Instagram Marketing: Collegiate Edition


Instagram has grown to over 600 million monthly users, 90 percent of whom are under the age of 35. Looking for current and prospective students? You may find them on Instagram.

It can be a struggle keeping up with the platform due to ever-changing content trends – herein lies the need for a killer content strategy. Then you’ll be well on your way to reaching those elusive prospective students, current students, alumni, and even the community around you.

But, for those of you who have dabbled on the platform and tested various content strategies, you know that this is much easier said than done. We interviewed two standout universities on their approach to Instagram content.

Sheffield University | Sheffield, UK

Sheffield University’s first Instagram attempt was like many of ours. They heard about the channel and thought, “Well, let’s just post some stuff and see what happens!” What followed shortly after is what differentiates them from most …

As Instagram started to catch on, Sheffield’s Digital Team was surprised to find their community posting beautiful photographs of the campus. The exuberant students, the elegant architecture, the contagious school pride was on display for the whole world to see.

Sheffield saw this and knew they had to strategize quick ways to feed their Instagram channel with all of this raw talent. The team identified a ‘micro-influencer’, who also happened to be a Ph.D. student, and was posting photos of his time spent on campus. “His portfolio was intriguing and well-rounded, his following was engaged. So, we invited him to manage the University’s channel” said Stephen Thompson, Head of Digital at Sheffield University.

Sheffield University's Instagram features beautiful images from all around campus. Sheffield University’s Instagram features beautiful images from all around campus.


In the beginning, the student faced some psychological barriers when posting on the University’s behalf. “It is quite the pressure if you think about it—what’s going to be well received, what’s not? What’s appropriate, where’s the line that will raise controversy?” Thompson pointed out.

The team wanted to keep the posting guidelines fairly simple. This would allow students to take complete creative reign, which is what they were drawn to in the first place. “It’s photography, you have to capture the moment which you can’t really plan.”

As the students became more comfortable on the account, content was noticeably trending. Success! Sheffield’s lack of post-planning actually became a valuable component of the overall strategy. Rather than mapping out content calendars, the students captured organic moments that piqued their interest.

“Things on the Instagram account look natural because they were coming directly from what a student is interested in. When we started working with the students we started seeing real growth and engagement from the campus community.”

Instagram is now the school’s best channel for engagement and they use it for advocacy and showcasing life at the university. Perhaps best of all, the content created for Instagram is used across all other aspects of marketing. It’s the perfect hybrid of authentic photography of campus life as experienced by a student, but with an air of professionalism.

The University of Idaho | Moscow, ID

Unlike Sheffield’s profile, which is successful through imagery, the University of Idaho finds success through storytelling. “The content isn’t the main focus for our team, it’s finding the voice and really understanding how to use it to connect with our following.” Explains Holli Sampson, UI’s Web Coordinator for Enrollment Management.

The University of Idaho joined Instagram right after the app launched in 2010 and began testing different strategies to feel out the new and intriguing platform. It didn’t take long for the school to start noticing a consistent trend– change. Right when their campaigns would gain traction, the trends of what Instagram users wanted to see shifted, and immediately outdated their content. “We found that you constantly have to be on your toes. You have to ask yourself what it is that they want to know right now and figure out ways to entertain and engage the audience with this,” Holli emphasized.

Once the team figured this out, they started thinking less about content and more about their voice. In doing so, they would be able to keep up with the constant fluctuation of trending content on Instagram while keeping a unified, branded presence on the platform. The team collaborated and found a way to mold their personal voices into one that resonated with their current students, prospective students, alumni, and staff. That was the moment things started falling into place.

University of Idaho uses instagram marketing for students (current and prospective)

Holli told us the school’s main reason for being on Instagram, and what resonates with the audience the most, is to give a comprehensive overview of what it’s like to be a Vandal – things that you can’t really plan. “When we post the content we’ve planned a month in advance, we see less engagement than when we’re posting in the moment and acknowledging the cool things that are happening around campus.”

This spur-of-the-moment strategy has proven to be effective in a variety of ways, most importantly in achieving their goal to show prospective students what life is going to be like once they get to campus.

Caroline, an incoming Vandal, proved the power of good social media. “My decision to attend U of I was really influenced by the school’s Instagram account in comparison to other school’s I was considering,” she told us. “All of the photos I saw were fun and natural … heading to college is intimidating but their Instagram had a welcoming atmosphere and I related with the content they were posting.”

It’s nice when things fall into place on social media, but it isn’t always easy. There needs to be a reason why you are on the channel. Once you find your voice and your “why”, students will want to engage. “You’re going to have to push, push, push before it does anything on its own.” Says Holli.

But, don’t lose hope! Once you figure out what works for your school, Instagram can turn into a very fun and effective advocacy channel.

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