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Instagram for Schools: Best Practices for Engagement
Kristen Doverspike

When Instagram launched nearly ten years ago, it was simply a social media network for sharing pictures with friends (with some fun filters to make you feel like a professional photographer). Since then, the popular social media platform has evolved into a major player in schools' social media strategies for reaching both Millennial parents and Gen Z students alike.

Instagram has gone through hundreds of changes and algorithm updates — many of which have been driven by Facebook, after purchasing the network in 2012. While these changes have transformed Instagram from a simple, photo-sharing platform into a marketing and advertising powerhouse, the network still operates on the importance of sharing high-quality images and videos to engage followers — a strategy that's essential for schools today.

Instagram Best Practices for Schools and Districts

Before You Get Started: Key Terms to Know

Business Profiles: Instagram was built on the foundation of personal profiles, but it has evolved (like Facebook) to offer a space strictly for businesses and organizations, including schools. If your school or district is currently built on a personal profile, you can convert to a Business Profile by going to your settings and following the steps provided by Instagram.

Explore Page: If you're using Instagram as part of your prospecting efforts, the Explore Page should be a factor in your strategy. On this page (found by clicking the magnifying glass icon in your app), Instagram's algorithm suggests photos, videos, Reels, and IGTV content based on what the user actively engages with. Your hashtag usage plays a role in if — and when —your content appears on a user's Explore Page.

screenshot of Instagram's explore page

Stories: These ephemeral posts allow you to share real-time posts that stay live for 24 hours. Stories can be found in the Explore page, which can help you engage with audiences who don’t already follow you.

Highlights: If you captured some great moments in your Stories and wish they could live on your school’s Instagram profile for a longer period of time, you’ll want to try Highlights. This feature allows you to group stories together under a category, and they are featured just above your Instagram grid.

IGTV: Within Instagram, you can add long-form videos to your IGTV section. This is a great place to house live video recordings, video series, and more for your school. IGTV allows you to categorize videos in collections, much like YouTube playlists, so that you can organize your longer-form video content directly on the platform. Previews to your IGTV videos can be posted to your regular Instagram profile as well. If your school has created any IGTV videos, the IGTV button will automatically be added to the top of your school’s Instagram feed.

Reels: As Instagram’s newest addition, Reels are making a splash as an effective way to engage with your audience. These <15-second videos, often set to music or following a theme, are given a lot of precedence by Instagram as it attempts to compete with TikTok. Reels can be organically found on the Explore page, or through its dedicated space in the Instagram app. If your school has created Reels, the Reels button will automatically be added to the top of your school’s Instagram feed.

Anatomy of an Effective Instagram Post

Before diving deep into your strategy, it can be helpful to first identify what a good Instagram post actually looks like. Defining what’s “good” can vary based on your individual goals — for example, a post with a goal to engage with current families will look different from an admissions-focused post. That being said, there are simple best practices that every post should follow. 

Instagram example from ISB

This example from the International School of Brussels (ISB) checks all of the boxes:

  1. The image: Every image or video you use on Instagram should capture your visitor’s attention and tell a story. ISB’s image is vibrant, shows off the spirit of their school community, and features real students. Avoid dark or blurry photos on this visual-driven platform. And in general, keep in mind that images tend to get higher engagement than graphics.
  2. The caption: Your caption should match the nature of your image or video, be casual in tone, and will ideally offer an opportunity for your community to engage — whether you ask a question, encourage participation in an activity, or request a direct action. ISB’s caption explains the cause that they are looking to support, encourages its community to take part, and offers an opportunity to share photos directly related to the cause. It is encouraging in tone, without getting too serious (note the emoji!), and matches the energy of the photo.
  3. The hashtags: While ISB does not use the recommended 30 hashtags (more on this later), they do use both relevant and branded hashtags in tandem to expand their reach and to increase brand awareness. They even go the extra mile by creating a branded hashtag for this event, #ISBredout, so that they can gather user-generated content from the day. A+ to ISB!

Now that you can recognize an effective Instagram post, we can dive into your strategy!

Develop a Hashtag Strategy

Hashtags are used to categorize and organize content. Many schools have incorporated branded hashtags into their marketing and event strategies to encourage conversation and expand reach. Hashtags on Instagram play a significant role in reaching new audiences, growing your following, and engaging with your school community.

