Small but mighty, the caption is often overlooked. But wield it well and it can work wonders for your social content. Here’s how.
Captions shouldn’t be tacked-on as an afterthought. A good social media caption has the power to attract, engage, and convert fans.
So why aren’t brands putting more focus on their caption content?
In this article, we’re going to look at how to write captivating captions for social media and which brands are doing captions very well.
Digital marketing, specifically social media, skyrocketed in 2020 with consumers stuck at home and physical stores closed. And social media is on an upward trajectory with a predicted 4.41 billion users by 2025. Global lockdowns pushed businesses to focus heavily on their social media strategies and revaluate their sales and marketing models.
So, that means more opportunities for online sales or conversions, but it also means more competition from rival brands.
To capture attention and stop social media users mid-scroll, it takes a great image and a winning caption.
“On Instagram, strong imagery is what stops users in their feed. However, captions are what drive engagement,” says Stephanie Cartin, co-CEO at Socialfly, a New York City agency.
Whether you want more fans, increased revenue, or virality, captions can deliver. And it’s not only for businesses.
Charities, news reporters, and photographers use captions to drive brand awareness.
“I’ve often used captions with a beautiful image to drive home hard truths, like in the case of the recent Kashmir lockdown,” says Siddhartha Joshi, a Mumbai-based travel photographer. In his case, captions carry an informational weight that wouldn’t exist with the image alone, causing people to be more invested in his account.
Caption Writing: Basics
Before we get into techniques, let’s reiterate the basics of caption writing.
Spelling and grammar
Though grammar rules are looser on social media, they still exist. In regards to spelling, you have no excuses! Double-check posts before they go live, even if you’re a writer.
Remember your character limits
The number of characters you have is different on each platform:
- Instagram 2,200
- Facebook 63,206
- Twitter 280
- LinkedIn Company Update: 700
- Tiktok: 140 characters
Remember those limits when you craft a campaign that spans all the networks.
Write like a human
The days of writing cold robotic captions on social media are long gone.
Captions can be written in 3rd person but usually 1st works best: “We would love you to join us for a webinar” instead of “Contentworks Agency invites you to join a webinar.”
Asking multiple questions or trying to make too many points in one caption is confusing. It will probably result in zero engagement.
Ask one question and make your language clear and to the point.
So, what makes a good social media caption? Let’s look at some tips and examples from my favorite brands.
The first thing you need to tick off your caption scoresheet is intent.
What is your intention with the caption and what results do you want to achieve?
Examples of intentions
Here are some of the possible outcomes:
Are you trying to sell a product or service?
You will need to include a link and product description if this is your outcome. Give as much information as possible including sizes, colors, materials, and delivery time.
Would you like fans to take a specific action after reading your post?
You should explain the next steps if this is your desired outcome. For example:
1. Click the link.
2. Enter your discount code.
3. Place an order before x date.
Do you want more brand awareness?
To create brand awareness, your caption should include something representative of your brand like a tagline or hashtag. It should also encourage sharing. This could be via a contest or challenge.
Are you looking for comments or likes?
If this is your desired outcome, then you will need to spark discussion. You could do this by asking a question, making a funny/thoughtful statement, or running a “tag a friend” challenge.
Are you looking to attract a specific target audience?
The social media network you use will help to funnel down your audience. As will your language and pop culture references.
Why would my audience care? Would they care?
If not, then the caption isn’t right for your brand.
Does this social media caption reflect me (or my brand?)
It’s easy to get inspired by other brand’s captions and want to replicate them. But you need to check in with your own style guide and make sure it reflects you or your brand.
Understanding the reasons for your post before you start writing is key to creating the correct caption. That’s because each desired outcome will have a different route.
You don’t need to strategize every single post, but you do need to have an outcome in mind.
Pro tip: Use shortened links on social media posts that include UTM tracking codes, so you can see how much of your traffic came from your post.
