Instagram is self-described as “a fun and quirky way to share your life with friends through a series of pictures.
Snap a photo with your mobile phone, then choose a filter to transform the image into a memory to keep around forever.” With over 800 million monthly active users (over twice the number of Twitter users), Facebook-owned Instagram is now one of the big three social networks in the West.
Its users are also particularly committed, with over half of them using the app daily. When it began, Instagram was famous for its square format. Now, there’s a range of aspect ratios (the ratio of the width to the height of an image) to explore.
How it works
Instagram is made for sharing photos and video content from your smartphone. The basic idea is as follows: you use your phone to take a picture (or use a picture already on your phone); perhaps apply one of its famous range of filters (an effect you add to a photo, each of which changes the style of the photo in different ways); make a few edits to your photo, including contrast, saturation and brightness; add a caption, including any relevant hashtags; and then publish it.
Your feed showcases those photos or videos posted by those you follow according to an algorithm like the one Facebook uses. You can like or comment on those posts and if anyone interacts with your content, you receive a notification.
Unlike Twitter and Facebook, you cannot share other people’s posts publicly. There’s no official retweet equivalent on Instagram, but you can send a post you like to a friend on Instagram via a private message. Some third-party apps allow you to “re-post” other people’s content (and they make it clear that’s what’s happened), but it’s not built into the experience of the app. There’s also an “Explore” section where you can see content or profiles from people and brands that might be relevant to you and your interests.
The biggest development of Instagram of the last couple of years is their introduction of Stories. A way of competing with Snapchat, Stories are short-term posts that don’t appear on your profile in the same way your posted content does. Stories can be photos or video, but they only last for 24 hours and are accessed by tapping on your profile picture (if you have a current Story on there). When you look at your Instagram feed, the top row is dedicated to the Stories from people you follow, with the published posts appearing below, as normal.
Typical user audience and behaviours
- 800 million monthly active users
- 59% of Instagram users are 18-29
- 300 million daily Instagram Story users
- 95 million photos posted per day
People use the channel in different ways, but at its broadest, there’s a simplicity to Instagram that many other social media platforms lack. With an emphasis on imagery, plus the ability to make the most out of any photo, Instagram can feel more accessible to casual posters or photographers. The grid of square thumbnails is elegant, and the user interface is sophisticated, but not off-putting.
The format of the app elevates the content by design, meaning even the least experienced taker of photographs can still look the part. Best practice is still important, but the ability Instagram provides for content creators to post a beautiful image is often much more empowering than coming up with a pithy statement in 280 characters. For those consuming the content, the immediacy and universal nature of images over words/language means fewer barriers to understanding.
How to access/use it
Unlike Facebook and Twitter, you cannot post to Instagram from desktop; you must use the app. You can browse and explore Instagram on desktop, though.
A brand’s presence on Instagram is mostly the same as an individual’s. The profile section lists the type of organisation (e.g. museum) and lists an address, plus buttons to email or get directions. Other than that, the profile looks and acts much the same as it does for anyone else.
When you post an image, you can tag in other accounts, tag your location and post in different formats: one image or video; a selection which get shown as a carousel; and a montage image from within the app itself.
Images or videos for Stories can be added live or using previous content that you have ready on your phone. The difference with Stories is that the content is always in the aspect ratio 9×16. You can upload various format types, though, and add text drawings, stickers or GIFs (moving images that play in short loops) over the top of your content.
Museums and galleries have a ready-made USP perfect for a dynamic Instagram presence: architectural features; unusual and interesting objects on display or in storage; rich library material; events; exhibitions; gardens or grounds; satellite sites; and more. As a follower, museums sharing great photographs is a treat, whether it’s simply a newly acquired llama or a more in-depth exploration of a topic using their historic archive.
Start off by deciding what Instagram is for. Is it a catch-all for photos and videos of the whole range of your museum’s activities? Or is it a more curated and crafted platform, showcasing only the most elegant and composed photos of your museum and its collections? There’s no right or wrong answer, but it’s best to identify that as soon as you can. Trying out different things works too, and you can always go back and delete any earlier images you don’t feel fit your aesthetic any more.
It also depends on the kind of museum you are: an organisation visited mostly by young families might not want its Instagram to be used exclusively for edgy photography focused on the museum’s architecture, for example. Having said that, perhaps Instagram is where that institution can present an unexpected side of itself. It’s up to you!
Once you know the direction you want to take, get posting. Use relevant hashtags, as Instagram has more space to include them (and it’s expected): more than one or two but fewer than ten is a good rule. With three or so posts done, and something for people to see, start following other organisations/stakeholders as mentioned previously. Raise your profile amongst them and publicise your presence in other places too.
Look out for hashtag event days, projects like #MuseumInstaSwap or accounts like 52Museums. Getting involved in those can expose your accounts to a whole new audience and greater numbers than you’d reach organically.
If there aren’t any bigger projects going on that you can jump on, start your own! Reach out to other organisations who might be interested in doing something new and fun and see what you can pull off as a group. Or perhaps there’s a participatory project that you can use Instagram for to capitalise on and celebrate your visitors’ photography and raise the profile of your channel at the same time.
Use the Stories function to showcase more informal content that you might not want to commit to posting in your feed. This also gives you another way to stand out to your audience and direct them to your profile. The GIFs, filters and text overlays mean you can have even more fun and create a narrative around some of your topics.
Instagram offers free stats, called “Insights” like Facebook. These are available on the app, not desktop. Using this feature, you can lightly interrogate the performance of your published posts and Stories. Insights give you information like profile visits, website clicks, reach, follower demographics and growth, engagement/reach/impressions of posts and Stories, and more. They’re light, but you can get a better understanding of how your content is performing and in what ways. This will help inform your approach going forward.