Build Community Around Photo Content with Instagram

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What story can an image tell in real-time?

After years of loyal Blackberry usage, I finally bought an iPhone in early September. But it took me a few months to come around to what millions of iPhone users had been obsessing about for months: Instagram, the photo editing and sharing app. Once I decided to go all in, I realized what the buzz was all about—Instagram’s real potential for engaging, community-driven content.

In talking with Higher Ed Live’s Seth Odell at EduComm 2011 last year, New York Times technology columnist David Pogue defined the purpose of Instagram as “sharing the real-life experience of what’s happening to you right now with other people as it happens.” [YouTube link] The combination of personal moments, real-time publishing and community is extremely potent for crafting successful content, and Instagram wraps it all up into one mobile bundle. That makes it worth evaluating as a tool to help you achieve your content goals.

The Skinny on Instagram

Since its launch in October 2010, Instagram has taken the mobile world by force. Despite only being available via iOS (an Android version is in development), the app has 15 million users (as many as Foursquare) who have shared 400 million photos—an average of 60 per second.

Even though Instagram does not have a true web presence (yet), links to images hosted on the service tally 300 million page views per month. Instagram is pretty bare bones on the web side for the time being (though services like Statigram are filling the gap for now), but as the service continues to grow, enhancements like search and analytics can’t be far behind.

Instagram’s growth has been fueled by the continuing mobile boom, in particular the launch of the iPhone 4S (with its highly regarded camera), and many observers (such as Niall Harbison at Simply Zesty and Educational Media Group’s Stephen Biernacki say that 2012 is the year Instagram becomes the next big thing. The recent enabling of full-size photo sharing to Facebook—which quickly saw an influx of six Instagram photos shared to the service per second—sure helps those prophecies ring true.

Why Should Instagram Matter to Us?

Not everyone with an iPhone may be using Foursquare or even Twitter, but you can bet that they’re taking photos on the go. With Instagram, there is now a content community (supported by an easy-to-use application) developing around that fundamental mobile activity.

Photos are a powerful content type. An image captures a moment in time, and a moment becomes a memory. These are compelling, intimate forms of communication. In short, they are stories: poignant, focused and revelatory. “The emotion and stories of the photos [on Instagram] carry a lot of weight,” Jason Keath wrote on SocialFresh.

MarketingProfs’ Ann Handley—an avid Instagram user herself—writes: “In my view, Instagram’s growth is fueled by the richness of its story platform more than anything else… Instagram essentially trains you to look for content and stories almost everywhere.” She continues:

Creating content that is the soul of your brand—and that communicates your point of view and “voice” in a powerful, emotional way—is key. Instagram is one of the best platforms I’ve seen that puts magic wands into the hands of us Muggles. It gives any one of us the tools necessary to create great stuff—-even if you aren’t much of a photographer.

The other “magic” thing about Instagram, and what distinguishes it from other photo platforms like Flickr, is its real-time emphasis. Looking at my Instagram feed and engaging with the photos therein helps me feel connected to people and experiences in the moment. Much like Twitter, hashtags help broaden our real-time perspective by enabling us to discover more content.

What more, with hashtags and search, we can begin to develop a rich community around the photos (and stories) we share and find. By publishing exceptional content and engaging via comments, we can grow that community into one of value.

“Instagram is bringing us closer to people all over the world whom we’ve never met, but whose take on the world and aesthetic choices resonates with us,” Natalie Rodic Marsan wrote on Razorfish’s Scatter/Gather content strategy blog. “But ultimately all this exists for an unquantifiable next step: the fostering of community and relationships.”

Many brands, personalities and media organizations have already found their way to Instagram and begun building communities there. Among the earliest of them was National Public Radio. As NPR’s senior social media strategist Andy Carvin told Mashable, “Our main focus has always been to go to the places where we believe existing and potential NPR fans are hanging out and give them an outlet to interact with us and our content.” (You can see more examples of brands on Instagram on Quora and Social Fresh.)

University of Wisconsin-Green Bay social media specialist Todd Sanders recently shared his revelations about the potential of Instagram, particularly how it can help boost engagement via Facebook. (And yes, Sanders points out, you can post to your institutional Facebook page directly from Instagram.)

How to Use Instagram

This all sounds well and good, but how do we make it happen? As with any social media platform, we need a plan and a purpose before blindly diving in and posting images all over the place. Here are some best practices to consider—I’d love to hear your ideas, as well.

Use It, Don’t Abuse It

Take a spin as a personal user before you launch your institution onto the platform. See what kinds of photos people are sharing and which attract engagement. Follow some brands and see how they use it, too. Learn from others.

Have a Goal, Develop an Identity

Before pointing your iPhone at anything that moves, think through how you want to use Instagram and to what end. What stories do you want to tell? Do you want to highlight student life? Events on campus? Research? The inner workings of what makes your campus tick? What kinds of images would both support those goals and align with what tends to succeed on Instagram?

Take Interesting Photos

On Instagram, as with most visual channels, the perspective matters. A photo of a speaker at a podium won’t cut it. Now, a photo taken by that speaker at the podium? Or a backstage shot of a candid moment—say, a deep breath—before the speaker heads out? That’s really saying something.

Consider the Potential for Events

We all have campus events, and Instagram has a lot of promise for capturing the moments that make those events special and publishing in real-time for those who can’t be in attendance.

Extend Your Content with Hashtags

With hashtags, the reach of Instagram content can go even further. Some TV stations have solicited hashtagged Instagram photos from viewers to feature in their newscasts.

Get More Out of Your Campus Photography

Have some neat outtakes from that brochure shoot, or did your photographer snap a fun photo of a squirrel “reading” the campus newspaper on the way to an event? Instagram could be a home for quirky or human interest content that may not have a place elsewhere.

Solicit Feedback

A photo can be a great way to ask a question, so empower your community with a level of decision-making. Which tie should the president wear today? What song should play when the basketball team takes the court for today’s big game? (Inspired by Wayne Sutton)

Run a Contest

Encourage user-generated content by asking people to take pics of themselves wearing college apparel, or posing with a representation of your mascot. (Don’t forget to establish a hashtag and extend to Twitter so non-Instagram users can participate, as well.) Or ask people to comment with captions for photos, giving your community an opportunity to riff or to be profound. (Also inspired by Wayne Sutton)

Map Your Moments

Through geotagging and the Instagram API, you can map the snapshots that you (or members of your community) take across campus. In a similar vein, The Boston Globe is experimenting with a map plotting Instagram photos around the city of Boston, and ad agency Allen & Gerritsen popularized the #lightspotting hashtag to solicit submissions for its map of Christmas light displays. (You may consider using a service like Feed Magnet to help curate photos taken with a specific hashtag.)

Your Turn

What’s the potential of Instagram for supporting our content goals? How else might we use the service to publish great content and build community?

Homepage photo by, well, me. These are the first two images I ever shared via Instagram.

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About Georgy Cohen

Georgy Cohen is associate creative director, content strategy, at OHO Interactive in Cambridge, Mass.. Prior to OHO, she worked with a range of higher ed institutions, including stints at Tufts University and Suffolk University and as an independent consultant, on content strategy and digital communication initiatives. Keep going »

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