The Psychology of Marketing on Instagram

December 6, 2017
Kyra Goodman

  If you had to choose one word to describe your social media audience, it would likely look something like this: fickle. That Instagram post that you’re so sure will generate all of the likes and comments from your followers? It’s met

If you had to choose one word to describe your social media audience, it would likely look something like this: fickle.That Instagram post that you’re so sure will generate all of the likes and comments from your followers? It’s met with nothing but crickets. But, that random image you shared on a whim without much thought or strategy behind it? Well, call it a mystery, but that’s seen some of your highest engagement numbers yet.It’s enough to have you tearing your hair out. You can’t seem to decode exactly what your social media followers want and when they want it.And, unless you have a crystal ball that’s collecting dust in the back of your closet, you feel like you’re at a total loss for settling on a winning formula that will help your posts better resonate.Fortunately, you don’t need that cobweb-infested crystal ball—because you have psychology on your side.That’s right—applying those age-old psychological discoveries and findings to your own social media marketing tactics can yield some pretty great results. And, while this holds true for everything from Facebook to Twitter, today we’re going to zone in on one social media network in particular: Instagram.So, what do you need to know about the psychology behind everybody’s favorite photo-sharing platform?Let’s dive right in.

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Let’s Get Visual: What Makes Instagram So Powerful?

With a whopping 800 million users (500 million of which are daily active users), Instagram is one of the most popular social networks out there.But, what exactly contributes to this app’s insane popularity?Ultimately, it all comes back to the fact that we’re visual beings who much prefer images over text (hence that old “a picture is worth a thousand words” proverb).Plenty of studies have cited the fact that we as humans respond much better to visual content, as opposed to written words.Need proof? Take, for instance, the fact that we actually already recognize words as pictures—even when we’re reading them.A small study led by neuroscientist Maximilian Riesenhuber of Georgetown University Medical Center discovered that we build up a visual dictionary of sorts when presented with words that we’re familiar with. So, even when written text is involved, our brain’s still find a way to translate that into images.Think about the last novel you read and the various scenes and characters you pictured in your own mind, and you’ll quickly see that this point holds some water (and also explains why we’re all disappointed when the movie remakes don’t match our own imaginations).Even further, we’re far more likely to remember content that includes visuals—such as images and videos. Why? It all comes back to the concept of storytelling, which any marketer knows is a valuable tool.According to research from 3M, our brains process visuals about 60,000 times faster than they process text. So, utilizing images not only makes for a story that’s more effective, but also more efficient.Needless to say, images are powerful.And, since Instagram is all about sharing visual content, there’s no denying that it can have some huge benefits for your marketing efforts. With that in mind, let’s dive into some ways that you can leverage psychology to take your Instagram marketing to the next level.

Using Psychology to Make the Most of Instagram Marketing

1. Leverage the Power of Influencers

While Instagram is a platform that supports individuality, creativity, and self-expression, there’s still a lot of keeping up that happens there.We all deal with a serious case of FOMO (in case you’re unfamiliar, that’s short for “fear of missing out”) and feel a pressing urge to do the things that others are doing.This ties back to the concept of conformity, which basically states that we change the way we behave to match the way that others are behaving—as proven in this revealing experiment from Solomon Asch, where students cited the wrong answer to a question simply because others were doing it.This, along with the concept of social proof (where, similarly, people assume the actions of others), demonstrates why utilizing influencers in your Instagram marketing can be so powerful.When your followers see people of authority or people they respect in your own posts, it adds even more legitimacy to your brand—and, for better or for worse, exacerbates that “I’ve gotta have that too!” feeling that seems to run rampant on social media.As a result, posts that are backed by an Instagram influencer result in a much higher level of engagement.


Image SourceDO THIS NEXT: Get in touch with some influencers in your own niche to see if they’d be willing to collaborate on some Instagram posts and promotions.

2. Engage With Your Followers

Social media isn’t about broadcasting your own message into the abyss—instead, it’s about interacting with your followers and fostering a sense of community around your brand.Turns out, users aren’t just scrolling through their social media feeds out of pure habit.A study by Dr. Stephanie Tobin from The University of Queensland’s School of Psychology and reported in a Buffer blog post found that social media users actually achieve a greater sense of connectedness.However, this phenomenon falls apart if followers feel ignored on their social media accounts.A separate study found that when participants posted to social media but received no feedback, they experienced negative impacts on their own self-esteem.This speaks to the importance of not just filling up your own Instagram feed, but also ensuring that you’re interacting with the people who have joined your own community.DO THIS NEXT: Set aside some time each day or week when you can go through and respond to comments, like photos from other users and brands, and generally step up your level of interaction on the platform.

