The Science of Selfies: Investigating the Instagram Strategies of This Year's GRAMMY Artists

Do you hear that? The once sweet chirping of taps on the keyboard is now the blaring, magnified buzz of awards season. On Sunday evening pop stars, fans, and Beyonce worshipers unite for the musical explosion people anticipate annually. Who better to be fueling that build up than the GRAMMYs themselves? 

Mass Relevance has partnered with the GRAMMYs for years to provide awesome social experiences around the event (see this year’s trends here), so this year I thought I’d dive into the data to learn some fresh new moves from some of the front-runners on one of the fastest growing social channels: Instagram.

I chose four GRAMMY nominees and grabbed their past few months worth of Instagram posts. There’s a lot of data lurking in Instagram posts: from hashtags to comments to geolocation data. For this analysis, I sorted the posts into thematic buckets (like “performance photos”, “music video clips”, “selfies”, etc.) and measured success via number of Instagram likes each category received. Got it? Let’s boogie.

Justin Timberlake (3.4M followers)

Instagram Content Strategy: Content breakdown includes performance photos (48%), backstage/venue shots (24%), pictures with fans (14%), and promotional shots (14%.) As you can see below, there are some gaps with content mix and how followers are responding to different media themes.

What's Working: Photos With Fans 

Photos with fans receive 12% more likes than his average post. And speaking of pictures - on average he receives 28% more likes on pictures vs. videos posted to his Instagram page. If he's playing the numbers, he should crank up the fan pictures as well as promotional photos that followers are responding to postively.

What's Not Working: Backstage Photos

Cry me a river, backstage pic fans. Mr. Timberlake posts a good amount of pictures showing the unseen life of a pop star behind the scenes. The backstage photos receive 26% less likes vs. his average post. They are almost 25% of his feed today, so he should adjust these down to maximize his follower engagement.

Let's move on to those guys from Vegas...

Imagine Dragons (343K followers)

Instagram Content Strategy: Content breakdown shows performance photos (45%), band shots (21%), promotional photos (10%), family/friends (3%), teasers (3%), amongst others. The graph below shows missed opportunity with certain content themes.

What's Working: Performance Photos, Artistic and Personal Shots

Although each of the winning categories had a small sample size, both artistic and personal shots of the band indexed much higher than the band’s average for engagement. Most of their media on Instagram is pictures, and Imagine Dragon photos receive a downright radioactive 61% higher likes per post vs videos. While performance photos seem to be at the right level, artistic and family photos are under-represented in the feed today, so they need to be brought into the mix much more to maximize follower engagement.

What's Not Working: Promotional Posts

Looks like the fans are on to you, guys. Promotional posts for an event or sale received 20% less likes vs their average post. At current levels of 10% of the Imagine Dragons Instagram feed, the level seems about right to keep trying new promotional techniques.

On to the next artist. Now, you didn't think I'd do an Instagram post without mentioning Taylor Swift, right?

Taylor Swift (!) (7.6M Followers)

Instagram Content Strategy: The Content breakdown shows family/friends (52%), selfies (26%), performance photos (18%), and award shots (4%). As you can see below, her followers don't engage with content consistently across all content themes.

What’s Working: Selfies

I knew you were trouble when you walked in, selfies. It gives me no joy to tell you that Taylor Swift’s self-photo posts on Instagram are absolutely crushing it. They are seeing a 23% higher number of likes vs her post average. Taylor Swift posts a ton of selfies to Instagram but the numbers tell me if she's looking to maximize social engagement, she should actually be posting more of them. At current levels of only 26% of her feed, she's missing out on a ton potential follower likes. Performance photos could also be cranked up a bit to maximize follower likes.

What’s Not Working: Photos of Family and Friends

Part of Ms. Swift’s brand is being family friendly, so it’s no surprise that pictures of her friends, family, and childhood pictures of her life are all over her Instagram page. As charming as they might be, with 11% less likes vs her average post, they're just another picture to burn.

And finally, we've reached our final celebrity - Grammy nominee and Super Bowl halftime star-to-be: Bruno Mars

Bruno Mars (2.4M followers)

Instagram Content Strategy - Even when Mr. Mars wasn’t our man, he was showing the most diversity in his Instagram strategy. Most of his posts fall into one of the following categories: music video clips (21%), performance photos (21%) and teasers (21%), promotional pictures (18%), and album covers (18%).

What’s Working: Music Video Clips

Bruno Mars’ heavy use of video on Instagram (vs the other three nominees in this analysis) is paying off. Keep those music video clips just the way they are - these see 20% more likes vs his post average. In fact, Bruno Mars is the only artist getting a bigger average response to his videos, seeing 9% more likes vs his Instagram photo media posts. His current content mix could bend a bit more towards music video clips to maximize engagement, but they are at pretty good levels now considering their engagement performance. He should also crank up the promotional photos, as they get a good response from his follower base (especially the Super Bowl ones.)

What’s Not Working: Album Covers

Well, he’s not going to win any GRAMMYs for posting album covers, which are seeing 25% less likes on Instagram vs his post average. And it looks like he may have figured this out early on - he hasn’t posted an album cover photo for quite some time.

What Have We Learned Today?

We’ve analyzed four very different approaches to an Instagram media mix, all of which are showing success through their own strategies. But even if you think your tactics are working with your followers, taking a look at others in your field always helps to spark new ideas. Taylor Swift could learn from Bruno Mars and experiment with video clips in her feed. Bruno Mars can borrow some of JT’s strategy by throwing a few fan pics into the mix. And everyone can learn that fans are on Instagram to connect with their favorite artists, and maybe not just see pictures of album covers.

When an artist (or brand) is creating a social media strategy, they need to remember that different audiences dance to different beats. Replicating someone else’s social strategy won’t always duplicate the results, but we can all learn from social successes that work for others and execute new approaches with our own voices.

Chris Kerns's picture

Chris Kerns

Chris Kerns has spent more than a decade defining digital strategy and is at the forefront of finding insights from digital data. He currently leads Analytics and Research at Spredfast. His research has appeared in The New York Times, Forbes, USA Today and AdWeek, among other publications.