No matter how religiously you follow updates to the Instagram algorithm, it won’t do you much good if you post your posts in front of people if they don’t like what they see.

Ultimately, social media is meant for people, not robots – which means that for real engagement, you need to reach out to the people they like.

We already know that visually beautiful or interesting content works best here. (You tried our tricks for taking and editing good Instagram photos, right?)

But besides composition or graphic design, is there one type of photo that people like more?

Well, the guesswork of many social media managers is that Pictures of people do better than those without. (Sorry, landscape photos.)

But why should we rely on gut instinct when we have a very special column here on the Hootsuite blog dedicated to scrutinizing these suspicions?

It’s time to put a theory to the test with a deep analytical dive and a little trial and error. (My dad always wanted me to be a doctor, but I’m sure the next best thing is to be an unauthorized Instagram scientist.)

Do you get better results when you bring your best face forward? Let’s find out.

Bonus: Get 5 Free, Customizable Instagram carousel templates and start creating beautifully designed content for your feed now.

Hypothesis: Photos with people do better on Instagram

Common sense drives this hypothesis. Contrary to the general internet culture and human behavior you might believe in, people love people.

There is a trend that occurs towards the end of a calendar year when people run their Instagram accounts through a “top 9” generator (here’s one; here’s another). The generator pulls its most popular contributions from the year into a grid. Anecdotally, these nine images are almost always face-to-face … whether you’re my improvisation coach or Taylor Swift.

Source: BestNine

History says we are obsessed with faces

The publishing industry already knows we are obsessed with faces. There’s a reason 90% of the covers of a given newsstand have faces.

Our brains even see faces that don’t have any, that’s how much we love them. Paper, digital or in the flesh, we see a pair of eyes and unconsciously think: “Friend!”

… And social science seems to agree

Back in 2014 (a generation ago, in the social media years), Georgia Tech researchers viewed 1.1 million photos on Instagram and determined that they were images of faces 38% more likely to get them a “Like” as photos without faces. Face photos were too 32% more likely to catch a comment, also.

The same research found that age, gender, and number of faces didn’t make much of a difference. When there’s a face (or two or 10) no matter who it is, we just tend to tap twice.

I’ll test this theory here in 2021 – albeit with a far smaller sample size – by making my own face-to-face comparison. Let’s see how it stacks up.


It seemed to me that the best way to test if faces are engaged is to look back on my Instagram account and see if photos with or without faces show more engagement, as measured by likes and comments. Is it that simple genius? Many Thanks.

Of course, it wouldn’t be enough to test this on my personal account alone, where my face is obviously loved by a biased group of followers (e.g. my mom).

Luckily, I happened to have the digital keys for a local wedding magazine’s Instagram account (which I’ve experimented with before – don’t tell my boss!), So I decided to watch a larger pool of followers ($ 10,000 +) responded to photos versus photos without a face.

(Another difference from my personal account: we post a variety of faces on @RealWeddings that may not have personal meaning or connection to the audience.)

To make sure we had a large pool of samples, I looked at each account’s 2020 posts and reviewed the 20 best posts of the year.


TL; DR: Faces don’t seem to have a particular advantage on Instagram. Content that is branded and your audience loves is best suited, face-to-face or no-face.

Admittedly, I didn’t post a lot on my personal account in 2020. But here’s the breakdown of my 20 most popular and 20 most commented photos.

Top 20 of the most popular and commented photos on personal account

Most popular photos

  • 16 out of 20 people presented (80%)
  • 3 out of 20 were images (15%)
  • I was about a cute renovation of the terrace … who could resist? (0.5%)

Most popular photos people illustrations and terrace

Mostly commented photos

  • 11 out of 20 featured people (55%)
  • 6 out of 20 were images (30%)
  • 1 in 20 was a food photo (peaches if you’re curious) (0.5%)
  • 1 in 20 was a landscape photo (0.5%)
  • 1 of 20 was my sweet makeover on the patio again – HGTV, call me! (0.5%)

You can find the breakdown here on our wedding magazine.

Wedding magazine most commented photos

Most popular photos

  • 15 out of 20 featured people (75%)
  • 5 out of 20 featured venues (25%)

Most popular photos people and venues

Mostly commented photos

  • 15 out of 20 featured people (75%)
  • 5 out of 20 featured venues (25%)

So far, faces seem to be taking the cake. But here’s the thing: these numbers pretty much match The total number of facial content that either account publishes.

Are faces really more engaging than non-facial content? Or is it just more likely that if you post faces more often, you’ll have more faces on your top posts?

If I look at a few other accounts that I have access to (I’m a busy media and comedy woman who demands attention! I wear a lot of hats!) That don’t post that many photos of faces, the numbers are pretty low proportion.

For @VanMag_com (a Vancouver magazine that I’m the editor of) we see that about 40% of the most popular posts have people … but really, only about 40% of posts in general have people. (Food is the real star here – check out our restaurant awards!)

@ VanMag_com 40 percent photos with people

For @WesternLiving (another publication I work for) we only see 20% of the most popular posts with people in them. However, this brand’s focus is on living and design, so 80% of its content is generally glamor shots of interior design or architecture.

@WesternLiving 10 percent photos with people

And one final example is @NastyWomenComedy, an all-women comedy that I’m a part of. While a whopping 100% of our most popular posts have faces … 100% of our content includes a face (or 10). Is it awesome marketing or are we obsessed with ourselves? Only you can choose.

@NastyWomenComedy 100 percent photos with people

What do the results mean?

I honestly expected faces to blow all other content out of the water.

But when I think about all of that, I think the common thread running through all of these top posts is that they reflect each brand’s specific niche – face or no face.

It’s important to create consistent content that aligns with your brand drives commitment.

You don’t have to plan psychological tricks to get likes and comments: just do what you do best, authentically and with meaning – whether you’re sharing a surprising restaurant review or showing off a patio renovation you’re proud of. (The secret? Artificial turf.)

But of course this was a small investigation. It also didn’t take into account what time or day these things were published. So do your own experiments and A / B testing (try the Hootsuite planning tool!) To find out what your own audience likes best – and don’t forget to tweet us with the results.

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