Visual Storytelling with Instagram's New Ads for Colleges
Higher Education Marketing

Visual Storytelling with Instagram’s New Ads for Colleges

Date posted: October 21, 2015

Instagram Opens Advertising to All Businesses

If you’ve been following the social media trends favouring increasingly mobile and image-based content, it may come as little surprise that photo-sharing mobile app Instagram is emerging as one of the best student recruitment platforms. The Facebook-owned app hit 400 million users last month, propelling it well ahead of Twitter’s 316 million monthly active users, with more than 80 million photos being shared on the service every day. Nearly three-quarters of Instagram’s user base is between the ages of 15 and 35, making it a particularly appealing channel for education lead generation.

Instagram has flourished by providing a fun and fluid platform for expressing and exploring personal experiences. Singularly focused on emotive images, its emphasis on an uncluttered and intuitive user experience has resulted in far higher engagement than other social media channels (4.21% engagement per post compared to Facebook’s 0.07%). Higher education institutions have leveraged its power for giving an instant yet in-depth glimpse into life on campus. With Instagram, the context is exclusively in the pictures you post – well chosen storytelling visuals can compellingly convince prospects that they belong at your school.

Instagram has been slow to introduce advertising to its community, cautious to avoid alienating its user base. When they began experimenting with highly controlled ads from certain major brands in 2013, the company’s CEO personally reviewed each one to ensure they looked organic and natural. Now Instagram has finally opened up its paid advertising to all, with exciting new business-friendly services focused on three key areas: “expanding ad offerings to include action-oriented formats, enabling more targeting capabilities, and making it easier for businesses large and small to buy ads on Instagram.”

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Big Changes with New Instagram Ads

Before this major move, buying Instagram ads meant directly contacting their sales representative, with a substantial investment in both budget and time. Marketers can now coordinate Instagram campaigns with other automated social media ad purchasing, using third-party platforms to organize, cross-promote and monitor their Instagram activity, including unpaid organic posts. This “self-serve” integration enables efficient engagement with users from the same social media dashboard that managers use to respond to comments on Twitter and Facebook.

The switching on of Instagram’s advertising API (application programming interface) comes with many new marketing capabilities for education institutions. As it is owned by Facebook, prospects can now be targeted on Instagram using Facebook’s sophisticated demographic and interest data, with conversions tracked and measured using Facebook’s conversion pixel.

New targeting opportunities include searching out new prospects with similar persona characteristics as your present data, and connecting your school’s existing email data to Instagram, so you can reach students who have already engaged with your college. Advanced targeting improves return on investment by delivering highly relevant ad content to the right audience, at the right place and time.

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Why Choose Instagram?

The soaring popularity of social messaging apps like Instagram, Snapchat and Whatsapp have coincided with smartphone ubiquity, as devices become increasingly affordable and wireless networks faster. According to OnCampus Advertising, mobile is the top medium where millennial students see and respond to relevant ads so ensure that landing pages connected to Instagram CTAs are optimized for mobile. Of smartphone users, this demographic is significantly most likely to research relevant brands and complete mobile purchases.

Consider these stats for what they’re worth:

  • Millennials check their smartphones an average of 43 times per day! (Understanding Global Millennials)
  • Instagram is generally their social media of choice, with teenagers 50% more likely to be active on the channel (GlobalWebIndex)
  • 48% of high school seniors surveyed were researching colleges on Instagram, up 20% from 2014 (Chegg)
  • Clickthrough rates on Instagram ads are 2.5 times higher than on other social media platforms (Kenshoo)
  • Ad recall from Instagram sponsored posts was 2.9 times higher than Nielsen’s norms for online advertising (Instagram)

While novelty is inevitably a factor when evaluating advertising engagement levels, Instagram’s outreach potential is hard to ignore. Over 75% of its 400 million users live outside the U.S., with rapid user growth in popular source countries for international student recruitment, such as Brazil. Inspiring images, targeted towards students in top global markets, are a great introduction to your beautiful campus and school spirit for prospects who aren’t able to visit in person.

Understanding Instagram’s Unique Character

To succeed with Instagram marketing, it is essential to understand its unique visual and creative community. The best way to start is by seeing what prospective and current students are already saying about your school and which aspects they choose to share. Social media monitoring can help identify relevant location tags and hashtags, which can reveal what interests your target audience(s). Develop personas for your various Instagram audiences and occasionally attempt to qualify these niches by accompanying your images with questions relevant to this group.

Consider your goals for this platform, which may somewhat vary depending on the particular campaign. Establish your organic presence and strategy on Instagram before leaping into paid advertising – Instagram itself advocates this approach. Leverage your existing inbound marketing efforts to adapt your core messaging, varying your themes to engage your diverse audiences at different times. Choose themes that can tell your story through a consistent stream of powerful imagery.