How many hashtags are recommended?

Hashtags are an essential component of a successful Instagram strategy. Posts that contain hashtags compared to those that do not see an average increase in engagement by up to 12.6%. For schools looking to use hashtags as a growth strategy, it’s now recommended to use all 30 hashtags that Instagram permits a single post to use. This helps increase your exposure to as many new and current followers as possible. 

How do we come up with hashtags?

We know that 30 hashtags probably sound like a lot (I mean, coming up with 30 unique terms for a single post of a student playing soccer does sound excessive), so don’t focus on quantity. 

You can come up with unique hashtags by:

  • Looking at what other accounts are using
  • Typing hashtags into the search bar to look at similar searches and volume
  • Coming up with your school’s own branded hashtags. It doesn’t have to be too creative — Covenant Day School, for example, uses the simple-yet-effective #CovenantDay hashtag on their posts!
Covenant Day School social media post

Pro Tip: Copy and paste your school’s hashtags into an app on your phone or laptop computer so it’s easy to reuse them.

Can hashtags help grow your school’s following?

Yes! If you incorporate your own school’s branded hashtags in addition to general ones related to your school’s market, events, departments, etc., you will increase your chances of being organically found by users who engage with similar content. 

instagram school marketing hashtags

Instagram makes it easy to see who is using certain hashtags. You can follow hashtags on the platform like you would a regular profile, which offers a great way to view all of the posts with the hashtag in one place. You can also include your hashtags in your bio to draw attention to posts that use the same hashtags.

How do you get your community involved?

It’s important to encourage your school community to use your school’s hashtags on their own posts. To generate awareness about your school’s hashtags, you can:

  • Incorporate the hashtag in your own posts,
  • Brand your hashtag graphically on your feed, and
  • Run contests on the platform to encourage your followers to use the hashtag! 

Capture Experiences

Your photos should showcase your school experience — both virtually and in person. Ask yourself which photos exemplify your values without needing a lot of words to explain. Video works especially well here, as Instagram (just like Facebook) prioritizes video content over static posts. Cor Jesu Academy exemplified this recently by celebrating the end of the school year with a student-made video congratulating each other!

Instagram post example from Cor Jesu Academy

Incorporate User-Generated Content

Instagram is a great outlet to share content that is curated by your school community. As long as it’s in compliance with your social media policy, you can encourage families to send in photos, set up a branded hashtag, or even hold a contest to gather real content from your community.

Why does this work?

In following the 70-20-10 rule — which states that 70% of your content should be engaging and entertaining, 20% of your content can be from other sources, and 10% can be promotional (like admissions messages) — user-generated photos and videos fit into the recommended 70% of content that naturally engages your followers. We want to see real people and candid moments, and we’re subsequently more likely to engage with content that promotes those moments.

Free Download: the Complete Social Media Calendar for Schools

Share Real Testimonials and Stories

Not only does your school have its own story, but members of your school community have their own perspectives that contribute to what your school is really all about. Instagram is an important platform to showcase members of your school — from current students and faculty to alumni. The Regis School of the Sacred Heart incorporates quotes and testimonials into its captions to not only celebrate the school’s values, but to show prospective families the benefits of attending.

screenshot of an Instagram post from The Regis School of the Sacred Heart featuring a testimonial

Incorporate Stories and Reels Into Your Weekly Strategy

Instagram is a place where you can really show off what makes your school special, including extracurriculars, unique campus spaces, and more. And today, there are more outlets to do this on Instagram than ever before.

With the growing popularity of Stories and the recent boom of Reels, posting on your “normal” grid is becoming less important for your daily content. 

In general, recommended weekly content for Instagram includes: 

  • Two to three posts for your feed,
  • Two Reels, and 
  • Five or more Stories. 

This is no overnight task (and it might not even be attainable for a small or one-person team...and that’s OK!). But, dipping your toes in the waters of Stories and Reels and slowly building your content strategy will help get more content in front of your community to boost your overall engagement.

Instagram Stories

Ephemeral content — content that is only available for a short period of time — is now found on every social media network. Through Instagram Stories, schools can share in-the-moment content that is archived after 24 hours. Content shared to Stories also won’t appear on your profile grid or in the main Instagram feed, making your profile interactive but not cluttered.

