Which Universities Get a Perfect Score on Instagram?

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In my role on the TrackMaven customer success team, I specialize in working with marketers at major colleges and universities. Marketers at higher education institutions are fighting to build brand awareness and engage audiences of alumni and prospective students alike. Traditional marketing tactics — like brochures and booths at college fairs — are still in effect. But many higher ed marketers have turned to digital marketing to help them drive major institutional results, such as boosting admissions applications and alumni donations.

Out of the higher ed digital marketing frenzy, Instagram has emerged as a unique competitive arena. Instagram usage is especially prevalent among prospective college students; half of all American teens ages 13 to 17 use Instagram. With such a vast audience of prospective students on Instagram, the network has essentially become the digital version of a college brochure. So we wondered… which universities are making the most of this opportunity?

What are the best colleges on Instagram?

Naturally, you’d expect big schools with enormous alumni populations to get the most Instagram engagement. So we used a metric called the engagement rate — measured as interactions per picture per 1,000 followers on Instagram — to measure how effectively a given school engages its audience, normalized by follower count.

The graph below analyzes 40 universities (big and small) from across the country. We analyzed the schools’ Instagram engagement ratios versus their undergraduate enrollment numbers, as reported in U.S. News and World Report. So which schools are acing Instagram?

Instagram Engagement Ratio vs. Undergraduate Enrollment among U.S. Universities

About the data: We used the TrackMaven marketing analytics platform to measure the universities’ average interactions per post per 1,000 followers on Instagram over the course of 2015 (y-axis). The x-axis plots undergraduate enrollment numbers as of October 1, 2015, as reported by U.S. News and World Report.

Right away you notice that there is not a direct correlation between a school’s size (and total potential online audience) and its Instagram performance. Some of the most populous undergraduate universities (Ohio State, Arizona State, University of Texas) all rank in the bottom half of the pack in terms of Instagram engagement rates.

Interestingly, the reverse doesn’t hold water either. Just because a school has a small (and therefore potentially more dedicated) population doesn’t mean it is more likely to have an effective Instagram profile. Some of the schools with the smallest undergraduate populations in this analysis (Duke, Harvard, Yale) were the least effective in terms of Instagram performance. Brand recognition doesn’t seem to help either; institutions such as Duke, which has an incredibly dedicated fan base for sports alone, struggles to compete with the rest of the pack on Instagram.

The best colleges on Instagram

Georgetown, Iowa, Dartmouth. Among the three, Iowa has the biggest undergraduate population and has figured out how to engage that population.

Colleges with room for improvement on Instagram

Duke, Harvard, and Ohio State. Duke and Harvard should be able to use their Ivy League prestige (and beautiful campuses) on Instagram. Ohio State has a HUGE undergraduate population, but only engages minimally with that population on Instagram.

What’s the secret to the their success? Better content wins every time. Here are some tips from the universities that have been able to generate visual content in a sustainable way to keep their Instagram audience engaged.

Three easy-to-implement Instagram tips for college marketing teams

  1. Use candid photos on Instagram. Not everything has to be staged! Your campus is alive at all times. Odds are you can find a scenic moment by taking a walk on your lunch break. Try to capture moments while you’re traversing the quad, or drop by local gathering spots to catch students in action. This is by far the most authentic way to illustrate what it’s like to be a student at your university.
  2. Try a student takeover of Instagram (with guidelines, of course). Speaking of authenticity, one incredibly successful tactic is to give control of your Instagram handle to a student or select group. I know, I know. How can you be certain that they will post appropriately? Well, if you want to showcase your university from the viewpoint of those who attend, then go straight to the source. Vet and coach your students to make sure they understand the rules and know which types of posts aren’t allowed, and, more specifically, the types of content you’re looking for. Some marketing teams I’ve worked with have even reviewed photos daily and curated them with the students to build rapport.
  3. Stick to the basics like “campus beautification.” The most surprising thing I’ve found from working with universities is that many teams are apprehensive about posting too many photos of “campus beautification,” such as aerial photos of campus, a shot of the local clock tower with the sun setting in the background, or a picture of the main quad after a snowfall. The discussion typically revolves around wanting to show the campus, and local area, while at the same time illuminating the academic rigor of the institution. Finding a balance between the two is vital for a university’s social media strategy. (And not just on Instagram!) Potential students follow your Instagram account to see how great your campus is. The goal is to help them picture what it’s like to be a student there (even before investing money for a campus visit). Here are two examples of top-performing Instagram content from major universities:

Both of these examples show the impact of campus beautification content. Academic rigor is important to illustrate and emphasize, but keep in mind that Instagram is a channel where “destination” content flourishes.

How does the new Instagram algorithm affect my strategy?

With the introduction of the new Instagram algorithm, there is huge potential to implement smart targeting campaigns on Instagram. It will only get easier to track referral traffic and conversions on the network — which means greater insight into how Instagram impacts universities’ brand recognition, inbound applications, and alumni fundraising. To make this granular ROI possible, make sure you have the basics in place. Get your audience’s attention, and give them a reason to keep coming back for more.

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