Behind The Handle: Indiana University’s Thom Atkinson

Indiana U

In a new series from StoriedU, “Behind the Handle” explores how social strategists at universities across America are developing their communities.

The Big Ten school famous for their beautiful campus has taken a new approach to Instagram that has made people take notice. In fact, CASE even recognized the school’s Instagram account with an award for Best Use of Social Media in 2015. We’re talking with IU Bloomington’s Social Strategist Thom Atkinson on how they created a highly engaged community on Instagram.

[StoriedU]: With the casual/fun tone you take on IG, it’s clear that you’re speaking to a younger audience. How did you build this persona and develop its voice?

[Thom Atkinson]: Based on demographics of the Instagram audience, we know it skews younger. But, more than that, we see it in our engagement. The community is largely high school, college, and young adults. What’s nice is that we can tailor our approach to fit that culture, more so than other networks like Facebook where by the nature of the audience we have to be more “all things to all people.”

What I think is important is that we actually do try to be very classic, traditional, “iconic” in the imagery we choose, but then we try to have a little more fun in our caption writing. This allows us to show how our university is built on centuries of tradition, but we’re not stuffy or old-fashioned. We’re people, too. We’re Hoosiers.

[SU]: What are the benefits of IU (or any university) being on Instagram? What does it offer that other platforms do not?

[TA]: For us, it’s an ideal platform. Indiana University is famous as one of the most beautiful college campuses in the nation. Here is a perfect channel for us to prove that reputation is absolutely deserved. Obviously, having beautiful and dynamic photography is important no matter what social media channel you’re using, but on Instagram it’s ALL about that photo. There’s no room for news headlines or talking heads; it’s just “Here’s IU. It’s amazing. How could you not love this place?”

At most universities, you can only update your viewbook maybe once a year, maybe less often than that, but with Instagram you can be adding new photos literally every day.

Instagram is essentially the new college viewbook.
– Thom Atkinson, Indiana University

But it’s not just for prospective students, obviously. Current students love it. We see a lot of students sharing our photos with family or taunting their friends at other schools in hopes of making them jealous. And alumni love it, too. It’s an opportunity for them to reconnect with the campus and “relive” some of those moments from their own college experiences. Alumni are really invested in seeing our campus remains the ideal place they remember and making sure current students are having just as great an experience as they had.

[SU]: How do you make the case for some of the more fun pieces of content/language, while also navigating approvals at a large institution? i.e. #nationalsquirrelday

[TA]: I have been blessed to have a lot of freedom to try different things. Make no mistake, though, even if the tone is light, we are very serious about what we do, even on Instagram. There’s still a strategy that guides the choices we make. Our ultimate goal is always to showcase the excellence of our university. We just have a few more opportunities to have fun given the nature of the medium. At the end of the day, we still have to justify our existence. Luckily, the numbers back us up here; our audience responds to what we do. If it didn’t work, we’d be doing something else. (Puppies, probably. Or babies. People like babies, right?)

[SU]: The University’s Instagram account is chock-full of campus imagery, yet not the overdone “student sitting under a tree on the quad” photo. How to you get your hands on so many great images?

[TA]: We will occasionally make use of a photo taken by one of our university’s professional staff photographers, but I’d estimate 80–90% of the photos we post are taken either by me or my student intern armed with just our smartphones. We’re not professional photographers, but our campus is really just that amazing. It’s easy to look good because we have such a beautiful canvas to work with.

For a look at Thom’s favorites Indiana University Instagram posts (including the famous #SquirrelTakeover), check out his feature in “Best Post I Ever Wrote.”


If you have a university you’d like to hear from, or a question you’ve always wanted to ask, let us know in the comments or by tweeting with us using @StoriedU.

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