2. Tell a story
74% of brands have no meaning in consumers’ lives. Audiences are looking for authentic content that speaks to them and connects them to a brand.
Storytelling does exactly this. Yet many marketers still think storytelling is only for blog, audio, or video formats. In fact, it can be for social media captions, too.
- Share excerpts from a diary, book, or movie. Queen Elizabeth’s narrative-style caption accompanied her first-ever Instagram post in 2019: an old letter to Prince Albert
(Credit: Getty Images)
- Let your audience finish the captioning for you! A risky strategy but one we have had a lot of fun with at Contentworks Agency. Read the full thread here.
- Integrate a brand character into your marketing strategy to boost shares and engagement. This could be a brand mascot or team member. It worked well for Compare the Markets and the meerkat family. Compare the Market enjoyed an 80% jump in internet traffic because of the TV ad introduction of meerkat Aleksandr Orlov, who they then wove through their social media. This adds softness and likeability to captioning.
- Offer real quotes and stories from customers. Dove’s shared stories of real customers who’ve benefited from its products. Adding the real photo and tag for the speakers really boosts authenticity.
3. Write the important stuff first
Regardless of which social media platform you’re using, it’s essential to write the important stuff first.
That is partly to grab short attention spans but also to avoid your important text disappearing below the Read More cut off.
The maximum character count for an Instagram caption is 2,200 characters, but after 3-4 lines, your text is cut off. The same happens on Facebook and Linkedin plus Twitter, which only allows 280 characters. So, on Twitter additional text would need to be added as additional tweets on the thread.
Check out how GOSH puts its wow factor text first. They hook you in with a 1st Advent Giveaway and then tell you the rules and competition terms followed by the hashtags.
The same rules apply over at Superdry where short sentences are used to emphasize important information. They also create a breathless FOMO effect.
That doesn’t mean your captions need to be really short. Instead, frontload them with important content or CTAs and leave any hashtags and @mentions for the end.
4. Ask a question
Asking a question is one of the simplest caption strategies available for social media, but it really works to boost engagement.
It can also provide you with valuable audience insights.
Some question examples you could try in your social media caption include:
- Tell us what you think about our new product?
- How’s your *Saturday* going so far?
- What do you think about *insert topical trend*?
- What’s something you’re thankful for today?
- Have you done your Christmas/Easter/Valentine shopping yet?
If you’re asking a question about your product or service, listen to the responses and feedback to your team. Complaints or product suggestions from customers should be prioritized.
Remember that open-ended questions create more conversation than “yes” or “no” questions. For example, Did you like our new burger? will probably result in a yes or no. Whereas, Tell us what you loved or hated about our new burger? will encourage discussion.
A brand that asks questions well is New Look. Always in touch with the mood of the nation, the fashion brand asks questions, plays games, and invites users to share their pet photos. Always a social media caption winner.
If you have tangible products you can give away, this is a surefire caption strategy for you.
Tip: Make questions more fun by asking your audience to answer with an image, photo, or GIF. This works especially well on Twitter.
5. Invite fans to tag their friends
Use your social media caption space to encourage fans to tag friends. Social proof and friend recommendations are the strongest conversion tools in your social media arsenal. 88% of consumers trust user reviews as much as personal recommendations and 82% say they seek recommendations from friends and family before making a purchase. So, if a fan tags a friend, you’re more likely to get a sale.
Marks & Spencer invites tags and engagement by directing their post to witches and wizards. The comments on the post are all friend tags.
Tag a friend works even when you’re not running a giveaway. It can be used to share product news like Lita’s treats below.
Example of fun caption writing
You can see from the comments just how well this strategy works.
Hashtags are great for connecting users around a particular subject, sparking virality around a launch or sale, and raising awareness for important issues. They’re an increasingly important part of a caption.
Do hashtags raise engagement? Absolutely. These are the stats for using hashtags in Instagram captions that clearly show 11 hashtags is the sweet spot.
