When Instagram was first released, it was thought of only as a fun, visual social media network. Nowadays, it's also used as a major content promotion tool for brands and influencers.
In fact, according to Sprout Social, 80% of Instagram users follow a brand, and one of the three most-viewed Stories of all time was posted by a business account.
Along with business accounts, influencer marketing is also on the rise. For instance, 93% of influencer marketing campaigns took place on Instagram in 2018.
Instagram's popularity lets most brands forge an emotional connection with a massive audience. Some brands are so good at visually engaging and resonating with Instagram users that they've attracted tens of millions of followers.
To help you learn from the platform's best of the best, we've compiled a list of 19 accounts with the highest number of followers -- as well as a few key takeaways from each.
Because the accounts with the most followers belong to influencers and celebrities, we've split this rundown into two sublists that are brand and influencer specific.
Top Instagram Accounts (Brands)
- National Geographic
- Real Madrid
- PC Barcelona
- UEFA Champion League
Followers: 303 Million
Instagram sets a great example for brands who truly want to engage an audience on their app. By curating and reposting their users' most captivating content on their own profile, Instagram shows their followers that everyday people can meet their creative and artistic potential on the platform.
This inspires brands and normal Instagram users to spend the time and effort required to craft visually gripping content that will instantly hold an audience's attention.
Instagram also does a good job of promoting their stories and IGTV show about celebrities, wildlife, and other culturally relevant topics. They post original content that highlights upcoming episodes, but the posts read more like a feature story than an advertisement, which sparks more interest in the show.
Followers: 111 Million
National Geographic hires the most talented photographers in the world, so their Instagram posts of landscapes, cityscapes, and the surrounding life always seem to be awe-inspiring. But their stunning visuals aren't the only reason why they've attracted over 100 million followers.
National Geographic is a historic magazine that's famous for their credible journalism and compelling storytelling. In each post's caption, they are able to craft fascinating narratives about the photo or video, usually in a way that spreads awareness for a relevant environmental issue.
National Geographic also uses Instagram Stories, Stories Archive, and IGTV to drive traffic to featured articles and videos on their website. But they also know their followers prefer not to leave the app.
Instead of using gimmicky visuals and clickbait copy to coax people into visiting their website, they actually summarize the feature article or video in their stories and IGTV shows.
For marketers, National Geographic's Instagram strategy clarifies that it's crucial to meet your audience where they are, and not force them to go somewhere just because you want them to go there.
If people end up clicking through to your website, that's great. But you should be more than willing to educate your audience where they want to be educated, even if it results in a lower amount of traffic.
Followers: 88.5 Million
In the advertising industry, Nike is known for their motivational ads that inspire athletes to believe in themselves when aiming to reach their full potential.
On Instagram, the iconic brand's content follows this theme, with posts in the form of short films, documentaries, and inspirational videos and photos. Nike also uses Instagram to update their followers with quick news about the sports world, proving that they deeply understand their audience's interests and desires.
4. Real Madrid
Followers: 72.6 Million
Real Madrid is arguably the most popular soccer team in the world, so most of the team's Instagram posts update their massive fan base on scores, highlights, and transactions.
But the way they attract and engage twice as many Instagram followers as teams with similar fan bases isn't through standard updates. They've built their enormous following by giving their fans an inside look of the team's everyday activities through player takeovers and practice highlights on IGTV.
Breaking down these barriers between fan and player makes Real Madrid's fan base feel like they actually know their favorite players on a personal level, which develops a more intimate and loyal relationship between the two.
5. FC Barcelona
Followers: 71.1 Million
Like Real Madrid, FC Barcelona updates Barcelona fans with sports photography, season-related stats, information about Barcelona players, and other fun tidbits related to the team and season.
They use a mix of content styles with videos, action shots, and posed photos, but they always use many tags, hashtags, and eye-popping emojis in their captions.
During games and other events, you can find FC Barcelona launching one or multiple Stories with their own video content as well as curated content sourced from fans.
With curated Stories by fans, they're able to post more fresh, interesting content. FC Barcelona's curated Stories also enable fans to contribute to the Instagram channel. While we aren't able to post stories directly, you can find some on the account's page.
Followers: 50.2 Million
With plenty of dog, cat, and baby videos, meme references, and jokes that are almost too relatable, 9GAG has one of the funniest accounts on Instagram.
The account's Instagram stories and Stories Archives engage their audience well too -- they post a ton of polls about topics that everyone has an answer for like, “Is soup a food or a beverage?” and “Would you travel to the past or future?”