3. Develop a Personality

If Instagram is indeed about connectedness, it’s important to remember this one fact: People don’t connect as well with brands as they do with other humans. Research even goes so far as to say that—the more human-like a brand becomes—the more people identify with that particular brand.This is why it can be helpful to go beyond facts, figures, and promotions and develop a more human-like personality for your own brand.As a Hootsuite post points out, arguably, nobody does this better than the insurance company, Progressive. The endearingly enthusiastic, Flo, has become a celebrity in her own right.And, her power is definitely echoed on the company’s Instagram page. Just take a look at this standard Progressive post on Instagram, which garnered 211 likes and only five comments at the time of this writing:

Then, take a look at this humorous take on Flo’s resume. This one? It saw 832 likes and 92 comments:

Those engagement numbers speak for themselves. So, while you might not assign some sort of designated spokesperson for your brand (and, that’s fine!), it doesn’t hurt to think of some ways that you can insert more of a human element into your Instagram page, including:

  • Working with influencers, as mentioned above.
  • Using more photos of people instead of just objects or landscapes.
  • Telling real stories of your own customers.
  • Showcasing photos of your team and the people behind your brand.

DO THIS NEXT: Jot down some potential tactics you could use to bring more of a human touch to your Instagram presence.

4. Appeal to Emotions

Some of the most memorable marketing campaigns out there appeal to people’s emotions.For example, think about Dawn dish soap. It’s a brand that could’ve talked repeatedly about the soap’s ability to cut through grime and grease.But, instead, their most memorable advertisements showcase the wildlife—like adorable baby ducks and otters—that are saved from oil spills with the help of Dawn.


Campaigns with purely emotional content reportedly perform twice as well as those with mere facts. And, images play a huge role in this effect.“Furthermore, because our brains are trained to decipher all the elements of an image at the same time, we are able to make an association with an image, both cognitively and emotionally, in a quicker manner,” explains Abhilasha Shah in a post for the Shutterstock blog, “This means that images are a great way to grab a viewer’s attention, convey a message, and elicit an emotional response.”DO THIS NEXT: Generate a list of the emotions you’d like your brand to inspire (whether it’s hope, joy, humor, sadness, or anything else!) and then brainstorm some different tactics you could use on Instagram in order to do just that.

5. Reward Your Audience

In social psychology, the concept of reciprocity basically means this: You reward one positive action with another positive action.So, how does this apply to Instagram? Well, there are plenty of ways that you could see this play out.For example, you could reward your followers with frequent special discounts or promo codes. Or, maybe you’ll choose a follower to showcase during one day each week. Perhaps you’ll treat your Instagram audience to a live Q&A session where they can get their burning questions answered.The important thing to remember is that your social media relationships can’t be all take and no give. Your followers will expect you to return the favor in some way every now and then.DO THIS NEXT: Make a list of the types of rewards your followers would be most excited about, such as exclusive discounts or insider access.

6. Post Consistently

By now, you’ve probably heard the advice that you can’t just show up on your social media accounts once in a blue moon—you need to be posting on a somewhat consistent and predictable schedule.But, why is that? Why the need for that regularity?It can be credited to something called the Propinquity Effect—which this Buffer post explains as the fact that “the more we meet and interact with people, the more likely we are to become friends with them.”Put simply, the more frequently your followers see your posts and updates appearing in their Instagram feed, the more likely they are to not only remember you—but value you.DO THIS NEXT: Get out your calendar and map out a schedule for your Instagram posts. By the way, a tool like Sked can help to ensure that you stay on track with your posting plan! Here’s a quick rundown on how you can use it to create a more consistent and engaging feed.

Over to You

Your Instagram audience can feel like one big puzzle to be solved. And, decoding exactly what they want from your own marketing efforts can seem overwhelming.Fortunately, you can use various psychological principles to help you out. Use these six different methods to your advantage, and you’re sure to land on a winning Instagram strategy that turns your followers into loyal brand advocates.If you're looking to carve out hours in your social media workflow, sign up for Sked’s 7-day trial. Our all-in-one Instagram scheduler allows you to automatically post images, carousels, Stories, videos and more. Tag locations, users and products and manage all your hashtags in one place to save 5+ hours every week.

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