- 0 Hashtags – 18% interaction per 1k followers
- 1 Hashtag – 29% interaction per 1k followers
- 2 Hashtags – 41% interaction per 1k followers
- 3 Hashtags – 39% interaction per 1k followers
- 4 Hashtags – 31% interaction per 1k followers
- 5 Hashtags – 43% interaction per 1k followers
- 6 Hashtags – 33% interaction per 1k followers
- 7 Hashtags – 30% interaction per 1k followers
- 8 Hashtags – 39.5% interaction per 1k followers
- 9 Hashtags – 49.5% interaction per 1k followers
- 10 Hashtags – 22% interaction per 1k followers
- 11 Hashtags – 79.5% interaction per 1k followers
We talked before about front-loading important information and adding social media captions at the end. The only place where hashtags work inside the text is Twitter where users expect them.
Instagram hashtags can be placed in the photo or video caption or added in a comment after you hit “post.” Remember, though, too many hashtags can look spammy and less than cool if you’re a millennial or Gen Z brand.
Flying Tiger keeps it simple with hashtags that describe exactly what the picture is. It’s important to remember that hashtags do serve a search purpose. So adding lots of long ones just to look good is nonsensical.
Chanel’s hashtags are a little more elaborate and tie into their Christmas campaign using hashtag #CHANELDreaming.
Pro tip: Instagram will suggest hashtags to you based on their popularity when you open a new post and type out the #symbol followed by an incomplete search. Many already come with emojis, which really makes your post come alive.
7. Use emojis
Speaking of emojis … Emojis, the cartoon-like emoticons, add personality to an Instagram caption. That’s why a lot of brands use them in their social media captions, even the more “serious” finance brands. (Yes, really.)
Emojis are completely universal as their meanings are understood in the same way in each country. For marketers, this is a good thing. You save on translation costs, designs, and the need to localize the meaning for each region. They add fun to captions for all industries and stop the eye mid-scroll.
Emojis can be used to draw the eye to a sale or discount like this crazy one from ASOS below. You have to watch the video, but it’s pretty eye-catching and the alien emojis make it pop.
Or to emphasize a product or message like Interflora below:
And this cute emoji string from Ashley Graham.
You can also use emojis to replace words or create a secret code for your audience to untangle. Sometimes, the emojis are the caption. This is a bold move and works better for a celebrity or big brand. But if you feel brave you could try it as Goldman Sachs did.
Tagging is not only a great social media strategy but it’s a great caption strategy, too. You can tag using hashtags as we mentioned above. But you can also directly tag other accounts, locations, or products. Tagging other accounts is a great way to bring engagement to your posts.
There are several different ways to use Instagram tagging:
- Mentions/Account tag
- Location tag
- Product tag
IKEA is the king of tagging and often does so in captions to increase traction like this Instagram post. Sometimes, the brand tags other brands like LEGO, however, they also tag designers, decorators, and stylists who have created rooms using IKEA products.
Sassy brand Wendy’s frequently tags other brands in its scathing captions. Remember though, this is all part of their strategy. Being salty won’t work for everyone.
9. Use Humor
During stressful times, we crave an escape on social media. And humor absolutely hits the spot. Creating short, relatable captions will score you high on engagement, sharing, and page visibility.
The best type of humor is one we can relate to. Everyday problems, funny stories, and relatable fails can be written into your caption. Like this humorous and relatable Instagram caption from BeautyBarCyprus, which hits the mark.
And this caption from GAP. Cute and quirky but straight to the point. It’s also on-trend as more families take matching PJ and clothes pics from home.
And Dunkin with “We said what we said” makes the perfect accompaniment to this meme. It also shows that captions don’t need to be complicated. They can be short and punchy.
Pro tip: Don’t overthink the humorous captions. If you think too hard, it probably won’t be funny. Look for relatable and funny stories or situations that you can share with fans.
Get started on saving time and energy on your own social media management! Check out our free trial of Agorapulse to help you schedule, track, and measure all your social media efforts.