What makes for good Instagram content? Cracking the Instagram code.

Close-up of a hand scrolling through Instagram with a latte in the background

Did you know Instagram is no longer a photo-sharing app? That’s what its CEO declared in a move to push Instagram into a land that more resembles TikTok.

Today, the social media platform has a whopping 1 billion active monthly users, a base that is second only to Facebook and about twice as large as LinkedIn and more than three times bigger than Twitter. And like TikTok, it tends to be a platform generally fueled by young people.

Three in five Instagrammers are between 18 and 29, and while that may not be an optimal target range for many companies, let’s remember that those are the formative years when brand loyalties are forming. If you become a Toyota or Levi’s or Pantene user at age 22, chances are you’ll stick with your brands throughout your consuming life. The point is, if Instagram users aren’t your core targets now, they could be before long, and so isn’t it worth flexing your brand muscles in front of them sooner than later?

Celebrity (and influencer) domination

And yet, check out the top 100 Instagram accounts in the world, and you won’t find many corporate titans. It’s a list dominated – almost exclusively dominated – by athletes, musicians and, predictably I suppose, Kardashians. Soccer superstars Cristiano Ronaldo (#1), Lionel Messi (#7) and Neymar (#16) enjoy prominent places within the top 20 and boast a mind-blowing number of followers. (Over 300 million in the case of Ronaldo, which means, of course, that one of every three Instagram user is tuned into the soccer star’s regular posts.)  

Then there are the singers like Ariana Grande (#3), Selena Gomez (#5), Beyonce (#8) and Taylor Swift (#12) who have shown that their talents in self-promotion rival their singing successes. And speaking of self-promotion, someone will just have to explain to me the public’s fascination with all-things-Kardashian so that hundreds of millions of people have at least some level of obsession with Kim (#6), Khloe (#13) and Kourtney (#21). And if you add in the Jenner girls – Kylie (#4) and Kendall (#10) – that means that five of the top 21 places on Instagram are held by young women with Kardashian DNA. Go figure.

With all of this dominance by celebrities and influencers, it would be easy to dismiss Instagram as simply a platform where idols submit to worship by their legions of fans. Still, we shouldn’t be so hasty. Again, remember, there are 1 billion+ consumers trolling around on the platform, and many of them have demonstrated a blithe willingness to be influenced by, well, influencers.

So where does that leave brands?

Instagram’s big brands

Let’s look at the companies that – at least with respect to their number of followers – are making the most of Instagram.

National Geographic

The most popular brand on Instagram is one of the most venerable and enduring publications around. Founded in 1888, the magazine has shown that the platform’s users will rise beyond demographic stereotypes to follow compelling content, and isn’t that what NatGeo has always provided? The magazine boasts 170 million Insta followers.

In an interview last year with Digiday, John Raab, NatGeo’s director of Instagram, shared some of his insights into keeping the publication’s account fresh. He says that it’s more important to stay true to your brand than to try to predict which posts will go viral, even as he tries to “maximize the number of impressions.” On such a visual platform, it doesn’t hurt to have 130 photographers competing for space, and with between four and eight posts a day plus a more dynamic layer of storytelling through its Stories and Highlights (like this recent one on its Race Card project), it can be months for a particular photo to make its way through the queue.


With more than 160 million followers, Nike ranks #15 in largest Instagram accounts. Scroll through the company’s Insta pages and you’ll be struck by the balance of posts – a split between photos and video, a mix of famous athletes and amateurs – and yet throughout, the company stays very true to its “Just Do It” brand, instilling inspiration across the platform, raising its voice to social causes, and, importantly, engendering a sense of community. Its Instagram account is a stellar example of a Hubspot idiom we use in the content marketing world: slicing the content turkey.

Nike apparently has found its voice on Instagram, where it has three times as many followers than on Facebook. It does an especially good job of giving followers a behind-the-scenes feeling to its posts, and Nike also has found a good deal of success in segmenting its Instagram audiences, creating audience categories based on activity and location (e.g. @nikenyc, @nikesportswear and @nikefootball).


That a luxury brand like Gucci finds itself at #68 is no surprise. Fashion and celebrity often go hand in hand, and the brand taps its celebrity relationships to market its products on Instagram. In addition to brand promotion, Gucci also uses the platform to enhance user engagement, especially by keeping its followers informed about events with posts that regularly garner over 100k likes.


Swedish retailer H&M squeezed into the top 100 (#96) with a strategy focused on leveraging Instagram influencers. When the brand launched its new Nyden line a few years back, it targeted Millennials by tapping the power of nine social influencers who used Instagram Stories to showcase its new designs and the platform’s polling feature to engage users on future design preferences. Over a two-week period, the company received more than 35,000 votes to inform the design of two dresses.

Clearly there is more to Instagram than simply posting images and videos that you think (read: hope) will move the virality needle. There are lessons to be learned from brands that are doing it right and using the platform to its full potential.

Even when your names don’t begin with K. 

Note: The Instagram data in this blog is taken from SocialBook.

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Josh Dare

Josh’s career in communications spans more than four decades. In addition to providing strategic counsel and crisis communications direction to clients, he is the resident Writer-In-Chief, regularly writing op-eds and bylines on behalf of clients that have been published in The Washington Post, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Huffington Post, among others.

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