When scrolling through Instagram, alumni might expect to see typical images on their alma mater's feed: scenic vistas of the quad, graduation caps, lattes from the campus coffee shop.
Less expected: a video of an affable orangutan snacking on peanut butter.
That's what greeted followers of Northeastern University's alumni account in July 2016 when alumnus Kenny Riley, a Honolulu zookeeper, took over the Instagram feed for a week. On the first day, he posted a selfie in the Hawaiian sunshine and wrote, "I hope to share a week of my life with you filled with some very cool animals and show you that even after school, there is no reason to stop learning." His video of Rusti the orangutan savoring the peanut butter Riley had smeared on a window to form the letters "NEU" drew 373 views.
This is the kind of unique content Northeastern's alumni relations office aimed to develop in May 2016 when we started inviting graduates of our Massachusetts institution to commandeer our Instagram account. Since then, alumni have helped us create 610 days (and counting) of posts that enrich the Northeastern alumni experience and boost engagement.
Here's what makes our takeovers tick.
Takeovers involve giving a student, graduate, or faculty member the reins to post on institutional social media accounts (typically Instagram or Snapchat) for a specific amount of time (often a day or a week). For educational institutions, takeovers can cultivate a sense of community and connection through conversation, collaboration, and stories.
Inspired by a presentation by Chicago's DePaul University at the 2016 CASE Social Media and Community Conference, I revamped the @northeastern_alumni Instagram account so that it features all alumni photo and video content, all the time. Each week, an alumnus or alumna posts at least one photo a day that gives our followers a look at life after Northeastern. Participants can showcase their career, city, volunteer work, pets, or hobbies (from paddleboarding to baking to cartooning). For instance:
During her takeover, Nora, an accountant, explored the Acropolis while on assignment in Athens, Greece.
Troy, an NBC correspondent, took followers to Rio de Janeiro during the 2016 Olympics.
Our next stop is Legends Plaza… -- Those who have been to any of our castle parks (including Magic Kingdom and Disneyland) will recognize the Partners Statue, created by sculptor Blaine Gibson. Gibson was instrumental in creating the Hall of Presidents, Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion and many other iconic Disney attractions. Behind the statue, you can see the seven dwarfs from Snow White symbolically supporting the Team Disney Building, a nod to the importance of the 1937 classic in securing the funding to move the studios from Silver Lake to its current location in Burbank back in 1945…
Visual designer Ramin revealed what it's like to work for the Walt Disney Company.
At Northeastern, I learned how to be an educator that values compassion, a growth mindset, and a global perspective. My students make me proud every day, but I was especially proud when they got to be a part of a local project that sent hearts to refugee children in our neighborhood. We made the cards to welcome them to our community and let them know that they are loved. The thoughtful remarks they made and the subsequent conversations I got to have with them were so valuable.
Elyse, a teacher, shared cards her students had written to welcome refugee children to the community. She also recalled what Northeastern had taught her about compassion.
By tapping into our extensive network of more than 250,000 graduates, our Instagram feed captures the many aspects of the Northeastern alumni experience. The takeovers are personal, behind-the-scenes snapshots that we wouldn't be able to share otherwise.
Early participants were already connected to our alumni office as volunteers or friends of staff. An alumna myself, I recruited more than a dozen of my classmates to help get the project started, and the pool of contributors grew organically. Because we promote the opportunity in our digital communications, alumni often come to me. Participants sign a user agreement that lays out expectations and guidelines, which include not posting personal information about individuals without their consent and not changing the account settings.
On the Monday of a scheduled takeover, I change the account bio to reflect the participant's name, college, and graduation year. Then I send along the account credentials (I change the password each week) and notes about best practices, such as sharing links to the Instagram feed with personal networks to boost engagement. I encourage participants to use the Instagram Stories feature, too.
Ideally, I have eight weeks of takeovers scheduled at any given time. This means that I won't be scrambling for participants at the last minute and allows flexibility for coordinating takeovers with university events like homecoming. To keep the content relevant, the alumni relations office is working to align takeovers with alumni initiatives. In December 2017, for instance, an alumna controlled the account the same week she led a yoga class for Northeastern community members in Boston. In March 2018, an alumna who works in our office will take over the account during the South by Southwest Conference in Austin.
Alumni worldwide can follow along and stay connected with our Northeastern community. Maybe one day they'll take the reins themselves.
Our experiment in takeovers has enhanced our alumni community. The proof is in our engagement data: Before the launch, our account averaged 10 posts a month with 28 likes per photo and 21 new followers a week. Now our account averages 31 posts a month with 55 likes per photo and 28 new followers a week. As of late January 2018, we've gained an additional 2,346 followers. That brings our total follower growth since launch to 137.84 percent.
We've seen other impact beyond the numbers. Alumni Instagram takeovers also:
Grow community. Participants tap into their personal networks, encouraging their friends and family to follow our account to watch their takeover. The numbers suggest that these new followers stick around long after the takeover is complete.
Showcase a full picture of alumni life. The seven-day takeover format gives alumni the opportunity to provide followers with a comprehensive look at their life-something a one-day takeover wouldn't accomplish.
Offer an ideal stewardship opportunity. Northeastern's advancement division uses the takeovers to keep alumni engaged as they move through the fundraising pipeline. For example, if research uncovers that an alumnus has a strong social media presence, we'll invite that individual to do a takeover. We've also invited members of university boards and councils to participate.
Generate consistent, fresh posts. As a social media team of one, I have limited resources. Thanks to our takeovers, though, I never run out of content on our account. The seven-day cycle gives followers new posts every day and a fresh story to look forward to each week. They stay engaged, excited, and curious.
Create authentic content. Participants do not need approval before posting photos or captions. This hands-off approach allows for updated and timely content and has yet to cause problems. In fact, it might be the key to the program's success. We're drawing in followers with fascinating, fun material. It feels authentic because it is authentic.
Jordana Torres is associate director of social media at Northeastern University in Massachusetts.