Instagram, the mobile app that allows users to take photos, add filters, and share them with their social networks, has grown to more than 40 million users in the iPhone and Android markets since launching in October 2010. With a growing user base, Facebook purchased the app in April for $1 billion to complement its already robust social network of more than 900 million users.
"I love Twitter and I've been using it for years, but words only say so much, and I tend to scroll past a lot of tweets if nothing pops out at me instantly," she says. "I like that Instagram just shows a picture."
[Discover five unique uses of Twitter in the classroom.]
As Instagram continues to grow in popularity, there is a benefit for colleges and universities to be active on the service, says Amy Peterson, new media specialist at Texas Christian University.
"We use it as another tool in our marketing [strategy]," Peterson says. "It's a place where our students and alumni are, so that's where we are."
Here are three ways colleges and universities are using Instagram to connect with their audiences.
1. Ask questions: When the University of Florida began using Instagram in March 2011, the initial plan was to post an image each week that represented the university, says Bruce Floyd, the school's social media specialist.
This changed when Floyd posted an image on the platform asking, "What kinds of photos would you like to see from us on Twitter and Instagram?"
"What we heard from them is that they want behind-the-scenes images," he notes. "They want to see parts of Florida that people don't normally get to see."
Since receiving responses, the university has posted more exclusive-access images, such as a photo during a class lecture, an image inside a university television station, and a point-of-view photograph from the podium at the university commencement ceremonies.
Alumni also sent feedback, requesting photos that would spark nostalgia, Floyd says. To fulfill this request, Instagram offers filters to alter and enhance an image, many of which can mimic the style or appearance of a photograph that may have been taken years earlier.
"Our alumni may not have seen [the] campus for 10 or 20 years, and by presenting something that's presented like a Polaroid, it creates an even more interesting connection," he says. "They're nostalgic, and then they see something that is presented in a way that is nostalgic."
[Read about alumni's top 10 most loved schools.]
2. Feed other social networks: Smaller colleges may have difficulties growing a fan base on social networks to match those of larger universities, but having the ability to easily share images from Instagram to other social media sites allows them to reach a variety of audiences.
At the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay, with an enrollment of about 6,400 students, feeding Instagram to other networks gives the school a chance to promote the photo platform, says Todd Sanders, a social media specialist at the university.
"For those students who are hesitant about [downloading Instagram], by posting a picture that goes onto our Timeline on Facebook, a student may click on it and we see [a new follower] there," Sanders notes.
3. Encourage participation during major events: "I feel very strongly that photos are one of the best ways to sell anything," notes TCU's Peterson. "Having a photo is such an instant, visually gratifying experience [and] what makes Instagram kind of cool is that the images look really pretty."
While many schools share images of popular destinations on campus, commencement season gives colleges and universities opportunities to promote one of the most positive annual events on campus, says Florida's Floyd.
At the University of Florida's recent commencement ceremonies, the university promoted the #ufgrad hashtag on Twitter and Instagram, and encouraged students to also post images on Instagram using the hashtag.
"We ended up getting hundreds of photos posted to the hashtag of people before, during, and after the commencement," Floyd says. "We had all these students at commencement taking photos … Why not create a way to gather and capture the conversation?"
[Explore the 2012 college commencement speakers map.]
As a former college student, Georgetown grad Heitlinger says by covering events, as opposed to "just showing pictures of a tree or building," universities may more effectively connect with graduates.
"I think it's extremely important for alumni who are ultimately the ones who schools are hoping will donate money," Heitlinger notes. "If you're in the palm of their hands once or twice a day, they still have that connection with the university."
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