A Chat with ContentEd Speakers: Robyn Bateman

First up, ever wondered how to make Instagram work for you? Former journalist and editor Robyn Bateman got the bug, and dived into a three-month experiment on the Open University’s account.

Hi Robyn. Tell us a little about yourself…

I’m Deputy Head of the Social Media Engagement Team at The Open University. I’ve worked here for 10 years in various digital comms roles and before that I was a regional weekly newspaper editor. As well as working in HE, I’m also a student. I’m about to complete an MA in Online Journalism which I’m studying part-time via distance learning with Birmingham City University.

For my final MA module I decided to run a pilot on The OU’s Instagram account and publish all that I learned in an ebook: InstHEGram, a ‘Uni’-versal Guide to Instagram in Higher Education. Outside of that, I have two children – who were both born in 2013 but aren’t twins (crazy!) – and I’m a big fan of Murder She Wrote (in my next life I’d like to be an armchair sleuth).

Why should HE consider Instagram as a key outlet for their social communications?

The visual nature of Instagram means it’s a great way to showcase your brand. And it’s excellent for community engagement. If Higher Education institutions are to stay relevant it’s important to test different channels and platforms.

That’s what the OU pilot was about – testing Instagram to see how it works for us and in what way. What we’ve discovered is Instagram offers a visual window into the lives of our distance learning students and is a great place for us to talk to them and share their stories to motivate new and current students to success.

You threw yourself into exploring the platform for three months. How did you go about organising everything so that it didn’t seem daunting?

The most important part of the planning process was a pre-pilot audit of the OU’s Instagram account, which gave me a baseline from which to work. Comparing figures now, after the three-month pilot and then a further three months which I call the “pilot plus” phase, shows me exactly how the account has grown and not just in terms of numbers but in terms of types of content, frequency of posting, tools used and engagement. I also created a series of documents to update as I went along, recording actions, issues, hashtag research and a place to draft posts. These are all included as downloadable and editable resources in the eBook.

Despite my commitment to post daily during the pilot period, I confess, I didn’t always have something up my sleeve. I did find myself on campus one weekend under the guise of a ‘family walk’ and captured some nice scenery shots, such as this one.

What were the biggest challenges, and what advice would you give on overcoming them?

Without a doubt, the biggest issue is time. To grow an Instagram account takes a lot of time. And then a little bit more. This is always going to be hard when social media teams are managing multiple channels with multimedia content and optimising for all, including mobile. The MA helped here; I was committed to doing a lot of this project outside of work hours but I have created an increased workload moving forward, which will need to be spread across the team.

But being organised helps a lot and using scheduling tools like Buffer to prep weekend content ahead of time makes a difference. I also set aside an hour a day – my InstaHour – to monitor the #openuniversity hashtag, engage with our community, source shareable posts and create new content. Without this hour it would be easy to let these tasks slide.

Finally, remember you’re not alone. If you’re stuck for content, share an image posted by a member of your community and get faculties and departments on board by giving them their own hashtag and encouraging them to help you with ideas and imagery.

What did you learn about engaging a community? Did your approach to Instagram differ from other social channels?

The nature of Instagram, being visually led, makes it different from Facebook and Twitter. On our news website, we sometimes struggle to find the right image to illustrate a story. Instagram is the opposite, you don’t necessarily need a story but you do need an image (or video) that stands out. And that took some getting used to.

One of the surprises is that our campus photography gets good engagement, despite the fact our students don’t physically attend campus. In terms of engaging a community, Instagram is excellent: it’s a great place to source quotes for your campaigns, case studies for your marketing material, or just to chat to students and alumni about their journey.

What I said about quality images earlier? There are exceptions. Some of our most engaged posts in terms of likes and comments have been motivational quotes or anything that taps into the student timeline or experience. For example, a post that said ‘hands up who’s studying on a Friday night’ and one saying ‘get off Instagram, you’re supposed to be studying’. Easy wins.

What was the most important achievement (for you) that came out of the pilot?

