• 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.


And, frankly, I was tired of trying to craft one of those perfect Instagram lives in the middle of a global pandemic! Each time I tried to write one of those captions, I sounded insincere to myself.


So I started getting really honest in my captions about what I was thinking and feeling, the things that bothered me, the things that lit me up. I leaned into the big, heavy feels and didn’t shy away from the ugly issues, even if they weren’t exactly ‘grammable.


Because if these issues bothered me, I knew they had to bother someone else, too.


Guess what? Four of those Top 9 are posts where I got brutally honest in the caption. In one, I talk about the stresses of being an essential working during the pandemic; one chronicles some of my mental health struggles; one is about the pain of holiday marketing for those who are grieving; one is about feeling creatively lost and the joy of finding inspiration again.


Laying emotions bare on social media is a trend we’ve seen throughout 2020, first as the pandemic hit, then as the Black Lives Matter movement gained more traction this summer. As a social media professional, I would love for this trend to be one that sticks.


Emotional social media posts are like magnets — they either attract or repel, depending on which side people come at them from. When done strategically, pulling back the curtain on your strongest emotions and opinions can have a clarifying effect on your audience. The people who agree will feel an even stronger connection to you and your brand, and the people who disagree will realize they’re not a good fit and unfollow.


6. Branch out into other topics


Here’s something wild: At the time I ran my Top 9, I’d only featured my fiancé, Josh, as the main photo on a feed post 3 times this year. Two of those 3 posts made it into my Top 9, and another Top 9 post — a carousel — included a photo of him somewhere in the middle.


Obviously, these posts performed so well because he’s a literal ray of sunshine! He’s one of those warm, open personalities that makes everyone feel like they’re immediately his best friend. That is his superpower, and it translates even through an Instagram post (scroll through the one below to see what I mean).



But it’s more than that.


It’s also because people like to know what and who matters to the businesses they support. More and more now, consumers — especially the age group that mostly populates Instagram — are consciously choosing to do business with people who share the same social, political, and ethical ideologies as they do.


They want to get to know you before they give you their hard-earned dollars.


Clearly my followers like seeing this other side of who I am — that I’m a human with a life outside of my job, not just another social media marketer.


That I care about my family and my community, that I enjoy the outdoors, that mental health is important to me.


In fact, most of my top-performing posts were about secondary topics that support my brand, not my main service offering. Only 2-3 of my Top 9 posts actually talked about social media marketing, and even those posts only talked about social media tangentially.


What are 3-5 topics or categories — we marketers also call them buckets or pillars — that you can talk about that aren’t your business but will help people get to know you and your WHY better? Now use those topics to spread out your more marketing- and sales-heavy content.


Here are some of my own non-marketing topics:

  • Burnout and mental health

  • Solopreneurship and self-improvement

  • Introvert/homebody lifestyle, gardening and cooking


Digging deeper into your Top 9


The biggest problem with using Top 9 as a strategic planning tool is that it ranks your posts by how many Likes each receives. And Likes are notorious throughout the marketing community for being vanity metrics: It looks good to have a lot of them, but they really don’t drive your business forward or give you insight into your audience.


If you want a more detailed and more accurate look at which posts your audience loved most this year, open up your Instagram Business account’s Insights, tap on “Content You Shared,” then select your metric and date range at the top of the screen. For this example, we’ll look at Reach, Comments, Shares, and Saves over the “Last Year” range (which would be more accurately labeled “Past Year”).


As you’ll see below, the mix of top performers changes depending on the metric you choose:


A collage of 4 screenshots from Chloe's Instagram Analytics showing the top-performing posts for each metric: Reach, Comments, Shares, and Saves.

Just like with your official Top 9, this gives you a more accurate idea of which content actually hits home for your audience.


For example, throughout 2020 I posted several different stats all pointing toward social media best practices but discontinued them late in the year because they were consistently my lowest-performing type of post.


They don’t show up at all in my official Top 9. In fact, the only metric they actually performed well for was Saves. That’s not surprising — Saves are a goal metric for educational or helpful content because they show intent to return to that content and use it again in the future. But it IS surprising that Saves are the only metric where they made a significant showing. When I added them to my strategy, I certainly expected them to generate more Comments and Shares, too.


Another discrepancy: My posts that repurposed content from Twitter didn’t do so well in the Comments category, but they took 4 of the 9 top spots for Reach. What did bring in a lot of comments were photographs, especially if they included a face or other human element (like a hand).


So based on these results, I now know to intentionally pair the topics that I hope will spark discussion with a photo of my face and to use my repurposed Tweets as a way to reach new potential followers.


For 2021 I’m primarily paying attention to Reach and Comments since my goals are to attract more of my target audience and start building relationships with them. So in planning my 2021 content calendar, I’ll definitely be paying close attention to the kind of content that performed well for those metrics this year: posts that give my audience an honest look at who I am, how I think, and what I stand for.


Ready to nail down your social media strategy for 2021? Click below to book your free discovery call!


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