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Instagram: The new way to connect with students

February 24, 2021 | 6 min read

By Nina Verishagen, Hannah Elliott

Screen capture of Instagram elsevier

The second of a three-part series on social media activities for academic libraries

This article was originally published on July 16, 2019. It is the second of a three-part series on social media activities for academic libraries. The other articles in the series are “Creating social media committees to increase your library’s social presence” and “Using Twitter to connect with faculty.” At our institution, a technical college in Canada, Facebook has always been the frontrunner for making social media connections with students. However, it’s become quite clear in the past year that Instagram (IG) is quickly making gains among younger students, including Millennials (25- to 34-year-olds) and post-Millennials (18- to 24-year-olds). A 2017 Ryerson University study found that among these already-heavy social media users, 67 percent and 62 percent, respectively, have recently adopted IG (Grudz, Jacobson, Mai & Dubois, 2018). Case studies out of U.S. academic libraries also reflect this trend.

screen shot from instagram

Accordingly, in the spring of 2018, our social media committee  (SMC) began efforts to reinvigorate our dwindling IG presence. We defined our purpose, refined our IG personality, and made purposeful steps towards engagement.

Reinvigorating the feed

A focus on the personality and look of the feed, as well as a concentrated effort to create meaningful posts, has increased engagement and resulted in a number of organic follows.

The personality

Our IG feed is targeted directly at students. The focus is on organic content, incorporating fun elements alongside academic ones. We’ve adopted a casual voice and have attempted to showcase the library’s collective personality. One way we do this is by featuring photos of staff. This helps students make a positive association with the library and reassures them that they will be greeted by a friendly face when they visit us. These posts are among our most popular.

The look

To make the feed cohesive, colorful, and attractive to our user demographic, we harness the power of two online tools: Canva and Unsplash.

Canva is a free drag-and-drop graphic design program. Its pre-designed image layouts for Instagram mean that in most cases, we only have to edit the text on the images. We can also manipulate the hex codes of the templates to match our institutional color scheme. Unsplash is a free database of high-quality, curated images generously donated by professional photographers—which means no more fumbling with Google’s image search. Combining both of these tools helps us create an attractive feed.

button making workshop and living library cover

Our posts

We post a wide variety of content, including but not limited to book displays, library and campus events, holiday closures and hour changes, informational posts, and promotional posts for online resources.

Here are some examples of content you’ll find on the @saskpolytechlibrary feed:

instagram post of elsevier

Methods of engagement

Contests: Gaining followers

This work would be for nothing if we didn’t increase our engagement. Therefore, we had to think strategically about gaining followers. In 2016, our Facebook page had been successful with a student “gain likes” contest. We decided to replicate it in 2018 and include IG. By utilizing our in-person promotional capabilities (library orientations, welcome day events and word-of-mouth marketing via front desk staff) we were able to gain 336 IG (student) followers in one month. The contest was inexpensive, simple and required minimal effort.

Contests: Keep the followers engaged

You win some, you lose some: This phrase applies not only to the patrons who enter the contests, but also to our success in hosting them. In January 2019, a contest proved to be a valuable learning experience for our SMC. On January 3, we held two contests simultaneously on Instagram and Facebook (see images below). The graphics for each contest were identical except for the instructions. The outcome? The Facebook contest was a huge success, with nearly 130 GIF replies. In contrast, the Instagram contest was a flop, with only 13 comments.

Why? Our team thought of several possible explanations.

Historically, with social media contests, we have found that the less effort required from our followers to win, the more entries we receive—particularly if a larger prize is at stake. GIFs are easy to post, humorous, and build a positive momentum that results in more people wanting to engage and participate. We guessed that our IG followers just didn’t want to type out full sentences for a $5 prize. We also speculated that many people may feel that New Year’s resolutions are an outdated concept, or that the question was too personal.

Instagram stories

Pulling direct informal feedback: Priceless

In August 2016, Instagram introduced Stories, a feature that allows users to upload photos and video to a temporary slideshow (it disappears after 24 hours) on their profile. Instagram Stories are extremely useful for on-the-fly content; for example, we use this feature to promote events taking place in the library or elsewhere on campus (e.g., visits from therapy dogs). In the past two years, Instagram has rolled out additional Poll and Questions features for users to incorporate in their stories. We have taken advantage of these new features to boost engagement and assist us with making decisions—e.g., posting a poll to see if followers would be willing to bring reusable mugs to coffee events. (Spoiler alert: They’re happy to!)

Metrics: Our greatest difficulty

Recording IG Story metrics has proven to be difficult, and we are still struggling with it. IG doesn’t have sophisticated built-in analytics like Facebook and Twitter do. For the 2018-19 academic year, we didn’t make a formal record of our insights and later learned that Instagram Story metrics only record the previous two weeks. In the future, we hope to find a more efficient way of recording these numbers. Exporting Instagram Story analytics to a desktop format (e.g., an Excel spreadsheet) is difficult, requiring the use of third-party software. Currently, we are considering the platform Later as an analytics manager, as we estimate that manually inputting this data would be a time-consuming task.

Focus on students

Instagram has been a beneficial addition to our library’s social media platforms, serving as an effective channel for promoting library resources and events and gathering direct student input. Adopting Instagram as a platform has shown us how important it is for our team to adapt to social media trends, apps, and technologies to stay on top of the game and meet students where they are.

For more Instagram examples and case studies see: Verishagen, 2019, Social Media: The Academic Library Perspective – Chapter 6opens in new tab/window

Reference: Grudz, A., Jacobson, J., Mai, P., & Dubois, E. (2018). The State of Social Media in Canada 2017. Version 1.0. Ryerson University Social Media Lab. Retrieved from: in new tab/window


Image of Nina Verishagen


Nina Verishagen

Marketing Librarian

Saskatchewan Polytechnic Library

Image of Hannah Elliott


Hannah Elliott

Library Technician

Saskatchewan Polytechnic Library