The companion to the Student Social Media Academy:

Let's Get Real About Instagram

Get Real About Instagram Header

Instagram was first released in 2010 and was initially only available to iPhone users. I literally switched phones because I had so much FOMO 😉

Instagram has quickly attracted users over a relatively short time, from 400 million users in 2015 to 800 million accounts in January 2018. As the platform continues to grow, so the variety of digital engagement strategies that are shining as well as fall short – especially when it comes to relatable storytelling.

When you’re thinking about the ways to tell stories, visuals are powerful and Instagram stories are proof of that. In 2016 Instagram took a page from Snapchat’s book and added its own story feature that’s incredibly popular. Case in point: 300 million people use Instagram stories daily. With Snapchat’s latest update, many formerly Snapchat loyal users are jumping ship to Instagram since it provides a better user experience. #Burn
https://www.instagram.com/p/Bfp9CFfFffy/?tagged=byesnapchat

This post will lay out some methods to drive interaction, comments, and relationships. Because I’ve seen the dark side of Instagram – with trends of buying followers, following a whole bunch of people, then unfollowing them all and more. In my opinion, these approaches are honestly gross.

So instead, I want you to think about your ideal audience that you want to impact and then answer the question what value you would add to their lives? You may call it selling, engaging, or connecting with them, but that shouldn’t be the biggest motivator for you posting on Insta. You have to focus on the ways that your content will ADD to their lives or days, whether it’s a stunning visual or a celebration of your followers. Starting with relatability is a great place to start.

Real Instagram Practices for Relatable People (and Pages)

Your Profile: Find ways to be relatable, from your handle to your bio. Note: that goes for individuals, companies, and institutions on the platform.

Your profile starts with your username. Make sure it’s straightforward and concise but unique. You want people to be able to find you easily, which means that you might need to get creative if you’ve got a common name.

More important than usernames in Instagram is bios, adding to your searchability and relatability. Time to get creative. Quick lifehack for writing your bio: go to the desktop to edit, where you can add in spacing between bio lines or have each bio topic on its own line. Check out mine below. Don’t forget the URL too! Mine gets clicked daily.
Josie Instagram Bio

Scheduling & Strategy: When you post and how often you post keeps your insta continually engaging with followers. As of January, Instagram began to allow users to schedule posts in advance. There are also some great scheduling tools like Planoly, Iconosquare, Buffer, and Hootsuite. As an added bonus, those apps have extra analytics tools to help you better manage your Instagram strategy and track the conversations that are important to you. Some of them even allow you to manage your Instagram as a team, which is great for larger organizations and higher ed institutions. But don’t get all stressed out about strategy, take it from this artist:

If you’re not trying to be real, you don’t have to get it right. That’s art. Andy Warhol

Posts: The most important part of your Insta is what you actually post, which is why your photos need to be top-notch quality. Even the latest iPhones can take amazing images, but you bet that the most popular Instagram pages use a DSLR camera to capture content.

One of the most obvious mistakes I see higher education departments and corporations making is turning their Instagram feed into a bulletin board. Please stop – just stop!

Even promotional designs that are arranged to fit and be viewable in the platform (using tools like Canva), will be glazed over. Why? Instagram is meant to be a visual, high-quality photos/designs. The good news is that you can still achieve high-quality photos without having to buy a fancy DSLR camera. One of the most important aspects of great photography is composition. Darren Rowse has a great write-up on the rule of thirds that’s a must-read for any aspiring Instagrammers.
PinkPot Rule of Thirds Comparison
Once you’ve reached quality, look at what you’re posting about. You need to make sure it’s inclusive and (mostly) timely. You don’t have to post about something immediately, but make sure that you’re not posting about it weeks later. Also, keep in mind with the latest Instagram algorithm changes, your post today may not be seen by your followers for up to four days. If you’re trying to promote an event while it’s happening, it’s probably already irrelevant especially when considering that the Instagram feed is non-chronological. Look to use stories for promotions within 24 hours.

UT Austin is one school that’s great at timing their posts with events, both on-campus and worldwide.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BggjNZ5Ajaf/?taken-by=utaustintx

Community Building in the Captions: Now that you’ve got your picture planned, it’s time to think about your captions. Some people live by the philosophy that a picture is worth a thousand words, but captions add a LOT to posts on the platform. I have seen people with really interactive content that include full on paragraphs, so don’t feel like you absolutely have to keep it short and sweet. You can also be playful in your copy such as adding emojis as well as line breaks to help make even your comments visually interesting.

