A study has found what makes an Instagram photo more likeable

Here’s how your next selfie can break the internet.

by Tom George
25 January 2022, 5:12pm

Remember that Oscars selfie in 2014 that quickly became the most liked post on Instagram? Eventually it was upstaged by Kim and Kanye’s wedding kiss, Kendall Jenner’s hair, and Beyonce’s pregnancy announcement, proving that what makes an image on the social media platform more likeable oscillates depending on the current cultural mood and what, or who, is trending. But a team of researchers have tried to pin down what exactly it is that can make an image on Instagram more likely to get a like when access to a Kardashian is just not possible.

According to William Rand, associate professor of marketing at North Carolina State University, and co-author of this new study, we already know the main factors that contribute to the likelihood of someone double-tapping a post. “A brand’s strength, and the number of followers it has on Instagram, is the strongest predictor of whether consumers will engage with an image,” Rand says. “The text accompanying an image is also important.” Duh! But Rand and his team, made up of researchers from institutions around the world, wanted to investigate whether there are any ways to make the photo itself shared to Instagram to be more likeable. Turns out, there is.

The researchers say there are two different reasons someone on Instagram might respond to a photo: its feature complexity (another term for the colours and lighting in an image), and its design complexity (how many objects there are in the photo and whether the image is symmetrical). They then gave nearly 148,000 images scores based on these factors and then tried out different combinations, using an algorithm based on human behaviour to see which images are more likely to get a like.  

They found that when it comes to an Instagram photo’s features, the more neutral it was the better. An image is more likely to get a like if it has a diversity of colours but “not too much and not too little”. That means stop hiking up the brightness or saturation on your selfies! The researchers found that choosing a filter that evened out a photo's issues to do with lighting, colours or shadows could increase the chances of getting a like by 3%. 

Alternatively, when it comes to what’s actually going on in the image, the researchers found the most likeable posts went the other way. Instagram users seemingly prefer images that are either very simple and minimalist or incredibly detailed and complex. Once taking into account the profile’s following, optimising your photos design and features was found to increase an images engagement by about 19%. 

Of course, there are many reasons why we might want to increase the likes on our posts, from trying to get important messages out to more people, to sharing your work or creativity. Or, maybe you just look cute in a pic and want some validation. Fair enough! But while there are ways we can optimise our image's likeability, the truth is we should remember a post’s likes isn’t necessarily reflective of its contents. After all, let's not forget that the current most liked post on the social media platform is a photo of an egg.

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