In both organic posts and ads, it’s important to respect Instagram’s raison d’etre, an intimate space for engaging with high quality, artistically-styled pictures. Avoid offending your community by not over-posting – once daily is likely sufficient.  “Instagram provides a playground for photos: a playground easily accessible, unobtrusive, and inviting,” writes Sheri Lehman on Chapman University’s blog.

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Chapman’s Instagram engagement is regularly at least triple that of Facebook

Natural but High Quality Images

Although some universities employ professional photographers to roam their campuses in search of captivating pictures, it’s likely you have someone on your team or student body with a decent camera and a good eye. Student photo contests are an excellent way to accumulate a variety of effective images, engage your community, and gain followers by imposing rules like “follow us to enter.” Instagram photos typically make use of their many filtering, effects and editing features for image enhancement – make the most of their square format to experiment with layout, colour and composition. Images can also be processed on specialized photo-editing apps like Squarer, Snapseed or AfterLight. Bold and vibrant colours often earn the most engagement.

Remember that in between the cute cats and appetizing dishes, students most often feature fun times with friends. Seek to capture those experiences that will make a prospect pause their scrolling to empathize and click “like”. Fortunately, campuses are full of youthful feeling and demonstrations of contagious enthusiasm. Aim to keep pictures on-brand but more candid and natural than your typical glossy marketing. Whenever possible, focus on both the students and the inspiring background, such as impressive campus architecture or scenery.

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Best Practices for Instagram Higher Education Marketing

When showcasing your brand’s personality and what it represents, ensure your posts don’t stick out for the wrong reasons. Instagrammers can be a passionate bunch and don’t take kindly to sponsored content that infringes upon the traditionally ad-free aesthetic. Prioritize your message’s clarity while creating great visuals that feel at home on Instagram. Congratulate your sports teams, profile student and alumni successes, and find those humanizing behind-the-scenes moments at campus events.

Hashtags are very popular on Instagram, particularly when connected with cross-platform campaigns that galvanize your community. Adding hashtags liberally is the best way of gaining distribution and exposure on Instagram – even more so than on Twitter. Use the Explore page to research popular hashtags and add at least three to each post caption (Piqora advises 7) – you can always add more later in the comments for additional context.

Instagram isn’t as strict as Twitter with character limits for photo captions, but keep them short and sweet, inserting at least a few hashtags and perhaps some humour. Grow your community by promoting your Instagram account across your marketing channels and by interacting with other Instagrammers. You can also try capitalizing on trends and popular hashtags like #ThrowbackThursday.

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Creating Ads on Instagram

To start advertising on Instagram, first connect your Instagram account to your Facebook page so you can create ads with Facebook Power Editor. This process allows you to create ads that run on both or either Facebook and/or Instagram.   Under Settings on your Facebook page, click to add an account under Instagram Ads. You may choose to add an existing Instagram account or create a new one directly in Facebook.

Consider what you wish your ad to achieve and choose from Instagram’s new interactive features, many of which can only be accessed by advertisers. These features include videos of up to 30 seconds long (whereas regular users can only post 15-second videos) and calls to action (CTAs) that can link to external content, such as installing new apps or university landing pages.

There are three types of ads that colleges and universities can employ:

1. Image (Direct Response)  

Instagram’s new action-oriented ad offerings include clear calls to action that allow your prospects to click directly through and take the next steps. Links could previously only be placed in profile bios. Five different CTAs are possible, including “Sign Up”, “Learn More” or “Install Now” for apps.

Example: Lewisham Southwark College ran the first Instragram advertising campaign in the UK education sector, surpassing expectations with colourful images focusing on their community. The campaign yielded over 9,000 likes with great feedback for future improvements. Their website saw about 6,000 clicks from about 300,000 impressions. “Make sure your content is going to resonate with your audience and how they engage on the platform,” advises Sonia Furley, marketing head at the college.

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2. Carousel Ads

Earlier this year, Instagram introduced “carousel ads” that enable businesses to share multiple photographs per advertisement that can be flipped through like a slideshow. Schools can include up to four images along with a CTA for enhanced storytelling, highlighting various aspects of a college or program, behind-the-scenes insights, tutorials or procedures (such as “how to apply”), or lead up to a surprise ending. The first image should be the strongest, perhaps hinting that there’s more to the story.

3. Videos

While regular users can post 15-second videos on Instagram, advertisers’ videos can be 30 seconds long. Brands are generally recommended to make photos 80-90% of their content but videos can be effective. Remember that audio doesn’t automatically play on Instagram and videos run on a loop, so think twice about your visuals. Choose a video cover photo that intrigues with an essential moment, keep filters consistent and strive for authenticity. They recently launched a new app called Hyperlapse that could be valuable for schools making high-quality time lapse videos, even while in motion.

Instagram’s new business tools provide better measurement of impressions, reach and engagement and it’s likely that these will continue to improve as the platform adjusts to increased advertising. While it’s easy to recommend creating “native” ads that don’t disrupt the user experience, the challenge for colleges and universities will be to develop concise and captivating images, carousels or videos that invite Instagrammers to further explore their communities.






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