the first two lines of a caption are displayed. This means that you need to make the introduction powerful and intense. You should treat the first sentence of your caption as a headline.

A headline that’s too short won’t generate engagement. On the other end of the spectrum, a headline that’s too long is likely full of superfluous language that confuses the reader about what problem it actually solves.

Your headline should give the reader an idea of what the rest of the content will deliver.

You’re selling the reader the value of your post in one sentence. If they don’t pay attention to your first lines of text, they won’t read the rest of your content. Therefore, you need to put some time and energy into crafting the firs sentence of your caption to increase engagement

The best way to do this is the to take advantage of a template I refer to as “The Four C’s”

The Four C’s of Instagram Engagement

The “Four C’s” are an easy rubric to measure your headlines again. The idea is that you hit at least one of these in your headlines. 

Cheap 

People are more motivated by the avoidance of loss rather than the potential of gain. In psychology, this is called “Loss aversion bias.” Your headlines will generally do better if you show people how to shield themselves from suffering rather than increase their level of enjoyment.

“How To Avoid Dehydration” will get more viewers than “How To Stay Hydrated” even though they express the same idea.  

Comfort 

This is the natural extension of pain avoidance. It’s not so much that people would rather avoid loss than chase gain. It’s more so that both take energy, and only one is coupled with an immediate benefit—relieving pain felt. 

People’s loss aversion decreases in direct proportion to how quickly the benefits of potential gain are experienced. People will pay attention if you can promise to make something easier, faster, and more pleasant without additional risk or effort.

“The Easiest Way To Lose 10 Lbs in 10 Days” will get more readers than “The Slow And Steady Way To Lose 10 Lbs in 10 Weeks,” although the latter is likely much safer and more reasonable.

Competition 

Competition is one of the driving forces of evolution. Whether it’s two people competing for a mate or a promotion, there’s always the desire to outperform and dominate others. Make your headlines appear that you have the secret to victory.

Community 

Relationships are another natural motivator we can’t shake. Whether it’s being more popular or getting the girl, people will pay attention if they believe you can improve their social status.

Competition and community appeal to the main goals for any human. When you strip away our fancy technology, humans still operate on their basic desires: to survive and reproduce. This is why headlines and content centered around those ideas do so well. 

These four play on biological needs we can’t shake. If you understand your niche and play your cards right, your engagement will skyrocket.

In Conclusion

Your captions can elevate your IG experience. You will notice that even girls who take pictures of themselves in provocative poses still use captions. Sex sells, but words are indispensable. 

The rest is up to you.


Ed Latimore, author, blogger, and retired pro boxer
Ed Latimore Author, retired boxer, self-improvement enthusiast

Further Reading

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