A Social Copywriting Playbook: How to Write Instagram Captions that Drive Engagement and Sales

How to write great Instagram captions

As a business owner, it’s impossible to ignore Instagram’s reach. According to a 2018 report by TechCrunch, the fast-growing social platform now has one million monthly active users, and that number is expected only to grow.

You may already post stunning photos and videos on your business’ Instagram feed, but if you’re not giving proper attention to your captions, you’re losing out on a key opportunity. Instagram is primarily a visual platform, but its posts have an entire area of real estate that can serve to increase traffic to your website, your number of Instagram followers, and even your sales. A strong visual on Instagram can make users “slow their scroll” and stay locked on your post, but a carefully thought out caption can do a lot more heavy lifting in terms of marketing and sales.

Compelling captions can also create more engagement, which is critical when it comes to Instagram’s algorithm. Strong copy in your caption can shape your brand’s story and personality, which in turn helps your followers realize they need what you’re selling. In short: Instagram captions can help elevate your company’s social media success—and that can improve your bottom line.

With the recent updates to Instagram’s algorithm, your posts are more likely to be served (or “seen”) if the platform likes your engagement rates. This metric looks at whether you are receiving a lot of user comments on a post and whether you are responding to these comments. These changes mean that simply having a large amount of followers no longer guarantees your posts will be seen—as counterintuitive as that may sound.

Earlier this year, Instagram explained how its algorithm works:

What does this mean? For starters, what shows up at the top of an Instagram user’s channel is based on the user’s own activity. So, as a business, you need to entice users to engage with your post, whether that means staying on it for a few seconds, or liking, commenting on, or sharing it. (More on how captions can help achieve these actions coming up.)

I spoke with two Instagram marketing experts to get their insights on how to create Instagram copy that can help improve your sales, reach, and branding.

Meet the experts: Jason Portnoy, president of JPORT Media, a full-service digital marketing and ad agency; and Ashlyn Carter, copywriter and messaging strategist at Ashlyn Writes and founder of ashlynwrites.com and the accompanying ashlynwritesshop.com, powered by Shopify.

Writing strong Instagram captions starts with your campaign goals

Before diving into caption writing, go back to the primary goals of your Instagram strategy and let them guide you. Common overarching goals include:

  • Running an awareness campaign to increase your visibility or to increase brand awareness in general (this can mean increasing your reach and number of followers, or driving traffic to your website for awareness purposes)
  • Promoting a sale, new product launch, or new collection launch
  • Collecting user-generated content with branded Instagram hashtags

If you have an Instagram Business account, you can invest in sponsored posts to ensure your photos are seen by a targeted audience. When putting ad dollars behind a sponsored post (also known as a “promoted post”), it’s worth noting that there are several predetermined calls to action for you to choose from.

Supported call-to-action button options include: Contact Us, Learn More, Book Now, and Download. And thanks to Instagram’s “Shop” tab and product tagging functionality, Shopify merchants can enable their to learn more about their products with a single tap, and even take users directly to their Shopify store to make a purchase, all within the Instagram app.

If you’re running a purely organic campaign without investing dollars into Instagram ads, then there are two main goals you’ll want your call to action to achieve:

  • Driving followers and potential followers to read your caption, head to your profile, and click the link in your bio
  • Getting followers to like, comment, or share (by tagging others)

Remember, you can’t place clickable links in organic posts, which means you have to direct users to click the link in your Instagram bio in order to visit your website or product page.

Tips for writing compelling Instagram captions

1. Consider caption length

Instagram captions can be as long as 2,200 characters and can contain up to 30 hashtags. Like most marketing strategies, the copy in your caption is about quality over quantity. It can be short and snappy or feature longer, more in-depth text.

According to Jason Portnoy, there’s no right or wrong length when it comes to caption writing. “If your post adds value or is interesting, people will read it,” he says. “However, if you’re in doubt whether a post is too long, you’re better off erring on short side.”

2. Make the most of the first sentence

Instagram shortens your caption after three to four lines, so include important details in the beginning. Only the first sentence or so will be seen in a user’s feed, so make sure your first sentence is compelling or asks a question—and don’t put your call to action at the end.

“Treat the initial copy of your Instagram caption like you do with marketing on any other medium: lead with the hook!” says Ashlyn Carter. “When I front load my captions before the line break—that ‘more’ option Instagram gives you to keep reading past the first two lines—and get to the good stuff first, I see better engagement.”

3. Include a call to action or ask a question

Each post should have a purpose and intention, so lead each one with its specific goal and let that goal dictate the call to action. What do you want followers to do:

  • Visit your website?
  • Shop for a specific product?
  • Share the post with friends?
  • Shop a promotion?
  • Enter a contest or giveaway?
  • Snap photos and share using a specified hashtag (this is a great way to collect user generated content)?

The key is to encourage engagement in order to create a sense of dialogue and conversation. This is also a way to work around Instagram’s algorithm, which looks at engagement as a metric to serve your posts to followers. Encouraging engagement also increases the likelihood your post will appear in other users’ feeds as a “recommended account” to follow.

