Seeing the world through square images and Instagram filters

When I started my InstaMA project I genuinely had no idea how time-consuming – and valuable – it would be to truly immerse myself in its community. Or that I would be dreaming in square images – every content opportunity was viewed through an Instagram filter and a square frame. It took over. But after three months the pilot is over, I can take my foot off the gas, reflect a little and take stock of what I’ve learned.

My own personal use of Instagram is merely to keep a record of my top memories and best photographic endeavors and I rarely venture into content beyond that posted by my friends and family. Conducting an Instagram pilot on The Open University’s account made me look at things in a much broader way (and if you need a reminder of exactly what I’m doing, see here) and I’ve enjoyed the experience.

Share the love

Lurking is all well and good but getting stuck into Instagram is the best way to engage with people and increase your following. I immersed myself in the OU community and it was great – not only helping me to come up with content ideas, create and share content, but also chatting to students and sharing in their success – or in their low moments. A comment from your university when you’ve reached the peak of procrastination is a pretty good motivator. I now ‘know’ some of the OU’s followers, I see and talk to them regularly via Instagram and feel much more able to ask things of them, because I’m giving back (like chatting to Chloe which is using Instagram to drive traffic to her blog and build her business). And when I say I, I mean the OU, of course.

What this pilot has uncovered is that Instagram is far less broadcast than I realised and there’s real value in chatting to your audience. I have to confess, when the pilot started I was seeing everything as a potential Instagram post, I was even dreaming in square images! But I’ve learned – and am still learning – a lot.

Instagram success is not instant: invest serious time into monitoring

Newsflash: engaging with your community WILL eat up a lot of time. What I thought would be a few-times-a-week monitoring task turned into a nightly one – there were so many #openuniversity postings that in order to keep on top of them, I had to like and respond to comments daily. I also found it tricky to keep on top of conversations unless I responded as soon as someone commented and a notification popped up on my phone. If I ignored the notification, the chances are I’d never have found the comment again – this is one of the downsides of Instagram, so I did feel a bit like a slave to it, and to my phone, during the pilot.

I naively thought I’d be able to carve up tasks throughout the week and, like a good little postgraduate student, be methodical, practical and organised throughout this pilot. Not so. I’d hoped to be able to follow the timetable below, but I couldn’t keep on top of the replying to comments and liking photos if I didn’t do it nightly; it just got too much.

Monday Monitoring Monitor relevant hashtags and like and comment as appropriate
Tuesday Talking Comment on relevant posts, respond to comments
Wednesday Wisdom Research
Thursday Thinking Develop new content ideas
Friday Review Weekly review of stats – likes, comments, increase in followers, what worked well, what didn’t
Saturday Business as usual
Sunday Stats Note weekly stats and increases

There is much less tagging of accounts on Instagram than use of hashtags. For example, @theopenuniversity was tagged a miniscule number of times compared to the number of #openuniversity posts. My tactic was simple: to engage with anyone who commented on an OU post, and to follow the hashtag #openuniversity, liking and commenting on those posts. And I hunted around for other hashtags used by Instagrammers and dipped in and out of them too: #openuni #oustudent #ou and our graduation hashtag #ou_ceremonies.

This took time. At the start of the pilot there had been 17,557 mentions of #openuniversity and at the time of writing this post there are 20,514. That’s 3,000 uses of that hashtag over a three month period, so approximately 1,000 per month, 250 per week, 35 a day. Now 35 doesn’t sound much but if you let that monitoring slip by a couple of days you have 100 posts to flick through, like and comment on.

Community engagement takes a lot of time, and just as much time is needed creating your posts. But after a three-month pilot (which was meant to be one month, then two) it’s clear there is always more to be done. I’d committed myself to posting at least once per day, but it’s easily to let things slide and find yourself scrabbling around for content. On some days, something was better than nothing but this won’t be the approach going forwards.

#CreateYourOwnHashtags

I introduced some new hashtags: #ouselfie and #ouacademic. The first was to encourage members of our community to take photos of themselves and post them. Students were already doing this but I wanted to students to engage and offer to share some of them. The second was to try and engage academics and, for those active on Instagram, to share their content which always seems more genuine when coming from a personal account. Despite promoting this on the OU’s intranet site, engagement from academics directly via Instagram was relatively low with just two or three academics contributing fairly regularly. I did however, get suggestions for content and submissions via email, including some nice shots of campus.

photoShare the love wider: third-party content

A great way to show off your community and reward its members, is to share their content. There are various ways you can do this, including apps like Repost but I find them clunky. I simply took a screen shot of the photo I wanted to share, cropped it, and then posted it directly (no reposting per say) – but first I asked permission to share it via the OU account. No one ever said no, which was great, and I always tagged them in the photo and thanked them for letting me share it. Doing it this way also allowed me to add my own filters to their photos or, in once case, blur out a cat’s ID tag in which its owner’s mobile number could be read. On the whole, most of the third-party shared posts got better engagement than our own – how else would we be able to delve inside our students’ lives in such a genuine way, see them studying in their bedrooms, their kitchens, with their pets on their laps and while entertaining children. They were authentic. To a lesser extent I also shared some academic’s photos directly via Instagram.

