RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — The perfect Instagram photo may indeed exist — and for North Carolina State University researchers, coming up with it might be less of an art and more of a science.

They have published research in a scientific journal about what types of photos pull in the most likes.

While it was first and foremost a marketing exercise — the posts they studied were from brand accounts — those tips figure to be transferrable to everyday social media users as well.

In this compilation of three Instagram photos, the avocado on the left is an example of good feature complexity and the bar on the right is an example of good design complexity. The photo of the wall in the center does not have either. (Photo courtesy North Carolina State University’s Poole College of Management.)

“We really wanted to see what aspects of images draw people in and what aspects make them more engaged with the image they’re looking at,” said William Rand, a co-author and the executive director of the Business Analytics Initiative at N.C. State’s Poole College of Management.

His team wanted to figure out the roles the photos themselves play in generating likes and engagement — as opposed to the strength and weight of the brand and the size of its online following.

“A local pizza shop, for example, is probably not going to get as many likes as Coca-Cola’s main brand page,” Rand said.

The study looked at nearly 150,000 photos posted by brands to Instagram, then scored them based on six visual qualities.

Among the keys it found:

Feature complexity, or how rich and bright the colors are. This is where you want to aim for a sweet spot in the middle — not too much diversity of light and color, but not too little either.

“There was a Goldilocks point, there’s a point where you want it to be a little bit colorful, a little bit of variety of brightness to it, but not overwhelming amounts of color,” he said.

Design complexity, or the items in the image and how they are arranged. Here, it’s best to aim for an extreme — either very simple, or very complex.

“In other words, we just had the right number of objects and they were arranged in the right patterns in the right way,” Rand said.

Rand says optimizing both of those things could lead to a 20 percent bump in the number of likes an image receives, after accounting for variables like the total number of followers.

And there’s one even simpler thing that Rand says could lead to a 3 percent increase — simply using the right Instagram filter, which does some of the hard work of perfecting the color composition automatically.

While the study only looked only at posts from brand accounts, Rand says the tips “most likely” would apply to the everyday Instagram user. 

And while it focused on Instagram — which is, by nature, a visual-first platform — the advice should translate to Facebook, Twitter and other social media channels.

“I see no clear reason why the same kind of ideas wouldn’t work for Facebook and other spaces as well,” Rand said. “Many of them look at very similar characteristics. … Instagram is first and foremost a visual medium, whereas Facebook also has a lot more emphasis on text and other aspects in it. So there’s a potential that different aspects might be slightly different, but overall, the approach we use would apply equally well in Instagram and Facebook.”