Universities need to get better at using Instagram – here’s how
Instagram is the most effective social media channel to engage students, argues Ned Potter. In this resource, he outlines ways to produce successful content and increase reach
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The social media landscape seems more volatile than it’s ever been. Facebook is all but useless in higher education; TikTok is hard to do well; X (formerly Twitter) is a hellscape and, if Musk’s proposed paywall becomes a reality, will soon cease to have any relevance at all. Individuals are decamping to the likes of Mastodon and Bluesky, but they aren’t yet suitable for institutional social media. Departmental, careers services or library accounts (like the one I run at the University of York) need a plan for what happens next.
Instagram has more than two billion users worldwide, who spend more than 29 minutes a day on average on the platform. More than half of the UK’s users are under 34, and our research at York has shown Instagram is the one platform nearly every single undergraduate is on. Increasingly, postgraduates are joining too. We can and should put a lot of our eggs in the Instagram basket. But many departmental and professional services accounts just haven’t quite got the hang of it yet.
The key to using Instagram successfully is understanding the way the algorithm works – or doesn’t, if you don’t play your cards right. Simply put, if you don’t post content that gets a high level of engagement, your posts will not get seen.
Instagram has the most explicit relationship between engagement and reach of any social network. By engagement, we mean likes primarily, but shares, comments and bookmarking all count too. By reach, we mean the number of people who ever see the post on their screens (click “view insights” on one of your own posts to see this). If the first few people who see your post don’t do something to engage, it won’t reach a wider audience. It doesn’t matter how great it is, or how important the message is, a lack of initial likes will stop a crucial announcement in its tracks and your students will be none the wiser.
Here’s a quick guide to getting the cringe factor down and engagement up.
The main pieces of content your followers see in their stream are your grid posts, so called because they’re displayed in a grid pattern on your profile. Grid posts can be still images or videos (more on which later) accompanied by captions.
If you’re posting images to your grid, they need to be captured images to get good engagement. In other words, they should be photos of something real. Not stock photography, not AI-generated images and, above all, not pictures of words! Higher education Instagram accounts are riddled with pictures of words. Everybody posts them and it never, ever works. Go onto Instagram right now and find one of your university’s accounts and check the number of likes for pictures of campus or spaces in university buildings, then check the number of likes for graphics, charts and pictures of words. The likes for the former will dwarf those of the latter, and no likes mean no reach.
So take pictures of things. Interior spaces. Exteriors of buildings. Wide shots of campus or your local area. It doesn’t even need to be of the university every time. Your phone is fine for this; you don’t need a special camera. An average picture of something interesting beats a brilliant picture of something prosaic. Every. Single. Time.
Pair your picture with some words in the caption, then things really work well. Our most successful posts are always the ones with great pictures and meaningful captions. It’s a myth that people don’t read them. Good captions are friendly, and they walk a fine line between giving useful information to complement the image or video and not taking themselves too seriously. Bonus points for a good call to action: if students like the content of your posts, do they have a clear idea of what to do next? Signposting them to relevant links in the bio always helps.
Finally, post to your grid around three times a week. There’s no pressure to post every day.
Reels are portrait (vertical) videos that usually last a minute or less and can also appear on your grid. They are Instagram’s attempt to take on TikTok and, because it wants them to work, you get a massive boost to your reach when you use them. If you post a reel that gets 100 likes and a regular image to your grid that also gets 100 likes, you can expect the former to be seen by around one and a half times as many people as the latter. Reels = reach.
Talking heads-style reels, even ones that are done well, don’t seem to get much engagement. I’d recommend point-of-view videos of spaces, events, activities and routes across campus, or just silly stuff paired with some music (you can do this on Instagram itself if you don’t have a separate video-editing app).
- Resource collection: Social media – how to make it an academic friend not foe
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- Building your research profile via social media, with a focus on LinkedIn
The final part of Instagram’s triumvirate of posting styles is stories. Unlike reels or regular grid posts, they don’t appear in your feed. Followers must seek them out by tapping on your profile picture when you’ve posted one. They disappear after 24 hours unless you pin them to your highlights, so they’re perfect for more disposable content. All those pictures of words you’re no longer posting to the grid, stick them in a story instead. Got a boring but important update? Want to run a Q&A or solicit feedback? Need to post a link to the VLE? Anything time-sensitive like a reminder of an event happening that day? Story, story, story.
For more on all of the above, @UoyLibrary makes internal Instagram guidelines publicly available for anyone interested because, since we adopted them, we’ve had exceptional feedback (“I love this account and whoever is running it,” commented one student) and massively increased our reach by 633 per cent in 12 months.
Instagram is already useful for communicating with students and will only become more so going forward. We all need to get really good at it, so make it a priority for your department.
Ned Potter is a faculty engagement manager at the University of York, and the author of The Library Marketing Toolkit. Several of his tweets about academic publishing and his dead cat have accidentally gone viral.
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