12 Days of Data 2021, Day 1: Instagram for Brands

12 Days of Data 2021, Day 1: Instagram for Brands


Welcome to the 12 Days of Data 2021 Edition, our look back at the data that made marketing in 2021. We’re looking at the year that was (and oh, what a year it was… again…) from an analytics perspective to see what insights we can take into the next year. Sit up, get your coffee ready, and let’s celebrate some data and look forward to the year ahead.

Instagram Brand Engagement for Unpaid Content

We start our 12 days of data with Instagram, Facebook’s visual social media network. It used to be photos. Then photos and album. Then videos. Then Instagram live. Then Instagram TV. Then Stories. Then Reels. As competing social networks came up with new, popular features, Facebook did its best to copy them, and today’s Instagram is the result.

Using a curated list provided by Crowdtangle (a Facebook company) and then manually inspected and augmented by Trust Insights, a sample size of 7,647 Instagram brand accounts. Based on that data, we wanted to see what Instagram brand engagement looked like for 2021.

Before we go further, we define engagement as the number of interactions (reactions, comments, shares) that occurred on an unpaid, unsponsored Instagram brand post, divided by the number of followers of that Instagram brand account at the time of posting. For all the computations that follow, we use the median as the measure of centrality, rather than the mean (average) because medians deal better with outliers, especially in large social media datasets.

How have brands fared on Instagram in 2021?

12 Days of Data: Instagram Brand Data

Let’s start with the high-level summary. In 2021, brands had:

  • A median of 517,851 followers on their accounts
  • A median of 1,207 likes on their posts
  • A median of 16 comments on their posts
  • A median engagement rate of 0.31% per post

Put another way, 1 out of every 323 followers engaged in some way with unpaid brand content.

That number doesn’t tell the whole story, however. Let’s look at how unpaid brand content performed throughout 2021:

Instagram brand content through the year

As seen above, the engagement rates for unpaid brand content has dropped considerably throughout the year, from a January high of 0.41% to a most recent 0.23%. That’s an intra-year drop of -43.9%.

So What?

When we look back over the past few years at Instagram brand engagement on unpaid content, the trend is painfully obvious: brands are getting less and less out of their investment of time and energy in Instagram for unpaid content. When we first started to dig into Instagram engagement on a regular basis back in 2019, brands were earning roughly 0.5% engagement on their posts. In less than two years, Facebook has more than halved brand performance for unpaid content.

What should you do about it? If Instagram is an integral part of your brand’s social media strategy, it’s time to diversify. You’ve got a few different tactical options:

  1. Change your overall strategy towards a conversational one, identifying content that performs well in your topic area and engaging with audiences – yours and others – to gain temporary favor with Instagram’s algorithm. The more people who engage with you, the more likely it is your content will be seen in the overall feed, thanks to the way the recommendation engine works. One of the four key factors Instagram co-founder Adam Mosseri identified in mid-June was the history of interpersonal interactions.
  2. Change which part of Instagram you interact with. Again, Mosseri publicly stated that Instagram doesn’t have one algorithm; each part of the product has their own separate and discrete algorithms. If the Feed algorithm doesn’t favor you or your content, experiment with the Explore algorithm and the Reels algorithm. They behave differently.
  3. Change the content and language you use. Remember that Facebook’s artificial intelligence does image and video analysis to determine what’s in the visual content as well as the words we provide in captions and comments. If you’re not seeing results, try changing your creative.
  4. Diversify to a different network. If you haven’t tried Tiktok, for example, it’s worth experimenting with to see if the audience there responds more favorably to your content.

At the end of the day, no one social network should be so essential to your brand that your marketing effectiveness is endangered by changes to the platform. If that’s the case, diversifying away from that one network is critical as long-term insurance for your marketing’s effectiveness.

Methodology Statement

Trust Insights used Facebook’s Crowdtangle software to extract 2,951,092 unique posts from 7,647 brands on Instagram. The timeframe of the dataset is 1 January 2021 – 30 November 2021. Trust Insights is the sole sponsor of the study and neither gave nor received compensation for data used, beyond applicable service fees to software vendors, and declares no competing interests.


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