Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Why I Invest Time in Instagram (And Why You Should, Too)

I've been responsible for our university's main social media channels for just over six months and I have had (and continue) to do a lot of listening and learning. One of the biggest lessons I've learned has been that our audience wants to know how we want them to use social media - and they're looking for us to guide them. One of the places I've been most successful in implementing this is on a smaller platform with big opportunities: Instagram.

I knew our students were using Instagram but before jumping on the platform, I wanted to look around and see what and how they were posting and figure out how we might use the platform to reach this particular audience. What I learned was:

  • Their stuff wasn't terrible. In fact, a lot of what they posted was really awesome content I wish I had known existed.  (I'm sure the less awesome stuff is out there, just mostly on private accounts or not using any university-specific tags.)
  • When they were trying to tag us, they used multiple hashtags: #slu, #stlawrence, #stlawrenceuniversity, #stlawu, etc. The list went on, and these were often hashtags used for a variety of other purposes, so they weren't strictly St. Lawrence.
Instagram is about more than posting really sweet filtered photos and getting a lot of likes; it's about building a community. I knew if we were going to be on the platform, we needed to find a way to create that. 

That's why when we launched our account, we created one hashtag we wanted people to use and actively started promoting it in our Instagram bio and on each of our photos. I didn't want our audience just adding the hashtags to their content; I wanted them to use it for what it's true purpose- to give people interested in St. Lawrence a feed they can follow for content collected from others, too.

I knew I couldn't just rely on people reading our bio and buying in to the hashtag; I was going to have to lay some serious groundwork if I wanted Instagram to work with and for us. I spent hours searching the hashtags they were using - liking and commenting on their (appropriate) photos. They LOVED us telling them we liked their stuff, which became evident as scores of them began following us... and they also started sharing more (and even better) content.

When They Bought In

During campus events (like this big snowfall), I actively promoted the hashtag across platforms like Twitter and Facebook, where I encouraged people to look at the hashtag feed - not our own - to see all the great things our contributors were posting, It helped that I went back into photos our account had liked, took a screenshot and posted that across all our platforms, like the one below:

When we did this, a lot of people figured out we didn't establish the hashtag just for us to follow along, but for everyone to enjoy. This specific post not only got more members of our audience to start using the hashtag on their photos, but they started browsing and some even went back through their own feeds and added the hashtag to older photos they had taken around campus. It was working! We had given our audience a little bit of help and they were really running with it.

What the "Other" Hashtags Gave Us: Prospective Student Engagement

When I was going through the hashtags our students were using, I noticed prospective students were using them when they got mail from us, visited campus or when they got accepted. Interacting with them opened up a lot of future engagement opportunities - they asked questions, followed us and sometimes went to Facebook and Twitter and followed us there, too. (Every so often they use our hashtag in later posts or add it to the one I've found and I simultaneously squeal with joy!)

Instagram is our fastest-growing platform and every minute I spend on there is giving me more information about our community and what it likes, but also what it needs from us. Instagram has illustrated how educating and guiding our audience on the ways we want them to use these platforms equals quality and meaningful engagement. 

If you've ever doubted Instagram's ROI for your college or university, I hope this shows you it can be - and is - worthwhile. What cool things are you doing on Instagram that are building your brand and resonating with your audience?


  1. Awesome advice, Meg! Are you the lone photographer on campus responsible for your Instagram content? Or who else is helping you?

    1. Hi Eric! Thanks so much for taking the time to read. I go around and take most of the photos but thankfully our University photographer also has access to the account and sometimes we'll coordinate for her to post something if she's out and about. I just started a student social media team this semester and I'm hoping in the future they contribute content, too.

      I've contemplated reposting student photos on our account but instead have asked permission to use those photos on other platforms. Some people this morning have said that reposting student work has been successful for them, so I'm going to talk to my student team about it and hope to use that in a contest we're doing in April.

  2. Great post. I like your thinking behind the one hashtag and promoting it everywhere you can, and also in taking the time to discover the others in use... Good use!

  3. I loved your blog, thank you so much for this article.