Monday, April 14, 2014

What I've Learned Thanks to Our Student-Run Instagram Account

As I was flipping through my calendar a couple of weeks ago and realizing that yes, it is actually April (where did this year go?!), I started thinking back to all of the projects my student social media team and I have taken on since last August. And then it hit me like a ton of bricks: 28 students later, we’re more than six months in to @herewegosaints, our student-run Instagram account, arguably our biggest initiative that we took on this year.

I can still remember exactly how I felt as we geared up to launch this account and what itwas like those first few weeks. It was nerve-wracking and scary, but also exhilarating. We had a lot of questions: Would students love it? Would we get enough students interested? Would it be appealing to prospective students? Would it be different enough to warrant a separate account from the main university account? Six months later, the answer is the same to each of these questions: YES.

In the first month, we had more than 800 followers. Since, we’ve continued to grow our fan base and are closing in on 1,500 followers (it took our main account nearly 10 months to reach that number) and engagement per post remains steady. Interest hasn’t dropped off – in fact, I think it’s only increased over time. I still get emails every week from students who want to take it over and our students and followers are always looking forward to Mondays when we reveal who is running it next.

I could write a book about all we’ve learned and how it’s changed what we do and how we do it here at St. Lawrence, but in the interest of time – mine and yours! – I thought I’d share some of the biggest takeaways and lessons learned here from creating @herewegosaints.

The Need for Content Strategy
At first when I met with students interested in running the account, it was about filling weeks. Then as we got deeper into the fall semester and had more than enough interest, I was able to shift the tone of those initial meetings from “Thanks for being interested – we’ve signed you up!” to getting them to think strategically.

Here are some of the questions I ask when students inquire about running the account:
  • What are you involved with on campus? 
  • What week(s) are you busiest? How would you show off your busy week on Instagram? 
  • How will your week be different than other weeks? 
  • What is your St. Lawrence story and how will you plan on sharing that on Instagram?
  • What do you love about Instagram? 
  • Tell me about a recent post you saw that you liked and tell me why you liked it; then tell me about a recent post you didn’t like and why.
"A lot of my friends from home say that we are abnormally committed to St. Lawrence. I don't understand what they're talking about..." One of our most popular posts by senior John Balderston. John developed a comprehensive content calendar for his week (his own idea!) and the time he spent putting it together paid off - it was by far one of our most popular weeks.
I spend a lot of time on St. Lawrence’s social content strategy and I know from experience that planning posts and content out serves us extremely well. In asking these questions, I got students to think ahead. Treating them like the content strategists they were going to be for the week was critical and has helped tremendously in constantly providing our followers with engaging content and our students with an amazing experience.  In these conversations with students, they seem to really enjoy the fact that we're trying to make sure they're being thoughtful and be purposeful with what they are doing. 

Creating a Second Account

Only a small group of students knew that Matt Burr, a St. Lawrence graduate & drummer for Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, was visiting campus to give our student-run music venue a custom drum kit. Amy Yao, the student running @herewegosaints that week, happened to be one of them (an absolute coincidence - I had no idea!). She was able to capture an amazing moment because she had the keys to this account.
When we launched @herewegosaints, I talked with several people who wondered why we created a separate account. Internally, we had briefly discussed the pros and cons to this and decided a separate account could be something we share with prospective students and say it’s completely student-owned. Looking back, I don’t think this would have been nearly as successful had we done it through the main university account. Here’s why:
  • It wonderfully complements the main university account. One thing that was missing from our Instagram content overall was content from inside the St. Lawrence experience - the day-to-day action on campus. This is difficult for me to capture because I'm not living it. @herewegosaints  is able to do that for us. The account focuses much more on taking people behind the scenes of life at St. Lawrence, whereas our main account focuses on highlights and showing off our campus.  We know we have a good amount of overlap in terms of followers between the two accounts (but we've found prospective students oftentimes engage with @herewegosaints first), so when a student is showing the @herewegosaints fans an event they are actively taking part in, we can be showing another so we don’t miss anything – for a one-person show like myself, this has actually helped me a lot. 
  • Students trust the account. Now that we’re into our 28th week, students who have run the account have told their friends about their experience. The word is out: it’s unfiltered, students have direct access and it’s a lot of fun. Because of this, students share the account with friends at other schools or high school students. It's real. It's theirs. They like that.
  • Students understand – and love - the responsibility. At first, one of our concerns was giving students the password, but this is what has led to such buy-in from them. Every student I talk with about their week appreciates that we trust them with the account and that we’re letting them tell their own story in their own way.
What We Didn’t See Coming  
  • Students are learning about opportunities they have at St. Lawrence through this account. I’m not sure why, but I never considered this account to be a resource. But in my many meetings with students, they’ve told me that they’ve learned about this class, or that research fellowship, or this club or that favorite meal through following this account. Students enjoy the different perspectives because they are learning something new about St. Lawrence, along with the rest of us. 
  • Running the account is real-world experience. We have a lot of students interested in PR/communications/marketing and for them, running the account is something they can talk about in an interview. I've had students mention this to me and it reinforces why it's so critical to make sure I help them think strategically about what they are doing.
  • It has shifted how our students think about their own content. This blew me away a little: I met with a student earlier this winter about running the account. After talking through the logistics, she casually said, “You know, every time I post to my personal account now I ask myself, ‘Would I post this if I were running @herewegosaints? Or how would I change this post if I were running @herewegosaints?’” She’s not the only one who has mentioned this either – I’ve spoken to four or five students who have echoed those same thoughts. And while this is anecdotal, I think the quality of the photos I see being posted by our community have gotten better and certainly the amount of content shared has increased dramatically. Our community is much more engaged.
  • Students are proud to go to St. Lawrence, just because we have this account. When I meet with students, they tell me how great it is that we give them the chance to do something like this. They truly feel ownership over this account, which is exactly what I was hoping for. 
What Have I Learned?