This type of content is perfect for recapping events, like open houses, athletic games, concerts, and more. If there are members of your school community who cannot attend but wish they could, they will feel part of the event by watching your Stories. 

Instagram Stories are interactive. They allow you to:

  • Use hashtags, which increase your chances of being found on the Explore Page.
  • Create a poll or ask a question to your followers that they can respond to in real-time.
  • Add a location or tag another user in the post to increase engagement.

Highline Public Schools often makes great use of their Stories, incorporating interactive elements and sharing user-generated content.

screenshot of Highline Schools Instagram story about virtual graduation

Looking to save some time? Use templates! While Instagram Stories are primarily posted through a mobile device, you can save a lot of energy by creating your graphics ahead of time on a desktop. Consider heading over to a free resource like Canva, which offers hundreds of pre-designed Instagram Story templates to choose from.

Instagram Story Highlights

For the Stories that you want to keep and showcase to your community any time they visit your Instagram account, add them to your Highlights! Unlike regular Instagram Stories that vanish after 24 hours, Instagram Highlights are curated clips grouped together that live on your profile for as long as you’d like. You can only add content to your Highlights that was previously featured in a Story.

You can organize the highlights by topic, event, department, and more. They will live right above your Instagram feed so that they are easily accessible to your visitors.

Follow these steps to start building your own Highlights:

Step 1: Turn the auto-archiving feature on. This way, your story content is saved automatically in the backend of your profile.

Step 2: Create your Instagram Stories Highlights. Just go to your Instagram profile and click on the arrow next to “Story Highlights” and then click the “New” button. Select the Stories you want part of your Highlight, give it a new title, then publish.

Lawrence School does a great job of organizing their Stories into Highlights — and they go the extra mile with branded logos!


Getting Started with Reels

If you have had any reservations about creating a presence on TikTok for your school or district, Instagram has provided a solution through the inception of Reels.

This short-form video feature has quickly launched a community of its own, and Instagram is pulling for it to outweigh its competitor platforms. As such, it’s becoming increasingly important for any Instagram profile to create Reels as a means to organically reach its audiences.

So, what should you post as a Reel? This is a tough question, because trends change nearly every day. However, taking a light-hearted approach at showcasing your students, your events, and more is a great start.

McCallie School is no stranger to short-form video content, being a successful early adopter of TikTok! Here, they use Reels to show a compilation of videos from their “Dunk Contest.”

McCallie School social media screenshot example

The best thing you can do to get inspiration for Reels is to head over to the platform and watch what’s trending now. And if you have older students, they will surely be on top of what trends you can capitalize on! Reels will surely evolve as its usage increases, so experimenting now can help your school or district get comfortable with this engagement powerhouse.

Bonus: Incorporate long-form videos into your Instagram strategy through IGTV

If you’re already creating content for your website or YouTube channel, IGTV offers just one additional outlet to hold your videos.

Some benefits of IGTV:

  • Length: Unlike Reels, IGTV allows for long-form video. This makes it a fantastic outlet for videos like athletic game recaps, student stories, and more.
  • Mobile-first: Like Stories and Reels, IGTV is built for the mobile user. This makes it easier for your followers to watch videos right from their phones.
  • Simple and intuitive: Videos start playing as soon as you open the app. Users don't have to search or browse to get started, and it's easy to multitask.
  • Curated: IGTV, like YouTube, offers a dedicated space for you to compile and organize all of your content.
Carolina Day School uses IGTV to show the virtual signing ceremony of a student athlete.

Consider using IGTV to showcase your students! Carolina Day School, in this example, used IGTV to feature their virtual signing ceremony for a student athlete.

Key Takeaway

Instagram is growing to be a major player in all schools and districts’ marketing and communications strategies. Its features offer more engagement opportunities than any other channels, and it reaches a wider range of generations than most platforms.

Instagram is the visual social media network, allowing you to tell your school’s story, show your authenticity, have fun with your school’s brand, community, and environment. 

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Kristen Dovespike headshot

In her position as director of demand generation, Kristen provides the strategy and creation of content across email, website, and social media communications at Finalsite. With over six years of experience in content strategy and digital marketing, Kristen has worked with clients around the country to develop their inbound strategies. She regularly speaks at professional development events for schools and maintains a number of certifications from Google, Hubspot, and Hootsuite.

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