For me personally, it was the experience of writing and publishing an eBook based on all that I learned from the pilot, and knowing this is my final submission for my Masters degree. And’s been great to be able to combine education at work and my own education into a project that helps both.

Professionally, it’s been the learning journey – we’ve learned a lot about our community, the type of content they like, how Instagram as a channel works and how we can utilise it, and we’re considering it much more in campaign work. It’s also given us confidence to use the test and learn approach more.

It’s hard to keep on top of social media, it evolves all the time, and pilots are a good way of experimenting. We can all get hung up on metrics and big numbers but there’s so much value in experimentation and learning.

You mention a lot of tools and equipment in your e-book. What are your most indispensable apps and pieces of kit?

Ooh, there are so many. But none of this would be possible without a smartphone, and this is what I hope to cover in more detail when I speak at ContentEd in June. Within grabbing distance, I always carry with me what I call my “mojo kit”… my iPhone, a lapel mic, external mic and a whole load of apps. And this allows me to capture pretty much any story, wherever I am, and for whichever channel.

In terms of Instagram essentials, I use Buffer to schedule posts and Canva for any design work. Canva for Work allows you to load in brand colours, fonts and logos, create and share templates with colleagues and resize for multiple channels. Instagram’s own apps like Boomerang and Hyperlapse are great and Insta Grid is a good one for helping slice a single photo across several posts.

For filters, my favourites are Prisma, ColorSplash and Camera+ and there are some great video apps like Quik, Legend and Flipagram which work well for Instagram’s square format. But I’m always experimenting with new apps, there are a lot out there and half the fun is finding them. There is a downside to using smartphones a lot for work though and in the final chapter of the eBook I explain why you might want to consider salsa dancing to counteract this…

What’s the most imaginative use of Instagram that you’ve seen?

National Geographic’s #LiveLikeAViking on Instagram is one that stands out: a creative use of multiple Instagram accounts to tell a story about vikings. It’s what inspired us to start the #OUphabet, The Open University’s take on the alphabet, told via a series of Instagram accounts starting here: We have some work to do though, we’ve only launched A, B and C so far.

If you could have anyone “take over” the OU Instagram account for a week, who would it be and why?

In March we handed over our Instagram ‘keys’ to a student on her graduation day so she could share her day via Instagram Stories and this is something we’ll be doing more of. You can’t beat genuine student stories. But if I could choose anyone it would probably be our soon-to-be honorary graduate Eddie Izzard. He has a big personality and a big Instagram following and I think he’d enjoy hosting a campus tour via Instagram Stories.

A lot of HE organisations are looking at how to measure their success on social. What are the most important metrics for you, and how do you go about collecting them?

It’s easy to think about big numbers when we talk about metrics and success. But the success of this pilot was more about the value of what was learned during those six months.

The account saw a steady increase in followers during this time and we increased average likes per post by 90 per cent. That’s a good statistic but the most valuable thing has been learning about how to use Instagram and developing an engagement strategy and best practice. It’s also about knowing who your audience is, and for us on Instagram it’s our students and alumni. There’s a chapter in the eBook about measurement which includes defining what success means for you and looking beyond numbers.

Instagram has gone through several changes in recent times. What’s your strategy for staying on top of things and continuing to build an audience?

Twitter is a great source of info for the latest tips, tricks and social media functionality and you’ll hear everything first on the Instagram blog.

When there’s a new feature release, for example Instagram’s recent carousels, I don’t think everyone has to rush out and start using it straight away. We have test accounts to try new things and we also use our personal accounts to experiment, including an Instagram Story of my breakfast with a colleague. This helps test what might work and not work for your university, we shouldn’t feel pressured into using everything just because it’s new.

Robyn’s e-book – InstHEGram, a ‘Uni’-versal Guide to Instagram in Higher Education – can be found via the link.


Robyn Bateman teamed up with Amanda Faulkner at ContentEd 2017 to discuss how to create content for mobile audiences. 

Interested in furthering your knowledge of content strategy? Find out more about ContentEd, book a ticket to our next conference or submit a proposal to speak. 

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