I have thoroughly enjoyed learning about who our current students are, what they care about and what experiences are offered at St. Lawrence today. This account has given me the chance to see what our students are talking about and care about in real time. This helps me with the other parts of my job in creating content for publications and the web.

As the main social media manager on campus, I find I have limited time to test the waters and try different types of content to see what resonates. While running this account, students have done a little bit of this for me without realizing they are doing so! In a lot of ways, it has helped reshape our overall approach on Instagram.

Other Fun Awesomeness

Since we launched our account in September, I’ve spoken with several colleagues at different institutions who have thought about launching similar accounts or initiatives. Take a look at the great things they are doing!

Valdosta State University (@vstateexperience)
Humboldt State University (@livefromhsu)
Webster University (@mywebsteru)
Southwestern University (The Captain at the Helm)

Have you created a similar account or initiative? What have you learned?


  1. We have started a Student Photo of The Week here at Sherman College of Chiropractic (@shermancollege). We started with hopes of having one or two submissions and it's really turned into something for not only our students but our alumni. They can tag us in them or use #ShermanPride to enter. We've seen photos from chiropractic conventions, in offices, classroom projects, beautiful campus photos, etc. I also have several students who know I am the admin of the account and submit pictures for me to post - it's really quite the campus project!

    1. I love this, Jillian! It's fantastic that it gets your alumni involved, too. Do they win prizes or is the fame enough for them? I find our students just love getting reposted to the main account, but we create personalized Instagram thank-you postcards that feature their photos with the # of likes on it. I wish there was a legal way to repost community photos so that person could get all of the wonderful notifications instead of me! But alas, Instagram... :)

  2. I have a question about this--How do you market the new account to students? How do they learn about it? Do you use print materials and post around campus or do you strictly market online?

    1. Hi! When we launched the account we did very little IRL marketing. Our first day we got over 230 followers just by introducing it on our main account. Our student newspaper has covered it multiple times since. We are a small campus so word of mouth got out quickly. We had planned a marketing campaign for it with large banners in our student center and flyers, but we really didn't need it. Students who run the account get asked by others how they can run it and they then contact me and we meet. It's really organic, which I love. Are you thinking about doing something similar?

  3. Meg we just brainstormed this idea last week at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada! We will be approaching some student leaders to begin to get the word out and then we will go from there! Will let you know how to it goes! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. This has provided me a good foundation for moving forward.

    1. Tim - That's so exciting! It has really changed the social landscape here. Best of luck - I hope you have as much fun with it as we have!

  4. Have you ever had to go into the student-run account and delete anything they've posted or are they pretty much aware that if they post something not appropriate it will be deleted and/or other consequences, etc.? Just wondering how you approach this. Thanks.

    1. Hi Valarie! Great question - I meet with each student and go over guidelines. We really don't have any rules other than posting excessive amounts of alcohol but we really haven't seen much in that realm. Our students pretty much know and b/c of the account's popularity, I don't think any student would want to be responsible for shutting the account down or losing privileges to run it. That all said, we have had to remove one photo but not because it was inappropriate. During our student government elections, the girl running the account was promoting the election and encouraging students to vote but she took a photo of one of the candidates. Even though the account is student-run, it was still perceived as an agent of the university promoting one candidate over another. We removed it for that reason and the student completely understood. It was my fault for not thinking ahead. Another good lesson learned! Does this help?

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