Students love Instagram. Colleges and universities have embraced the platform, using it to creatively showcase their campuses and activities. But beyond the beautiful photos and smiling students, how can you make your college stand out? How can you make Instagram more social instead of just sharing photos with followers?
Meg Bernier (@msteverb), assistant director of editorial services and social media in the communications office at St. Lawrence University, and Mike O’Neill (@mikeoneill76), social media strategist at Ithaca College, share details about their Instagram takeovers.
Q: Why did you decide to do takeovers, and how did you choose the format?
Meg: Instagram was the first platform where students engaged with St. Lawrence University. Nine months after creating our main account, we thought, “What’s next?” That’s when the idea for the second account was born. Of course, we wondered if we really needed a second account, when we had a great community on our main channel. Ultimately, we decided it would be great for admissions to share student-sourced content with prospective students, one of our two primary audiences for the account (the other being current students). This account has been so successful because our students have the chance to tell their stories in their own way.
Mike: We felt it was better to keep everything on one account and showcase our entire campus community, which is made up of students, alumni, faculty and staff. We wanted that community to be on display through social media, giving our students, alumni and faculty a voice and a chance to show their points of view and build a sense of community around the account.
Q: How do you select students, and what are your next steps?
Meg: Students contact me or members of my student social media team, a group of eight students who apply and interview to work with me and other colleagues in divisions across campus. We take a look at their personal Instagram accounts to get a sense of the content they share. We ask them what week(s) they’d be interested in taking over the account and featuring events they are taking part in. Then, we meet with the student in person to discuss their thoughts and ideas and go over simple guidelines. We talk extensively about the content people enjoy seeing on the platform. Not every photo is made for Instagram! Students often ask how often they should post, and we stress they should only post when they have good content. We have found that more than 3-4 photos a day overwhelms followers, so we encourage students who have more than that to consider building collages to capture photos from the same event.
Mike: Last semester, I selected students on a first come, first served basis. I wasn’t sure if our community would engage, so I didn’t want to spend too much time selecting students but also wanted to be sure that I had one student for each week of the semester. The downside to accepting the first volunteers was that the featured students were mostly from our communications school.
Now that I know that students love the idea, I’m going to be selective so I can show a more holistic view of Ithaca College. I want to try and align takeovers with events so that student groups, clubs or athletic teams can show how they get ready for events.
Once I’ve selected a student, I schedule a 15-minute meeting with them at least a week before the takeover so that I can explain how it works and strategize content with them.
Q: What are your guidelines, and what are your concerns about giving a student direct access to your account?
Meg: We ask them to think ahead about their week as a whole and prepare an introductory post so when we send them the password, they are ready to go. We do week-long takeovers, and we find if the first day goes well, we see better engagement the rest of the week. With respect to alcohol, we tell them if they are of age, sharing a photo that has alcohol in it is okay as long as it’s not excessive, at a bar or the focal point of the image. We have not had any issues with this. In the case of a campus emergency, we tell them they can’t post until the emergency is over. These are instructions we share with all social media account managers on campus.
Origianally, we were concerned about giving them direct access to the account, but since we meet with them face-to-face, we think that cuts down the probability that they’d sabotage it. Since it’s so popular, we don’t think anyone would want to be the reason for us to shut it down. (It’s a small campus and everyone knows everyone.)
Mike: I don’t give students direct access to our account. I have them text me their edited/filtered photo or video along with the caption that goes with it. It’s more work for me, but it helps keep the content appropriate and purposeful.
The guidelines I give them are simple. They can take pictures of whatever they want, but we want to keep the pictures and the captions positive. I talk to them about what their day will be like and if there is a certain theme they can focus on (i.e. being an resident assistant, preparing for a musical performance, showing what their guide-dog-in-training does, etc.). If they have a plan, anything else that they want to post about that day is just icing on the cake. I don’t limit the number of photos they should post, but I do tell them that, for us, 10-14 images is our sweet spot. Finally, I make sure that they have a final picture/video in mind that is a clear indicator that the takeover is finished.
Q: What have you found to be the benefits of doing something like this?
Meg: One thing that was missing from our Instagram content, not only on our main account but our user-generated content on our hashtags, was the day-to-day action on campus. This is difficult for me to capture because I’m not living it. @herewegosaints takes people inside life at St. Lawrence.
We also have overlap in terms of followers between the two accounts, so when a student is showing @herewegosaints followers an event they are taking part in, we can feature a different event on the main account—for a one-person show like me this has helped a lot. It also keeps the main account free, in case there’s something exciting that happens that we need to capture in real-time.
Students who have run the account have told their friends about the experience. The word is out: it’s real, it’s theirs. They like that we trust them. That’s why I have a list of more than 30 students interested in taking over the account this upcoming year.
Mike: Students love to be featured. It doesn’t matter if I regram their picture on our account or if they’re taking over the account for a day. They are excited to show their classmates what they’re doing for a day, and their classmates love it when their friends are featured. This has created a huge demand to take over the account.
Trust is also a huge benefit of our takeovers. Our audience trusts the account because each takeover has a different style and voice, so they know that the content they’re seeing comes from their peers.
As Meg also mentioned, I can’t be at all places at all times. Creating a takeover allows me to feature content on our account that I’d never get by myself. This helps me and also helps the prospective student who wants to see what a residence hall room looks like or a current business student who has never seen the inside of a music practice room.
Q: What have you found to be difficult in doing something like this?
Meg: Having a second account has been a lot of work—trying to find a balance between the different experiences and people isn’t easy. I really try to wait for students to approach us about their interest in the account because they are the ones who really want to do it and, in our experience, have done a better job than the students we’ve asked. But in order to vary content, sometimes we need to reach out to groups. It’s like any channel—there is a strategy to what we do and when we do it, and students love learning about that!
Mike: It’s time consuming. I have to be ready to post a picture or video every hour or so, which means I have to bring my phone and iPad with me everywhere that day. Takeovers can also run until 11 p.m. so I have to stay awake until the takeover is finished. It is also impossible to feature anything else while a takeover is happening. It would confuse our audience if I dropped in a post about a guest speaker right in the middle of our takeover. In instances like this, I have to rely on our other platforms to get the word out.
Q: A student-run Instagram initiative is not the right approach for all institutions. What are other ways to share student content?
Meg: If I come across a great photo that aligns with the content we share on the main account, I’ll ask the person for permission to repost. It is their content to share, not mine to steal. If I do share a photo, I send the photographer a personalized Instagram postcard thanking them. I want them to be able to hold in their hands all the likes their photo gets, and I want them to know they are appreciated.
Mike: I will regram a student’s photo from time to time if it shows a perspective that I don’t have or provides content for an event that is unique. I’ve found apps like PhotoRepost are really helpful. Asking permission before regramming someone’s photo is crucial. It’s part of the Instagram culture to do this, and it’s just good manners.
You can also ask students to post their photos to a certain hashtag, with the disclaimer that you might post that photo on other platforms. Frostburg State University has done a great job of this with its popular #instaFrostburg Pinterest board, and Harvard University did this last year with its #HarvardinAutumn Facebook album to show campus as the leaves were changing.