They also use Instagram stories to drive traffic to their website by asking their followers to swipe up and see if they correctly guessed the name of a TV show or movie with only emojis as clues. On IGTV, they generate even more brand engagement by letting their followers ask questions during live Q&As with celebrities.As the only online content platform on this list, 9GAG proves to marketers that interacting with your audience is one of the best ways to engage them, develop a relationship, and attract more followers like them.
Followers: 43.7 Million
Scrolling through NASA's Instagram feed makes you feel a little like an astronaut floating through the depths of space. You'll experience intimate views of different planets, constellations, and supernovas in the Milky Way galaxy, all of which are taken by NASA's spacecrafts and Hubble Space Telescope.
NASA's Instagram Stories and IGTV channel also educate their followers about interesting space insights, like the views of the sun and Earth, the search for life in space, and NASA's new technology launches
NASA's popularity on Instagram proves that you can actually create educational content that doesn't sacrifice any entertainment value.
Followers: 41.3 Million
In the last year, the Champions League surpassed the NBA's account in Instagram followers. Like the other soccer brand accounts we've noted, the Champions League regularly posts action and team shots, as well as updates related to upcoming and past games.
Along with regular updates and action shots, some of the account's regular posts include stats like "Top Scorers," behind-the-scenes videos, and team roster images.
Followers: 37.5 Million
Marvel posts regularly about its movies, TV shows, and Marvel.com content. It also mixes things up with the use of photo and video posts. Additionally, the account occasionally uses fun videos to cross-promote with other Marvel-affiliated accounts and influencers.
While many other accounts, like HBO, promote their content by posting trailers as Instagram Stories, Marvel uses Stories to cover red carpet premiere events. These stories include photos and clips of the stars, as well as other interesting things that happen at the events. Most recently, Marvel featured the premieres of Dark Phoenix and Avengers: Endgame.
Followers: 34.9 Million
Throwback Thursday will always be a huge deal on social media -- who doesn't love a heavy dose of nostalgia every week? Recently, though, Chanel decided to take #tbt to the next level. They've been evoking nostalgia in fashionistas all over the world by posting old ads that spotlight previous fashion trends for their Chanel Holidays campaign every day.
The legendary fashion brand also posts a lot of content about Coco Chanel's early fashion influences to promote Inside Chanel, a web series that recounts Coco's life and how she built her fashion empire.
Harnessing the power of the past is one of the most effective ways to evoke an emotional response from your audience and forge a connection with them. With that in mind, nostalgia should always be in your marketing arsenal.
Top Instagram Accounts (Influencers)
- Cristiano Rinaldo
- Ariana Grande
- Selena Gomez
- Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson
- Kim Kardashian
- Kylie Jenner
- Leo Messi
- Taylor Swift
Followers: 170 Million
So, who has the most followers on Instagram? That would be Cristiano Ronaldo, who's been called the world's best soccer player (or fútbol player).
Along with the expected soccer action shots, his Instagram strategy largely involves paid partnerships and cross promotions. Here's just one example:
The account's content is a mix of sports-related updates, photos capturing his life outside of the arena, and occasional motivational posts about topics like fitness and clearing your mind.
One thing this account puts great effort into is the imagery. All of its images and videos are crisp, clear, colorful, and high-production quality. We've found that editing images before uploading to Instagram can really make a difference in how professional a brand or individual account looks. Ronaldo's account is one great example of this.
Followers: 156 Million
Ariana Grande has recently gained an incredibly large following on the platform. Her brand is especially relevant to the younger demographic of Instagram.
Throughout the last four years, it seems that Ariana has not needed to use partnerships or promotions to strengthen her following. Here's an example of one of the few promotional posts she has had on her account, which dates back to 2015:
View this post on Instagram
A post shared by Ariana Grande (@arianagrande) on
Currently, it seems her strategy involves a high posting frequency, with around six or more updates per week. She mainly uses the platform to update users on her daily life and her music career. These posts often include photos of her dog, behind-the-scenes videos, and concert highlights.
Ariana has also experimented with IGTV. Recently, she used it to announce the drop of her new song "Sweetener" by including the song in the post itself, as well as a link to it in the caption.
This type of strategy might make her followers and fans feel like they're being rewarded for their loyalty on the platform. At the same time, the possibility of hearing Ariana's new music might entice new audiences to follow her.