If you’re not using hashtags in your post, you might want to change your Instagram approach. Hashtags make your posts searchable and are the easiest way to amplify your posts. Do your research before you choose hashtags though. If the hashtags have more than one million posts, yours is going to get lost in the clutter.
One way to avoid getting lost in the clutter? Use a branded hashtag. Here are a few standout examples of higher education branded hashtags:

Another way to avoid getting lost in the clutter is to create standout Instagram stories. Anecdotally, I’ve seen my page grow ever since I started posting stories and using the right hashtags on my posts. The neat thing about stories is that you can use them to capture moments as they’re happening or use them to host more highly produced pictures and videos.
Here are some resources to help you make your Instagram stories stand out:

  • Hype Type: This third-party app lets you add animated captions to your stories, which are great for driving home your aesthetic and making your stories more accessible
  • Buffer’s Story Templates: These 10 Instagram story templates are super high quality and great if you’re stuck in a creative story slump.
  • How to Use Polls: Polls are a relatively new story feature that majorly drives engagement. This how-to guide covers everything you need to know about them.

Community Driven Content

One of the things I dig about Instagram is the way that it fosters community. My favorite accounts aren’t the ones that just post and run. No, my favorite accounts are always in the comments (and replying in their stories), using posts to spark conversations and make connections.

Here are just a few ways to create and celebrate your communities on Instagram:

Call to action: Get people talking in the comments! Ask people specific questions about the content that you’re posting, and directly mention them posting their answers in the comment section. I’m a big fan of how Ohio State engages with their community! 
https://www.instagram.com/p/BgkBVpWgRIu/?taken-by=theohiostateuniversity
https://www.instagram.com/p/Bghdrr9HBu4/?taken-by=theohiostateuniversity

Insta-Friendly Places: Make your campus, office, and events Instagram friendly. Set up places that are clearly designed to be Instagrammable, whether it’s a full photo booth or just a simple backdrop. You can even put up signs or cutouts with a quick “take a pic with (insert mascot here) and post it on Instagram with #(insert branded hashtag here) to be featured on our social media platforms!” sign.

Takeovers: A great way to involve your community is to actually let them take over your Instagram for a day or a week. This one might seem scary, but I promise that the payoff is huge! Jackie Vetrano has an amazing write up about how to successfully run an Instagram takeover that you should definitely check out here. After you set up a takeover, be sure to go back and edit their posts in your feed to make clear who the poster was. As an added bonus, tagging the person behind the takeover will help your posts reach an even bigger audience.

User-Generated Content: Here’s where your social listening skills will come into play. Pay attention to your branded hashtags and to other related hashtags. When you see a post that impresses you, reach out and ask if you can feature it on your account (giving tagged photo credit, of course!). It’s a win-win for both parties if you get permission since it exposes their followers to your account and your followers to their account. That means extra reach for both of you!

Accounts to Follow

To see those strategies in action, I’ve put together a list of examples of Insta-excellence spanning from university-wide accounts to university presidents to other digital influencers. I’ve actually built out a more in-depth list of higher education presidents to follow on my blog, which you can read here.

A Few Insta-worthy Universities to Feature

Hubspot has a great and very comprehensive list of colleges that are setting the standard for higher education Instagrams, but I wanted to share a few standouts in particular. What Universities — or companies— do you love on Instagram? Be sure to let me know in the comments!

Education Pro’s I love Following on Insta

We may not be able to create on-platform lists on Instagram like we can on Twitter, but that doesn’t mean I can’t share my personal list of education pros to follow on Twitter. My blog post University/College Presidents to Follow on Instagram has 25 presidents worth checking out, but I wanted to take a second and highlight other education pros with amazing Instagrams!

Work in education and want to add your individual (personal) insta account to an open-access list? Add yourself using this link! https://goo.gl/forms/PgNTCAbeWFJBI7EI2

Digital Influencers to Follow

Of course, not all examples of how to succeed are from Instagram. These influencers have a lot to teach us about what to post and how to engage on social media, so be sure to check them out!

As you might be able to tell, I love love love Instagram. I especially love seeing all of the content from all of the real and relatable people I’ve connected with on the platform! In a sea of promoted and promotional content, the posts that feel real and genuine stand out. Instead of focusing on the metrics and the promotion, focus on how you’re connecting with and creating communities. That’s the best way to keep it real on Instagram!

Be sure to connect with me on Instagram for behind the scenes on my latest speaking engagement, writing retreat progress, and even adventures with my friends/family. Know an amazing Instagram account I should be following? Let me know in the comments!


If you’re ready to connect with your campus, you’ll love this BRAND NEW resource that I’ve created called Get Connected: The Social Media Guide for Campus Leaders. This guide shares the latest usage of young adults of social media and how campus leaders can genuinely connect with their campus community.

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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Rebekah Tilley

Assistant Vice President, University of Iowa Center for Advancement

Rebekah Tilley is the assistant vice president of communication and marketing for the University of Iowa Center for Advancement (UICA). In that role she supports fundraising and alumni engagement efforts for the university, including its CASE Gold winning Iowa Magazine, and serves UICA in a variety of strategic communication efforts.

Previously she was the director of strategic communication for the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business, and the director of communication for the University of Kentucky College of Law. She is a Kentucky native and a proud alum of the University of Kentucky.

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