Here are some actions you can encourage in your caption:

  • Click the link in bio
  • Leave a comment, usually as the answer to a question
  • Tag a friend (this is a great tactic for growing your reach)
  • Post a photo using your branded hashtag (more on this later)

4. Add value

“Offer tips and tricks,” suggests Portnoy, “or any kind of information to increase the added value of your Instagram post.” This will give more to the user and make it more likely to be shared and bookmarked.

5. Write like a human (not a robot)

Authenticity matters most. In content and captions, put your real self out there and write as you speak. You may want to be strategic and intentional, but you also want to come across natural and like a friend to the user.

Good Instagram captions don't sound robotic

6. Draft your Instagram captions on a separate platform

You’re more likely to think strategically and distraction-free if you write your captions on another platform. “I have a clearer head if I get myself off my phone when drafting Instagram captions for my business,” says Carter. “My go-to is Plann for desktop, so I can batch write a slew of captions, come back and edit them, and schedule them out to post. That way, I’m not swallowed up by notifications and comparison. I’m writing with a level-head and with my marketing goals in mind.”

7. Use storytelling

Avoid being neutral—add personality and spice to your captions. “I try to add in two to three sensory words, phrases, or anecdotes that paint a picture,” Carter says. “So describe touch, taste, sound, sight, emotion, feel. Get specific. Don’t just say ‘Tex-Mex.’ Say ‘salty corn chips dunked in guacamole washed down with tart margaritas.’”

8. Use emojis and have fun with them

Sprinkle in emojis to add some extra flavor and animate your captions. Relevant emojis placed at the end of sentences or paragraphs can also serve as “bookends” and aesthetically break up long strings of copy.

Emojis are also a great way to direct readers to take a certain action, such as clicking the link in bio. But if you use emojis, make sure they jibe with your tone of voice and branding. You don’t want to overdo it with a mixed bag of emojis, especially not in the same caption.

If you are working on your brand identity and tone of voice and outsourcing the Instagram caption writing to a freelancer, determine a set of emojis that make sense for keeping things consistent and on brand.

Need some inspiration on which emojis to use for a link in bio callout or to call attention to important text within a caption? Here are some of my favorites:

👉 👆 💥 🔗 🎯 📌 📍

9. Use hashtags

Instagram hashtags are a key way to make your posts searchable, so be sure you leverage them properly. They function like keywords, as they have tracking and searching capabilities.

You may have noticed brands grouping hashtags at the end of a caption or below the “see more” tag to keep things looking clean. Some even add several lines of space with periods to set apart the hashtags and really tuck them away from the description space. This is acceptable, but be open to sprinkling some hashtags within the caption to give it dimension.

So how do you know which hashtags to use? Aim for a mix of branded (a signature hashtag you create for your brand), community (used by people in the same industry as you, or used by the influencers you are attempting to attract), product, and other relevant trending hashtags.

Inform your content by taking note of the hashtags your competitors, your audience, influencers, and industry leaders use.

Show and tell: Examples of brands with great Instagram captions

Warby Parker

What is eyeglass brand Warby Parker doing well here?

  • It’s integratinges a trending topic with a hashtag, ensuring it’s dialed in, relevant, and part of the conversation
  • It’s announcing a contest
  • It’s featuring a clear call to action by telling followers to head to its Stories

Alex and Ani

What is jewelry brand Alex and Ani doing well here?

  • Its use of emojis is just right and on brand
  • The copy isn’t too long, and still clearly announces a collection and has an emotional element
  • It features a clear call to action at the end, directing users to click the link in bio to shop

Jasmine Star

What is photographer and business strategist Jasmine Star doing well here?

  • Its copy is authentic, friendly, and human
  • It encourages followers to leave a comment and engage

Forever 21

What is clothing brand Forever21 doing well here?

  • It’s prompting users to tag a friend
  • It gives credit to the person it regrammed the content from
  • It features a branded hashtag (#LifeWithF21) and a popular trending one (#MondayMotivation)

A checklist for posting a good Instagram caption

Before finalizing your captions, consider the following checklist. (You may want to bookmark this and keep it handy.)

  • Is it informative? Does it provide information or details about your product, a promotion, or your company in general?
  • Is it on brand? Can a user tell that it follows your company’s tone of voice and overall style?
  • Is it encouraging an action? Is there a clear call to action at the end of the text telling users to do something?
  • Is it clean? Does the caption look aesthetically clean or is it cluttered with text, emojis, and/or hashtags?
  • Is it inspiring or adding value? Will the user get something out of the post? Whether it’s new information, a chance to enter a giveaway, an opportunity to connect with other followers by commenting on the post, or a dose of inspiration, your caption should add something to the user’s life. Make an effort to be intentional with your posts and avoid posting for the sake of posting. A user will sooner unfollow your account because they feel your posts aren’t adding value than because you aren’t posting daily.

A final note: attracting and repelling

When it comes to branding, there’s a useful principle to consider known as attracting and repelling, popularized by photographer and strategist Jasmine Star. Essentially, having your brand identity locked down will guide the words and tone you use. And since you can’t be everything to everyone, your branding likely will attract the right clients and repel the wrong ones. That said, focus on your potential customer and how to attract them. This will help keep your eyes on the prize and guide how you’re writing your Instagram captions.

While being strategic is key, this is also an opportunity to show off your brand personality. So make sure you’re combining your brand’s unique point of view with Instagram’s more lighthearted tone. The message is the medium, after all.