Many of her posts usually include short captions which may only include one or two emojis. This does not seem to be uncommon for major celebrities on the platform, as they may not have a large need to optimize captions.
While Ariana and other listed influencers may not have, or need, a caption strategy, those starting out on Instagram or aiming to grow their following should follow optimization best practices. These include crafting interesting captions that may use hashtags, and account tagging.
3. Selena Gomez
Followers: 151 Million
Selena Gomez's content is a fun mix of paid partnerships, selfies, and quotes. As the former most-followed person on Instagram, she has mastered optimized photo captions, Stories, paid partnerships and cross-promotions with other influencers.
While her posts strategically embrace paid promotions and influencer cross promotions, she also uses Instagram to share inspirational quotes or her thoughts on certain political topics, which adds more of a human side to her page.
Followers: 145 Million
On any given day, Dwayne Johnson might use the platform to update fans on his family life, what he's eating on his "cheat days", his fitness products, or the movies he's working on. He's also started using IGTV to promote his projects and personal brand. He often films himself giving fitness tips, discussing his new products, or updating fans on other interesting events in his life.
Followers: 141 Million
The Keeping Up With The Kardashians star has recently posted a lot more about her family and her KKW Beauty Line. She also is no stranger to cross promotions and partnerships. While most of her posts are artsy or strategic, she is not afraid to post something jaw-dropping or humorous from time to time.
Here's one funny post where she promotes The Secret Life of Pets.
She uses IGTV to promote her projects, like trailers for Keeping Up with the Kardashians. She will also occasionally team up with other influencers for tutorial-styled posts.
In this video, her hair stylist Mario Dedivanovic walks fans through how they can recreate Kim's recent Met Gala look:
6. Kylie Jenner
Followers: 137 Million
While Kylie Jenner's individual account follows her day-to-day life, she has also used it as a tool to promote her companies: Kylie Cosmetics and Kylie Skin. Although Kylie regularly tags and engages in cross promotion with her companies' accounts, her personal Instagram still has over 100 million more followers than the other two, combined.
Most recently, Kylie has used IGTV to give fans Kylie Cosmetics tutorials. This strategy allows her audiences to see how the products look and learn how to use them before they make a purchase.
This type of content may engage prospective buyers that are both experienced and less experienced in shopping for makeup.
Followers: 128 Million
Like Ariana Grande, Beyoncé focuses more on her artistic side than in cross promotion or paid promotion. She also breaks from the usual mold by rarely posting captions and letting her high-quality imagery or video speak for itself.
On her Instagram, you can usually find slideshows of high-quality photos of her, high-fashion shots where she's seen in different styles and outfits, and occasional promotions of her own personal projects -- such as her Netflix concert documentary, Homecoming.
8. Leo Messi
Followers: 121 Million
The soccer player regularly posts photos of himself on the field, as well as his daily life. His posts are a mix of photos and well-edited videos. When videos are included, they are often part of paid promotions. Messi has also dabbled in the Stories feature, where he shows off photos of himself, images from game events, and some images of his family.
While he doesn't post large captions on his personal posts, he usually optimizes paid promotional posts with tags and hashtags. He also posts thoughtful captions in both English and Spanish. This might open up his following opportunities internationally.
9. Taylor Swift
Followers: 118 Million
The musician's Instagram is filled with photos from concerts as well as a few photos from her everyday life. Unlike Beyonce and Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift embraces captions with emojis and hashtags. She also does an excellent job of tagging other accounts. This account is a good example of how strong captions and account tagging strategies can really optimize your Instagram.
Her posts are often colorful and in slideshow format, which allows users to swipe through multiple images.
Taylor has also used her Instagram as a tool to promote shows and albums. Like Ariana Grande, she recently posted stories to promote and give users a taste of her single, "ME!"
As they viewed the short story, users could swipe up to a link which listed sites where you could listen to, download, or save the song. This strategy gives users a taste of content and then a quick payoff when they swipe up.
Key Takeaways From the Most Followed Accounts
By looking at the most-followed brands and influencers, we can see some key strategies that many of them have in common.
Here are a few that you can start using, even without a giant following or a large social-media budget.
- Optimize captions witty or thoughtful captions with hashtags, account tags, and eye-popping emojis.
- Use cross promotion or paid strategies to join forces with other accounts or influencers.
- Experiment with new features including Stories or IGTV to give users new ways to engage and consume your branded content.
Originally published Jun 11, 2019 5:12:00 PM, updated November 17 2020