Instagram doesn’t have to be lonely

The intention was, as part of this pilot, to collaborate with partner organisations and undertake some kind of takeover. This didn’t come off, mostly due to lack of time, but we did join forces with the OU Library. They were thinking of starting their own Instagram account to run alongside their already successful Twitter and Facebook accounts, promoting library resources and actively engaging with students. Unsure how time-consuming it would be to take on Instagram, our pilot served as theirs – how would the library get on providing us with regular content without the pressure to update their own channel? And how would we, owners of the corporate social media channels, get on posting daily?

The library provided some content for us to post, including a ‘shelfie’, a video flipping through the pages of a George Orwell original, and a series of photos from the OU’s digital archive which I posted out each Thursday for #ThrowbackThursday, including hashtags #oulibrary and #oudigitalarchive – these hashtags were agreed with the library and while they don’t have their own account on Instagram they do have their own community through the hashtag.

I also conducted this pilot almost entirely alone (well, I have an MA to finish, my colleagues don’t) but it’s always good to get feedback from colleagues and help creating content if you can. I thought it would be easy to tackle this alone and well, really, more hands on deck would probably have had a greater impact.

maggieIf you ask a question do you think you’ll get more comments?

Yes. Yes, you will. Any content I posted which included a question got much better engagement overall. For example, weekly content posted for #ThrowbackThursday got decent engagement in terms of likes but minimal comments. On the photo of Margaret Thatcher (right), taken in 1973, I asked ‘What were you doing in 1973?) which got a lot more comments – most saying they had yet to be born, or my favourite, “I was but a twinkle in my father’s winkle.” In essence, ask a question and you will get answers.

Have a sense of humour

Tone of voice in important and I set this up from the start – our tone on Instagram is professional but informal and with a sense of humour. We wanted to come across as friendly, chatty and approachable. When one curly-haired graduand posted a picture on graduation day complaining that the OU doesn’t provide mortarboards (not part of the OU’s formal dress) I responded with ‘Because we don’t want to ruin those lovely curls.”

fridayprocrastDon’t be afraid to go for the easy wins

Once you know your audience, tap into their weak spots. And what I mean by this is post content you know they’ll like. It’s an easy win. I know firsthand (because I am one) the life of a distance learning student means  studying all hours. So our post which simply said ‘Hands up who’s studying on a Friday night’ (posted on a Friday night, no less) got massive engagement.

I see lots of post by students of their study spaces and procrastination concerns, including posting to Instagram, so I posted an image which said ‘Get off Instagram, you’re supposed to be studying’ which got massive engagement as I’d caught lots of students red-
handed and it had made them chuckle. Also, knowing when key dates or deadlines are coming up and offering up a snippet of motivation can help spur people on.

refelctionAdd an incentive

Students love sharing their experiences, advice and tips but you may need to tease it out a little. I tried this in a few ways – one asking a direct question ‘How do you juggle study’ with a juggler pic, which posted to gain some quotes for some new marketing material on how students fit studies around their other activities. I also ran a competition to support marketing’s New Year ‘reflections campaign’ asking students and grads to reflect on what they thought of the OU before they started studying compared to how they feel about it now. And I offered up three £20 Amazon vouchers for three ‘winners’. This post gained 120+ comments, more than double that of any other post we’ve posted to date. What it didn’t do is gain us many more followers.

Reward loyalty

It’s easy to find out which followers engage most frequently with your content, and I did this using our social media monitoring/scheduling tool Social Sign In. Reward them. Talk to them, like their photos, share their photos, and give them an occasional shout out. Oh, and follow them back!

If you build it… they still might not come

If you’re starting an Instagram account or dusting off an old one, you’ll need to tell people. You can’t expect them to know you’re there. After a good three weeks of posting decent content on Instagram after the launch of our pilot, I started telling people in the following ways:

  • Pilot mentioned in weekly cross-department editorial meetings (spread the word, contribute etc)
  • Series of three once-weekly articles posted on intranet (to increase staff and academic engagement – definite peak in followers around these times)
  • Mentioned in November and December editions of eNewsletter, sent to 400,000 students and alumni (slight rise in followers after each, although CTA was low down the newsletter)
  • Promoted via other social media channels, namely Facebook and Twitter on several occasions, including pointing to an Instagram Story when covering Harrogate Degree Ceremony.
  • Going forwards the Instagram handle will be included in publications like the 2017 Graduate Directory (printed).

What’s next?

You know when I said I could take my foot off the gas a bit now the pilot has ended back up the top of this post? It was a complete lie. What the above has illustrated is there is still a huge amount to be done, and this will be highlighted in a report to my line manager. There are still things I want to try but haven’t got round to, like animation (check out Rachel Ryle’s legendary work), and clearly defined branding for this channel (check out Matt Crump and Sara Tasker) as well as a channel strategy going forwards which aligns with university and communications unit objectives whilst also engaging with our community and continuing to grow our followers. Oh, and the rest of this MA to complete. Eek!

Cor blimey, that’s a long post. Huge congrats if you made it to the end. If I don’t write all this stuff down, I’m afraid it’ll float clean out of my head. What’s next? Well, if you can bare to read more I’ll be writing about mobile phones, health and safety and why salsa dancing could be the key to keeping mobile journalists fit and healthy. Oh, and some academic stuff too, of course.

 

 

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