• Chloe Brooks

Using your Instagram Top 9 to plan your 2021 strategy

A hand holding an iPhone open to Instagram, beside the words, "Use your Instagram Top 9 to plan your 2021 strategy"

For many, the end of the year is a time for reflection and planning. It’s also the time when Instagram Top 9 posts start popping up on feeds everywhere.

Top 9 posts are popular with individual users and typically serve as a year-end roundup or highlight reel of each person’s most-Liked posts from that year. The accompanying captions usually strike a note somewhere between reflective, joyful, hopeful, and grateful, making them a tidy way to close out the year and welcome the new one.

A screenshot from Instagram's hashtag search function showing results for the hashtag #topnine2020

But if you’re using Instagram to promote a business, your Top 9 can and should serve as more than just a year in review. If you approach it strategically, it offers a window into how your audience thinks and behaves.

Of course, if you have an Instagram Business account, you can always see which posts performed best by taking a look at your account Insights. But if a Top 9 or year-end roundup post is already on your content calendar, it can serve double duty as a helpful tool for conducting a mini-analysis of your broader strategy.

A gif from the show Letterkenny depicting Wayne wearing a red plaid shirt and saying, "If you can be one thing, you should be efficient."

Below, I’ll show you how I used my own Instagram Top 9 to see which tactics resonated with my audience this year (and which ones missed the mark) so you can follow this process.

First, find your Instagram Top 9: Click here, then enter your Instagram username. You’ll be prompted to enter your email, then you’ll get to see your Top 9 most-liked posts of 2020.

Lessons from my Instagram Top 9

A collage of Chloe's 9 most-Liked Instagram posts from 2020.

1. Show your face

The biggest lesson from looking at my own Top 9 is that I need to show my face on my feed more. Two-thirds of my top-ranking posts show somebody’s face, even if it’s not mine, and a majority that large is absolutely worth noting.

That faces perform well on social media isn’t earth-shattering news — it’s social media, after all.

But seeing this reminded me of a viral experiment that Jenna Kutcher, one of the big names in Instagram marketing, conducted back in 2018 (a lifetime ago in social media years). She posted only photos with her in them on her Insta feed for 30 days straight … and ended up doubling her monthly new followers and clocking astronomical engagement rates.

Jenna Kutcher is a mega-influencer, so just because something worked that well for her doesn’t guarantee it’s going to yield that level of results for everybody.

But whether you have millions of followers, just a handful, or somewhere in between, one thing doesn’t change: Putting a face to your marketing humanizes your brand and helps build trust with your audience.

Because it helps them get to know you better.

How often do you post photos of your own face on your Instagram feed? I try to include at least one face per 9 posts (otherwise known as a grid) but plan to up that ratio for 2021. I challenge you to do the same.

2. Hold off on the edits

A year or two ago, I started noticing a trend: the perfectly manicured aesthetic that Instagram had become infamous for was disappearing. In its place were more and more photos that appeared to be unstaged and unedited — #nofilter.

I’ve been advising clients to move away from the heavyhanded edits and perfect flatlays ever since, and now my Top 9 can back me up on this.

Two of my top posts were completely unedited, and one had undeniably less-than-perfect edits. Only 3 of the 9 were consciously staged (as in, I cleaned or arranged the area before I took the photo).

A collage showing 3 screenshots of Instagram posts that were unedited or only slightly edited. The first image is Chloe and her fiance in front of a sunset; the second is a selfie of Chloe wearing a yellow mask; the third is a selfie of Chloe wearing a white t-shirt with black lettering that reads, "Girls support each other."
From left to right: the slightly edited photo and 2 unedited photos

Are these photos perfect? Absolutely not! But they show what’s real and relatable, like the bumps in my ponytail in the third image above, or the fact that it’s just really hard to get a photo in front of a sunset without your face being backlit and underexposed.

This kind of content is important because most of us on Instagram don’t need to see another miraculously stain-free white sofa or someone magically waking up with perfect eyelashes. We need to see that we’re not alone in not having everything together all of the time.

And as we all continue to get through a global pandemic however we can, I think it’s about damn time we all cut ourselves — and each other! — some slack on whether or not our selfies are perfectly filtered. We all have bigger proverbial fish to fry.

3. Take carousels for a spin

This year I experimented with a post style I hadn’t really used much before: multi-photo posts, or carousels.

A few different studies out there have suggested carousel posts could perform better than other formats simply because users interact with them more — to view all of the post’s content, someone needs to pause long enough to manually scroll through the photos. In fact, Socialinsider found that carousel posts average higher engagement than either image posts or videos. That's surprising considering that video has been king on most platforms for a long time now.

At the time I ran my Top 9, I’d posted 5 carousels this year, and 3 of them made it into my Top 9. That tells me they’re absolutely worth experimenting with more in the coming year!

The carousels I posted were mostly photo dumps, but each told a story: of my vacation, of wrangling a huge Christmas tree, of my relationship with my fiancé. They were entertaining if nothing else, and that’s an important note to be able to hit.

Think about it: aren’t the commercials you remember usually the funny ones? And haven’t you needed a laugh more than ever this year?

But you can also use carousels for more marketing-centric purposes. For example, real estate agents could use carousels to showcase multiple photos from an active listing or as a roundup of the listings they’ve closed that week or month. Similarly, retailers and creators could use carousels to feature multiple photos of one product, several pieces from one collection, or combine product photos with behind-the-scenes shots to tell the story of a piece from start to finish.

Carousels are also a great vehicle for more educational, informative content. This summer especially, PowerPoint-style carousels became a popular and effective way to educate about social, environmental, and political issues. Consider repurposing content from your existing blog posts, webinars, or podcasts into these presentation-style posts.

And remember: When posting a carousel, choose your best image as the first one in the series, since this is the one that will show on your profile.

4. Mix it up with caption length

Have you noticed that Instagram captions seem to be getting longer and longer these days?

According to a study by Later (my favorite Instagram scheduling tool) and influencer marketing platform Fohr, the average Instagram caption length has more than doubled since 2016:

A bar graph via Later.com showing how much the average Instagram caption has increased in length each year from 2016 through 2020.

The average length now, across the platform, is about 405 characters or 65-70 words. But my Top 9 post captions skew much longer, which I hadn’t realized before. Here’s the breakdown:

  • 5 of my top posts had long captions, ranging from 144-380 words.

  • The remaining 4 posts had short captions, ranging from 2-45 words.

  • My longer captions averaged 275 words, while my short ones averaged 15 words.

  • Overall, my Top 9 captions averaged about 160 words — more than double the platform average.

It’s important, too, that most of the posts with shorter captions were carousels. I intentionally kept my captions short on carousel posts so as not to overwhelm viewers with content — if a post already had several visuals, I balanced it with fewer words.

But in 2021, I plan to test carousel posts with longer captions to see how the number of photos versus the number of words affects each other.

The longer the caption, the more opportunity you have to share with your audience, which really just means the more opportunity you have to engage with them and strengthen that relationship.

5. Honesty is the best policy

You’ve likely heard for years now that to be successful on Instagram you need to be “authentic” — a word that’s become so overused in the marketing space that it’s practically lost its meaning.

“Authenticity” is ambiguous because everyone’s authenticity is different. That means it can be hard to pin down as you write your Instagram captions, and if you’re not careful, it’s easy to wind up sounding exactly like every other business in your space.

Earlier this year I realized that had started happening with my own brand. I sounded so much like so many other social media managers out there that I didn’t really sound like myself anymore.