Photo courtesy Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library

Readers: Please take this one-question survey!

Here’s the understatement of the century: every library is battling for success on social media.

But one librarian is seeing it, and this week, he’s sharing his secrets with us!

Ned Potter works for the University of York Library & Archives in the United Kingdom. Recently, his organization was asked to share an internal guidance document with another organization. In the document, the library outlines its approach to @UoYLibrary on Instagram.

Ned says, “At that point, we thought why not share them more widely for anyone else who is interested? So here they are.”

He posted the internal document here: University of York Library’s Instagram Guidelines. And he wrote a blog post about the impact those decisions have had on their Instagram account. (You should subscribe, BTW!)

He’s seeing great success with this approach. Says Ned, “Using these guidelines we’ve increased our Instagram reach by 1149% in 12 months. This stuff really works!” Ned kindly granted permission to reblog his post here.

The caveat

This is an internal doc. It’s literally just the guidance I wrote for the York staff who help me do the Instagram. So that means it’s not a definitive all-encompassing guide! There are probably things we’ve talked about internally that everyone knows, so it’s not codified here.

Also, we’re an academic library so it may be skewed towards that sector. Generally speaking though, I think pretty much everything here is applicable to any non-profits using Instagram.

Another small caveat is, that I’m not trying to present York’s Insta as the finished article, the account to which everyone should aspire. We’re still learning, still improving, and still trying to increase our reach. We don’t nail everything, we still post things people don’t respond to. We’re a work in progress, and this post is really about how to make that progress happen.

The context

Our Instagram was created in 2016 by a Comms Team rather than by us in the library. We finally got control of it ourselves in mid-2017. From that point on it went okay, gradually building up followers and levels of engagement but not setting the world on fire.

From the time the pandemic started, I spent much more time actively involved in social media rather than just writing the guidelines, and our Instagram use increased accordingly. We posted a lot more to the Grid, essentially tried harder, and, frankly, started to do more of the things I was always telling other libraries to do in social media workshops. It worked well, but it was still very much in the shade of our Twitter account, and not quite hitting the heights we wanted.

Exactly a year ago, I decided that we needed to invest more time in Instagram and make it work better.

Instagram is absolutely essential for reaching undergrads

It is THE communication channel on which to get messages to undergraduates, nothing else comes close. Our Twitter was doing really well and was where we put the most time, and all that time paid off with lots of growth and engagement. But I did some follower analysis and, at least among those who engaged by replying and quote-tweeting us, it was clear that our audience there primarily consisted of PostGrads, Researchers, and Academics. So our key social media messages were not getting through to UGs. Insta is the answer to that problem.

In 2021 I co-presented at an event with Liverpool Uni Library, whose social media really is something of a gold standard in academic libraries. Before the event we chatted on zoom – they had grown their Instagram massively in recent times, which made me think perhaps we could do the same. So I asked my colleague Rebecca Connolly to go on a little fact-finding mission and check out Liverpool, Glasgow and other university libraries with good Instagram engagement went about their business and what we could learn. Rebecca produced a brilliant report and we set to work on transforming our Insta into something much more effective for getting key messages out to undergrads in particular – a process that is still ongoing.

How we changed our Instagram

Some things we tweaked right away, like following more York-based accounts and using Stories a lot more. Using Stories is key and I really feel like it was something I didn’t understand well enough before Rebecca became involved with the account at York. She is an essential part of the progress we’ve made. Stories are so good for newsy items, and the more success you have with Stories the better things seem to go on the Grid too.

Other things evolved over time, like avoiding the use of words and graphics on the grid (only using them on Stories), and making sure to pair big announcements in the captions (NOT the picture) with visually arresting pictures of the library.

If you’ve not read the guidance doc linked at the top of this post, have a look – we basically did all the things in that document! In addition to all that, we’ve created and posted a lot more Reels (you can see all our Reels videos here), and also tried some fancy split photography, that involves dividing a wide-angle shot up into even squares so it can be seamlessly swiped through. Here’s an example that I posted that I really like…

The results: Increased Instagram engagement

With any kind of social media, I’m always looking for engagement rather than follower numbers. I want more followers of course – a larger audience of students and staff for our key messages. But they come naturally as a by-product of posting stuff that gets engagement. So for Instagram, I’m looking at Likes, Comments, Shares, and Reach, and hoping that if we increase those our followers will increase at the same time.

As it happens, our followers have increased by about a thousand people in the last twelve months. That’s great. More excitingly for me, is that the number of Likes has gone up 42 percent, despite us posting slightly less frequently overall. So the likes Per post has actually gone up 69 percent – meaning we’re posting stuff the students actually respond to, more of the time. Over 2 years, our total number of Likes has increased by over 350 percent.

Shares are way up, and Comments also increased which is great because we want that interaction and chance to answer questions – up by more than 600 percent over the two years.

What isn’t captured by the analytics is the amount of DMs we’ve had – either just messages out of the blue or responses to questions in our Stories. I can’t get figures on this without manually counting but the increase is huge. People love feedback one-to-one on Instagram.

The reach is the thing that most amazed me though – an increase of over 1000 percent in the 12 months is just fantastic. And the reason is that if people don’t Like your posts, Instagram doesn’t share them widely. So now that we’re posting content that gets engagement, a much higher proportion of our followers are seeing our posts. This means our key messages are reaching more undergraduates, and that was the whole aim of this focused attempt to increase engagement.

Like with all social media, the key thing is to learn what your particular community responds best to, and do more of it.

Ned Potter

Finally, do check out Liverpool, they’re so good

So that’s it! There was a lot to get through in this post; if you’ve made it this far, I salute you. I hope people find these guidelines useful, and if you have any questions leave me a comment below.

I’ll leave you with a recommendation to look at Uni of Liverpool Library’s Instagram account – however good our numbers are I know theirs will be astronomically better! They’re really good at this stuff, and you’ll find them @livunilibrary.

Read These Articles Too!

Spending Library Money on Social Media: The Beginner’s Guide to Buying Promotional Ads on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube 

Sneaky Secrets to Help You Find More Music for Your Library’s Instagram Reels

Latest Book Review

A Carnival of Snackery” by David Sedaris

Subscribe to this blog and you’ll receive an email every time I post. To do that, enter your email address and click on the “Follow” button in the lower left-hand corner of the page.