Saturday, June 8, 2013

Ensuring Value and Purpose in a College's Instagram Contest

Knowing Instagram was the most popular platform our students were using on a daily basis and getting inspiration from several colleges (most notably Elizabethtown College and Donna Talarico's work),  my student social media team and I decided it was time to do something fun on the photo-sharing platform. So in April, we hosted our university's first ever social media contest - an Instagram photo-a-day challenge.

We joined Instagram in late October. I spent the first five months listening to, learning about and educating our audience on there, so I was excited to try this. But I didn't want to do it just to do it, or to get more followers, or something else that didn't mean anything. So how could we do something fun AND have it be valuable for both our audience AND the University?


For our audience, it was a game: post a photo every day using #SLUphotoaday that correlated to that day's theme. For my team and myself, it was strategically planned. We chose April for a few reasons:
  • April is the first month in Northern New York that you  might - MIGHT - see signs of spring and not a whole lot of snow.
  • Our University's birthday is April 3.
  • It's a busy month on campus with Springfest Weekend, sports contests, end-of-year concerts, etc.
While these factors definitely played a role in why we chose April, the biggest thing for me was that April is a critical month in the admissions cycle. Why not encourage students to post content every day that you can feature all over the web at the same time high school students are making their college decisions?

The other part of the strategy was deciding on each day's theme. (I should note - they had the best ideas. Another reason to get students involved!). The pride our students and alumni have in this place is incredible; playing off that was going to be key to making this 'cool' and something our students would participate in.


We started promotion just five days before April 1. We printed a 120" x 45" banner and hung it in our student center with each day's theme. We posted the contest on Instagram and Facebook. We made fliers for the residence halls. Other than that, I charged the team with sharing the news word-of-mouth.

What happened?

The next month was a whirlwind (hence the month-long delay in posting this). I could go day-by-day, but this post is already long enough. Here are some highlights:
  • We had more than 135 people play (I know there were people I couldn't see playing because of private accounts) and close to 1,200 submissions.
  • In the first seven days, we had over 500 submissions. On Day 3 (our university's birthday), I tallied over 100 photos posted - the most of any day.
  • Our followers grew 27.3% in that one month.
  • Not only did students play, but several alumni played (a few played every day!) and we even had a parent take part in the daily fun. That was a surprise, since the daily themes were really geared toward those on-campus. I was blown away at the lengths some alumni (and the parent) went to play every day! 
Why was it valuable for us?

In my opinion, I think this project was the first time our audience saw us giving them something fun to do and in return, it gave us some street credit with our students and younger alumni. While I've seen increased engagement since taking over our social media efforts in August, it's been more so on the alumni side than with our students. That has slowly changed, but April was sort of a mini social-revolution for us.

Since the beginning of the contest, students have been interacting and talking with us much more frequently. They are tagging us in their photos and posts. We are communicating and sharing together! When we've asked our audience for photos or content, I've seen a jump in the number of submissions we get. For me, it was a great way to end a year of social media growth on campus and I think set the stage for an even bigger social media 'boom' here this upcoming year.

I think it's important to point out here that while we saw an exciting jump in followers, this was not a goal for us. We didn't get 230+ new followers because we ran a contest; we earned the trust of 230+ new followers because we provided exciting and relevant content in an engaging way and encouraged others to join us in doing so.

Other Fun Points to Note
  • When sharing photos on Facebook and Twitter, I saw a jump in new people playing or others playing again.
  • I saw a slight increase in new followers on Admitted Student Days, most likely because students visiting saw the large poster in the student center and heard tour guides talking about the contest.
  • Really thinking about the daily themes and how they could help us share St. Lawrence with others paid off incredibly for us in terms of re-purposing content. For instance, on our university's birthday, the theme was "What I love about SLU." We had more than 100 posts and shared the best in an album on Facebook later that week as it was the perfect way to capture why our audience loves us, instead of us preaching about why we're so great.
  • Remember that "official" Instagram hashtag I spent a long time educating our audience on? Before April 1, less than 350 photos used the tag. By the end of the month, we were close to 700. Far more students are now using the hashtag than they were before, which means I'm finding their awesome content faster and easier (and others are, too).
  • We've had several requests to do it again - so people liked it!
Why was it valuable for them?

You mean besides the prizes? We used a ton of student content we got from participants on other platforms and a number of students took to social media to express their happiness about it. By liking their photos, commenting on them and sharing them, we validated their efforts. They felt appreciated, which was great - because they were (and are).

People also enjoyed seeing how others saw St. Lawrence. Why did their friend love St. Lawrence? Where is everyone's favorite view? Our community learned more about each other in a fun way.

Again, I think because we spent the time to make sure the themes were centered around what makes SLU special and because it was done at the end of the semester, it offered our audience a chance to reflect and appreciate this place. We even heard as much from participants on the last day.

For the Next Time

Of course, this wasn't perfect. We will definitely make adjustments, but based on the number of requests I've gotten from students and departments to do something similar, we'll be doing more things like it - keeping in mind the value to us and the value for them.

Another lesson learned? The weather gods are never on your side. We chose our daily themes six weeks in advance and we picked one day to be themed "Today's Weather," hoping it would be a gloriously sunny day. What we did was jinx ourselves.

Technically, our contest had 15 winners, but I think St. Lawrence and - more importantly - our audience won.

Have questions about what we did? Insights on other successes? I'd love to hear them! Feel free to reach out to me or leave a comment.


  1. Meg,

    Wow! I came across this post from a Google alert. First, I am humbled that you mentioned me in your post. Second, you knocked this outta the park! Loved what you did with the promotion, and also how strategic you were in your approach in timing, etc. Finally, I loved that you were able to repurpose that content. I'm so happy to see what great results you had!

    1. Thanks for the inspiration, Donna! It was really helpful.

  2. +1 what Donna said. I am such of fan of the upfront strategic thinking you did.

    Kudos and well done,

    1. Thanks so much, Susan! It was a lot of fun and I've already heard from our students asking to do another one!